Sunday, 26 May 2013

Blown off the straight and narrow

Until I started planning this trip I was really quite a blinkered Munro bagger. I've climbed 192 of the things now. I've explored plenty of other hills besides, but the driving ambition has always been to complete the Munros, and most of my excursions in the Highlands have been planned around that.

My attitude is starting to change though. This year I've mostly confined myself, not in any strategically planned way, to below 3,000 feet - just visiting places I've long wanted to visit, or revisiting old haunts, and generally letting the eye and imagination wander over the maps.

There are three reasons for this I think. Number one is the process of thinking through and mapping out the Tay watershed walk. Following the route from start to finish is the real objective - the peaks along the way just happen to coincide with it. The red felt tip line squiggling its way over the OS maps is like a river, and the task is to get in and let it carry me from one end to the other, and enjoy the landscape and adventures along the way. The thrill of it is not so much in climbing the hills en route, but in the travelling, linking together a host of disparate but highly familiar landscapes and localities. In 'bagging' terms there will only be a couple of new Munros.

Secondly, I'm probably just getting older! Places which offer less strenuous climbing and more opportunities for detours and distractions simply appeal more. I don't feel as driven by the Munros as I once did. I'm more inclined to want to slow down and appreciate nature and the environment rather than focus obsessively on reaching the summit.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it's hard to read outdoors blogs, websites and magazines and not be aware of the highly contentious proliferation of onshore industrial wind 'farms' in Scotland, especially in the Highlands (I won't get into the pros and cons here). Generally these don't encroach on the most well-known areas with lots of Munros. Instead it's the less 'glamorous' places that seem to bear the brunt of developments (who knows the extent to which this is calculated). And subsequently looking at these Munro-less expanses earmarked for 'ex-turbine-ation', some of which I'd never considered visiting - indeed had barely been aware of in some cases - has been an education and has whetted my appetite for much wider and more free-form explorations, not necessarily built around bagging summits. Three locations really struck me:
  • Monadh Liath: I have some familiarity as I've climbed all its Munros at least once. However these are all on the southern edge of the range above Newtonmore and the upper Spey, and constitute a fraction of what the Monadh Liath has to offer. Mile upon mile of rolling hills and moors riven by beautiful birch-lined glens stretch from Corrieyairack in the south-west to Slochd in the north-east. The scope for multi-day wanders and idyllic wild camping is huge, the gentle gradients ideal for long walks with a heavy pack. It's home to a vast array of wildlife including golden eagles, which tend not to mix well with wind turbines. The Monadh Liath is under siege from wind farm developers. Alan Sloman has followed this, and the Scottish Wild Land Group has a detailed article in its Autumn 2012 newsletter.
  • Balmacaan: What's across on the other side of Loch Ness from the Monadh Liath? 'Err... dunno' would have been my answer until a few days ago. Then, after reading about SSE's Balmacaan wind farm proposal I checked it out on Bing maps. Wow. In a roadless wilderness of about 80-90 square kilometres, north of Invermoriston, is a high moorland speckled with blue: there are at least 50 lochs and lochans here. At either end, east and west respectively, stand the fine peaks of Meall Fuar-mhonaidh (699m), and Meall a'Chrathaich (679m). What a place to lose yourself for a night or two, perhaps with a fishing rod stowed in your backpack. If you look at the map of the original Balmacaan proposal in Alan Sloman's post referenced above re. the Monadh Liath, you'll see that almost the whole area would have been carpeted with 138 giant wind turbines. This has been significantly scaled back (for now) with planning permission granted for 'just' 36.
  • Ben Armine Forest: This magnificent tract of Sutherland wildness stretches south of Ben Klibreck. Backpackingbongos describes a trip through Ben Armine Forest complete with pictures, and makes an unpleasant discovery afterwards: SSE want to build a wind farm in the middle of it. The Dalnessie proposal was eventually kicked out by Highland Council, although this decision may yet be overturned by the Scottish Government.
It's a shame that it has taken the imminent desecration of these places to raise my awareness of them. To anyone else who is in a similar situation to me, I'd say pack a rucksack and go and explore one of them as soon as possible. Blog about it, post pictures, and let a wider audience know about what's under threat. Get them to go too. That's what I intend to do.

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