The Desecration of the Scottish Hills

Well, it is that time of the year again — the TGO Challenge time. The end of October sees the deadline for TGO Challenge entries and for many the next few months will be spent studying maps, past Challenge route journals, identifying camp sites and booking accommodation. My entry is in and I have too consider whether to simply use last year’s route (as we didn’t get to the event in the end) or to create a new one. Creating a new one might seem a bit of an unnecessary task, but route planing is  great part of the whole experience. And yet, I approach route planning with nowhere near the excitement that I did years ago. 

Cameron McNeish recently bought an article to my attention which pretty much sums up how I feel. The piece was a blog from Parkswatch Scotland:

The Proliferation Of Hill Tracks And How To Stop It – An Example From Drumochter

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This one photo — taken from the article — just sums up everything that feels wrong. And it is now pretty difficult to cross your favourite terrain without experiencing this on one or two occasions.

A few years ago fellow blogger and TGO Challenger Alan Sloman was ranting about the same issue and declared that Scotland was Dead (or something like that). He is prone to this kind of dramatic statement but, of course, he was raising a very important point. If this continues that the Highlands will simply begin to loose its allure for many hill walkers.

These kinds of development have blighted my last two Challenges.

In 2015 Kate and I took the easy route into Glen Mazarin, walking the gentle lanes to approach the Glen rather than approaching from the main boundary ridge which is my favourite route. We passed the works entrance to the Dunmaglas wind farm. As we walked down gentle lanes on a gorgeous, sunny, morning we are constantly shaken by heavy good vehicles. As we took to the hills we climbed and viewed the access road to the construction site. It was a dramatic but ultimately depressing sight.

The problem is not simply one of wind farms. Increasingly, estates are driving new tracks over land that for the estate owners has little utility value. For walkers the tracks not only blight their walk but create navigational hazards. The temptation to follow a new path when you find it — assuming you know where it is going — is great. I wish I had a £10 note for every time I’ve met someone who followed one of the tracks and then regretted it.

In 2016I took the newish hill road from Fort Augustus to Glendoe. This road — it is really more than track — was built to facilitate the construction of the new Reservoir in Glendoe. The road is a mixed blessing. It does get you into the hills pretty quickly and allows you to cover a lot of ground. But it also gives you a horrible insight into how our hills might look in years to come.

I’m not against wind power or hydro power, far from it. But the issue of sensitivity when planning is key. Some like seeing turbines gently rolling in the wind. Some don’t. But for me the turbines are the least of our problems. The access roads cut though the hills to build the farms will last forever. The concrete bases of the turbines will surely I’ve longer than the turbines themselves. These concrete foundations will stand as a latter day henge. In centuries to come will visitors stand and wonder at the these strange standing objects?

A horrible insight into the future is gained at the top of the Glendoe climb.  Here a large works site had been cut. The temporary buildings on the site have now gone but the concrete foundation  to the site remains, like to some oddly abandoned supermarket car park. As you walk on you pass by many remnants of the construction work. Over time the reservoir itself will fill and grow. But there is no obligation to return the ground to its original condition. It doesn’t have to be like this. The estate at Loch Ossian was constructing (last timeI was there) a series of new, small, hydro sites. Display boards explained to us the benefits of the project but also critically assured us that the landscape would be restored when construction had finished. This estate. of course, makes much of its income through tourism. They want their hills to continue look nice!

So, route planning is not quite the exciting experience it was. Now I am studying maps to try and avoid these scars. All of my Challenge crossings have started from Northerly start points; I had been laving the Southern ones until I got older. But many my revised route might look to do something completely different this year and maybe the highest hills might even avoided.

If the hills themselves are loosing some of their charm then the TGO Challenge event itself has much more to offer, the comradeship of walkers and the privilege and waking through an ever-changing landscape.  But I’m not almost of the view that my best trips to the Highlands will be shorter trips simply because they can be planned to avoid these scars.

So, follow campaigners like Cameron and Chris Townsend and follow organisations such as Parkwatch. As a society it is time we became more facilitated. Yes, we can support renewable energy but we can insist that this commitment is not inconsistent with ensuring the landscape is both protected and returned to pre-development conditions whenever possible.


  1. Yes I agree with every thing in this article,it’s a sad state of affaires,I’ve seen the damage that’s been done over the past 30 old years, We need to comprehend that the land owners
    Don’t givea shit, it’s money they worship that’s all,
    For a new challenge route try the new S/W passage, see Sam& Terrys route coming soon
    We did it this year,

  2. On my second TGO Challenge crossing in 2014 I was horrified by the appalling power lines and turbines in the Fort Augustus area. Not knowing Scotland well it was a revelation as to how the Scottish Government has no empathy for its wild land.

    Things are getting worse at a saddening rate. I found the new hill tracks profoundly depressing on my 4th TGO Challenge in 2017. It’s one of the reasons I have not entered for 2018.

    Most of my walking is in the Lakes. Many avoid the Lakes because it is so busy. But goodness at least the authorities there try to protect the environment.

  3. Rob Slade says:

    I did my tenth challenge this year. A far greater proportion than I would like was spent quietly lamenting the encroachment of tracks, turbines and construction into places which were virtually untouched on my first challenge.

    The people and the challenge family is probably more of a draw as I sit here fingers crossed to get in next year, certainly route planning has an unpleasant addition in terms of ‘places to avoid’.

    For now I’m still applying, but there is a feeling that my best ‘coast to coast’ experiences may be in the past as far as consistent quality hill days are concerned. And that saddens me.

    • This has certainly added another challenge to route planning. One task is to avoid long stretches of road and now we have to add avoiding long stretches of new tracks. Some parts of Scotland now seem to be best explored on smaller tripes where you don’t have to make those along connecting walks.

  4. TGO Magazine posted this on Facebook:
    Today in our Blogger Network we’re highlighting a sobering post by Andy Howell. Hill tracks and other industrial structures are proliferating across the Highlands – how are they affecting backpackers?

    I gave up reading your blog some while ago after you failed to apologise for your incendiary lies about the TGO Blog Awards. However, the TGO FB post intrigued me, so here I am.

    I agree with the overall tenor of your post. I’ll forgive your usual patronising/insulting rubbish “A few years ago fellow blogger and TGO Challenger Alan Sloman was ranting about the same issue and declared that Scotland was Dead (or something like that). He is prone to this kind of dramatic statement”

    This post is all well and good. However, it’s all far too late and as usual far too superficial.

    To precis your post, you have said ” Wind farms and hill tracks are awful. It ruined one of my walks. McNeish has pointed me to an organisation called Parkwatch. Follow it.”

    Referring to McNeish as a “campaigner” is surely a joke? It certainly had me laughing! He has sat on his hands for years and years. Only a year or so ago he said on one his blogs that in his view wind farms were not a problem in the Scottish Highlands and that he had no recollection of them spoiling his enjoyment on his days out. Yes, really. He occasionally writes article on Walk Highlands on the topic, with some excellent hand-wringing, that are disingenuous at best.

    My blogposts on wind farms and hill tracks deal with cold hard facts. I deal with the locations of the windfarms and the economic and political reasons why they are there in the first place. I campaign against wind farms that will affect designated wild land. I’ve organised a demonstration against wind farms that was covered in The Times and on foreign television. Had you read my blog, you would have realised this. I have also written articles designed to help Challengers avoid the wind farms when planning their routes.

    Here are some links, to jog your memory (koff…)
    Planning a wind farm-free TGO Challenge 2017

    Scottish Natural Heritage’s unpublished windfarm map

    Now you see them, now you don’t: Hiding Scotland’s wind farms.

    and here’s a typical post about individual wind farm proposals (I have at least a dozen such posts)
    Scotland’s fabulous north west is about to be destroyed: Caplich Windfarm

    I’ll repeat, Andy, so there’s absolutely no confusion here. I agree with the general thrust of this post. However, I see it more as virtue-signalling (so common amongst folk of your political ilk) rather than of any real campaigning value.

    I would love you to prove me wrong and come up with a string of posts concerning wind farms, run of the river hydro projects and the the wild-fire-like spread of hill tracks. I expect I shall wait quite a while…

    To help your readers it might have been a good idea to have supplied a link to the excellent parkswatchscotland blog as readers are more likely to visit a suggested blog if you supply a link.

    • Thanks for your comments and links. But you should know that I have been patronised by professionals in the past …

      I’d prefer to leave out the abuse of people like Cameron.You might not like him but I prefer to allow people to make up their own minds!

      • I’d prefer to leave out the abuse of people like Cameron.

        Abuse? Really? No. Educated observation. Still – a good effort at deflection from the points raised in my comment. A cheap trick but ineffective with someone who has enjoyed your posts over the years.

        I forgot to say that I’m glad we’ll have you both back aboard the Challenge this year, the draw willing.


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