Thursday, 17 February 2011
Across Scotland with Pylons (and Fences, Roads and Plantations)
This is a piece I wrote for the John Muir Trust Journal a few years ago about my TGO Challenge walk in 2007 that I think is still relevant. The picture shows vehicle tracks in upper Glen Feshie.
ACROSS SCOTLAND WITH PYLONS (AND FENCES, ROADS AND PLANTATIONS)
This is the story of a walk across the Highlands in search of ugliness. I’ve walked from coast to coast on the annual TGO Challenge eleven times now. This year though I approached the event from a slightly different, and, it must be said, less positive viewpoint. I’m a member of the Beauly-Denny Landscape Group as the representative of the MCoS and I was impressed with David Jarman’s evidence to the inquiry and the picture he painted of the slow attrition wearing away the wild character of the Highlands. In an email to the B-D Group David wrote “amazing how difficult it is to get hold of 'ugly Highlands' images - I don't take them, others I have asked don't” in the context of producing a presentation showing the effect the proposed Beauly-Denny pylons would have. As I was soon to set out to walk from Strathcarron to St Cyrus I thought that maybe I would take some “ugly Highland images”. I too had never taken many of these in the past (I have a few of the Cairngorm funicular) and I knew full well why. When in the hills I want to appreciate the beauty and wildness that remain and I try and block out any ugliness or intrusions. For that reason I’ve always planned a high level route, keeping as far as possible to the relatively unspoilt summits and passes and away from the degraded glens. I did the same this year but once I’d started photographing intrusions and damage I found that I couldn’t ignore it as easily as in the past. In fact I found myself looking for opportunities to include fences and bulldozed roads in photos rather than ways to cut them out. I can’t say I enjoyed this different mindset but it did make me very aware again of just how damaged some of our hill areas are. And I did return with a collection of “ugly Highlands” images.
The first intrusion came in the form of a deer fence above Strathcarron complete with high stile and gate through which I could look across the strath to the harsh angular lines of a forestry plantation above which rose the dark outlines of the Achnashellach hills. Soon after a rusty old iron gate between two tall fence posts reminded me that such intrusions are not new. Over the Bealach Alltan Ruairidh a bulldozed road led to Bendronaig Lodge, an old road that was not too horrible compared with some I was to see. The ugliness faded as I crossed the boggy wastes between Loch Calavie and the Allt Coire nan Each, noting the old tree roots sticking out of the peat showing this area was once wooded, and then traversed the An Riabhachan – Sgurr na Lapaich ridge, finishing with a splendid wild camp on the col with Carn nan Gobhar. Up here the sight of the bathtub rings on the reservoirs either side of this ridge didn’t really impinge on my joy. The next day I descended to the fake loch called Mullardoch with its bleak, bare shores and crossed Glen Cannich below the massive concrete ramparts of the dam. A blizzard on Toll Creagach cut out all views of ugliness and beauty then it was down to always attractive Glen Affric, though I was more than acutely aware of all the deer fencing and the straight unnatural lines between the protected and unprotected land. Crossing to Glen Moriston I passed through some really nasty clear-cut forest on the way to Cougie before leaving the glen on the old military road and marching with a double line of pylons that looked like H.G.Well’s Martians and were just as alien to Fort Augustus and the start of the climb to one of the most trashed places in the Highlands, the Corrieyairick Pass, noting how ironic are the signs saying that General Wade’s road here is a protected historic monument. Maybe one day we can keep just one pylon – in a city park - as a historic monument and reminder. Warning signs told of the construction of the dam in Glen Doe just to the east, a huge intrusion into what was a vast wild area. The Corrieyairick is a tangle of pylons, power lines and bulldozed roads and I was happy to escape it for a walk east over the misty, rain-strewn hills to the Monadh Liath. A short section of Strathspey with its main road and railway led to Glen Feshie, one of my favourite places but where I was horrified to discover that the bulldozed road in the upper glen, built without planning permission some years ago, has been renewed in places while in others 4WD vehicles have very recently gouged great ruts in the ground. Escaping the despoiled glens again I climbed lonely Carn Ealar and An Sgarscoch then returned to tracks and roads at White Bridge from where I walked to Braemar. Lochnagar was magnificent on a wild day of high winds, hail, rainbows and flashes of sharp sunlight. I circled round high above the Dubh Loch to Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn. Reality intruded on the descent of the latter, the wide eroded track up its south eastern flanks being in sore need of repair. The bulldozed roads at the head of Corrie Chash are depressing too as are the gouged tracks on Sandy Hillock. From the latter I crossed the rolling heather and peat bog moorland to Glen Lee, where a bulldozed track runs deep into the hills almost to the head of the glen. Once on the track I was on the downhill slope to the coast and stuck on roads the rest of the way. One and half final days of striding out saw me on the beach at St Cyrus staring out at the sea. It had been a good walk, despite all the damage. But someone really ought to do something about it. I guess that means us.