My significant other has just started a contract at Pitlochry, so we spent friday afternoon on the 12mile Loch Faskally circuit to Killicrankie, wondering along lovely woodland paths nattering whilst inbetween I dreamt of gravity defying feats of heroism in a packraft on the choppy bits of the Tummel. The more I see of Scotland, the more I fancy one of those toy dinghy thingys, though it's bound to end in grazed elbows and tears before bedtime at the very least. T was sporting that other latest must-have item in the hikers arsenal - an umbrella. Bah humbug I said, as I got soaked to the skin. Despite the dowsing, I really enjoyed that walk, it was a good leg stretcher for the weekend.
Pitlochry is a premium priced place, an inflatable tourist bubble on the highland fault-line. Blair Atholl is smaller and similar. The buildings seem two dimensional, too clean, straight outta Disney. Full of Spanish and Polish kids working the bars, double glazed couples wandering tartan tat emporiums, and a blacked up youth leader in reggae costume on a Saturday morning high street. Christs' nightshirt, I said, and shook my head. Let's get gone.
We walked up Glen Tilt, forded the river and trotted up over the back of Beinn A' Ghlo ready for the next days freezing Munro action. We stopped by the river for lunch. It's so good being out again with T, I could almost hear us both slowly shift gears down, letting the velvet green grasses moving in the breeze and occasional sunlight creep into our tired bones and creaking sinews. Actual sunlight!
Glen Tilt is long and bare and Glen Tilt is beautiful. No, it is. It shimmers in the afternoon sun, clouds casting appealing shadows on the hills above us, native woodland lined waterfalls tumbling down either side at the drop of a baseball cap. In any other valley south of the border just one of these steep sided waterspouts would make a place to visit in its own right, here they are so two-a-penny we lost count of perfect places to stop. It's chock full of fairie castles if you want it to be, the river Tilt and its tributaries. Here, water seems to be the heart of the story, and what kind of monster doesn't love a sun dappled river, or frothy, breathless waterfalls?
But it's not enough. It's only half the story.
The smooth green candy flanks of Glen Tilt tell another more complex tale of politics and economics, if you can read between the lines of the deer management group. The grand ole Duke of Atholl was the first landowner in Perthshire to clear land for sheep, and later the first in Scotland to clear it of crofting tenants to make way for deer hunting, setting a precedent for what became a nationwide land grab in the 1700's. The Duke was big money then, he had his own army, Europe's only private army, until they mutinied. This is a politicised landscape - both then, and now.
When presented with signage like this, I'm left with a dilemma. I can do what I've done in the past, what most of us do and walk past, see only the views and think about my trip. Take it at face value. Or I can address each statement point by point.
- Yes, culling is needed to keep deer in check now, because successive generations of landowners killed all the predators. But culling is not the same as stalking. One of them is used to service a outdoor sport/industry, the other need not be.
- No, the deers' natural habitat is not hill, moor and corrie, but glen and forest. Deer are woodland creatures by nature. Hundreds die each winter from lack of adequate food and shelter due to a lack of natural habitat - native woodland cover - in the highlands. The deer population is unnaturally high and kept that way deliberately by people with massive land wealth who guard it fiercely. The shtick about 'inaccessible ground'? Well, it's a pain isn't it, having to haul a city fat cat up high so as he can let his gun owf...
- It's easy to assume that all estates are run as finely honed death-entertainment machines, but the commercial reality is often different. Run down would be a more accurate description in many cases, which again impacts negatively on the health and well being of the deer population. Of course there are livelihoods of local people involved in the hunting industry. But would there be more employment for locals if there were less commercial hunting and more conservation, including proactive deer control or even (dare we suggest it) top line predator reintroduction? Absolutely there would, and we could export that expertise around the globe.
- I can't argue with the dates on the death calendar. Neither, as a matter of fact, can you.
- In the penultimate sentence they actually give the game away, after all that. Our rambling around in broad daylight, enjoying the commons which by ancient law we are entitled to, may get in the way of the livelihood of a rich and powerful elite, and those that serve them.
Seems like the two big issues in Scottish conservation might be deer, and land ownership. And the greatest of these is land ownership.
Enough now. Let's take a hike.
The light lasted about an hour or so, but the rainbows only a few minutes. We took a walk to the bealach, disturbing the huge pack of deer we had spooked on our ascent, to collect ice cold virgin water quietly pumping out of the ground spring there. Dinner needed a little more esbit than we had, but it was tasty enough.
The thing is - you can understand some of the politics and still see this for what it is. Exercise. Solace. Balm and beauty. Two tiny people in a wide open terrain reprogramming their sometimes disorderly brains with new priorities. Whatever. It's not spoilt by knowing a little of the context, it only makes me value it all the more.
Not always there for the outward views, at least not today...
The wind calmed a fraction on the way down to Bealach an Fhiodha and it was a relief to see some horizon again, nice to see a few shapes if nothing else. Up and over the second munro without further ado - Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain - moving quickly on again through freezing rain and cloud towards the bald zig zag wanderer - Carn Liath. Ahoy!
first marquis of Montrose. T's knee started to play up a little, but we tied a scarf around it and I went ahead a little at the end to pick up the car. Cronic hay fever, thought that was only a city thing.