Sunday 17 February 2019

Thoughts on the Cairn Gorm fiasco

Cairn Gorm

Cairn Gorm, the sixth highest hill in Britain and one that gives its name to the whole mountain area and to a national park, is the centre of a fiasco. This has been brewing and bubbling for many years, ever since the controversial funicular railway that runs up its slopes was first proposed in the 1990s. 

The story of the murky goings on when the funicular was built are well-told in this Parkswatch Scotland piece by Dave Morris, one of the key opponents of the scheme at the time. Since then, as Dave shows, the funicular has continued to soak up public money as a series of companies has managed it and the ski resort on behalf of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who own the Cairngorm estate. 

The most recent of these companies, Natural Retreats (or maybe another of the web of companies behind this name), failed to do much other than cause further damage to the area before going bust last November when it turned out that the funicular, which was closed after faults were found, was going to remain shut for far longer than they hoped. It cost HIE £447,540 to buy back the assets from the administrator. In 2014 Natural Retreats had paid £231,239 for the previous company, Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (a name HIE has revived for the new company now running the resort). More public money gone amidst further murky goings, again covered well by Parkswatch Scotland in this piece by Nick Kempe. 

Currently the funicular is closed for the foreseeable future. How much will repairs cost? We don’t know. Who will meet the cost? Us the public, I suppose. How long will the repairs take? Again, we don’t know. Is the funicular worth repairing? Maybe not. Should it be removed? Maybe it’ll have to be. Who’ll pay for that? The public again. Nick Kempe says an independent inquiry is needed into what’s gone so badly wrong. He’s right. It’s been needed for quite a while.

Meanwhile the ski season staggers on with a resort unable to take skiers to the higher slopes except on drag lifts for which artificial snow has to be made when there’s no lower snow. Why? Because chairlifts were removed as everyone would use the funicular. But now the funicular’s out of action ……

All this is happening in a national park (and what does the park think? – nothing, it seems) and on a significant mountain. The local Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust want a community buy-out. I certainly agree that the estate should be taken off HIE. The aims is for the resort to be revived for skiing with chairlifts reinstated and that there will be summer activities too – a mountain coaster and mountain bike trails have been proposed. Where will the money come from for these developments? The public again?

Is there another way? In an excellent article on the Walk Highlands website Cameron McNeish suggests that maybe the whole resort including the road from Glenmore to Coire Cas could be removed and the area returned to its natural state. Cameron envisages “an integrated wildlife and adventure playground … in Glenmore, with forest trails, cross-country ski loops, and mountain bike loops all linking with trails that climb into the Northern Corries”. It’s a tempting vision. And I like the boldness of Cameron’s further suggestion that lynx, and wolves, and beaver could be re-introduced to the regenerating forest.

Cameron’s words echoed in my mind. Searching my bookshelves, I found a book I haven’t looked at in over two decades – Jim Crumley’s 1991 A High and Lonely Place: The Sanctuary and Plight of the Cairngorms (still available in a revised edition).  It’s a lovely book I shouldn’t have neglected for so long, perhaps the most eloquent writing on the Cairngorms after Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It’s also a call to action. “A hundred-year Government commitment to the restoration of the Cairngorm wilderness ……. the dismantling of every man-made artefact in the mountains”.

Glenmore Forest & Loch Morlich
Jim Crumley was writing before the national park or the funicular existed. The first has done some good but not enough, the second has led to the current fiasco. We must not forget though that the Cairngorms as a whole are far more, far, far more, that one side of Cairn Gorm itself. Much is happening towards restoration of wildness. Most recently Cairngorms Connect has been established – “a partnership of neighbouring land managers, committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.”  That’s 100 years more than Jim Crumley called for! 

Cairngorms Connect doesn’t include the Cairngorm estate and the ski resort. It could and should. Two of the organisations involved, the RSPB and Forestry Commission Scotland, have land that is adjacent to the estate. 

The Cairngorms have been my local hills for nearly thirty years. I feel passionately about them. I can see Cairn Gorm from my house. I watch it often in all its ever-changing glory. This is a precious and unique landscape. It deserves our best care. It’s not getting it.

1 comment:

  1. Said with passion which I echo, Chris. It's a disgrace that the public purse has been ravaged with no tangible benefits for the mountain and individuals must be held to account.