environment

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.

Feature - The Angel's Share

This story was originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Great Outdoors Magazine. I was pleased they kept the whisky reference intact and retained the title!

At the end, there’s a link which takes you to the John Muir Trust’s web page about the hydro developments planned in Glen Etive, around which the story is set. Many people had originally made objections to some or all of the schemes on the basis of significant landscape and recreational impact with little or no carbon or energy saving benefit, but two of the schemes with the most objections were recently resubmitted with small changes… meaning of course that the public’s concerns were lost, and now need to be made again if the area is to be protected.

To my mind, the area is really significant - the site of a drove road, dozens of ruined shielings, songlines like Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘The Song of the Ewe’ and the much older Deirdre of the Sorrows… and ‘the Robber’s Waterfall’, a place from where bandits would ambush drovers… now one of the very places development is planned. All this indigenous cultural heritage should surely be treasured, but in Scotland we sometimes seem to cringe at our historic riches.

It’s still a relevant place. Close to the urban centre of Scotland, accessible and yet with a feeling of remoteness, and valued by everyone from day-trippers wanting a James Bond selfie, to first time family campers, photography tour operators, climbers and kayakers… not just solitude seeking winter mountaineers or the other usual outdoor suspects, but also people who can’t access the high mountains but can and do value the experience of being surrounded by them; a casual stroll, a ‘wild’ swim, an open car door, fresh air and calm.

Please make your voice heard before the 6th January, 2019 - the deadline for comments. If you feel strongly about it, I’d appreciate your shares too - either of this article or of your own objections and the deadline, or both. I’ll be submitting my own objections, again, over the Christmas period.

Thanks for reading and a have a great break when it comes.

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Drinking my fill on the Glen Etive Five.

I wasn’t expecting to be here, but here I was. Walking up the north ridge of Ben Starav at 8.30 in the morning, fresh snow underfoot on the 5th day of spring. My other plans hadn’t worked out: The weather window was wrong, I was full of a cold (I have a 2 year old – I’m always full of the cold) and it looked as if winter was over. But as the saying doesn’t go - if life gives u lemons, make gin and tonic. A few day’s before, Storm Katie swept in bringing fresh snow and now, with a brief lull in her wake, I spied an opportunity.

Over the past year I’ve been focussed on exploring the mountains closer to home in Glasgow, and Glen Etive is somewhere I keep returning to. The glen itself could use a good deal less plantation forestry in my view, but it’s still an almost shockingly beautiful place that feels really remote given how close it is to the central belt, and is surrounded by the most incredible mountains. Corbett’s, Munros and a host of unnamed tops… broad ridges, narrow arêtes and deep chasms, wild waterfalls and craggy bealachs, easy walking through to mountaineering and complex climbing routes – there’s something for everyone here, even those who don’t stray from the road at all, and come just for a car camp or a ‘Skyfall’ selfie. We came for the first time with my daughter on her second wild camp in the Autumn, and got to within 100m or so of the top of Ben Starav. The final section of boulders were just too slippery with frost for us to continue safely, and we turned around, still having had a fantastic day on the hill in glorious weather.

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Ever since then, that hill had been a stone in my pocket. I wanted to come back, and in winter if possible. There’s a group of 5 Munros that adjoin those on the Loch Rannoch side – the Black Mount – but are much easier to access from the head of the Loch Etive. I kept on studying the maps, kept making plans for Nigel, but was convinced I’d missed the season. If that sounds as familiar to you as it is to me, then let me assure you (and myself!) there’s a logic to all our frustrated weekends and missed chances, when the rest of life makes other plans for our time and attention. I guess if there’s a moral to this story it’s that if we keep watching the skies, keep keeping the faith, our number will come up on those outstanding projects in the end. As I climbed on, I became aware that this was one of those times. I’d been granted special dispensation, and the mountain was welcoming me back.

There was barely a breath of wind, but still the clouds swelled silently behind me, rising on the thermals down in the glen. All was quiet and still, my only company the sound of laboured breathing and snow giving away gently underfoot. I’d arrived late and plodded up to about 600ms before camping just above the snowline, trusting to the weather forecast and was proven right – there’d been no rustling of tent fabric on the ‘hill of rustling’. I had, however, forgotten how long it took to melt snow for food and water, and was glad I’d brought extra fuel.

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My half way camp wasn’t the most comfortable – I hadn’t made it to where the ridge flattens out a little - but it did mean a good early start for the hill the following morning, which was valuable. The north ridge of Ben Starav is long - really long. Rising from sea level to nearly 1100 metres, and all in one direction, it seems to go on forever, at least until at least the top is in sight. Shrouded in cloud, veiled then revealed, suddenly the sun alit on bouldered shoulders and I was back in the magic of the present moment, back in the white room with a full heart, my weekly worries dropping irrelevant like a stone into the Loch to my right. I don’t need that weight now, as I plunge the axe into the convex slope a few metres from the summit cairn. As I gently tap the cairn with my axe, I’ve turned a key in a lock.

The route takes me in a sweeping south-easterly arc to the sharp ridge leading to Stob Coire Dheirg. On the map this is a minor top en route to my next Munro, but in the flesh there’s an exposed decent to an airy, snaggle toothed spine of rock that joins the two. It’s not technical scrambling, but I’m glad there’s no wind. I stop to stow my other pole and some of my clumsiness along with it, and engage with the rock – axe, crampons, hands, the occasional a`cheval and alpine knee. The weather opens up as I make my way along. I stop for first lunch under the summit and ditch the crampons as a snowshower comes and goes, then slip and slide east, past impressive crags and gullies, down to the bealach under blue skies and a warming sun.

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Beinn nan Aighenan is more off route than on, but the bealach that joins the ‘hill of the hinds' to the round is, for me, the treat of the trip. A sandy single track cuts through Cairngorm-like pink granite, shot through with ruler straight lines of quartzite, which also lies in seemingly random piles inbetween glacier smoothed bowling balls. The hills grow dark with more snow, but this undulating plain is illuminated with a fiery winter light that gives a lie to the recent equinox. I leave my bag at a prominent rock and set out with axe, camera, sweets and map for the top.

It’s another long ascent on slippery fresh snow, with superb views east towards Loch Dochard and the wall of Rannoch, and once on top, the wind bites venomously hard and cold from the Cruachan range to the south. Back at camp on the bealach, I find a burn, and watch the snow showers come and go on the ridges around me. It’s a joy to stop early in this magnificent place, although I am a little concerned for tomorrow. I wake at 2am to stars and again at 7am with a fresh dusting of snow on my pillow.

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Dawn is of gold and rainbow trout hues, but evaporates as quickly as it arrived to leave cold, clag and a thankless trudge to Munro 3 - Glas Bheinn Mhor, which is exactly as it’s name suggests - 'big greenish-grey hill’, with an emphasis on the grey. A freezing wind blew hard but not hard enough to blow the cloud away. With a compass bearing and careful footsteps I found my exit in the whiteout, convinced that I would bail out at the col below. There seemed little point in the remaining 2, when the weather wasn’t co-operating – surely it was better to come back and do them justice another time?

I sat and ate lunch, waiting to see if the weather would improve. I’m a little too good at prevaricating at moments like this. Then, with cloud and hail still billowing over the crest of the ridge, I took one last look at the map, and to my own surprise started up a vague zig zag footpath. I’m not sure what motivated the change of heart, but 15 minutes later I was so glad of it. As I reached the plateau which forms of the bulk of Stob Coir' an Albannaich, the cloud blew through and mountains, boulders and snowfields alike were set alight. Cloud scudded fast across the tops, casting great shadows on the plateau as I slowly postholed my way to the cairn, perched high on a dramatic coire ledge which must be the source of this hill’s name - the 'peak of the coire of the Scotsman'. I leant into the howling wind as I stood on top the shelter stones, resisting the vertigo to soak up the panorama. Our world: So majestic, so surreal and dreamlike. So easy to become inured by everyday life, wonder blunted and run dry, spirit taxed and evaporated by the daily grind… but solo mountain travel is rehydration for the soul.

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Back in the here and now, getting down looked tricky. I hide behind a boulder and donned crampons, stow my poles and take a few, ginger steps on thin, sketchy ice to the reach the relative safety of deeper snow. Down via the easterly ridge - doing its very best impression of a highland sand dune, sharp light casting deep shadows in it’s lee and snow crystals rattling in flurries along a scissor sharp crest. Then down again, deeply into that Scotman’s coire, another silent, watchful, majestic corner of these Etive hills, to walk between massive Henry Moore erratics perched on ungainly plinths, and static pools of grey water ice, monuments to solitude and the elements.

Second lunch and another snow shower, which clears as I begin the steady incline for the final hill - Meall nan Eun – and then descend again for the summit. It’s as if the best of the day’s weather has gone, and the ‘hill of the birds' is cold, undistinguished and barely a top at all, with neither views nor wildlife. I venture to it’s north-westerly end to try and find a way off, but feel sick just looking at the corniced crags to the north, and head back to the gully leading to Coirean Riabhach, with hope of an escape there. Another, longer burst of gloopy, soaking snowflakes, but there… a few lopsided, collapsed footprints mark the way down to the head of a waterlogged coire.

For the next hour, I handrailed the burn cutting an ever deepening line into the rock. It sometimes found fault lines and then bands of strength, sometimes spilled over broad terraces and frothed over precipices. Lower down, a deep gorge with silver birch clung to its chiselled sides. Low sunlight spilled in through the gullies from the west, vast javelins of psychedelic orange cast on saturated deergrass – diagonals that grew, changed angle and aspect, traversed slopes before pulling away and evaporating into the fizz of dark grey snow and cloud that now hugged the tops.

The glen kept watching me. My pointless internal circles I thought, the glen’s pointed cycles. My noise, its silence; my anxiety, its patience. I walked on - a little further than I wanted - to rest near a ruined shieling, my last night before returning to the city. I’d emerged, recharged by this embarrassment of riches and giddy with the experience of wildness.

Drunk on the Angel’s share. It felt like a secret.


Thanks for reading. Please help protect Glen Etive: www.johnmuirtrust.org/about/resources/1498-glen-etive-hydro-schemes

A request

I rarely if ever plug my monthly piece for Walk Highlands on my blog, partly because many more people see my words and pictures there than here, and partly because I assume those who follow my corner of the inter web are probably plumbed into theirs. Who has the time to read these things twice anyway? 

That said, I'm going to plug away now.

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I'd be really grateful if you'd take a look at a piece I wrote about a proposed new town in the Cairngorm National Park. Below are some images of what might well become a building site... and the link to the article is at the foot.

What would be even better is that, at the end, you're motivated to take some action on this. Social media is far from being just selfies and bragging. Go witness.

Read about AN CAMUS MOR

 

Talladh-a-Bheithe debate, Holyrood.

Today, I went along to the debate at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh about the proposed Talladh-a-Bheithe wind farm. About 40 members of the public attended, following a call from the John Muir Trust to show support for the motion.

John Muir Trust campaign co-odinator Mel Nicol showing her true colours.

John Muir Trust campaign co-odinator Mel Nicol showing her true colours.

First off, Murdo Fraser brought this motion to the house for debate:

''That the Parliament notes objections to the planned Talladh-a-Bheithe wind farm on Rannoch Moor from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the John Muir Trust; considers that, if granted, the Talladh-a-Bheithe project will be visually detrimental to an area of outstanding natural beauty and one that is included in Scottish Natural Heritage’s wild land map; believes that the 24 turbines planned for two kilometres north of the Loch Rannoch and Glen Lyon National Scenic Area will be visible from 30 Munros and Corbetts, including the popular Schiehallion mountain; understands that this case presents the Scottish Government with its first real test following the announcement of the Third National Planning Framework (NPF3), in which 19% of Scotland was identified as national parks and national scenic areas and therefore out of bounds to developers, and notes calls for the Scottish Government to reaffirm its commitment to preserving Scotland’s precious natural heritage.''

Murdo Fraser was keen to point out that this was a test case for new Scottish Government policy on Wild Land (NFP3), and had implications for all 42 Wild Land Areas, which he believed 'should not be sacrificed for a few extra megawatts'.  The proposed site is just 2km's from the Rannoch National Scenic Area,  a designation which the Government have pledged to protect under their new policy. He drew attention to over 1000 statements against the application for 24 huge turbines and 13km of hill tracks, as opposed to only 23 for. 75% of all local residents oppose the application. Claims that turbines reduce carbon emissions were debunked by both Fraser and Neil Findlay, pointing out that peatland and blanket bog sequester higher amounts of CO2 than can be offset by the development, and this habitat would be irreparably damaged by their construction.

Michael McMahon also spoke in favour of the motion, asking if the new guidelines cannot protect Rannoch, where else can they work? He stated 'we have no proper control over the siting of windfarms in Scotland'. Rob Gibson opposed, arguing 'should not local people not benefit from energy development?' and that any environmental impact would and should be properly mitigated. But Neil Findlay then took him to task, saying that most of the companies involved are multinational corporations, and the money does not stay in the local or national economy. He asked 'how can you design out the impact of this scale of development?' Findlay spoke for a few minutes on a personal connection to landscapes, both wild and local.

Planning minister Derek Mackay was clearly under pressure for the Scottish Government. He restated that he couldn't be drawn on the motion because it was a 'live application' which prevented comments which might prejudice the decision. He questioned whether motions like this should even be permitted when an application was in process. He reaffirmed the commitment of the Government to NFP3, which he said, should 'facilitate sustainable change and not cause irreversible damage'. There was the expected talk of 'each case on it's merit', but as he mentioned 'a contribution of landscape to society' the instrumentalism was disappointingly obvious.

members of the public gather in the lobby before the debate

members of the public gather in the lobby before the debate

It was interesting that members of the public in the gallery outnumbered members of Scottish Parliament on the floor, and that many MSP's left after a vote and immediately before the debate, including some Green's. That's a real shame… but be aware of the personal agendas of those using wild land in party political arguments. The issue has supporters and detractors left, right and centre, it has clearly gained some ground in the Scottish Parliament since the last time I attended one of these things... and it's far too important to get hung up on old school labels. Luckily all the NGO's who oppose the industrialisation of Rannoch recognise this. But this evening, I just couldn't help wondering: where was the public MCofS presence, where were the Ramblers? We're they in the gallery too, or was it only JMT and Keep Rannoch Wild folk? I'll happily stand corrected if there was some official representation from either... (Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland has since let me know that she wasn't able to attend because of a prior engagement). Both MCofS and Ramblers Scotland have made public statements against the application, which is a great thing, but press releases are easy - I'm not currently a member of the Ramblers, but as an MCofS member, I'd like to see a mailshot from them asking me to take action, be it to help raise funds for lobbying, public inquiries, or show my face at a parliamentary debate.

The full record of the debate is here