The Angry Corrie 39: Nov-Dec 98

TAC 39 Index

And they call it democracy

Some good news. TAC33 (p19) noted the erection of Reinar Brach's hellish hütte bang on the 600m skyline between Beinn an Fhogharaidh and Ben Venue, more prominent than ex-Chancellor Kohl's gut. Now the hut, purportedly an "aid to stalking", is also soon to be ex. It seems that Stirling Council had never granted planning permission, and that a relocation order is to be issued with the requirement that the building be shifted to "well below the skyline". Brach must also remove the track he bulldozed to the ridge, and presumably then restore the area to what it once was. This latter part will prove tricky and expensive, and it serves him right. There's a long history of Highland lairds building and bulldozing and bludgeoning and then applying for retrospective planning permission, so it's good to see someone literally stopped in his tracks. Congratulations are due to Stirling Council's Planning Department. Now, what next?

There's promising news too from further north. Kevin Clark was struck by the appearance of walker-friendly notices on a variety of estates - notices are standard practice of course, but improved wording seems to suggest that the logic of crediting hillgoers with intelligence is seeping through. Mary Cox and Alan Blanco likewise came across a sign on Loch Eil estate which included the words "walkers welcome" and "we recognise the tradition of free access to the hills". They were impressed with Loch Eil generally: seeing a "Stalking in Progress" notice beneath their intended Saturday hill, they changed plans and went up Streap from Glenfinnan instead, having checked that that side was clear. Then, after a long day on the ridges, and having dropped into Loch Eil estate in the dark (as you do), they found that the notice had gone. In other words, estate staff had taken the trouble to remove it for the Sunday. As Alan says, you can't ask for more than that.

Speaking of being struck by signs and suchlike, a less happy story from a less enlightened corner. Fancying a wander down Muirkirk way, Fraser Clark and his daughter Katie drove a short distance along an unclassified road which leaves the B743 near Greenock Water at Blackside. They parked about a mile before Priesthill (OS71, NS7030) before walking along the well-known path to the Martyr's Grave monument. They had their dog with them, which always muddies such matters, but this wasn't let off the leash until well clear of the farm and well away from any sheep. After visiting the Grave, they climbed Priesthill Height (NS733326), then returned high along Starpet Rig (deliberately, to avoid any disturbance - even though their dog was behaving like a Star Pet), before dropping towards the track. It was then that they noticed a 4x4, the owner of which then stormed angrily uphill, demanding to know what they were up to. On being told recreation, he accused the dog of chasing sheep (it hadn't), and then, tellingly, voiced unsympathetic views about the RSPB. Fraser has an RSPB sticker on his car, and was carrying binoculars. Not content with swearing, the farmer then came very close to taking a chunk out of Fraser's nose with "a stout pole". He had been trying to find them "all day" (further supporting the theory that it wasn't the dog that bothered him), and they were to leave his land at once. The minor road was private, he said - Fraser reports having seen no sign - and as they drove away, somewhat shaken, it just happened to be blocked with a tractor. Fortunately sense prevailed and no further standoffs involving agri- cultural implements or machinery occurred. The whole incident seemed such overblown overkill as to leave Fraser and Katie drawing parallels with other incidents in which landowner ire was fuelled by fear of having dodgy bird-dealings rumbled by the RSPB.

On the subject of hill farms, Newsnight 4/9/98 had an interesting feature on the strictures and hardships of hill life. David Lomax (who looks uncannily like John Thaw as Morse) reported from Snowdonia, where hill farmer Glyn Roberts demonstrated the make-ends-meet middle-ground that his kind are increasingly forced to occupy between the affluent estates and money-grows-in-fields agrifests. There's ethically iffy stuff happening to either side - sporting estates block wild land regeneration on the one hand, lowland greed-merchants are now getting the payback for their offal orgies on the other. Yet the genuine hill farmers have to bear the PR and financial backlashes without half the subsidies of those who only ever give a shit if it contains the regulation number of toxins. The Newsnight feature was also notable for showing a bunch of country kids playing an interactive CD-ROM sheep-dipping game.

Another Newsnight (12/8/98) included a revealing item on moves toward Scottish land reform, given that matters are supposed to improve once the new Assembly gets its collective arses into gear. There were some interesting quotes. John Turville, a Sheffield-based director of Knoydart Estates, was asked about local control of the peninsula: "How is it their land? If we don't own masses of Scotland, Scottish people are going to own masses of Scotland, and what are they going to do with it?" Contrast that with Dave Smith, crofter: "Anything's got to be better than what we've got now ... it's not a feudal society, just people buying and selling an asset without caring about the people here." The actual politicians were, as ever, vague and fudgy. Labour's Lord Sewell spoke of iniquity, of a small number of people able to frustrate the wishes of the majority. The SNP's Roseanna Cunningham proposed an "evolved way" of land reform, and an end to feudalism (whilst hopefully taking heed of Dave Smith's wise words).

The piece ended by looking at the Carbeth Hutters dispute near the Campsies, where a laird with a vision of Scotland awash with holiday chalets and time-shares is trying to evict tenants who have quietly lived there for decades (the inverse of the Ben Venue situation, where Reinar Brach actively tried to be a glorified hutter). Carbeth became widely known when the Scottish Landowners Federation sided with the Hutters. Good though this is, the SLF convenor Andrew Dingwall-Fordyce reduced the Newsnight report to irresolvable oversimplifications: "Who owns Scotland versus hospital waiting lists - which is more important?" As a drunken friend of TAC once said at three in the morning, "Each are both."

But at least Dingwall-Fordyce appeared to be trying. The item was ultimately notable for a rare sighting of the so-called "Duke of Buccleuch", alleged consort of Liz Windsor in earlier days and intractable owner of vast tracts of Scotland. Interviewed in a 4x4 somewhere (he probably sleeps with one), he argued for "holistic" estates (ie big ones owned by him) being good, as compared to "fragmentation". Owning a large area of land, he said, was no different from owning lots of supermarkets. Yes, well.

It was all a bit of a treat for land-watchers, if a depressing treat. There has however been subsequent news on the Knoydart front, in that Knoydart Peninsula Ltd director Christopher Harrison is at present languishing in a German prison (Stalag-hütte IV ?), whilst his company is "at the centre of an international fraud investigation ... Harrison and a second director, Stephen Hinchcliffe, are also facing court proceedings in Britain after the collapse of another of their companies in 1994" (Scotland on Sunday, Meg Milne, 4/10/98). KPL's debt is reckoned to be #1.4 million: #100,000 less the estate's current market value. And so, amid delicate political/legal/financial manoeuvring, the plight of Harrison and his sidekicks means renewed hope that the complicated triumvirate of Trusts - Muir, Brasher, Mackintosh - might soon be given scope to back the long-awaited Knoydart Federation buyout. The Trusts are each willing to put up #100,000, possibly more, and an existing Knoydart Foundation kitty of #400,000 means that the great day might not be far from us.

All this should of course have happened three years ago - who would have thought that the MCC would have admitted women before Knoydart was allowed some democracy? - but surely change for the good will come this time. Yet there's always drag and delay on any deal, as exemplified by Dingwall-Fordyce reverting to type in a Guardian quote (12/10/98): "Land ownership should be a free market. Why shouldn't people be allowed to own large estates? And why should they have to live there? Many estate owners have to work elsewhere and use the estates as retreats." Try telling that to such as Dave Smith, or to Ian Robertson, the former Knoydart estate manger still lacking two years' worth of wages as though he were a boot-room boy at some struggling Third Division football club. Ironically, Stephen Hinchcliffe, his paymaster, used to be a director at Sheffield United. As ever, the bosses and the owners look after themselves first.

TAC 39 Index