Cairn of the Watch

David LinternKeep ’em peeled! A few thoughts on access and conservation to finish off the year, from David Lintern.

At the beginning of the year, I asked “what have the mountains ever done for us“. I wanted to round out the year by asking the same question in reverse. Of course, many hillfolk do an amazing amount – volunteering to provide access for those who find access difficult, path maintenance, conservation work parties, or donating money if time is tight, but I’ll wager more of us don’t do as much as we’d like to… and some of us don’t do much at all.

So I wanted to point to some other, even easier ways to give back – just by going out for the day – that have been highlighted to me over the last year or so. Before that, have a look at this lyrical, contemporary take on the Scottish Outdoors. The filmmaker’s local guide – Lauren – eloquently describes the balance between rights and responsibilities embodied in our roaming traditions.

I think this film is a great advert for Scotland, but apart from distilling some of that essential atmosphere we know and love into a modern format (#scotspirit, anyone?!), I was struck by their visit to the Lairig Leacach bothy, in the first half of the film. I’ve got to know it fairly well over the last few years. Access is via the Corrie Choille farm, and the track leads past the east end of the Grey Corries and around to the south end of Loch Treig. This is one of hundreds of Drovers routes in Scotland, used by our forebears to get cattle to market in the south from the grazing in the Highlands. ‘The Pass of the Flagstones’ was a key stage from the Great Glen to Kingshouse, before the Blackwater glen was flooded by the reservoir.

However, just a couple of months before this film celebrating all that is wonderful about Scottish access was shot, that right of way was obstructed to cyclists and horse riders. I was there in late summer, and while pedestrian access wasn’t affected, the main gate was padlocked, preventing some users from getting down the track. The gate features just after 4min mark in the film. I had to dismantle my bike and hoist it over a 9-foot deer fence. Woe betide any Drovers trying to use the pass!

At the time, I briefly blogged about my trip and mentioned this in passing, and a few readers better informed than I encouraged me to report it to the local authority access officer.

Because the Lairig Leacach is fairly central in the country, I wasn’t sure who to write to, but copying in a couple of addresses on an email got the ball rolling (I’ve since suggested a map so that the public can see who to email more clearly, region by region). I got a response within a few days and another a few months later, saying that the issue had been raised with the landowner and should be in hand.

I now know that the gate was definitely unlocked – because Lauren and her filmmakers were able to get through on bikes – but I was surprised to learn from the access officer afterward that I was the only one to report it. The moral of my tale is clear. I’d assumed that it was someone else’s job to monitor, and that I had no agency – all I could do was comment online – when in fact there are mechanisms in place that really do work to keep access alive and kicking. And that we, as hillgoers, are very much part of that process.

Earlier that year, I blogged about a day on the Munro of Beinn Chabhair, above Inverarnan, and how shocked I’d been by the new tracks involved in the glen Falloch hydro works. Was this ‘improvement’ of part of one of the most important old Drover’s roads in Argyll considered acceptable… just because it is deemed less ‘wild’? Such a narrow definition of what’s valuable and unique about the Scottish outdoors, I felt.

Once again, folk much wiser than I got in touch to tell me about a website called Parkwatch, which advocates for better planning decisions within National Parks. I later shared some of the pictures I took on that day with both Parkwatch and Mountaineering Scotland. The Munro Society is now tracking the impact of the new hydro schemes that are popping up across the Highlands as estates attempt to diversify and future proof themselves, and they provide a document to help you report, should you come across one. There are links at the end to some of these websites.

And as if to prove the point once and for all, another example came up this summer. I’ve recently moved to live in Kingussie, and one windy Saturday I went to investigate my local Corbett – Carn an Fhreiceadain. On my return I put the picture below on social media, with a caption commenting on the grouse shooting interests of Pitmain Estate.

Ramblers Scotland picked up on the turning circle image, and got in touch. Upland tracks are sadly not subject to full planning permission, but landowners are supposed to give ‘prior notification’ about any new plans. After further investigation by both Ramblers and Parkwatch, Highland Council and the Cairngorm National Park are now raising questions with the estate regarding aspects of the estate’s recent application and the purpose of their track.

Once again, I was apparently the only person to raise this at the time, and once again, the internet proved it’s worth – and again, despite me not using the proper channels! There is a Hilltracks Campaign which was set up to monitor the proliferation of tracks in recent years and which is now preparing a report to the government… but it’s a tiny organisation and relies on the public to send in reports. In a final twist of irony, the name of my local hill in question translates as ‘Cairn of the Watch’.

OK – I think I’ve learnt my lesson now…

I’ve spent much of this year on access and conservation stories for Walkhighlands. Some of the subject matter has been controversial, and I expect some of those at the other end would rather we all turned a blind eye, avoided the awkward questions and just talked about how wonderful the hills are. They are that – of course they are – but it’s all of us, acting as the eyes and ears of local authorities and access organisations, that help to make them that way.

If you are not sure whether a rule has been bent, broken or forgotten about, then ask. Please don’t assume, as I did at first, that someone else is better qualified or knows about it already – you may simply be first on the scene, or have more useful pictures taken in different conditions. Conversations around access and the environment can be difficult at times, but sometimes, as was the case for the Lairig Leacach, it’s a simple mistake and can be quickly resolved.

This is something we can all do, even when we are out enjoying ourselves, without spending a penny. The price of our freedom to roam may be eternal vigilance, but it costs us nothing more than the odd email to be a good witness.

Contact list

1. There’s a really handy list of regional access officers and recreation bodies, here. In particular, local access officers are exactly that – local – and will often know who to have a gentle word with in order to get things sorted without a stooshie. Get the email contact list for all officers, on the right hand side of the page.

2. Scotlink is a proven environmental lobbying group with decades of experience. More info on their Hill Tracks campaign here.

3. Parkwatch investigate access and conservation issues within Scotland’s National Parks with a forensic eye for planning detail, who welcome information and input.

4. The Munro Society is monitoring the impact of new hydro schemes in the uplands. You can get hold of a survey form and more information here.

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