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.

Change in the Air

I love walking at this time of the year; summer is over but autumn has not really kicked in yet. Regular readers will notice that that this site has been quiet recently. I really don’t like writing about the same things over andover again, but this magical and slightly scary time of the year never ceases to engage my emotions and imagination. The changing nature of our seasons are always magical. The spectre of winter just around the corner is never far from the back of the mind.

S Shrops 1

So, to walk out in the morning was to enjoy much of what summer has to offer but also being impossible to feel the change. The temperatures are down but the sun shone. The wind blew from the West, not list but not strong. There was ‘nip in the air’ but there was a kind of intent. Just wait a week or two.

Foliage still sits on the trees waiting for the first high winds of the change. The landscape though its changing. The harvest is now coming in and the landscape is shorn. The sunshine illuminates the hills and the field but John Barleycorn is no longer swaying in the wind.

This was quiet walking weather. Showers threatened but while the sun was out we had the hills to ourselves for much of the time. Larks sang puncturing the walk with the most fabulous of concertos. The House Martins were still with us, not yet winging their way to Africa.


At this time of the those other famous creatures come out in force. While much of the walk was quite and solitary we were regularly joined by groups of young women taking their Duke of Edinburgh courses. As ever we checked where they were going and inevitably we met them later in the day only to confuse them as we were now coming from the opposite direction to themselves. At the moment their map reading focussed simply on getting to their campsite!

S Shrops 1

A flock of D of E youngsters scrambling above the waterfall

We didn’t escape the rain, you really can’t avoid it at this time of year. As I’ve said many times before, if you want a quiet day on the hills then study the weather forecast and be brave. But with waterproofs suitably donned walking in the rain adds variety and in the reasonably mild air this part of the walk was just as interesting.

The sun fought back and as we regained high ground we could see the squalls, blown by the Westerly winds, heading down the valleys. Up high the squalls left us alone.

I shall be up on these hills a lot of the next few weeks, trying to catch the spectacular autumn colours. Last your heavy winds wiped out the autumnal display so perhaps this year I’ll be lucky. And there is still enough light of the day to encourage the last wild camps of the year.



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Maurice signed to Blue Note in 1959, and this definitive album – though long out of print – shows him at the very height of his powers. Fierce and uncompromising hard bop, backed by a classic piano/bass/drums section that gave him room to stretch out and explore.

Long an admirer of the Free Jazz movement, Maurice unleashed a torrent of squalls, howls and tonalitys that take us into the farthest reaches of musicality, whilst still referencing bop in its purest form.

Recorded over three days in the Mountcalm studios, engineer Dave Buell recalls “Very soon I realised that I was in the presence of an extraordinary being. I simply let the tapes roll whilst Maurice did his thing.”

Stand-out tracks are a lyrical take on I Remember Clifford and a muscular re-working of Straight, No Chaser.

Track 4 (After Midnight) features an un-credited Chet Baker, who remarked “Man, that cat could blow. I swear, he became transformed.”

Cover art is classic Blue Note, featuring a heavily stylised duo-tone. Blue Note’s designers worked to a tight budget, and typically only used process colours. Typeface is Helvetica 47.

Now a collector’s item, this item occasionally shows on Ebay, with final bids reaching four figures.

The Anatomy of a TGO Challenge Route III: Braemar to the Coast

Braemar is an odd place, however, I will love you to work out what is odd about it! For me, this represents the beginning of the end of the Challenge. So, what choices to we have moving east and how did I choose my route this year?

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New Pyrenees Forum — Registration Applications

Apologies to those of you who have being trying to register recently. I have been a bit slow in processing the requests!

I have now processed all of the outstanding applications. You should receive an email from ‘SLACK’. This will have a link to follow and then complete your registration details with SLACK. Once in the forum you will see a thread _ or Channel as they call them — which is called using-this-system. In here you will find direct links to download both desktop and mobile, dedicated, applications.

I look forward to seeing you over there!

Braemar Floods, Before and After

I’m currently up in the Scottish Borders staying with fellow TGO Challenger Humphrey Weightman. Most evenings are spent catching up on flood warnings and the latest sad news of flooding in the Highlands.

Humphrey spotted the following photo on the web this evening — a guy in a kayak canoeing down the main road towards Balmoral. We found the exact location on Google Streetview. Interesting but sad! A sure sign of how dramatic this is. Many readers will have walked along this stretch!


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Braemar B4




Complacency of the Familiar

Familiarity with a range of hills is a good thing but it’s always wise to be on your guard against complacency. I’m talking about the dangers of the hills — though you should never forget them — rather, I’m thinking about the notion that you know the place like the back of your hand, that there is nothing new to discover. For on the hills, as in so much of the natural world, there is always something new to discover.

Snowdonia is such a place for me. I have been coming here forever and, yet, I stop and think. It’s a couple of years since I was last here. When I first arrive there are lots of tell-tale signs. There are pubs that have closed or mothballed for the winter. There are new B&B’s, hostels that have been refurbished and given new, dynamic, names. There are new shops on the high streets; the traditional shops have closed being replaced with all manner of new age wonderment. And what I think of as expensive junk shops, or tasteful emporia depending on your tastes.

And the hills are the same.

The weather forecast was not bad, crisp but dry and with low winds. But the tops of the hills were to be shrouded in cloud. It seemed like the time to explore the lower hills and so I set off for a day on the Moelwyns.

I chose a route that I had last taken a decade or so ago. Then, although the path was marked on the map it soon disappeared. I navigated across open fells, and through mini passes, mainly by stone walls, the only difficulty being the need to choose when to clamber over the stones. Now a good path had been defined and there were signs of engineering and of path maintenance. The path took a slightly easier line than my walls. I came across a small cottage, recently refurbished by an owner who was busily chopping wood. I was slightly bemused for I was a long way from a road. Leaving the path I followed the Land Rover track that serviced the farm before leaving it and heading for higher ground. The new path had taken me away from my destination and so I settled for an aimless but wonderful stroll over the open fells and crags. (You might think that a euphemism for getting lost but heaven knows you would be wrong.)

Lower down the woodland was in fine fettle. The birds were positively ecstatic with the coming of spring. During my walk I came across a number of deserted stone buildings sinking slowly into the woodland.

I’ve been photographing buildings like this for over 35 years. They fascinate me both the buildings and the families that must have lived there, families that were given a spot of land as a reward for long years of service. This is slate mine territory and commonly the foreman and leading workers were rewarded in this way, with patches of land in what now seem the most inaccessible and inhospitable places.

As I photographed the buildings I felt that they had changed somewhat and of course they had; they were thirty-five years or so older. Most of these homes were deserted at or around the same time. Wars took away the young. New Roads drive wealth and prosperity, cruelly battering those who lived too far up the hill. Education drove children and their families back down into the valleys, nearer to schools and the emerging welfare state. Now so many of these places are going the same way. Lichens and moss clink to the stone walls. Trees grow where the kitchen table once sat. These are buildings fading fast back into the natural lie of the land. Those I found that sat deepest in the woodland almost sat Un-noticed as I powered on along the path. Maybe in another thirty years hikers will sail past and the growth of the mosses and the shade of the trees will render these places almost invisible. Only a place to the sky will reveal a chimney, on odd vertical chunk of rock, a mini Old Man of Hoy transplanted to the hills of North Wales.

Back in the village spring was not yet as advanced as home. I approached the village green hoping the annual display of daffodils was in full bloom but I was a week or two early. I met a local women tending to a stone planter than sat next to a gate, pulling off dead leaves and generally tending to a splendid burst of natural colour. This village used to be colourless save for the almost infinite shades of slate grey. Now cottages are splashed with colour, cafés stand out in a whole range of pastel colours. The grass is neat and tidy. And everything looks more chocolate boxes, more so than could ever have been imagined thirty odd years ago.

Back then I watched a community dying. Young men had worked hard, hewing and blasting through the slate to create the wonder that is now the Dinowic pump storage power station. The work was hard and dangerous and the money flowed; for a little while. The station that took hundreds to build needed only a few to operate. Of the other side of the great mountain I remember a new building going up. Locals told me it was to be a leisure centre and swimming pool, something that was much needed. But the swimming pool never arrived. On a later visit I was told that the new building was to be a tourist information centre tied to the new museum that was to tell the story of the slate quarry men’s lives. It seemed fanciful. I remember looking at the streets of uniform grey and thinking who in their right mind would come here for a weekend break. Of course, the mountaineers were here then, sticking to their own cafes and bars just as the locals stuck to there. But they were mountaineers, lunatics and adrenalin junkies driving up like lunatics on a Friday night to try more advanced routes across the rock faces. Surely it was impossible to build a new community on the backs such fanatics?

Back in my village, on the other side of the mountain, I sought out a pub. In these villages there are always two pubs and, maybe a rather posher hotel — hotels that retain their dreams of once greater finery and status. The first pub was rammed with Welsh lads cheering on their team to a famous victory over the Irish. The second had no TV and no rugby. And no customers, the perfect place to sit and take in a fine pint of locally brewed beer and to read a book.

That’s another thing that changed. Thirty-five years ago I dreaded this brewery sign which seemed to offer nothing but tasteless, weak, beer. Now that same brewery offered a number of fine new beers with all manner of exotic name. Next time you find yourself in the Welsh hills and you see a pint of Unicorn, don’t pass by the chance to try it; you won’t be disappointed. But then you’ve probably discovered this already!

The Ramblers at 80: The Campaign Goes On

The Observer newspaper points out that the Ramblers’ Association ( is 80 years old this year. This is an important anniversary and one that is worth reflecting on.

It is easy — even for walkers — to ridicule the idea of the Ramblers as a collection of rather hearty and well meaning walkers of a certain age. Yet — as I’ve written before — the need for such an authoritative and effective lobby group is as important as ever.

The history of the Rambler’s Association remains an important one an organisation that was formed as part of the left wing, worker’s movement, of the time. The freedoms fought for in terms of access to the hills and the countryside were part of the wider campaign for worker’s rights and human rights. Most of those who regularly walk in our open places and on our hilltops will hardly very give the Ramblers’ a second thought yet as my 2006 Outdoors Station interview with Lord Chris Smith (then President of the Ramblers’) demonstrates the Rambler’s remains an important and potent campaigning force. This is not an organisation that looks backwards on a glorious past but one that always looks forwards to new challenges — see The Next Ten Years for the Ramblers’.

Today the ramblers’ are part of an ever more effective coalition of campaigning organisations that include the John Muir Trust and the British Mountaineering Council. The John Muir Trust has moved beyond campaigning into the very creative field of promoting new forms of land ownerships and supporting new company structures; it is also, of course, making its mark in the campaigns to keep the Highlands free of wind farms. The British Mountaineering Council is another crucial organisation that over the next couple of years wants to build on its offer to those who walk in the mountains as well as those who climb in them; this is a project that I am pleased to be involved in and I will write more about it later in the year.

Everywhere we look the freedoms that the Ramblers’ and its partners campaigned for historically are under attack. The Right to Roam legislation introduced by the last Labour Government was meant to be the start of a programme of opening up access to land yet, despite being widely welcomed, the current legislation is constantly being undermined by land owners and international corporates. In its last phase he same government introduced plans to extend the rights of access around the whole of our coast, creating for the first time a proper UK coastal path. Initially, the coalition government seems to support this development but momentum has slipped to the point that many now suspect we may never see this coastal path in the forceable future. If these comments seem a little political they unashamedly so. As we enter a General Election year we should reflect carefully on attitudes to access to the countryside and the hills.

Effective Campaigning means getting across subtle and complicated messages to a wide range of organisations and institutions. It is easy for hillwalkers to rant about massive wind farm development but to win the argument for the long term campaigners need to engage with a whole range of social, economic, environmental and yes — political concerns. Similarly, it is easy to ridicule tycoons like Donald Trump but there are many more organisations and individuals closer to home who are working to undermine the extension of access legislation.

2015 should be the year in which we think about the stewardship of the great outdoors not just in terms of land management but in terms of political vision and execution. Of the last decade campaigners such as Mark Richards have had some success in getting walkers to think about putting money back into very local economies through supporting local shops, pubs and other businesses.

If you are a walker in the UK maybe this is the year that you should commit yourself to joining, or supporting, the Ramblers’ or the British Mountaineering Council; access to the hills for both ourselves and future generations will almost certainly rest of their success.

TGO: I’m In!

Last night I arrived home to find the letter on that mat telling me that I had made the draw in this year’s TGO Challenge. I don’t take this for granted as I’ve been on the reserve list more than a few times.

In many ways I feel — this time — like I did when I entered my first TGO Challenge. 2014 has been an odd year for walking compared to 2013. In 2013 I seemed. effortlessly, to do a lot of walking and spent many nights wild camping. This year has been more modest. Yes, it has included a TGO Challenge (albeit an easy one) but since then my walking has been limited to day walks. I feel I have to approach this one with a degree of seriousness. I need to get fitter and get more miles of preparation under the belt, both on foot and on bike. And i need a more challenging route.

By way of demonstration of how serious I am about planning this year, I have already booked my accommodation for the start, at Lochaillort. This hotel always looks pretty glum as you trundle past it on the train — in the inevitable rain. But, it is not cheap! Still, it is now booked.

For my route I have my eyes set on a variant of a route I walked with Kate a few years ago. On this route we were faced by appalling weather conditions which saw us take refuge in Kinlochleven for a day; it was impossible to get Kate across the mountains in the wind and driving rain. So, I fancy doing this again. the route will take in Coran Ferry, Ossian, Dalwinnie, Gaick, the Tarf Water and so on. There will be the inevitable question of Braemar. I shall probably plan to avoid it again but turn up as usual. From Balloter I shall definitely avoid the Deeside way this time!

By a curious twist of fate I find that Humphrey Weightman is talking more or less the same route and is booked into the same hotel at the start. We will probably trundle on together for a few days before setting of in minor variants and at different speeds (perhaps).

There will be new gear to test — my new tarp tent arrives shortly. There will be old friends to meet — most of them are in the Challenge this year. This includes the wonderful Tony and Lee! It will be great to see them again. My trail ‘spiritual’ adviser David Albon is back again after last year’s dice with death. And in a novel development — curtesy of dual organisers — we shall have an organiser, Ali Ogden, walking the event for the first time. Lou and Phil Le Borwitt will be defying time to come back once again. And, of course, there will be lots of new friends to meet as well. (And there is Sloman but I whisper his name quietly — he doesn’t need encouraging).

Bob and Rose Cartwright will also be there. Who knows? Perhaps, this will be the event on which to start recording podcast material again!

As the famous mad said: ‘it’s all to play for’.

And, once again, I have no doubt. Next year, the sun will shine every day/

Keith Foskett’s Liebster Award — My Interview !!!

A month or so ago long distance backpacker Keith Foskett initiated me into some strange, but fascinating, blog chain exercise. Basically, I have received a series of eleven questions (like a mini interview) from Keith. I have to respond to these and then refer and completely new and original set of questions to eleven bloggers of my choice.

You can see how Keith made his own response here.

Anyhow, Keith I’m sorry for the delay but there’s only so much time in the day! Anyhow, here goes!

Here are my answers. I’ll post my questions and eleven new respondents later on.


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