Conversation Pieces, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1 June 2005
THE HALL IS MOBBED, and I'm lucky to find a vacant seat near the back. The opening audio-visuals are not as powerful as at the Teenage Fanclub gig a few days earlier, but they're ruggedly impressive and help create a good atmosphere for Cameron McNeish's third-age fan club. Then he's straight into a quote from John Muir: "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity". McNeish goes on to define wilderness (in what I assume are now his own words) as "a landscape free of the excesses of mankind" and "an adjective that produces a mood, rather than a noun". These are fine words considering he's not necessarily preaching to the converted with this large lunchtime audience. As an orator he's not George Galloway, but he does have the ability to inspire and to convey the connection with the land that so many people feel, leaving no doubt that he believes in what he preaches. He even gets a spontaneous round of applause when he asserts that "the Cuillin belong to us all".
A few of his self-deprecating asides could be interpreted as defensive by those aware of his literary magpie peccadilloes: "I might suffer myself from a state of confusion", "I am a simple soul", and "I don't like to get into the technicalities of things".
The main topic of his 30-minute speech is introduced as "a storm that is raging and will burst very soon". He is of course talking about wind factories in the hills, to which he is passionately opposed, and I find I agree with every word, especially his assessment of the turbine bonanza as "not about renewable energy but about a few people making an awful lot of money". He asserts the need to find a way to "break through the patterns of thought of the philistines in the Scottish Executive". I learn that over 500 wind turbines are planned for Ardnamurchan, that every turbine requires 400 tons of concrete, and that the National Trust for Scotland are considering allowing ptarmigan-shooting on their (our) land.
When he sits down, the gentle questions that Iain Anderson lobs him are easily dealt with, but that's OK - McNeish is campaigning rather than running for office, so there's no need for a grilling. He readily draws on his experiences and is rarely stuck for words or examples. He's not afraid to risk derision by making bold statements such as "plants and animals are our brothers and sisters in the web of creation" as he pleads for "rehabilitation, restoration and renewal of the damage done by man in the past". Heady stuff. Few people are capable of speaking so well in public on behalf of the landscape and its wildlife. McNeish is prepared to step outside the comfort zone of walking and climbing clubs, and in doing so he makes a good land evangelist.
If John Muir was able to take Theodore Roosevelt camping and help get legislation passed to protect the American landscape for its own sake, then we need McNeish to do the same for Scotland with Jack McConnell and Frank McAveety. He is certainly able to articulate the widespread fears about imminent destruction of the Scottish landscape, and the irony of doing so just after the promise of devolution and the passing of enlightened access legislation. He's unlikely to succeed, but if he did then we might come to overlook the "technicalities" of which Corbett-sized parts of that landscape he has actually visited.
As for the technicalities of editing a magazine, McNeish should give up and concentrate on what he's good at - public speaking and public relations. It's the message that matters, not the flaws of the messenger.
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