Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have earned their place as one of the top must-see destinations in the world in 2019,” a press release from VisitScotland tells me.

They’re quite justifiably having a brag about the Lonely Planet guide’s decision, revealed today, to include the Highlands and Islands among its top 10 ‘Best in Travel’ destinations for 2019.

Me and Suilven

The presser goes on to say that among the ‘unmissable experiences’ in the guide are “climbing a mountain, with the iconic peak of Suilven referenced; savouring seafood at one of the Highlands and islands many fine restaurants and joining a nature watching trip to discover the wealth of wildlife that abounds.”

“Mountain-climbing”, aka hill-walking. is my favourite of those things (savouring seafood, ie stuffing my face with it, is a close second) but while restaurants and guided walks obviously create jobs and income, and walking pulls in tourists to local hotels, shops and eateries, there’s a disconnect between the actual activity and the money it generates.

Suilven itself is a really good example of this. £200k has just been spent on renewing the main path up this splendid inselberg (look it up!) and it is hugely popular. The money came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Outdoor Conservation Association, John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish    Mountaineering Trust.

This has prevented worsening erosion and will improve the experience for walkers – it was a proper bog to cross to get to the foot of the hill proper, and the steep bit was a loose stone-fall hazard.

The fact that the cash had to come from voluntary donations is because the group that owns Suilven can’t make a bean out of it, even though it is a community organisation whose sole purpose is to bring benefit to the area.

No-one wants to see charges made to walk or climb in Scotland’s mountains, and it would stick in many a craw to stump up to wealthy landowners, but the Assynt Foundation is the opposite of that, and has struggled to monetise its assets while being left with the management issue of thousands of people accessing its property.

Anyone who’s read what I have written before will expect that at this point I’ll say we all need to pay more tax for these things, and that’d be right, but it’s unlikely to solve the specific problem in the immediate future.

That’s because income tax is collected centrally, so there’s no connection between the increased employment generated by tourism and the cash available to local authorities to pay for stuff.

The answer has to be a tourist tax: however much the tourism businesses complain, a quid extra per bed-night, hypothecated for tourism infrastructure, should not be a big deal.

It would be great to see that being paid to real local authority with say just 10,000 to 20,000 or so people in its area, but that’s another argument …

My work is about stuff like land reform, invasive plants, squirrels, deer, marine plastic, youth hostels and outdoor sports.

I suspect some of my journalist colleagues, the wonks who love wall-to-wall discussions by over-confident hacks speculating about economic futures that no-one can ever really know, or  getting responses to the latest piece of dickery from one political party or another, see it as a light sideline, a wee bit of colour before they get back to the serious stuff of men in suits and well-coiffed women saying what they think should happen to us all.

But almost every time I write about the problems and challenges of our countryside I am struck with the same thought: it is massively political, and it’s all about tax.

Take the heated debate about camping byelaws in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs  National Park. What’s happened here is that over the years people have been visiting the park and breaking the law: vandalising trees and fences, dumping litter, getting drunk in public, fighting and worse.

Don’t park here unless you have £9 to spare …

That’s given as the cause for byelaws that control camping (and while in principle I don’t like it, I’ve spoken to the people of Balmaha about what a relief it has been that people no longer steal their garden furniture for lochside bonfires, threaten them outside their homes and generally  cause mayhem on their doorsteps).

But all the things the bad campers do are illegal, and they can be arrested for them: if there were enough police they could patrol the loch-shore and other areas where  problems are caused by  the small minority who behave in this way, and make sure this behaviour is ended.

Why don’t we have enough police to do this? We can’t afford it, we are told.

Invasive rhododendrons are a major environmental menace: they will eventually destroy most of our native woodland and blanket many open hillsides, unless they are controlled.

As I discovered this year, getting rid of them across the whole of Scotland over the next 10 years would cost £400 million and rising. It would be money well spent, preventing an environmental catastrophe in the future, and, through local contractors, injecting much-needed cash into remote and rural areas.

Will we do it? Will we buggery. We don’t have the money.

Most recently Argyll and Bute Council have hiked their car-parking charges in Arrochar to £9 a day, an 800% increase. Cue outrage in the outdoors community, justifiable purely on the grounds of harm to the health and well-being of thousands of people in the Central Belt who use those car parks for healthy exercise. It seems insane. But if you saw the figures that the council is looking at to balance its budget you would understand how it came to this. They almost scrapped more than half the public lavs in their area. They don’t have enough money to do the things we expect councils to do.

Of course, the land and outdoors issues might seem minor in comparison to  roads, the health service, education and more, all screaming for money. It’s just that outdoors issues are what I deal with all the time.

But railing at the councils, the cops, the park authority won’t cure this: they will just shuffle the money about and give it to the causes that shout loudest.

We live in a society where, to put it bluntly, we all have Netflix and indoor shitters. We have fridges, cars, flight to Spain, takeaway dinners, clothes and shoes delivered to our doors: in short, we’re a very rich society. And we can’t afford the cops, the environmental measures, the car parks, the things we need and want to be a society? Pull the other one …

Yet the suited and coiffed of this world still don’t dare put up taxes,  to raise the money for the society we want. Something happened, maybe around 1979, that gave tax a bad name. Whether the politicians are scared of the Daily Mail or their own shadows, I don’t know, but it’s time for us all to dip our hands in our pockets and reconnect with the cost of the services we expect.

We should all pay more tax, even if for the low-paid it’s just a tenner a year more. The rich, yes, should pay loads, but we all need to realise we get what we pay for.  And if people bleat about the impact on their household budget, well, can the Netflix; scrap the next takeaway; and get what you really want, not what Jeff Bezos or some other grasping bastard wants you to buy with your tax cuts.

In my case it would be well-made footpaths that protect the environment they pass through; freedom to camp where I want in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, protected by efficient policing; a car park that doesn’t cost me £9 a day; a recycling system that really worked.

See how much better off we would all be?  What we really can’t afford is to NOT pay more tax.

I’ve been having some good days out with my son Joe this week. After a wet start looking at the grim bouldering at Dumbarton, we’ve walked in the Kilpatricks, snorkelled out on the far side of Knapdale, biked at Comrie Croft, and plunged into the great swimming hole just up from Comrie at Dalrannoch.

In between we put the world to rights and discussed algebra, rocketry, algorithms and all sorts – Joe is a highly-qualified engineer and science buff.

The highlight was at Kilmory Bay, seeing two otters swim up to a rock not more than 20 metres away, climb out, scurry about for a moment in a tangle of sleek snouts and slick tails, and then plunge back into the water, oblivious of the watching men.

There was other wildlife too. On a small hill above Glasgow, on a warm sunny evening, we were strolling back along the grassy track when Joe said quietly: “Dad, snake.”

A snake similar to the one lurking in the Kilpatricks …

It’s not what you expect to hear just there and I stopped dead, looking down to see a beautiful, black-and-gold hatched adder, making its way in leisurely fashion along the path less than a metre from my boots. We just stared at first and by the time we thought of getting a picture it had disappeared into the long grass at the side of the path.

Would you be expecting adders in that part of the world? Although a quick Google reveals a few stories about them in the area, I suspect most people like me would think they would be found in wilder or warmer places – the last one I saw before that was in my memory huge, as thick as my wrist, beneath the cliffs at Bosigran in Cornwall.

This one was a good size, the thickness of a dining-chair leg, and maybe 45cm. Although adders will not attack unless provoked, and bites are exceedingly rare, if it did go for you it would be no fun at all.

So now, knowing there is at least one venomous snake there, would that deter anyone from strolling in the Kilpatricks? If it did, would it be logical? Cue a small debate …

The snake was there before we saw it, so it would be foolish to think that merely by having seen it the chances of a bite would be increased.

But could you reduce the probability of being bitten by avoiding a place where you knew there was a snake? We looked at probability, choices, how you use the information you have … and I’m still not sure.

It won’t deter me from using Clydebank’s green lung, but I will take it as a sign that the environment up there is cleaner and wilder than I had thought, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for reptiles on my next visit.

Skye is an almost unbelievably beautiful place: the Cuillin are the mountains of our childhood imaginings, great black pyramids and spires, still spattered in snow when I was there last week. The nearby Red Hills rise steep and barren: again there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the Highlands. Then there’s the cliffs and spires of the northern hills, the sea cliffs, the shimmering lochs, the small white cottages …

Mountains like no others …

It’s easy to see why the place is a magnet for tourism, with the roads thronged, Portree rammed with people… and yet my  visit there last week left me wondering just what the visitors really get out of it.

I had heard before that a few select spots such as the Fairy Pools have become overrun with visitors, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing perhaps 200 vehicles parked in every possible (and a few not-so-possible) places on the main Staffin road below the Old Man of Storr.

One group of young guys had got out their car and were standing, shirts off  and slung over the shoulders, looking up at the hills from a fine vantage point in the middle of the road, while traffic slowed and drove around them. It’s not a single-track or anything: it’s a main A-road.

Sure, the Old Man is a fine place for a wander, and I’ve been up many winters ago for a scramble round; then there was no other soul there.  But go there with perhaps 400 other folk? I might as well be out in Kelvingrove Park on a sunny Saturday.

Skye is blessed with a decent road network, plenty of access to many wonderful places, plenty of great sights; why on earth people think it is essential to see the ‘five best’ or the ‘ten best’, the place that featured in a film or on telly, when almost every square mile of this island provides another natural wonder, is beyond me.

Maybe if the tourists are stuck in the honeypots it’s a blessing. I was shown  a fabulous spot on a sea-cliff top not far from the Storr by a couple of locals who use it to watch otters and whales, dolphins and porpoises. Not many people go there, and those who seek out the less-easy, less pre-digested experience,  can find plenty of these places. If they become popular they could be ruined.

But I can’t help thinking that the ant-like visitors are missing out when they stick to their guide-books and follow the rest of the mob to the same old spots to take the same old pictures. Lift up your eyes, look around and see where else you can go: your life will be richer for it. I don’t know if tourist guides and information sites point this out, but maybe they should lay a bit more emphasis on it for the sake of locals, tourists and the places themselves.

Those of us whose idea of a good time is to get out climbing walking, cycling, surfing and the rest take it for granted, but there is a growing appreciation of the benefits of the outdoors  on our mental health.

How much being in green space helps me was brought home by my best job recently: a trip out with a group in Cumbernauld set up to help people with mental health concerns get the benefits of being outdoors with good company.

Peace: Coldingham beach with the sun going down

It was organised by Paul Barclay of the Conservation Volunteers, and we ended up making a really nice tape for the Kaye Adams programme on BBC Radio Scotland, followed by a discussion with me and Paul and a few others – I think it made good listening and we certainly spent enough time to get right into the topic.

The trip out itself could not have been simpler: Paul , Claire and their volunteer Rebecca, plus group members Sharon, Jaz and Judy, all met up in a shopping centre and then walked through the surprisingly extensive green spaces of Cumbernauld to get to a quiet bit of woodland by a burn. We picked a bit of litter, lit  fire (eventually!) and used the Kelly Kettle to make tea, listened to the birdsong and chatted quietly. It was all the good things about being outdoors rolled into one.

A week later when we were on the radio a caller said she organised outdoor wellbeing sessions with a Japanese element, and a proper tea ceremony – and it struck me how common that is to a good day out in the country. Making a brew, sharing a flask or even just stopping to have a cold drink and eat: those are the times we probably communicate most with those around us, and take in the scenery we’re surrounded by, whether it’s a day on a wild beach or a cragging session.

We’re often goal-focused when hillwalking, climbing, skiiing or whatever, but what we should value more is the just-being-there element of it all.

At the start of the week we took and couple of days off and on Monday night took a barbecue onto the headland east of Coldingham beach, cooked some food,  swigged from a bottle of beer and watched the sun set and the tide fall. There was the occasional person with a  dog on the sand,  a gannet diving for fish, some smoke curling up and the still blue sky of a May evening.

The surf we’d hoped for had failed to materialise but perhaps the evening was all the better for it, and we went to bed feeling soothed by the place, the view, the company, the colours … as Paul Barclay had said, we’ve all got mental health to look after, and that was what we’d done.

It’s easy for people like me who seemed to spend half his childhood damming streams and fishing for trout in Welsh rivers and Scottish burns,  but for those of us who are not used to it, or can’t afford to travel, or who don’t feel safe, anything like a club or a group or even an NHS prescription that gets them into the simple green spaces on their doorstep, is just so much better than anything else for making us feel well.


I use the cycle track which runs behind my home in Scotstoun a lot – more now that I am training for the Etape Caledonia in just three scary weeks. I often praise the track as a linear park for the local community. It saw the regular Kiltwalk charity parade at the weekend with lots of colourful outfits and kilts strapped to people of all shapes, ages and sizes.

On their way to Loch Lomond they may have noticed some litter on the track, although as green spaces go it’s not the worst.

Kiltwalkers – let’s hope they can keep their feet clean …

They might also have been baffled along the track – as I was all the way to Luss yesterday – by the small black plastic bags of dog-shit scattered on the verge, stuffed in hedges, left on walls…

At least I assume it’s dog-shit – I haven’t looked in them all, and there may be piles of Smarties or cheese sandwiches in some of them, but from the outside I would guess it’s dog-shit all right. It comes in dog-shit bags and some of them are open at the top or have begun to decay, to reveal the dog-shit within.

I love dogs and plan to get one when I have the time and the space to look after one properly. The thing about dog-shit is this: if you leave it out in the open, without going to the slightly nauseous trouble of picking it up in a bag, it’s just a nuisance and unsightly. Kids and people like me step in it and bring dog-shit into houses; your bike runs over it and it leaves your wheels all dog-shitty, but this dog-shit does eventually disappear, helped along by the slightly-higher-than-average-for-the-UK rainfall here in the west of Scotland.

However, if you put dog-shit in a plastic bag, it lasts a lot longer. On a recent litter pick we find someone’s secret stash of bagged-up dog-shit, hoarded and half-buried behind a tree at Scotstounhill, like the gold in a dog-shit version of Treasure Island.

You can imagine the refrain from the pirate’s parrot: “Pieces of shite, pieces of shite…”

It all begs the question: why do people go to the unpleasant trouble of picking the dog-shit up but then can’t take it home or put it in the local dog-shit bin? And who are the people who leave this ready-wrapped dog-shit? I have never seen it being done, and no dog-owner I know admits to leaving plump parcels of dog-shit around for others to admire.

One of the more bizarre things I have seen in the past year or two is dozens of bags of dog-shit dangling from a tree on the access track to the cycle-track. Was this an effort to create a sort of dog-shit Christmas tree?

Perhaps that’s a clue: it’s all down to just one magical dog-shit Santa, who travels through the sky on a flying toilet seat, pulled by flying cocker spaniels, resplendent in a suit of dog-shit brown-and-white (oh yes, remember white dog-shit?). He leaves his gifts of dog-shit everywhere we like to walk and enjoy. And his working calendar is not stuck to December like his dull old non-dog-shit counterpart, but makes every day his dog-shit Yuletide.

If it isn’t that, then tell me who the hell it is. Answers on a Christmas card please.

An email pops in from my old friend Geoff Gosling, asking if he can recirculate an article I wrote about climbing clubs. Of course he can. He’s now an honorary vice-president of the  Rucksack Club, one of the the north of England’s most important mountaineering clubs.

A gang of Rucksack Club members with Geoff at the front in white.

Geoff was the driving force in the Oldham Mountaineering Club when I joined in the 1980s and could be depended on to fill his big Ford estate car – he was a sales rep – with six or seven climbers and ship us all out to the Peak District to drape ourselves gracelessly across the glorious gritstone edges, scraping skin and egos and learning about rock-climbing, how to live well, and how to appreciate the heather hills and vast open spaces. Stanage, Indian’s Head, the Roaches, Castle Naze, dozens more, and Geoff seemed at the time to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of them all.

I can’t believe he’ll soon be 70, but then I can’t believe how old I am now. It seems the Rucksack is facing the same challenges as many other clubs, how to adapt to the modern era. Perhaps we should say that if a club struggles to get new members it’s not wanted: but the Lomond Club here in Glasgow has been through booms and busts, and kept going as an institution, still giving something back the to climbing community.

We’ve changed, abandoning regular Wednesday socials to concentrate on the climbing walls; we operate through Facebook more than anything else. I’m not mad on either but the club seems to be thriving, there are more women and more younger folk on board, and it seems to work.

Let’s hope Geoff and the Rucksack can do something the same. His club is a real institution, embedded in the history of climbing and apparently the first in the UK to have a club hut. If nothing else it’s worth a new generation joining to learn from people like Geoff about climbing and life.

We were in Cowal for Hogmanay, staying in Tighnabruaich and enjoying the place, the fantastic light, the darkly glittering sea and deep winter colours, stovies, steak pie and whisky.  The Kames Hotel on Hogmanay was buzzing nicely, and the loony dook the next day tempted me in…

The horror, the horror …

My icy swim lasted about ten seconds, but I got my head under, and it demonstrated one good reason for living in Scotland – here my pallid gingerman torso is the norm.

The celebrations showed the sense of community such places have: a few pissed people, right enough, but no problems, friendly chat and good cheer. The fireworks outside the pub were great, too.

We admired the range of enormous properties, odd for such a small, remote place but doubtless explained by Glasgow money in years gone by, and I would guess that while it’s a remote community like many others in the Highlands and Argyll, there’s still money here in a way that there isn’t in some of those other communities.

And we enjoyed a run through the Kilfinan Community Woodland, where good things are happening, with dark evergreens being felled for the benefit of the community. It seems they are also clearing the dreaded invasive rhododendron ponticum, a massive problem in this part of the world,   getting people involved with the land and generally helping to tie the community down.

At least one family has been brought in by the availability of a woodland croft, and the sense of possibility we picked up on when we chatted to the crofter was refreshing.

We will be back to explore the community woodland, no doubt, and to find out more about its impact, but the fact that the woodland organisation has cleared a large area of the massed non-native timber crops  and opened up the hillsides, hopefully for native trees, has got to be good.

A while ago I visited the legendary Mick Tighe in Lochaber to see  the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection – the UK’s biggest collection of historic climbing and mountaineering artefacts – and to record some audio about the collection. Some highlights went out on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme today, Tuesday October 3, because the stuff is on display this week, and  Mick and the charity which the collection operates under would dearly like it to have a permanent home where at least some of the stuff could go on show all year round. Importantly, if it did Mick’s wife could get her garage back.

Mick Tighe
Photo: Dave MacLeod

Anyhow here is the full tape, all 20 minutes or so, for anyone who wants to get a proper idea of Mick’s collection. It blew me away. I suspect that a lot of the information and knowledge that Mick has is not written down anywhere, and it is fascinating.

And if you’re interested in Mick, here’s Dave MacLeod’s rather good short film about him.

I’m in northern Spain at the moment and it’s an interesting time to be in the country. Of course there’s little sign here on the streets of any of the upheaval currently contorting Catalonia, but when we turn on the TV news it’s right there at the top: police raids on regional government officials, protests, endless pictures of politicians, rapid-fire Spanish news delivery, and on the slightly more downmarket channels even more rapid-fire delivery. I keep expecting them to say “scorchio…”

Santander …worth a look around

We can’t understand much but with a bit of help from Google it’s fascinating viewing, and of course no-one who lives in Scotland can fail to think a bit of “what if…”

One small detail of our trip pointed maybe to one big difference. We’re here to surf and enjoy the fantastic beach resort of Somo, with its cafes and and seafood and dusty streets and warm September sun, but we also planned to do a few walks in the local countryside, and being me I wanted an Ordnance Survey-style map. Just so I could get us lost better …

Amazing … the beach at Somo

I’d failed to buy one off the internet in time before we headed abroad, so we asked in this fair-sized town, and no-one here had such a thing. We went to the recommended bookshops in Santander, a substantial city, and still no detailed topographical maps.

Finally a bright spark understood our pidgin Spanish and directed us to the right place: a government office.

After a half-hour trek across the city, we showed photo ID before being allowed in to the building, and marched straight into what turned out to be the local equivalent of the JobCentre. After a quick baffled look we then found the map repository, where the helpful English-speaking woman in charge sold us a 1:50000 sheet of the surrounding area. Bingo.

But why was it so hard? Why didn’t tourist info, the local garage, the bookshops, have a simple walking map?

Google wasn’t that helpful except for one suggestion: that maps in Spain were until comparatively  recently the preserve of the military.

There would of course have been every reason why Franco and his forces would not want the troublesome populace to get their hands on maps. Spain only emerged from his shadow in the 1970s, 40-odd years ago. Could this have been a hangover from those times – with no tradition of bookshops selling good maps, everyone just assumes you get them off the Government?

It’s a tiny detail (and talking of detail, that 1:50000 doesn’t have a lot that’s much use …) but it made me for one reflect on the newness of democracy here and the fragility of it; why the Spanish government has acted the way it has in the face of the planned referendum; and what could happen to this important corner of Europe in these uncertain times …