The Angry Corrie 30: Jan-Feb97

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and they call it democracy ...

Unswayed by TAC front covers, the Cairngorm funicular debate rumbles on. A meeting in Edinburgh on 30/10/96 saw a counter-proposal by Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link (a composite of RSPB, NTS and Save the Cairngorms). Link want a gondola instead of a funicular, and whilst conjuring up images of Julie Christie sailing past on a Venetian funeral barge or fat blokes warbling about ice cream, it does seem a pretty sound alternative. The gondola and its associated structures would be less intrusive and require less upheaval to build, plus there is the soundbitish concept of "bringing the development down the hill" by siting the Interpretative Centre in the woods rather than stupidly up on the plateau. A raft - or gondola? - of speakers backed this "better way forward": Michael Scott, Link chair and past chair of STC; Stuart Housden, RSPB Director Scotland; and Prof Ian Cunningham, Convenor of the NTS Countryside Committee. All waved the impressive glossy leaflet, arguing the proposal was neither anti-skiing nor anti- the local economy, and openly accepting that big changes are needed at Cairngorm. The gondola isn't a "delaying tactic" whilst waiting for Euro regulations to derail the funicular, but a viable new option. Housden was at pains to point out areas of agreement with the Cairngorm Chairlift Company: maintain skiing, upgrade equipment, feed more tourism cash into the Speyside coffers. But by also maintaining the environmental component - the bottom-line basis of why folk go there - it was possible to have "a win-win situation".

Various punters (no gondolesque pun intended) voiced from-the-floor fears and criticisms: that too many folk would be given access to the northern corries or that the proposal would be more visually intrusive than the railway. Performance in adverse conditions was also queried, although this seemed silly since who wants to ski in a Force 8 anyway? The present lifts/tows shut down at 30 knots, but new lifts linking with the gondola could operate up to 80kph on vertical stretches and 90kph on lateral ones. It was argued that removing public high-road access would increase the number of skiable days, since blockages would cease to be a factor.

The main dissenting voice was Highland Councillor Iain Glen - also chair of the Aviemore Partnership (aka "Concrete Slabs R Us"). The schism between CCC plus Council on one side and conservation bodies on the other was plain to see even at an organisational/communicational level as this meeting clashed with another up north whilst awkwardly following straight on from one the previous evening in Boat of Garten (soon to renamed Funicular/Gondola of Garten?) For all the complex and often confusing talk of European Section 50 money and the like, so much comes down to a bare schism. The Cairngorm wars have now been waged so many times in so many forms that the battlelines are clearly - if dishearteningly - defined, and there is the sense of big guns being wearily reloaded for yet another campaign. The depth of the divide promises little in the way of reconciliation: Link are not even granted the courtesy of being kept informed by the Council of new developments.

No matter what one's views on all this, the lack of comms and the scarcely-concealed vitriol ensure things are now unhelpfully viewable in terms of pocket-lining and politicking versus concern and conservation, of devils versus angels - with 180 differences of opinion as to where the horns and wings are located. As ever, it threatens to drag on purgatorially - although given the defensive rearguard nature of the conservationists' stance, maybe the longer the better. Clearly Link, in proposing the gondola, are trying to break free from reactive blocking-tactics, a move to be applauded. But ultimately this is merely a paper proposal, whereas the funicular has made very definite progress along the planning-application track. It's nowhere near an either/or situation as yet.


The devils/angels line had also been pursued by the BBC's Frontline Scotland the previous evening - a quote-heavy overview of a decade's Cairngormery. Chief devil was David Laird: factor, ex-chair of SNH's Northeastern Board, chair of the Cairngorm Partnership, consultant to estate agents on the Mar purchase and murkily connected to the Will Woodlands Trust. The implication was of conservational insider dealing, an idea subliminally supported by the next programme being Maxwell: The Downfall.

Mastermind-reject Magnus Magnusson declined to appear, but his unctuous SNH chief exec Roger Crofts argued smugly against various sensible-sounding proposals: "What's the sudden hurry about all these places?" and - extraordinary given his position - "We are not dealing with a pristine area at all".

It was left to the two AWs to talk sense. Adam Watson - ever more Methuselah-like and surely the wisest man alive, a conservationist's George Bernard Shaw - was even more strident than usual, speaking of "a scandal" and "prevarication and feet-dragging" over Mar, then describing SNH as "pathetic" and having "dithered and swithered". Likewise Andy Wightman spoke of "a deal sabotaged". Equally harsh words were turned on the Feshie / WWT deal (where #100,000 per annum is generated from hunting, where the three trustees are all London solicitors and where the brochures speak of a "Private kingdom" despite 40% of the estate being inside Cairngorm Nature Reserve). Wightman implied conspiracy theories, with the WWT bid having been "introduced" by the landowners. But perhaps the most damning indictment came from a man who effectively crossed the forest floor: Roger Carr, former chair of the SCC, forerunner of SNH. He was "disappointed" by SNH, and thought it better that "someone from outside" - ie not Laird - should head up the Cairngorm Partnership.

The WWT also surfaced on Reporting Scotland for 18/11/96, with a rare appearance from chair Hugh Henshaw, a Geoffrey Howe lookalike who spoke unconvincingly of "everything else coming second" to growing trees. Linking all these forest/hill/ski/committeeroom strands isn't easy, especially given the hidden agendas and doublespeak. Take for instance two phrases from Hamish Swan, CCC chair. To camera on TV he told of a need to "share this mountain", yet at the Link meeting he was quoted re the need to acquire "a competitive advantage" over other ski provisions. Some might find these two concepts perfectly compatible; others may get a more uneasy feeling.


Meanwhile, across the country a new controversy has noisily arisen, whirring its rotorblades at beleaguered hillgoers. Another London-based firm, MFH Helicopters Ltd (known names: Nicholas Hawkings-Byass and Edward Wood), has set up a subsidiary called Skye Helicopters (1 Dunraven St, London W1Y 3FG, tel: 0171-499-2233, fax: 0171-499-2277), intending ten-minute tourist flights from a pad near the Sligachan Hotel, down Glen Sligachan and over to Coruisk, returning close by Sgurr nan Gillean. This sounds quite nice - get a genuine gabbro buzz - and would be fine from the onlooker's point of view were scrambles thus enlivened only once or twice per day. But the proposal is to run the #30, three-passenger flights six months a year, six days a week, six hours a day and up to six times an hour. How many sixes are there in the Mark of the Beast?

Safety and noise-intrusion considerations for climbers and walkers haven't been thought through here, and although the Slig bar and campsite might at first eye-up increased takings, long term there would surely be a backlash - or downdraft? - unless they also ran a sideline in earplugs. Typically, this has been another backdoor proposal, swerving objections by fulfilling public obligations at the last minute and in the least noticeable way. Perhaps knowing the slowness of the outdoor press - TAC is more adaptable than most yet still missed the deadline - the consultation period officially ended on 12/12/96. But late objections may still be valid, so contact PM Myhill, Area Service Manager, Local Planning Office, Highland Council Skye and Lochalsh Division, King's House, The Green, Portree, Skye IV47 8SW (Tel: 01478-612412, Fax: 01478-613518). Copy to the MCofS at 4a St Catherine's Rd, Perth PH1 5SE and also - to show the weight of opinion - to Ian Campbell at The Sligachan Hotel, Sligachan, Skye IV47 8SW. Oh, and check out Gordon Anderson's website at http://www.cs.stir.ac.uk/~gba/USMC/chopper.html


Your Ed, often labelled a beanpole, has received news of some Ben poles. Lochaber MRT had installed two aluminium navigation poles on top of Ben Nevis, to stem the flow of soft-shoe tourists shuffling down Five Finger Gully. These poles have now been mysteriously sawn down (perhaps by militant supporters of Grant Hutchison's anti-pole crusade?), and tossed into the selfsame gully. Proper debate is needed rather than this echo of the old "I'm hard, me" Aberdonian disposal of rescue kits in the Lochnagar corrie, and TAC would like to hear more info (or gossip or rumour). Likewise with the NTS plan, hot on the heels of the Morenish/Tarmachan appeal, to spend #100000 over ten years to refurbish the bloody horrible Ben Lawers Visitor Centre.


Further to the letters pages discussion of the Windy Standard windfarm, Dave McFadzean (from down that way) adds:

I read with interest your TAC29 feature on the aluminium monstrosities on Windy Standard. I must admit I didn't know anything about them until I read an advertising feature in the farming section of the local paper. The environmental-friendly aspect of this type of power generation is vaunted by supporters of the scheme, but this is only true in comparison to fossil fuel. Wind generation harnesses less power than hydro, while detracting from scenic value. Hydro power has a proven record in Galloway and is a lot easier on the eye. The benefits of this new farm have to be weighed against negative effects on tourism, but in the end the people of this area - myself included - will have to grin and put up with the eyesore. Private interests may have carried the day on Windy Standard, but don't think things will end there. The power companies are looking at the feasibility of siting another seventy farms throughout Scotland. It looks like there's a wind farm coming near you, wherever you are.

Even more sinister is the Forestry Commission selloff of four upland forests in the Moniaive area: 10000 acres of woodland at a knockdown price. The plantations at the head-waters of the Shinnel, Scar, Euchan and Dalwhat glens have been put on the market for #4.3 million - half the estimated value of the forest. John Davies who bought the forests for the FC is amazed at the low asking price. Davies, a widely acknowledged consultant, said: "The selling price is less than the present-day cost of establishment and roading the land. At this price, this is selling for selling's sake." The sale is likely to attract considerable interest from foreign investors. The Government has failed to keep their promises, and access to the forest will not be protected as a condition of sale. Once a private buyer is found, rights of access will go by the board and the new owners will be able to keep the public out of the woodlands. Local councillor David Kirkpatrick said of the sale: "Government policy states that no forest sale will go ahead without an access agreement. We don't have an agreement."

The local communities of Moniaive, Tynron and Penpont are concerned about the increase in heavy traffic using inadequate local roads. The idea to use the heads-of-valley road for timber extraction via the A76 at Kirkconnel was accepted by the FC, but not all private owners agreed to the plan and hence nothing could happen. Residents of these quiet villages still await an effective solution. Dumfries and Galloway Council has written to Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth objecting to the sale.

Note also that AbFab/Avenger Joanna Lumley is in the process of buying a des-res on the shoulder of Cairnkinna Hill. The place is derelict, and she has applied for planning permission for renovations and renewal of the access road.

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