The Lows and Lows of the Heights of Kinlochewe

Route: Kinlochewe to Shenavall

Date walked: 03/11/2016

Time taken: 7 hours

Distance: 17km

Ascent: 300m

The Lows and Lows of the Heights of Kinlochewe
Note: There are no photographs accompanying this report, for reasons which will become obvious.

I didn’t expect such a day of soul-searching. I just wanted a good long easy walk, a relaxing leg-stretcher. With the weather putting paid to my continuing manoeuvres around Beinn Dearg, I decided on a nice stroll up past the Heights of Kinlochewe and on to Loch Fada. I would come back the same way too.

What I didn’t know was that the various burns of the Heights of Kinlochewe are in the process of being harnessed for a substantial hydro power scheme. I didn’t know that what was once a modest vehicle track has been crudely widened to take all manner of trucks and machinery; that the Heights themselves are now snaked with access roads; that the landscape is now littered with the detritus of gung-ho development.

As I walked along the muddy, uninviting road from Incheril my heart sank. All around were the insignia of progress: dumps of pipes and culverts; parking lots crammed with diggers and bulldozers and storage containers; incessant and insistent signage; drums of cables; blocks of concrete components; everything ranged about on a base of mud, chippings, hastily bull-dozed rock, old bricks, hardcore, anything that would serve.

It was a miserable lunar landscape. I would have felt more connection with nature taking a tour of a Soviet bauxite mine.

Halfway up to the Heights was the first incursion into the Abhainn Bruachaig. Here was a joyful burn bulldozed, concreted, culverted, diverted and subverted. I stared down into a hole hewn out of the rock and housing a half-built concrete pill-box. Access ramps had been cut into the banks of the burn; rock had been piled high to form a cofferdam.

I walked on past half-completed junction boxes for the cabling, now buried under a back-filled quagmire. A mud-spattered red car came down the road towards me and its Slavic-faced driver gave me the thumbs up as he passed. I checked the car’s registration plate. I had never seen one like it: Uzbekistan perhaps. It seemed appropriate: wrecking labour brought in from god knows where to do a job and move on. Professional re-landscapers, here today, gone tomorrow.

The once-pretty cottages at the head of the glen now had the look of the corporate headquarters of an outback mining concern. Utilities and 4x4’s were ranged around, along with more containers, oil tanks, generators and the inevitable piles of black plastic piping. A large noticeboard gave all the ‘Site Information’.

I turned off to start the ascent of the Gleann na Muice, glad to see the back of all this mayhem, but my heart fell for a second time. The little track was now a continuation of the wide road, cut willy-nilly through the hillside. I followed its gyrations, eventually down and over the Abhainn Gleann na Muice.

Alongside the old ford over the burn there was now a wide wooden bridge. The road ascended to another industrial dumping ground, then continued up the glen. I thought things could not get worse, but I was wrong. A little way down the slope from the road was now a second, parallel road. It had been carved out to give working space for the diggers making the trenches for the cabling. Here was a dual carriageway heading up the Gleann na Muice; more dualling than on the A9.

It was all almost unbearable to look at. The lower part of the Gleann na Muice, the Glen of the Pig, had become a Pig of a Glen.

Further up I reached the construction under way to harness the burn. The Abhainn Gleann na Muice is a modest stream in a pleasant glen. Here it was, about to be milked for subsidies and profit, its glen ravaged and ravished.

A notice board beside the track described the project. In smooth corporate-speak it gave soothing platitudes about the lack of impact on the burns and their surrounds. It admitted that there would be ‘some disturbance’ and that during construction ‘this can appear significant’. The schemes would allegedly produce electricity for 2,500 homes.

After exactly one hour and thirty-two minutes of the most depressing walking I can ever remember, I finally cleared the destruction. My heart lifted to be back in a pristine landscape, but my day had changed beyond measure.
For a start, I knew now that instead of returning this way, I would complete the full circuit, returning to Incheril via the Gleann Bianasdail. This would mean negotiating the headwaters of the Abhainn an Fhasaigh. I had not come prepared for a possibly dangerous fording, but I would gladly have swum the length of Loch Fada stark naked to avoid having to run that gauntlet again. Nothing would induce me back.

More importantly than that, what I had witnessed had set off a major debate in my head. For the remaining five hours of my walk the debate raged on: head versus heart; reason versus emotion. My legs ate up the miles as the arguments tipped one way and then the other. For much of the time I was in a kind of trance as orators from each camp expounded insistently in my inner chamber.

Little external events lifted my day: a male stonechat watching me from the walls of a ruined stone hut; a snipe darting off from near Loch Fada; a female black grouse scolding me with a ‘Grrrrrrrr. Kekekekek. Grrrrrrrrr. Kekekek.’

From here on the reading will get heavier, and possibly heretical. If you don’t have the stomach for that, best leave now. If you do stay with me, then thank you, and good luck.

My starting point was an attempt to rationalise and defuse the stabs of anger and anguish that had so ruined my morning. I am not given to anger. It is a kind of madness; a pathology of the mind. But there I was, feeling, from time to time, indubitably angry, until reason stepped in and attempted to smother the emotion.

I was of course well aware that I was seeing the construction works at a bad moment. That there would be a clear up, and regrowth, and the gradual absorption of the infrastructure into the landscape. But I knew too that it would never be the same. The scarring would be there for my lifetime, both on the hills and in my mind.

My internal debate centred on a very simple question: Why should I care? Why should we care? Is there any rational reason to care to the point of anger?

At first sight such questions may seem outrageous. The default position is of course one of intense, deep-felt caring for the wilderness we love. We love it, we need it, and we want to preserve it. For ourselves, for future generations; out of principle as much as anything else. This is a given, the Holy Writ of the outdoor community. How could that caring possibly be questioned?

My rational self posed the first counter-argument, and a very severe argument it was: the caring may make you feel good, but it serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Rational analysis would indicate that your caring, even if translated to the most vigorous action, will never achieve anything of lasting importance.

Let’s consider first the ‘preserving what we have for our children and grandchildren to enjoy’ argument. It sounds so clear and simple, but it falls down at almost every level. Firstly, how many generations are we really talking about here? Two? Twenty? Two Hundred? Two Thousand? Two hundred thousand? Are we actually going to hold back the tide of anthropocentric expansion, not just for ten or twenty years, but for a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million years?

The fact is that nothing is ever preserved for long. Each generation sets its own line of demarcation, based usually on the status quo of that generation’s younger years. I tend to see the ‘natural world as I would like it to remain’ as the world of my youth, the world of the fifties. Each generation then does its best to hold things within its own inherited line. But of course necessity and realpolitik and compromise mean that the line is always breached, always pushed back. That pushed back line then becomes the reference point for the next generation, and so on. So there is no absolute; the target is always in motion. This then begs the question as to whether future generations will know or care about the things that concern us now. They will come into the world at a different starting point. For them that will be the new norm. They will not necessarily feel the loss that we impute to them.

I thought about this as I reached the shore of Loch Fada. Here was a kind of Eden: crystalline waters lapping immaculate sandstone shingle; the loch stretching to infinity between the looming masses of brooding mountains.

Then I saw the future. I saw a dual carriageway, a real one this time, powering up the Gleann na Muice, complete with roundabouts, Aberdeen ring road style. Ranged along the shore were all the trappings of human pleasure-seeking: restaurants, bars, jetties, car parks, hotels, maybe a casino or two. I saw the Scottish water-skiing championships powering around Loch Fada, cruise boats coming and going.

It seems an inconceivable dystopian vision. But the inconceivable has a habit of becoming reality, firstly as a risqué breaching of the line, then as the new norm, then as the mundane. Who could say for sure that in a hundred or two hundred years’ time this will not be the reality? It has already happened to a million Edens around the planet. It will be inched towards as each generation resets its own line of demarcation. Our line has been breached, just ever so slightly, by the Heights of Kinlochewe hydro scheme. The line protecting Loch Fada has been redrawn.

A voice piped up in opposition. It pointed out the beneficial legacies of the true carers – the John Muirs, the Aldo Leopolds, the promoters of National Trust land, the battlers against corporate intrusion of the wilderness, and so on. It asked whether the rationalist was so cynical as to dismiss all that effort as ultimately worthless. It was a good point. I knew that time and again I felt a kind of relief, a greater sense of ease, when walking in the National Parks, knowing that here at least was a measure of protection. I sensed too that the rights of access to private land, so hard fought for, exercised a constraint on the more rapacious estate owners. It was impossible to deny that for my lifetime anyway things were better through the efforts of the carers.

After stopping for lunch I managed to ford the largely submerged stepping stones at the head of the Abhainn an Fhasaigh with only a minor wetting of my boots (my technique: socks off, boots back on, trousers rolled up, gaiters on), and set off upwards along the Gleann Bianasdail. The arguments still resounded in my head.

The rationalist accused the sentimentalist of having no meaningful concept of time. ‘You want to preserve this landscape,’ he said, ‘but this landscape has only just arrived, and it will soon be gone anyway.’ He was right. Where I now walked was once open ocean. Then the land arrived and has since been through a thousand transformations. Mountains have come and gone. If I had stood here on the ice cap ten thousand years ago would I have been so keen on preservation? In a relatively short space of time – a million years maybe, the likes of Slioch will be washed back down to the sea. The texture of the earth is dynamic, ever-moving. Our problem is that our modes of perception are too constrained to apprehend this. We may know it intellectually, but its true comprehension is beyond our grasp. And so we reduce everything to the immediate and the short-term; scales of measurement which are next to irrelevant in the mind-numbing expanse of geological time. At some point in the not-so-distant future the whole of the Anthropocene will be no more than the briefest dark flicker on the retina of eternity.

The rationalist went on, in that relentless way he has. ‘It is no more than stupidity, or vanity, or hubris, or all three,’ he said, ‘to suppose that you can change the inevitable course of causality.’ Every chain of action has to be played out until its endpoint, bitter or otherwise. What we are witnessing is the inexorable progression of anthropocentric need. We may rail at the drivers of that need – over-population, the neo-classical mantra of endless growth, absurd consumerism, mindless pleasure-seeking and so on – but we are all to a lesser or greater degree party to the problem. One cannot function in human society and not be. Ultimately, what will happen will happen. A few hardy souls will stand up and try to stem the flow. They will have their successes here and there, but in the longer term the victories will never be anything but Pyrrhic.

By now I was halfway along the Gleann Bianasdail, with the Abhainn an Fhasaigh rushing noisily along its foot. My legs were holding up well, driven on by the ferment in my head.

I tried to frame the rational arguments in a different way. Within thirty years at most I will be dead. What goes on in this place would then be no concern of mine. Similarly, my children and grandchildren and their children and so on will also be dead and gone in a relatively short period after that. That being the case, does it make any sense to allow anger or anguish, over what is inevitable, to poison a brief time of living?

I delved deep into my heart and realised that my resistance to not caring was largely one of guilt. Not to care smacks of indifference; of a lack of feeling. The rational arguments seemed only a hair’s breadth from some form of nihilism. I pondered on this. Is it part of the human psyche to prefer pointless emotion over cool realism? Was there too an element of possessiveness in this? I love these mountains, this landscape, and so any assault on their beauty is felt as a kind of personal affront.

Now I was getting close to Loch Maree, and the Abhainn an Fhasaigh was positively thundering down its gorge. Jesus! There was enough flow here to power ten or twenty thousand homes! Would it be only a matter of time before this too was harnessed? Will there one day be all the industrial paraphernalia and despoliation here too, and another access road all the way from Incheril?

From a wider viewpoint, it seems there can be no escape. The power will be needed; if not from here then from somewhere else. If not from hydro then from wind or tide or coal or solar or nuclear or whatever; every form of generation throwing up its own specific bogies. One small piece of paradise can only be protected at the expense of another. And as the attrition continues, tiny increment by tiny increment, each one, taken individually, just within the bounds of acceptability, new norms will be constantly created.

I crossed the bridge over the Abhainn an Fhasaigh and started the final haul along the shore of Loch Maree and back to Incheril. My legs were starting to tire a little, but I knew that I would eat up the final section with ease. I had felt curiously energised all day, both physically and mentally.

Somehow I felt that I had pushed a little deeper into the intractable problem of constant human expansion. I had become a little more sanguine and accepting. I did not much like what I saw, but I had reduced it to its true proportions within the bigger scheme of things.

One day this expansion will inevitably end. Nonlinearity will bring down the whole shaky anthropocentric edifice and re-establish an equilibrium. In all probability man will go the way of all species. Whether that is in a hundred years’ time, or a hundred thousand , or a hundred million, is of course impossible to say.

And what of the Heights of Kinlochewe, and the Gleann na Muice, and Loch Fada? I realised that they were no more than provisional arrangements of matter; somehow beautiful to a caring human heart, but ultimately transient. Their substance will dissolve and dissipate. One day there will be new mountains and new lochs and new glens with dancing burns.

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Roger T

Location: Wester Ross
Occupation: Writer
Interests: Ocean sailing, hill walking, music, ornithology
Activity: Mountain Walker

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