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In the Eyes of the Beholder

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HARD on the heels of the news that walking is worth £1.26 billion to the Scottish economy it appears that readers of the internationally acclaimed guidebooks, Rough Guides, have voted Scotland as the most beautiful country in the world.

Having climbed mountains in over twenty different countries in the world it really doesn’t surprise me that Scotland has been given such an accolade. I’ve been saying exactly that for over 40 years.

We have such a wonderful diversity of landscape in this country and I believe that is partly what makes it so special. Take for example the different characteristics of the Cairngorms and the Skye Cuillin, yet they are only half a day’s car travel apart.

Much the same could be said of Torridon and the Trossachs or the wonderful landscapes of the far North-West compared with the massive, empty acres of the Caithness Flow Country.

We undoubtedly have some of the finest beaches in the world – Luskentyre on Harris comes immediately to mind, and some of the coastlines of Shetland and Orkney are simply mind blowing.

I also suspect our weather patterns contribute so much to Scotland’s beauty, the weather systems that we so often like to curse.

For example, when a shaft of sunlight pierces the cloud cover it can light up a patch of hillside in a way that is simply magical.

And isn’t it wonderful to watch cloud shadows race across distant hillsides or see a rainbow light up a scene to a backdrop of hodden grey?

Sunlight over Kinlochewe from Glen Docherty

And such weather conditions also highlight the mysterious, romantic beauty of Scotland, the landscapes of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and Lady of the Lake, or James MacPherson’s Tales of Ossian. These are the landscapes of the Celtic Twilight and the sagas of Fingal and his warrior race.

Earlier this year VisitScotland said walkers spent £1.26 billion per annum in this most beautiful of countries. That’s a lot of après-hike beers. In fact walkers don’t really ask for very much in return for their investment. Indeed, I suspect most of us only ask for two things – that we keep our wild areas wild and that we don’t erode our world respected access rights.

I don’t think that’s asking too much, but it seems the Scottish Government isn’t particularly interested in either request.

Take our wild land for example. The Scottish Government’s third National Planning Framework recognises wild land as a “nationally important asset” requiring strong protection.

Scottish Planning Policy sets out how this should be achieved, by identifying and safeguarding the character of Wild Land Areas in Development Plans and in Spatial Frameworks for onshore wind farms, and considering the effect of development on these areas.

I don’t believe the Government has gone far enough. I have personally appealed to two Environment Ministers to put a complete ban on development in these Wild Land Areas just as there are in our 40 National Scenic Areas, but with no success.

While the Scottish Government has largely dismissed proposed developments in some Wild Land Areas ministers did approve the Creag Riabhach wind farm on the Altnaharra Estate in Sutherland, but refused to give reasons for granting permission for such an intrusive development in a Wild Land Area.

This development is a substantial incursion into the Wild Land Area between Foinaven, Ben Hee, Arkle, Ben Hope, Ben Loyal and Ben Klibreck – from whose summits this industrial scale development will be highly visible. I firmly believe Paul Wheelhouse MSP, the Energy Minister, was wrong to approve this large windfarm.

Sadly, the most beautiful country in the world is also being despoiled by hundreds of new bulldozed tracks, most of which are being built to serve the grouse shooting industry, an industry that is already raising many questions because of the continued illegal slaughter of raptors.

I have it on good authority that many landowners are getting around the Permitted Development planning rules by putting some sheep on grouse moors then claiming they need to bulldoze a track to manage the flock.

In this way they can claim the track was for “agricultural prurposes.” Once the track is built they remove the sheep and use the track to take shooting clients on to the hill. Such use does not come under the remit of Permitted Development. It’s high time this loophole was closed.

Some time ago I had meetings with Derek Mackay MSP who at the time was the Scottish Planning Minister. He heard me out and appeared to be fairly supportive of a ban on high-level bulldozed tracks but he said he required more evidence of such ‘illegal’ tracks.

Construction work and tracks for the power industry

Ramblers Scotland and Mountaineering Scotland sent him substantial numbers of photographs of the damage being done but no action has, to date, been taken.

Meanwhile, hundreds of new tracks have been bulldozed on hills all over Scotland. Just last week I was in the Angus Glens where it appeared every ridge had a new track wriggling upwards towards the high ground.

And readers of this website don’t have to be reminded of the erosion of access rights in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park by the creation of bylaws to ban wild camping in certain areas.

It was within the gift of the Scottish Government to refuse consent for those bylaws but the Minister at the time, Aileen McLeod chose not to. She decided to permit what amounts to the erosion of our hard won access rights.

I had previously appealed personally to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and offered her an alternative plan put together by Dave Morris, formerly boss of Ramblers Scotland, Nick Kempe, a former chair of Scottish Mountaineering, former MSP Dennis Canavan and myself.

While the FM appeared to be interested and asked me to leave her a copy of the document we had prepared that was the last we heard of it. A few weeks later her Environment Minister Aileen McLeod approved the bylaws, creating a huge controversy in our first National Park that rumbles on to this day.

More recently access arrangements in the Cairngorms National Park could be eroded substantially under a proposal to ‘mitigate’ conservation problems created by the building of the An Camas Mor housing development, which the planning board of the National Park has recently approved.

Ironically, if such mitigation is approved then the largest erosion of our hard won access arrangements of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 will have been at the hands of our two National Park Boards, both answerable to the Scottish Government.

Arkle in Wild Land Area 37

Rather than bask in the glory of the economic input from walkers and in the Rough Guides vote, perhaps the First Minister and the Scottish Government have to wake up to the very real threats to the Scottish landscape (and wildlife), and to the access provisions of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act before it is too late and people start going elsewhere.

The sad truth of the matter is that a large area of Scotland is a denuded landscape – a wet desert was how the great ecologist Frank Fraser Darling described it. Just think how beautiful and attractive Scotland could be if we didn’t manage large parts of it as a mono-culture, ie for the grouse shooting industry.

And if Scotland is believed to be the most beautiful country in the world then we have to protect that beauty and enhance the ‘wet deserts’ with natural woodland. The last thing we should be doing is tarnishing our landscapes in the name of economic development.

Nor should we be further damaging those very things that attract people to our glens, hills and mountains in the first place.




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