THE FORECAST was for rain by afternoon, so I set off up Bla Bheinn early for a good scramble, accompanied by my mate Garry, midfield maestro for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC. By following a superb basalt dyke intrusion, we made enjoyable progress to the summit and could see the poor weather coming in as expected. Just time to nip over to the south top, then head down and beat the rain. On reaching the lower top we walked over to get a view down to Camas Fhionnairigh.
Immediately I caught sight of a vertical pole protruding from the rocks about 30m lower down, and initially thought it must have been a flagpole that somebody had put up for a laugh. I approached, hoping it wouldn't be too heavy to carry down, as I certainly don't want any junk accumulating on the hills. Then I saw a solar panel and a plaque, and realised this was no flagpole but something more "official". The plaque read: Property of Skye MRT. Please do not interfere with this equipment as you may put lives at risk. Thank You.
My first thought was that I did not like the scaremongering tone of the sign: everyone puts their own life at risk by leaving the road and heading up the hill. Indeed you could easily argue it is more risky driving to the hills in the first place, given the road surfaces, encounters with beasts and the driving habits of some motorists.
My second thought was how could the John Muir Trust, which owns the land here, have allowed this to be installed without any consultation of members (myself included), especially given the good efforts to clear Ben Nevis of excess cairns and memorial plaques? On enquiring of the JMT about the situation I was astonished to discover they knew nothing about it.
The JMT duly contacted the Skye mountain rescue team and established that this "radio repeater" is designed to improve communications at Loch Coruisk, Harta Corrie and Lota Corrie. Having expressed their disappointment to the Skye MRT that no permission was sought for the installation, it seems that, for now at least, the JMT has been backed into a corner in having to accept it: "As a responsible landowner it is important that JMT takes the appropriate course of action which is to accept the current situation and seek future alternatives while not compromising the safety of SMR [Skye mountain rescue] or the public." - Douglas Halliday, JMT Land Manager, in an email to the writer, 15/11/06.
Local information suggests that the radio repeater is not working properly anyway. Given the purpose of the aerial, it is ironic that communications between the Skye MRT and the JMT have been poor - but it is obviously easier to install something clandestinely without permission rather than going through a consultation process with the JMT, other rescue teams, climbers, hillwalkers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Another irony is the sign saying "Property of Skye MRT", given that it is installed without permission on land that is not their property. And how long will it be before the thing is hit by lightning? Or before the winds and freeze-thaw destroy it, and the broken glass needs to be cleaned up by somebody?
The main concern I have is the precedent this sets. There are plenty of wild and lonely corries throughout the country which must have communication problems, so how long before more of these things are in place? Indeed, are more already secreted about the hills? The JMT, through no fault of its own, could find itself accused of double standards, given its objections - correct in my view - to windfarms, unsightly pylons and hydro developments. The following is from the JMT website (http://www.jmt.org/policy-wild-land.asp, section 7.2):
The protection and where possible the enhancement of existing wild land is the primary objective of land management on all JMT property; this will be enabled through:
Whilst I am not comfortable criticising the Skye MRT, whose volunteer members readily and selflessly go to the aid of others, perhaps the team's leadership needs to reflect on the apparently unilateral action undertaken in this instance if they are to avoid bringing themselves into disrepute. Has the workload of the team increased to the extent that the Bla Bheinn aerial is now considered vital? If so, then a case should surely have been presented to justify it, backed by statistics of the frequency of rescues in the "blackspot". What about using the satellites orbiting the planet? How has the rescue team managed without it all these years? How do other teams - and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland - feel about this situation? There are plenty of questions to be asked and implications to be thought about.
I believe the only intrusions on Bla Bheinn should be the natural dykes and cone sheets associated with the Cuillin pluton. It will be good to get all the different viewpoints into the open on this matter.
Ed. - The Skye MRT and the JMT will be invited to respond in TAC71.
TAC 70 Index