IT’S one of Scotland’s finest glens, the gateway to some of the best hills in the Central Highlands and a place that was close to the heart of a Celtic princess.
Glen Etive has been one of my favourite Scottish glens, ever since I discovered the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, a first century Pictish princess who was betrothed to the High King of Ulster before fleeing to Scotland and Etive-side with her lover, Naoise, one of the Three Sons of Uisneach.
Celtic tales tell of her love of these hills, and of her heartbreak at having to leave them behind to eventually return to Ulster and her fate.
My fondness for the tale is stems from the possibility that Naoise (neesha) forms the Celtic original of my own surname. Yes, I know, it’s all a bit pathetic but there you go…
Despite my interest in Deirdre’s lover, it’s easy to understand her passion for Glen Etive. Steep-sided hills rise on either side of it, a single-track road runs from its high point on the Rannoch Moor for some 14 miles/23 k to the head of Loch Etive, a sea-loch that bites its way greedily into the jumbled landscape of Argyll.
The River Etive is a cascading, tumbling watercourse that has been described as the finest canoeing river in Scotland and it commands cult status among Scotland’s paddlers.
Two hundred and sixty years ago the glen was considerably more inhabited than it is today, and a track made its way down the south side of Loch Etive as far as Taynuilt.
From 1847 a steamer service from Oban sailed up Loch Etive to the now derelict pier where the modern road ends. It’s certainly a quieter place today but old jetty at the head of the loch is still a magnificent spot, a place to linger and consider the scene before you.Savagely steep slopes lead to the Munro of Ben Starav on one side and the Corbett of Beinn Trilleachean on the other while ahead of you rise the equally steep slopes of another Corbett, Stob Dubh.
Further up the glen the classic view of the two Buachailles, the twin herdsmen of Etive, with the Lairig Gartain separating them, dominates everything else, while the big hills of the Blackmount Deer Forest spread out on your right.
On the other side of the glen the Stob Coire Sgreamhach edge of the Bidean nam Bian massif gives way to the long ridge of Beinn Maol Chalum and the Munros of Glen Creran, Beinn Sgulaird and Beinn Fhionnlaidh.
Few glens in Scotland offer such a phenomenal wealth of hillwalking opportunities in a hugely inspiring landscape. Deirdre’s passion is easy to understand, her love of a land that would have made her weep with longing.
But today many people who love Glen Etive are weeping with frustration. Some residents of the glen are suggesting the glen is being “destroyed” by wild campers and partygoers.
Mark and Phillipa Shone, who live in the glen, have taken pictures showing the mess left behind by campers. They have also set up a Facebook page, ‘Glen Etive – The Dirty Truth’, to expose the crass behaviour.
Anyone who is familiar with Glen Etive, or any number of other highland glens and lochsides, will be aware of the current problem. Groups of people setting up large camps close to the roadside, building fires and barbeques, and then leaving sackfuls of rubbish behind them. Quite often they will also abandon the cheap camping gear (so-called “festival camping’ gear) too.
We live in a throwaway society, as was witnessed by the thousands of tents that were left behind after T in the Park, and it would appear that disposable attitude has now spread to Scotland’s wilder areas.
Several years ago the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park created byelaws to deal with such unruly campers. Such draconian action appears to have worked – for the eastern shores of Loch Lomond that is. The downside is that the original perpetrators appear to have moved on to other areas.
I wasn’t in favour of those byelaws, arguing that existing legislation should have been used to prosecute the perpetrators, but it would appear that the police couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find the resources to deal with the problem.
And this also appears to be part of the problem in Glen Etive, and many other ‘wild camping’ hotspots around the highlands where litter-lout campers park their car on the verge of the road, hump their camping gear out of the boot, and then light bonfires to ward off the cold and the midges.
They then leave their rubbish behind, including drink cans and bottles, and make no attempt to cover up the blackened firepits they have created.
Forgetting for the moment the problem of the litter, I’m not sure this type of so-called ‘wild camping’ is strictly legal under the provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code, is particularly woolly in this respect. It tells us that access rights are for people on foot, on bike or on horseback, but it then goes on to define what kind of behaviour is expected by wild campers without making it clear that ‘car camping’, ie taking camping gear from the boot of a car and setting up camp close by, is not covered by the access rights.
Likewise with fishing. Angling is specifically one of the activities to which access rights do not apply, but drive alongside Loch Lubnaig, Loch Tay, Loch Rannoch, Loch Arkaig and many others and see the number of large tents, bonfires, and semi-permanent camps that are set up on any summer weekend.
And before my email account is bombarded by keen anglers let me say that like hill walkers and climbers most anglers are decent people who clean up afterwards, but are let down by the irresponsible few.
During the debate on Scottish access I urged politicians not to use the term ‘wild camping’. What the legislators wanted to provide for was access for backpackers – a walker who was travelling over a number of days using a small tent for accommodation.
Wild camping, I argued, would lead people to believe it was simply camping outside official camp-sites. This is exactly what has happened and Pandora’s Box has been well and truly opened. It now seems the only recourse open to the various authorities, like the Loch Lomond National Park, is in the form of byelaws.
A similar problem existed in the Cairngorms, in Glen Clunie, and the landowner sealed off the various lay-bys with boulders. A similar action was taken by the NTS years ago along the minor road that led from the A82 to the Clachaig Inn.
Highland councillor Andrew Baxter has called for a meeting between the landowners, public bodies and police in a bid to tackle the problem of litter. He said: “I’m angered that such a beautiful glen might as well be renamed ‘Glen Midden’ because of the lazy and selfish actions of those who think it acceptable to simply drive away, leaving their mess behind.
“It has got even worse since the ban on camping around Loch Lomond was introduced.
“This isn’t real wild camping. What is wild about leaving your car blocking a passing place, emptying the contents of its boot and carrying it less than a hundred metres from the roadside?
“The only thing that’s wild about this camping is how it leaves me and many others when we see how the glen is being destroyed.”
So what’s the answer?
Andrew Baxter has been in touch with councilors in Perth and Kinross, who have experienced similar problems around Loch Rannoch. “They solved the problem with a proactive approach, which included police patrols, the recording of number plates and the direct threat of prosecution,” he said.
“We also need to consider what would happen if camping was banned within a set distance from the road.”
The northern half of Glen Etive is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and the Trust’s rangers regularly organize litter collections. A Trust spokesperson told me: “This is undoubtedly an issue for us. We share concerns about the mess left behind by irresponsible campers in Glen Etive.
“The Trust takes responsibility for tidying up our land – every year we remove hundreds of bags of rubbish. This work, while clearly vital, diverts staff from important conservation work in the area. It also leaves our charity with the costs for disposing of this rubbish.”
She added: “Over the years, we have tried various approaches to tackle the issue and to try to encourage responsible behaviour and, of course, we talk regularly to our neighbours and relevant agencies about how best to tackle this. However, there are no straightforward solutions.”
There certainly are not. Whatever happens it would appear that innocent law-abiding wild campers, backpackers and anglers will lose out, as they have done on Loch Lomondside where the wild camping ban has been put in place.
Perhaps it’s up to us, as users, to point out to the perpetrators what they’re doing wrong, but are you going to risk a smack on the jaw?
I know of one frustrated camper who noted the car registration numbers of some people who had obviously left behind a mass of rubbish and passed them on to the police but he has no idea if the police acted on it.
I wish Councillor Baxter the best of luck with his meetings and I sincerely hope a reasonable compromise can be found. If not we might all face the possibility of mass camping bans in some of the most delightful areas of Scotland.