cairngorms

Photographing the local, global climate strike

Here are a few photos from my local Climate Strike event, in Aviemore, 20th September 2019. I wondered if maybe the best way for me to make a contribution to the local effort was to ‘work’ through the strike with my camera, but I will let you be the judge of that.

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Over two hundred people attended the Aviemore march, across the generations. It was an empowering and inspiring thing to be a small part of. A banner building gathering beforehand was a further means of fostering community. I think it is a sort of magic to make these things happen. For me, the organisers are magicians in a very real sense.

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There are some critics, of course. A trendy neoliberal focus on individual carbon footprints swerves the point. Friends of the Earth point out that 15% of the UK population take 70% of the flights - the fact that I choose to use a bamboo toothbrush won’t change the fact that in a finite world, a small number of us spend while the rest pay. It doesn’t address corporate culpability, institutional inequality or endless growth. A realisation that social justice is also environmental justice prompted me to change the focus of my own work from community education to environmental conservation. The climate movement has grown up this year to include issues of social equity and biodiversity loss, and both poverty and immigration are becoming considered environmental issues. Equity - the redistribution of abundance - is the radicalism now at the heart of this new environmental movement, and why it’s so intimidating to the old guard.

There’s another, similarly flattering strand of thought that without government leadership, youth now have to lead. But the community always leads, leaders always follow. It’s always been this way. They won’t lift a finger without all of us telling them to. The cynical say it won’t make any difference and nothing ever changes, but they are not paying attention. Justice is never given, it is always fought for and taken; see the labour and civil rights movements. People died for the rights some of us now casually discard; the ultimate sense of entitlement. Those that lament a loss of community cohesion are the same people that dismiss any effort to reclaim the commons as childish naivety.

So be visible, dig where you stand, and never mind the naysayers. Better to signal virtue than indifference.

The photos were gifted to the good folk of Aviemore. A small fee for use in the local paper was also gifted to a local community group. The full set is on facebook, here.

Storm dodging in the CNP

Winter has arrived late, but my friend Tim, who escapes from that London but once a year, was right on time. Plans for the first route of a new book were abandoned as being too high, too dangerous, which in the end was OK by us - sometimes it’s best to stay down. I spent three days showing off the Western Cairngorms to Tim and Mick. It’s somewhere I’m getting to know more intimately now, but it’s always different, never the same. A day of sometimes chilly forest walking was rewarded with a visit to the refurbished bothy cum glamping arrangement in Glen Feshie, where we were greeted by a good measure of whisky and Lyndsey the MO, up for the weekend from that Glasgow.

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Friday’s promised visibility didn’t materialise, but by then we’d forgotten that advice about staying down and were already committed. The Mhoine Mhor was a surreal white wind tunnel, and Glen Gives-as-good-as-it-gooshikens was as brutal as I remembered. Corrour was full of happy Danes so I spent the night outside, sleeping with one eye open, occasionally grabbing the tent pole and watching Tim being slapped in the face by a corner of Silnylon. All at sea.

We flushed ourselves out by the Ghru, accompanied by Luke, a green, keen and determined young’un up from that Swindon, in beautiful but coruscating conditions. Heavy, wet snow followed our sandblasting, finished off with a christmas-card-like sun-dappled walk out and a pint of Stag at the Old Bridge Inn.

After a few weeks bouncing off the walls as a small cog in the Save Glen Etive campaign, a simple 57km stumble in fantastic company was a perfect tonic to the politrics back at the desk. My daughter calls it scantavanting, after stravaiging I suppose, but whatever we call it I’m deeply grateful for good friends and big country in these miserly, ridiculous times.

Cairngorm Commission

A few weeks back I took a call from an Edinburgh based photography library. “Could I do a shoot for HIE in the Cairngorms? Sure, when’s it for?” I asked. “Uh, today!” was the reply.

The brief was to showcase a few alternate winter activities in Strath Spey, given the unfortunate status of the Funicular right now. I took the call at about 10am and was photographing at the first of several sites by 12.30pm. I spent the following 2 days chatting to the public, sitting in muddy burns, bumping around in the back of Land Rovers and willing my pretty-swanky-but-nonetheless-landscape-orientated mirrorless camera to damn well hurry up and write that last burst to the card, already!

The commission was well supported on the ground by Cairngorm Mountain and Rothiemurcus Estate, and we had the time and space to photograph real people enjoying the surroundings, rather than just work with models, which tends to make for more authentic pictures. We also had great light for the second of the two days, just in the nick of time.

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and it was a pretty different assignment to my more usual environmental and mountain storytelling work, but I really enjoy the people side of photography and it was lovely to meet more of the local people running small businesses, who live and work in the National Park - we’re neighbours, after all.

I’ve had a couple of people wrinkle their noses when I mentioned this piece of work, but… I met biologists working out of Landmark (the butterfly house, shown in the last photo below) and rope access experts for the Treetops activity at Inverdruie (the first pictures). Clay pigeon shooting isn’t my thing personally, but it’s far more sustainable than some of the neighbouring estates running driven grouse and pheasant. Apparently, they are moving over to 100% biodegradable clays as of next year… so you live and learn.

Here’s a small selection from nearly 300 photos that made the cut.


A brace by bike

A few photos from a 24 hour trip from my door, by bike into the next glen for an outlying Munro and a Corbett. I'm still ticking, not religiously, but out of the corner of my eye. 

The last time I was up at the head of Tromie and Giack estates, it was grouse shooting territory and felt very bleak. Both estates have since been purchased by Anders Polvsen's Wild Land limited, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next. Coming in from Ruthven, there's plenty of birch, pine, rowan and juniper lining the river. I'm hoping for those natives to spread up the hillsides, which are still bare and barren aside from the old tracks for sport shooting. There's masses of potential here, though... and fossilised tree roots in the peat until about 620m. 

Polvsen is open to criticism from land reformers - he is the largest landowner in Scotland, after all - but I'd quietly suggest a little more caution and a fraction less partisanship on that front. Until the SNP top brass get off the fence, people like Polvsen are allies, not enemies in a regenerating Highlands. To those who reckon it's all a tax dodge, note he pays taxes on all his holdings in Denmark... but not here. If you'd (quite rightly, in my own view) like those taxes to be spent in Scotland, then look to Westminster first, and Hollyrood second, and join Green MSP's like Andy Wightman in advocating for a land tax. That would start to break up the estates as well.

For me, these are the hills of home now. I'm no longer a tourist. As I type this, a few of the shinty boys are repairing the roof about a foot from my head. That's money in the community, where it's needed. 

The simplicity of a cycle to camp and a walk o'er the tops was much needed. Family life has been pretty tough in the last year; illness, death, plus the sleep deprivation that comes with two youngsters in the house. I shed a few tears of grief and relief on the rolling hills far above the village. Hills of home - not just places of escape, but spaces to take stock.