The Angry Corrie 3: Sep-Oct 1991
opinions... takes a dim view of prospects for progress in the land access debate
As all the haggis-eaters amongst you will be well aware, one of the few Rabbie Burns songs not to include swearing is a little ditty called Westlin' Winds - a kind of pastoral eulogy to autumn in which the brownleafed season is touted as some kind of paradise for the farmer. This it may be, but sadly the same can't in any way be said for the hillwalker: the likes of us tend to regard autumn as a bit of a dog's bottom of a season.
Why? Because with the annual, inevitable arrival of autumn comes the equally annual, similarly inevitable arrival of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers otherwise known as the stalking season. Suddenly, just at that poignant moment when the midges have been seen off for another year, when the midsummer monsoon has abated, and with the first of the winter snows just around the corner, we have to endure over two month's worth of social (as against mountain) climbers landrovering their way over our hills for the perverse pleasure of standing a stone's throw away from some poor defenceless creature and blowing its brains out. You'd think they'd save time and money by taking their rifles, shotguns and grapeshot bazookas to Twycross or Whipsnade or some such place instead.
It is at this time of year that, for all the platitudinous in-print mumblings about Scotland having more liberal trespass laws than England, for all the vacuous talk of freedom of access, we suddenly see that our bold lands are every bit as much in the rigor-mortised grip of private landownership as are the gently rolling fields and pastures of Albion's Plain.
Sure, hills can be climbed at this time of year, but only on a kind of patronising sufferance. Tourist paths are okay, as are "accepted" routes up popular hills (although try sneaking up Lochnagar by the Ballochbuie path and see how long it takes the MI5-ers to get you in their heatsensitive sights), whilst ancient rights-of-way can still be trod providing you don't walk smack into the highrise gates and Old Sparky-style electric fences of a nouveau riche, don't-give-a-damn landowner, for whom ancient access agreements have about as much value as a BCCI chequebook.
Of course a fair number of hill areas are owned by the National Trust - an organisation which is thankfuIIy more progressively-minded up here than its Antiques Roadshow counterpart down south. But the compactness of areas such as Torridon, Kintail and Glen Coe, together with the innately spectacular scenery which made them viable purchases in the first place, leads to their being permanently aswarm with 40-strong rambler's meets and cromach-wielding Saga Holiday outings. Plus here's a dangerously high risk of encountering Lady Diana of Rigg or Sir Harold of Secombe in the carpark below. The NTS need to start buying some of the more subtle, less dramatic areas before they make any real impact on the overall landownership question.
Yet it would be wrong to see the huntin', shootin', fishin' fraternity as an inherently Scottish problem. Like most things that are sent to try us - the Poll Tax, the Edinburgh Festival, Terry Hurlock, etc - they come from supposedly more cultured, more affluent lands elsewhere. Most indigenous ghillies, factors and the like will, if pushed, express greater contempt for those who come north with loaded wallets and loaded shotguns than for the Vibram-soled punter whose sole desire is to sneak anonymously off up some unpronounceable hill for a once-in-a-while bit of peace and quiet. But someone has to pay the land-lackey's wages, and that someone usually thinks of Meall nan Thingme as their very own chance to play at being Holy Roman Emperor. An Englishman's home is his castle, maybe, but more often than not his back garden is 20,000 acres in Perthshire or Wester Ross. It needs only a glance at the pages of Hello! magazine or The Scottish Field to realise that those who ban us from the bothies and keep us out of the corries each autumn are not to be found eating greasy fritter suppers in Castlemilk, Pilton and Mid Craigie - or even, for that matter, in West Pollokshields, Morningside or The Ferry.
Yet are things getting any better as time goes by and the rest of the world gradually tunes into late twentieth century realities? Are they chuck! The highlands of Scotland are still being run on a pathetic, fossilised feudal system which sees the marketing agencies, the tourist boards, a good few of the so-called "conservation" bodies and virtually all the established, institutionalised hillwalking clubs blithely kowtowing to the landowners. And how is this so? Precisely because the country is so bonny, so precious, such a hillwalker's paradise, that all and sundry are more than happy to gather up the ever-diminishing right-of-access crumbs whilst failing to notice that more and more slices are being carved off and frozen in proprietorial cold storage. You just need to look at the current, absurdly paradoxical situation to realise this: more people venturing into the hills than ever before, yet the number of cases of land restriction and denied access likewise steepling to previously unknown heights. To compile a list of "Keep Out" signs would be a depressing and time-consuming task: the head of Glen Isla, the west side of Schiehallion, etc, etc... Discouraging signs indeed.
There would be no need for quite such a blatant paradox were not contentious issues such as erosion persistently viewed in such tiresomely one-dimensional terms: i.e. as the simple consequence of sheer weight of numbers. For whilst the ever-deepening scars on many of our hills are of course a matter for similarly deep concern, the more exclusionist landowners must be rubbing their greedy hands with glee each time the subject is broached, as it gives them yet another opportunity to portray themselves as nurturers and keepers of all things bright and beautiful, fighting the good ecological fight against the callously destructive, boot-trampling hordes of walkers. The trouble with giving these guys even fleeting access to the moral high ground is that they can't then help but regard themselves as lairds of all they survey. How they must cheer at every article - such as that in the Guardian recently - which presents Scottish hillwalking as little more than a euphemism for Munrobagging. The day may not be that far off when we not only have National Parks (and their corollary: National No-go Areas), but also only one or two permitted routes to the top of perhaps 300 selected hills - all the Munros plus a few token others.
Of course it is easy to take this kind of scattergun - or should that be birdshot? - approach without offering anything in the way of a constructive alternative. But the sad truth is that our hills are in a state of such crisis, with everyone safeguarding their own pound of flesh, clump of heather, bag of Munros or whatever, rather than prioritising any real notion of the common good, that there no longer appear to be any simple, clearcut answers leading to potentially feasible improvements. For all the sterling work being done by such as the Scottish Wild Land Group, along with those parties and individuals devoted to saving the Cairngorms and elsewhere, the concept of a Glasnost of the Glens or a Perestroika of the Peaks is still much nearer idealism than it is pragmatics. Hopes of a widespread outbreak of proprietorial, recreational and Governmental commonsense seem further away than ever. Even when there is scope for small-scale optimism - be it in connection with Lurcher's Gully, Mar Lodge or wherever - chances are it will transpire to be merely an Electric Brae-type illusion of progress.
Whilst it might look as though there is the chance to relax, freewheel and admire the scenery for a while, what is actually required is to dig even deeper into the gears as the uphill grind continues.
Certainly any move away from the feudal and towards the federal in land management terms would be of considerable help. But that simply isn't happening, and maybe the only thing to be positively said at the present time is that one of the old standard excuses - that stalking-style estate management provides the only alternative to M.O.D. takeovers and consequent wholesale land closures - seems now at last to be recognised as too much of a devil/deep-blue-sea argument to be viable in this day and age. Hence we should, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies: better to be turned off a hill by old men wearing tweeds and toting .22 rifles than be blown away by young Rambos with fatigues and M16s. For this much, thanks.
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