A personal plea for the Monadhliath

A folder sits on the desk of Scottish Finance Minister John Swinney. It contains the recommendations of Mrs Jill Moody DipTP MRTPI, the reporter to the recent public inquiry into proposals to build 31 wind turbines in the Monadhliath close to the headwaters of the River Dulnain.

It’s titled, ‘The Allt Duine Windfarm,” and since the area in question is in the former constituency of Fergus Ewing, the Energy Minister, it falls to Mr Swinney to make the crucial decision.

Indeed, the Allt Duine is a tributary of the Dulnain and the proposed turbines would be erected within a mile of the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. Access to the windfarm would be from the south-east, from the A9. That access, and considerable associated construction work, lie within the National Park.

Before I make any appeal to John Swinney, I would like to suggest that windfarms have had one beneficial effect amongst hillwalkers and mountaineers. The recent swathe of windfarm planning applications has focused many minds on what constitutes wild land, and why it has value to today’s society.

I make this point because it wasn’t so long ago that the Monadhliath was, to put it kindly, unfashionable. I’ve lived on the edge of these hills for about 35 years and there was a time when I became very frustrated trying to defend them.

Geal Charn Mor summit in winter

Summit of Geal Charn Mor in winter

In the SMC’s Central Highlands guide author Peter Hodgkills describes the Monadhliath as ‘featureless’, while Irvine Butterfield’s account of the Monadhliath Munros in his otherwise superb book, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, suggests he wasn’t terribly impressed. Phrases like “unrelentingly tedious”, “drab pattern”, “a mere undulation on a dreary plain”, and I guess his description of Geal Charn’s summit sums up his indifference to the range – “The large summit cairn, on its flat field of stones, looks north to a depressing wasteland.”

Hamish Brown, in his Hamish’s Mountain Walk, recognised that the Monadhliath were much maligned and suggests they were useful for navigation exercises, although he does admit they had “a quality of remoteness and silence.”

So why has the Monadhliath suddenly become fashionable, why has this area become so worthy of protection from developers? Has our appreciation of these hills only surfaced now that we are faced with the potential destruction of their finest qualities?

I think there is an element of truth in that. We have become sorely aware of the “use it or lose it” syndrome, but I suspect many hillgoers in Scotland have moved on from the Munros and Corbetts tick-list mentality and now have a greater, and deeper, relationship with our wild land areas. The recent interest in backpacking, or wild land camping, has seen a lot of people pass through the Monadhliath, no more so than on the annual TGO Challenge, when many Challengers have written about the remote wildness quality of the Monadhliath area and how it has impressed them.

The Monadhliath from across Strathspey

The Monadhliath from across Strathspey at Dusk

This 700 square miles of rolling hills represent some of the wildest, most uninhabited landscapes in Scotland. If you were an eagle and you chose to fly north from the Badenoch villages of Newtonmore or Kingussie, some 25-30 miles of open hill country would pass below your wings before you reached Strath Nairn, just south west of Inverness. It’s a little unfortunate that this wonderful area translates as the ‘grey rolling hills’, an interpretation of the gaelic that offers an impression of drabness, a perception that is wholly unreasonable and far from accurate. It is, in fact, an area with much to offer the hillwalker, ski tourer or wilderness backpacker, where, away from the Munros’ trade routes, you are unlikely to see many other souls.

Munro-baggers tend to stick to the craggier edges of the south, where A’Chailleach, 3051ft/930m, Carn Sgulain, 3018ft/920m, Carn Dearg, 3100ft/945m, and Geal Charn, 3038ft/926m are all relatively accessible from Newtonmore or Laggan. Linking these Munros together in one outing offers a pretty good introduction to the special characteristics of the Monadhliath, characteristics that have, as I’ve suggested, not always been recognised by mountain writers.

A few winters ago I climbed Geal Charn by its steeply flanked north-east corrie. Under snow and ice it was an unusual and committing route to what is regarded as an easy Munro. I’ve also ski toured between all the Munros, the best ski tour I’ve had in Scotland. In his excellent book, Wilderness Dreams, author Mike Cawthorne admitted to being a Monadhliath afficionado. “It may have betrayed an early obsession with maps but the Monadhliath, least known of regions, hundreds of miles from where I lived, found a place in my imagination as early as adolescence. Hanging on my bedroom wall between red and white shirted footballers and glossy celluloid stars was an unfolded Ordnance Survey map of the entire range, a mass of contours and squiggly blue lines that gave the appearance of a vast earth-bound lung. It seemed alive with possibilities.”

Inversion on the Monadhliath plateau

Inversion on the Monadhliath plateau

And alive with possibilities it certainly is. In a land where much of our mountain architecture makes hillwalkers drool with visual pleasure the rolling plateaux of the Monadhliath offers a subtler attraction, a more visceral allure that has much to do with space, wide open skies, an abundance of wildlife and, until recently, a comparative lack of man’s contrivances.

I recently spent a week in Sweden, and in the mountains of Jaamtland I could well have been in the Monadhliath, without the reindeer. Day after day I woke in my tent, looked outside and could easily have been in Glen Banchor, or tucked away in a deep glen behind A’Chailleach, or camped high above the turbulent waters of the Findhorn. Jaamtland is an area that the Swedes wax lyrical about, an area that is being heavily promoted by the Swedish tourism organisations – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Monadhliath promoted by anyone other than a handful of hillwalkers! You may as well imprint the words “Here Be Dragons” on this huge area as far as most Scots are concerned.

Some time ago I had the privilege of spending a day in the Monadhliath with two of Scotland’s finest naturalists. Dick Balharry and Roy Dennis took me to Coignafearn, deep in the heart of the Monadhliath, and as we travelled down the length of Strath Dearn, a long deep-cut glen known to birders are Eagle Alley, they enthusiastically described the characteristics of the area.

This wild and largely inaccessible land between Loch Ness and the Cairngorms is a valuable living and breeding range for the golden eagle. The region was a potential candidate for European wilderness recognition and is one of the very few areas we have left where, until recently, man’s hand has been virtually absent. Indeed, further up the glen, by the headwaters of the River Findhorn, lies Carn na Saobhaidhe, the cairn of the fox’s den, arguably the remotest Corbett in the land.

Coignafearn Lodge

Coignafearn Lodge and Strath Dearn

At Coignafearn Lodge we were joined by Sandy Dey, the local keeper, and together we made our way up the slopes of Caimhlin Mor from where we could gaze across this vast, rolling wilderness to the mountains of the north highlands. It was a wonderful sight. Far and wide under the infinity of the domed sky the land stretched away, pock-marked with lingering patches of snow. Every feature was picked out and etched by the smile of the low sun, ridge over ridge, horizon over horizon, rolling moors and shadow-stained glens, clear-cut land and glistening pools of water. With that majestic backdrop we were regally entertained by a spiralling pair of golden eagles. We later watched a red kite being dive-bombed by a raven and a peregrine falcon, saw a merlin and glimpsed our first wheatear of the summer.

It was clear from his voice how much this land meant to Sandy. He’s keepered here for over thirty years and he explained with pride how the estate’s owner, Sigrid Rausing, planned to establish a new strategy for the estate’s future as the sustainable heart of the Monadhliath, where golden eagle would breed and where the wild character and beauty of the hills would be maintained. The tone of this voice then changed as he looked towards the spinning turbines of the Farr and Dunmaglass windfarms. Such industrialisation, he said, in the heart of one of our wildest areas, could devastate the raptor population of this region and completely destroy Sigrid Rausing’s Coignafearn vision.

I later returned to Strath Dearn, and took a bike up the length of the glen to Dalbeg. Another track climbs above the tumbling waters of the Allt Creagach to the gentle slopes of Meall a’ Phiobaire and I strode out across its flat summit to neighbouring Carn Mhic Iamhair towards the remotest of all the Corbetts. Carn na Saobhaidhe (try kaarn a sou-vey) is a vast, sprawling hill which I first climbed with my old friend Peter Evans as part of a cross-Scotland walk many years ago. We later spent the night in Dalbeg bothy sipping whisky, enthralled by the wild qualities of the place. We couldn’t have imagined, in our wildest nightmares, that these hills could be taken over by towering metal giants, like something from an HG Wells novel. How wrong we were.

Causeymire wind farm

Causeymire wind farm

But it’s not too late. I would appeal to John Swinney to reject the planning application for Allt Duine windfarm on the basis that it’s too close to a National Park; that it is defined by SNH’s description of Wild Land that could fall within the Government’s new planning policy; and that after much rhetoric recently from the SNP Government about wanting to protect the best of our wild land areas, many voting hill walkers are keen to see how much the Government is willing to walk the walk. The Allt Duine proposal is a genuine test case that could define outdoor folk’s relationship with the SNP for a long time to come.

Space doesn’t really allow me to go into all the relevant reasons why Mr Swinney should reject this proposal but if you want more information I’d recommend you read the precognition given by Chris Townsend at the Public Inquiry. You’ll find it on his blog.

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