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I take photos when I’m out and about, even on dull days. But, mostly, these turn out to be a bit flat and lifeless – records of where I’ve been – and they are not particularly interesting photographs in their own right.  Worse, they sometimes don’t really reflect the landscape as I saw it. Assuming its not too misty, there’s subtlety in the light on a dull day and details in the landscape that are  hidden by sunny day shadows.

So, I have been mucking around with some of the digital manipulation controls in Lightroom to try and create photographs that reflect my perceptions of the landscape. My starting point was an image converted to black and white – somehow black and white with its palette of greys seems more appropriate for dull day photography.

Not every dull-day landscape works in black and white but I feel these images are much more effective than their colour equivalents in capturing the feel of the day.
Forest snowfall near Bennachie

Forest snowfall near Bennachie



From Johnshaven harbour


The Lairig Ghru

The Lairig Ghru


Stones and snow  near the summit of Mount Keen

Stones and snow near the summit of Mount Keen


Loch Ossian

Loch Ossian


Towards Glen Pean

Towards Glen Pean


From Tyningham beach, East Lothian

From Tyningham beach, East Lothian

On the ‘official’ maps of the Aberdeenshire coastal path, there’s a gap between Muchalls and Stonehaven, with the implication that you need to walk along the edge of the busy A90.  But my experience is that the ‘official’ maps don’t really reflect the reality on the ground so I thought I would try to see if there was actually a coastal route.

My original idea when walking the coastal path was to do it in sections and use public transport to get to each section. But, good intentions fall apart when faced with infrequent bus services so we decided today to do this today by parking one car at Stonehaven then driving to Muchalls.

The weather was great when I left home but by the time I got to Stonehaven, the haar (sea mist) was blowing in and this was the theme for the day. The mist hovered around the coast sometimes clearing, sometimes blowing back in. The scenery at Muchalls  (which I’ve written about before) is magnificent, even in the mist.

Muchalls in the mist

Muchalls in the mist

I’ve been part of the way along the beach there and I thought that it would be possible to follow the beach then pick up the path shown on the map around Doonie Point. We followed the rocks around through a gap in the cliffs then were brought to a stop by a burn in spate. The stepping stones were covered in seaweed and mostly submerged so we decided it was too risky to cross so we retraced our steps back to the path from the village at Grim Briggs.

The path marked on the map to the east of the railway looked pretty overgrown but do-able so we headed along there.  We struggled through bracken, thistles and nettles and soon reached the hamlet of Mill of Muchalls. Instead of following the coast though, we decided to stick to the vestigial path between the field and the railway line. The weather improved and we had great coastal views.

The Castle Rock of Muchalls, south of Doonie Point (I think)

The Castle Rock of Muchalls, south of Doonie Point (I think). Other photos on the web claiming to the the Castle Rock are mostly of the stack on the beach at Muchalls


Overlooking Perthumie Bay

Overlooking Perthumie Bay

Looking south to Garron Point

Looking south to Garron Point

Overgrown was the theme of most of the rest of the walk and we struggled through vegetation and sometimes followed the tractor tracks in field of ripening barley. Progress was slow but possible. The most challenging bit was where there was only a very small gap between an inlet and the railway line with no obvious path. But we made it and shortly after came to the very welcome short turf of Stonehaven Golf course.


The 'path' between the railway and the cliff

The ‘path’ between the railway and the cliff

There’s no nonsense in Scotland about golf courses being private so we walked round the edge of the course. It must be one of the most scenic golf courses in the country.


Craigeven Bay and Garron Point

Craigeven Bay and Garron Point

We regained the cliff path after the ruined Cowie chapel, St Mary of the Storms on the edge of the course. We decided to finish the walk on the beach and had a final vegetal struggle through the head high bracken.

Victor on our final push through the head-high bracken

Victor on our final push through the head-high bracken


Stonehaven marks the boundary between highland and lowland Scotland, and we stopped to look at the rocks of the Highland Boundary Fault. It’s not clear to a non-geologist (me) exactly where the fault starts but these rocks look to be part of it.

Rocks of the Highland boundary fault

Rocks of the Highland boundary fault


We finally got back to Stonehaven just as the weather deteriorated – this was the last sunshine of the afternoon.

Stonehaven from Cowie

Stonehaven from Cowie


I guess that with diversions and backtracking today we walked 8-9 km but the going was tough so it took as about 4 hours. It would be much easier and quicker in winter or spring before the vegetation growth. A great wee walk with superb coastal scenery – highly recommended.

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Pentland pics

We went to Edinburgh last weekend with the intention of taking in some Festival Fringe shows. But the weather was far too good to sit in a dark theatre so I took myself to the Pentlands – wee hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I only had a couple of hours but wandered from the Hillend car park up Caernketton and Allermuir. Considering the weather, there were remarkably few people on the hills.

A completely uneventful walk but great weather for photography – fast moving clouds casting shadows on the landscape.

Edinburgh and the Forth

Edinburgh and the Forth

Path through the heather

Path through the heather


Caernketton from Allermuir

Caernketton from Allermuir


Looking south from Allermuir

Looking south from Allermuir

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A wee dauner on Lochnagar

Since getting back from the TGO Challenge in May, I’ve had a couple of weeks of family holiday, sorted out my allotment and spent stupid amounts of time (between showers) painting the exterior of my house. I haven’t been any higher than the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and have been feeling the need to get out for more than a walk along the Deeside Way. Today, the forecast was,  for once, for a completely dry day so I ditched the paintbrushes and headed for Glen Muick.

There is an old saying that any day can be a winter’s day in the Cairngorms. I’m well aware of this but when packing  for the day, I looked at the sunshine and decided there was no need for gloves and a hat. There was a bit of a breeze when I left home but no inkling of what was to come.

After a brief stop in Ballater for pork pies from the butcher, I arrived at the car park at the Spittal of Glen Muick. The wind had got up a bit and it was cool enough for a fleece on top of my base layer.  After a quick loo stop (where there is a curious sign saying the water is unsuitable for ‘drinking purposes’) I headed up the path to Lochnagar.

Lochnagar from Glen Muick

Lochnagar from Glen Muick

The wind continued to increase in strength and when I reached the top of the pass, I swapped my fleece for a windproof and took the well-made path up the corrie. It was a bit more sheltered there with a few other people on the path. There was a great view of Lochnagar’s ridges and gullies.

Lochnagar's cliffs, gullies and ridges

Lochnagar’s cliffs, gullies and ridges

The path to the top of Lochnagar goes round the edge of the cliffs and it was then that the wind really hit me. There was no shelter and the wind so strong that I couldn’t take off my jacket to put my fleece on again. But the sun was shining with great views.
NE corrie of Lochnagar

NE corrie of Lochnagar

It’s easy to overestimate wind speeds and I wouldn’t like to guess how strong it was. It wasn’t a ‘blow you over’ wind’ but it was certainly strong enough to ‘make you stagger when a gust hits you’. Some people decided to give up at this stage but I carried on. This photo isn’t the summit cairn but is the cairn on Cac Carn Mor (which it is sometimes said translates as ‘large heap of shit’). Oddly, Cac Carn Beag (small heap of shit) is the true summit and is a few metres higher. So, I wonder if some Victorian mapmaker mixed up the names.  I understand that there are alternative interpretations of the name. Anyway, I love the folded rocks on which the cairn sits.
Cairn on Cac Carn Mor

Cairn on Cac Carn Mor

When I reached the summit, my hands were completely numb and I was very cold. Thankfully, there was a sheltered spot so I managed to get my fleece on and soon warmed up in the sun. Great views in all directions.

Looking north from the summit of Lochnagar

Looking north from the summit of Lochnagar

I had contemplated going on to Carn an Sagairt Mor but this would have meant another 4km straight into the wind. I decided this wouldn’t be fun and headed down to summer again in Glen Muick, where the bell heather was in bloom.

Bell heather

Bell heather

Overall, a very exhilarating day out – definitely beats painting from a ladder.

PS I can recommend Aldi’s Fruit and Nut mix as a hill snack – lots of juicy dried fruit and not just cheap peanuts. It’s in a resealable packet where you have to snip the top. Do this BEFORE leaving home – it is impossible to open without a knife or scissors. After fighting with it for several minutes, I ended up spearing the packet with a walking pole. Definitely not resealable.


I didn’t keep a day-to-day diary of my crossing from Lochailort to Stonehaven but was inspired to write a few (reasonably short) blog posts. Here’s a list:

My Challenge route from Lochailort to Stonehaven 

My initial planned route. I more of less kept to it except for around Loch Rannoch where I followed the forest tracks on the south.

My 2015 Challenge in 10 photos

I find too many photos overwhelming so I have tried to distil the experience down to 10 snaps.

Development and the Highland landscape 

My walk exposed me to some of the infrastructure development that’s making a mess of the landscape. General reflections on development and what we should be doing.

Reflections on my route from Lochailort to Stonehaven  

Post-walk thoughts on what was good and bad about my route.

Eating my way from Lochailort to Stonehaven

What and where I ate.  I don’t do baggie food.

Six useful things that I learned this year  

Distilled hints and tips that future Challengers may find useful.

Experience review: Rab Myriad jacket

I must admit this is only vaguely TGOC related but it got its first thorough outing on the Challenge. Great jacket let down by leaky zip.



One of the handy things you get from reading blog posts is hints and tips from other Challengers.  So, to save folks falling asleep looking for useful information amongst while reading my deathless prose, I’ve distilled some things I learned this year into a short list.

1.  Printing maps on waterproof paper REALLY works.

I have wondered about waterproof paper and the claims that it is so waterproof it doesn’t need protection in the rain. I don’t really like bulky map cases so I took a chance on trying it this year and printed all my maps from Lochailort to Stonehaven on MemoryMap Toughprint waterproof paper (Amazon, £14.99 for 25 sheets). It is fabulous stuff – you can fold at and stick it in your pocket and it is completely rain resistant. From Mount Keen east to Tampie I had horrible wet snow where I was regularly using map and compass with absolutely no problems. The water just rolled off the map. Highly recommended.

2. The Old Station restaurant and bar is the only place in Spean Bridge that sells real ale (in 2015 at least)

The pubs in Spean Bridge are, IMO, a bit dire. Even when the Spean Bridge Hotel was open (it’s closed because of a fire in April), the beer and food weren’t great. I was staying in the Mahaar B & B (single rooms, good for lone walkers) and Alan the owner recommended the Old Station restaurant. As I’ve written elsewhere, food and drink there was excellent. My old pal Woodcarver Ian, who joined me for a meal, was even persuaded by the attractive barmaid to try Sambucca shots  – he’s older but not wiser, methinks. I stuck to single malts.

3.  Corrour Old Lodge has some great pitches with superb views.

If you are thinking of camping somewhere between Loch Ossian and Bridge of Gaur, there aren’t a lot of options. It really is very rough although there’s LOTS of water. But Corrour Old Lodge is an oasis – water, flat grassy pitches and great views.

The evening view from my tent as the weather cleared at Corrour Old Lodge

The evening view from my tent as the weather cleared at Corrour Old Lodge

4.  There aren’t many pitches if you stay high going east from Mount Keen.

I planned to stay high from Mount Keen, heading over the Braid Cairn and other tops to the Firmouth road. I didn’t really have much idea where I would camp but hoped to find somewhere on the way. Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely dire (wind-driven wet snow) and finding a pitch proved to be pretty difficult. There’s not a great deal of water except in the bogs and nothing very flat. I headed for 2 wee lochans to the north of the summit of Tampie on the Firmouth road. They were non-existent and the burn was a trickle. However,  managed to squeeze into a rough bit of ground nearby. For the first time ever, I used my water filter as bog water was all there was.

5.   You can be surprised how the OS use their symbol for a bridge

I walked with Gordon Green from Mount Battock over Clachnaben to Glen Dye – we were both heading for the Fetteresso. The 1:50000 OS map clearly shows a bridge at HeatheryHaugh so I confidently assured Gordon that was the best way. His vetter had suggested walking down the road to the bridge but he trustingly believed in my local knowledge. Well, there was a mechanism for crossing rivers though it’s not what I would normally think of as a bridge.  Unfortunately, it was locked – it would have been fun to try it.

HeatheryHaugh river

By no stretch of the imagination, could you think that the OS symbol for a bridge means this contraption.

6.  Not all bus stops in Stonehaven are equal.

After celebratory food and drink in Stonehaven in the Marine Hotel we headed for the bus stop to catch the X7 bus to Montrose. Being the nearest thing to a local, I led William and Russell to the nearest bus stop where we waited 10 minutes. The bus duly came, we flagged it down and it drove straight past us! The clue is in the bus number – X means its limited stop, something which was completely new to me. So, if you are catching a bus in Stonehaven, go to the main stop in Barclay Street – which is just off the square.

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As I wrote after last year’s Challenge, I’m not one for astronaut food. I don’t like eating out of foil bags, I find the food bland and I am particularly averse to paying high prices for this stuff. I prefer to think ahead about food, cook using readily available ingredients and eat in cafes and restaurants whenever possible.  I can’t be bothered with gram counting so I don’t know exactly how much more weight this entails than foil baggies but I do know that it’s a hell of a lot tastier and cheaper.

Noodles with pesto and cheese

Noodles with pesto and cheese

My basic approach is to start with a carbohydrate – either cous-cous or noodles – then add flavouring to this. Cous-cous, admittedly, is not generally available in small shops but noodles, in the form of super-noodles are – I throw away the revolting ‘cheese’ powder that comes with these.  If you send parcels ahead, then availability is less of a problem. I have found the best cous-cous to be the Ainsley Harriot flavoured cous-cous and I use Sainsbury’s Chinese noodles.   Noodles can be cooked with a pot cosy with the remaining cooking water used for soup.

My sauce selection

My sauce selection

For flavouring, I either use an instant soup (for noodles) – usually an Asian flavour such as Hot and Sour soup or add some sauces that I carry plus strong cheese (cheddar or stilton) or chorizo or something else if I’ve managed to buy anything that day (smoked ham is good). Chorizo keeps well – I used one for more than a week this year with no ill-effects. Cheese, of course, only improves with age. This year I carried three sauces – pesto in a small plastic tub which lasted for 3 meals (and which is quite widely available), a tube of sun-dried tomato paste and a tube of anchovy paste (which I hardly used). A spoonful of these is all that’s needed. Next time, I think I’ll take a chilli sauce instead of the anchovy paste.

I have no idea how these compare calorie-wise with baggie-food but on a two-week hike, having a bit of a calorie deficit doesn’t much matter. Beer makes it up for it anyway.


 Places to eat

For variation, I eat in pubs and restaurants when I can. This year’s selection was:

Lochailort Inn (no alternative if you are starting here). Good pub food – I had an excellent venison burger.

Old Pines, outside Spean Bridge. I passed there at lunch time and went in after a heavy shower. It was completely empty. They have a good reputation for food but I was disappointed. Again, I had a venison burger. It was small and lacking in flavour, served in an insipid roll with a sorry excuse for a salad.

Old Station restaurant, Spean Bridge.  Very friendly, good food, decent helpings and not too expensive. Real beer. I had fish for both starter and main. It was marginally overcooked but still very edible.

Bothy Bar, Blair Atholl. Very extensive menu so quite a lot of stuff is obviously microwaved from the freezer. However, I had seafood pasta which was very good and which hit the spot. Good beer.

The Old Bakery, Braemar.  A Challenger favourite though it was quite quiet this year.  They don’t attempt to be anything but a cafe serving unpretentious, simple dishes. They do Challenger specials – main course plus tea or coffee for just over 6 quid. But I splashed out on their excellent bacon rolls.

Braemar Lodge Hotel. I think there were 8 of us and the company was so good that I’ve forgotten what I ate. But the meal was excellent. Reputedly, the best place to eat in Braemar since The Bothy closed.

India on the Green, Ballater. The find of this year’s Challenge. A superb curry, with excellent company. Probably the best curry that I’ve had in NE Scotland. Highly recommended. Photo here on Fellbound’s blog.

Marine Hotel, Stonehaven.  By far the best pub food and beer in Stonehaven. Goat’s cheese salad then fish and chips plus a couple of pints from their own brewery.

Park Hotel, Montrose. You don’t go there for the food!

Challenger and gourmet Andy Howell has published a list of places he ate in during the 2014 Challenge and may do so again this year.  If you are in Aboyne, the Boat Inn is not to be missed.

Magnificent Muchalls

Muchalls is a wee village south of Aberdeen, just beyond Aberdeen’s urban sprawl, although it is fast approaching there. It was a fishing village with clifftop cottages but now it’s mostly Aberdeen commuters. Most people drive past on the A90 without noticing unless they are going to the Muchalls Bistro, a decent country restaurant.

But Muchalls is one of Scotland’s hidden gems. If you park at the end of the road and take a 5 minute walk down the path to the coast, you are rewarded with absolutely magnificent coastal scenery. This afternoon, I had a couple of hours to spare and so I headed there with my camera.  The weather wasn’t perfect – more cloud than sun but there were enough sunny periods to make the trip worthwhile.


Muchalls- cliff view with sea stacl

Looking south towards Doonie point from the cliff path. Wild flowers were everywhere today.


Cliff scenery

The view from the wonderfully named peninsula – Grim Briggs


Rock with pool

The rocks on the beach have been fantastically shaped by the sea. This one had a wee pool of water caused when a stone gets trapped and is whirled around by the sea, eventually making an indentation that can fill with water.


Stack 4

Sea stack. Ever since I first heard of stacks in a geography lesson in school, I’ve been fascinated by them and way they have survived while the cliffs around them have been eroded away. This is the stack to the south of Grim Briggs that you can see in the photos above.


view south to Doonies Point

Doonies Point is (I think) the distant headland. Tufts of sea pinks added a wee bit of colour.


Red campion and bench

There are a number of benches on the path where you can sit and admire the view including, sadly, a memorial bench for a student who died while climbing on the cliffs. This one obviously isn’t used much and the wild flowers were growing through it.


Stack and rock

A vista of rocks. This one at the front has obviously been bent and twisted by geologic processes.

Concrete blocks

My last picture here is a bit strange – these are on the path down to Grim Haven (where I guess the Muchalls boats were launched). They look like 2nd world war tank traps but given the cliffs here, it is inconceivable that anyone would try and land and bring a tank up the path. I liked the contrast between the brutality of the concrete and the wild flowers. If any blog reader knows what these were for, I’d love to know.


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It is now 2 weeks since I got back from the 2015 TGO Challenge, when I walked from Lochailort to Stonehaven. I blogged about my route when I planned it and, more or less, stuck to the planned route. I didn’t do a hill on Day 3 as it was chucking it down so I road-bashed along Loch Arkaig; I took to the forest roads to the south of Loch Rannoch – a longer but less tiring route, and, in spite of a snowstorm, stayed high when travelling east from Mount Keen.

The walk from Lochailort to Glen Pean via Loch Beoraid and Loch Morar is, I think, one of the finest walks in Scotland and I would strongly recommend it to any Challenger. Wonderful scenery, challenging terrain and a real sense of remoteness. My vetter warned me that it was tough and that I might not make it in a day. I was tough – one of the hardest days I’ve had without any major tops – and I only made it in a day because the weather was so good.  Had it been bad weather, I’d have stopped at Oban bothy then gone through Glen Pean the following day.

Oban bothy

Oban bothy on the shored of Loch Morar. Looking west with (I think) the Rum hills in the far distance.


Glen Pean

Looking into Glen Pean as we headed east from Oban Bothy. I think this may be the finest mountain pass in the Highlands.

The major disappointment of my route was the walk from Spean Bridge to Bridge of Gaur. Partly this was because the weather was wet for a good part of the time (although it eventually cleared, with great views over the moor) but mostly it was because of the horrible desecration of the ‘Road to the Isles’ with a new road to support hydro-electric developments in the Corrour Estate (I’ve blogged about this here). This made the walking quite horrible. I eventually got off the road by taking a diversion up Sron Smeur (a fine viewpoint) but the road is mostly unavoidable. Maybe once the development and the road is finished, things will be better but I’d avoid this area till then.

From Corrour Old Lodge

Although the road was grim, the view from my pitch at Corrour Old Lodge over the Blackwater reservoir with the Glencoe hills (I think) in the distance was superb


From Sron Smeur

The view from Sron Smeur, looking west. A recommended diversion if you come this way.

I’m a bit ambivalent about the forest walk south of Loch Rannoch. To get onto them, involves a fair trek from Bridge of Gaur around a wee hill called Leagag. It certainly avoided the road but it is a very quiet road and the diversion took  longer than expected. I combined it with what was quite a long day anyway and I was pretty knackered by the time I got back to the loch shore and camped at the first spot I could find. I’d definitely stick to the road if the weather was bad if I’m around there in future. But the track from Loch Bhac to Blair Atholl was a delight – I expected bog but it was a dry moorland walk with views of the Glen Tilt hills.

There are 3 major passes through the Cairngorms – the Lairig Ghru, Glen Feshie and Glen Tilt. I’ve done the Lairig and Feshie in previous years and this year I wanted to go through Glen Tilt – a place I hadn’t been back to for many years. It’s a fine walk, the easiest of the 3 passes but with an LRT almost all the way to the Falls of Tarf. Of the three passes, Glen Feshie is definitely my favourite.

Glen Tilt

Glen Tilt, showing a bit of the Beinn A’Ghlo group of hills. Taken between Forest Lodge and the Falls of Tarf

The route from the Ballater camp site to Mount Keen started well. Then it rained and, as we approached the summit of Mount Keen, it snowed. David Williams (who, against his better judgement, I ‘encouraged’ to the summit by lying about how far it was) wisely suggested that I abandon my plan to stay high and come to Tarfside. I imagined the weather was improving and decided to press on. The weather deteriorated and I had a 4 hour struggle in wet snow along the tops to Tampie, where I camped. In good weather, this is a fine high-level moorland walk. In bad weather, it was pretty grim.

David was right – if you plan on going this way and it’s misty, rainy or (worst) snowy, you should head for the fleshpots of Tarfside.  But Mount Battock and Clachnaben and then on to the Fetteresso the following day was a good day, when I walked with Gordon Green, who I met on the summit of Mount Battock.

On Clachnaben

Gordon Green on the summit of Clachnaben looking towards Mount Battock

We camped by the wind farm at Mid Hill then I walked with Gordon through the forest to finish at the wonderful Marine Hotel in Stonehaven- superb food and beer.   I didn’t really like the Fetteresso forest the first time I went there but it is growing on me and it does mean less road walking than finishing places further south. As always in forests, navigation can be challenging and GPS is very handy for route finding.

Mid Hill Wind farm

Mid Hill camp. It was late, we were tired, there aren’t many places to pitch in Fetteresso. A first and I hope last windfarm camp. Surprisingly, neither Gordon or I was bothered by the noise.

I’m really glad I did this route as it allowed me to revisit places such as Loch Beoraid, Oban bothy, Loch Ossian and Glen Tilt that I hadn’t been back to for many years. But I think I really prefer more northerly routes – even with the wind farms, the Monadliath hills still have a sense of remoteness and next time I think I’ll go to the Northern Cairngorms. And, if the weather is iffy, I’ll focus on socialising from Braemar to the coast.

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On Tuesday 12th May, I set off for Spean Bridge on the first of 3 days walk to Blair Atholl. The rain started as I walked up the Lairig Leachach and I was glad of the wee bothy for lunch. I followed the path to the head of Loch Treig where I read a notice about the development of three run-of-the-river hydro schemes in the area. Then it got horrible. Not the weather – it started to improve – but the track which turned into a roughly constructed access road for the schemes which followed the This was a blot on the landscape and dreadful to walk on – ungraded in many places, dirty and muddy and generally uncomfortable. Sadly, this wasn’t the only example of landscape despoliation that I came across on this year’s Challenge.   New estate roads criss-cross the hills east of Mount Keen and I camped close to the Mid Hill wind farm in the Fetteresso forest.

My camp at Corrour Old Lodge overlooking the Rannoch Moor. The intrusive element here is the orange digger which was being used in the road building scheme.

My camp at Corrour Old Lodge overlooking the Rannoch Moor. The intrusive element here is the orange digger which was being used in the road building scheme. I didn’t actually photograph the horrible road itself.

As I was negotiating this dreadful hill road and looking for somewhere to pitch for the night south of Loch Ossian, I started thinking about the landscape despoliation around me and more general changes in the Highlands – hydro schemes, wind farms and estate infrastructure to support these and the so-called ‘sport’ of killing birds and animals.

Like most hill-goers, I really don’t like these developments and and I wish the hills hadn’t changed so much since I started hill walking and climbing as a teenager in the late 1960s. But falling into old-fartism is too easy and the reality is that people live in the Highlands and they have as much right to a comfortable life as those who visit from urban areas. When considering the impact of development, we need to find a balance between benefits to local people, benefits to the broader community and preserving and maintaining the landscape for future residents and visitors.

For example, the development of major hydro schemes in the 1950s (which caused immense landscape despoliation with the flooding of beautiful glens), was, I think, justifiable. Few people in the Highlands had electricity and the population was in serious decline. These schemes facilitated the electrification of the Highlands and meant that people who lived there could have the same kind of facilities as those in urban areas. Developments then benefited local people and the broader community and the dams created a different but sometimes no less beautiful landscape.

A starting point of ‘there shall be no development’ is not a viable one.  I am no fan of Highland landowners but the reality is that the Highlands are not going to be taken into public ownership. Estate owners do provide jobs and the more responsible also care about maintaining the landscape. So, estates are here to stay and, in today’s economic climate we either allow some development or accept that the Highlands will simply become the plaything of the super-rich. But we need to take control of development so that the needs of all interested parties and not just estates and large companies are taken into account.

I have not been particularly impressed so far by bodies such as the John Muir Trust campaigning against developments such as wind farms. They are well-intentioned but strike me as vague and politically naive. Making statements such as ‘Wild land helps to sustain human life as well as plant, bird and animal life’ is simply vacuous and I think there is a need for the JMT and other conservation bodies to think much more rigorously about the economic as well as the emotional value of wild land. I don’t know how much they collaborate with local people (I get the impression not much) but it seems to me that producing properly argued cases that take all factors into account is likely to be a more effective strategy than vague statements about tourism impact.

One of the problems, of course, is that we don’t have joined up economic models or data that allow us to understand the real financial effects of developments that change the Highland landscape. We know that tourism is critically important to many Highland communities and we know that developments such as wind farms will affect how tourists feel about an area and will probably reduce the number of visitors staying in a community. So, it is easy to calculate the community ‘benefits’ of a wind farm as a small percentage of the income generated but much harder to calculate the losses that might ensue. It’s also the case the community benefits pay for infrastructure – a fabulous village hall say – but that doesn’t compensate for population loss as bed and breakfast businesses close because of lower visitor numbers. Perhaps conservation bodies should come together to fund the development of economic models so that we can fight developments with real numbers instead of hand-waving?

A different issue from energy developments is the issue of infrastructure development to support hunting. This is now a money-spinner for estates and, unlike in the old days, their clients are reluctant to walk but require to be driven to their targets.  I admit to some ambivalence about energy developments. If local communities are genuinely supportive and the visual impact is not great (as can be the case with hydro schemes) then the landscape damage from infrastructure is maybe justifiable, especially if old historic rights of way are not ripped up to create ugly new roads.

But I see no significant local or broader community benefits from bulldozed roads for hunting. Unfortunately, the current Scottish Government, in spite of their self-proclaimed leftist credentials, seem to equate the benefits of the broader community with the benefits to landowners and rarely challenge landscape-damaging developments. They make no attempt to change the outdated planning laws that somehow classes killing wild animals as ‘agricultural’ so that estate roads can be bulldozed without planning permission.


New estate roads near Mount Battock

New estate roads in the Eastern Highlands near Mount Battock

Here is an area where I think bodies such as the JMT should be taking action. There is a commitment in the Scottish Government to a Land Reform bill and, as part of that bill, I think we need to review the planning laws that are applied to development to allow the unfettered development of ‘sporting’ infrastructure to be controlled. Again, a better economic model that allows the contribution of outdoor activities to the local economy would help strengthen this case.

The Highland landscape is changing. But it has always changed and, however much we’d like it to remain the same, this will not happen. There will be development and ‘despoliation’ although future generations might see things differently from us. The Highlands are not just a play area and and seems to me that the key to development is to create economic opportunities with high-quality permanent jobs for local people. If development does this, then the landscape price may be one that we should pay; but we have to unremittingly oppose landscape-damaging developments that are simply geared to enriching estates or which have very dubious economic and social benefits (such as most Highland wind farms).

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