TAC 40 Index
In the course of corresponding about something else entirely, Bill Myles of Edinburgh raised the question of bicycles and Mar Estate, as mentioned in TAC37, p7. Until early December, Bill was on both the Council of the NTS (which manages Mar), and the Executive of the MCofS, and he commented that the cycling situation "is a matter of some embarrassment to the NTS and the reason is that we accepted an absolutely essential gift of over #4 million from an anonymous source to obtain possession on condition that we forbade mountain biking on the estate and so have no alternative in the matter."
Your Ed wrote back, checking if it would be okay to quote Bill "on the record", and querying the terms of the anonymous donation. For starters, there's a question of definition, as previously raised in these pages by Johan de Jong (TAC38, p18): how to define a mountain bike? There is probably a strict sporting definition, but many people own hybrids, and what about touring bikes taken into the hills - these become what Rennie McOwan might term de facto mountain bikes.
The main concern, however, has to be that voiced by Hamish Brown in TAC39 (p17): bikes have been taken into and through the Cairngorms for decades, and these "rough-stuff" traverses have led to the perception that "aids to pedestrianism" have claims to rights-of-way every bit as strong as those of walkers. If true, this leaves the anonymous donation and its stipulation on very wobbly terrain. Whilst it might be good that such a large sum has been gifted, can conditions legitimately be laid down which appear to contravene a perfectly legal existing situation? What if the donor said "OK, here's another #4 million, on condition that walkers are kept out this time"? This would be clearly wrong, yet the imposition of any condition of this kind smacks of chequebook legalism, of the wealth-wielders taking short-cuts across normal, established routes of democracy. And can the NTS genuinely plead what the politicians refer to as TINA? Their "no alternative" situation might now seem legally binding, but the NTS chose to enter into that bind.
At the start of December, Bill Myles wrote back with further thoughts, along with a copy of page 71 of the Mar Lodge Estate Management Plan. This is quoted here:
"Cycling within the Estate Policies is welcomed by the Trust. However, as part of the principles for the management of the Estate agreed with the Easter Trust at the time of the acquisition, the Trust stated that it would: '...make continuous and constant effort to dissuade, and where possible to prohibit, the use of mechanical or wheeled vehicles [Bill's emphasis] and all mechanical recreational activities beyond the immediate environs of the mansion house known as Mar Lodge'.
"Cycling has taken place in parts of the Cairngorms for many years. Views have been expressed by third parties that cyclists may have a de jure right of access on certain routes. The Trust does not accept these views. The Trust's interest, however, is to ensure the best management of the Estate and as a result has decided to dissuade [NTS emphasis] visitors from cycling beyond the Lodge. A number of issues have been considered in drawing up this policy:
* The use of bicycles undermines the philosophy of the long walk in.
* Cycling makes it easier to gain access to the more remote, and more fragile, parts of the Estate. This in turn puts greater pedestrian pressure on the most sensitive environment within the Estate, that of the highest conservation value and the most difficult technically, physically and financially to restore.
* Off-track cycling can lead to damage to vegetation and soils, particularly on peaty ground or where cyclists 'lock' their brakes on steep descent."
Bill added his own comments, publishable by TAC "on condition that facts are stated in fairly full form and in the sincere and fair manner in which I have attempted to deal with a complex situation." He had consulted with Andrew Bachell, NTS Director of Countryside, "and found him as keen as I am to see this question 'put to bed', as it were."
Bill observes that "...the #4 million donation from The Easter Trust was made with only one surprising condition ... had this condition not been accepted the Estate might still be on the market. It might have been acquired by an owner who would have proved to be a complete disaster ... I could think of dozens of scenarios infinitely worse than the present situation."
Also: "Since its acquisition by NTS, apart from the question of cycling, nothing but praise has been lavished on the Trust for its management policies. Indeed, these have become a role model for management of such estates.
"There is one point on which I am not sure. It is that most people have been taking cycles over the Lairig Ghru for most of this century and it is now assumed that this is a legal right. This may not be the case. I do not know. The answer is however probably academic. You will note that in the Management Plan the word dissuade is highlighted. The word prohibited is not used, presumably because it implies policing, which the Trust would find impossible to carry out, and would not wish to do in any case.
"The question of the use of Trust vehicles on the Estate is now carefully monitored and being continually reduced. It must be appreciated, however, that it would be wasteful to have carried up materials, for example, to restore Queen Victoria's Picnic Cottage at the Quoich."
Andrew Bachell adds that, long term, the aim is to close some tracks to all wheeled vehicles. The earmarked (tyre-marked?) tracks are beyond Derry Lodge, and up the Dee beyond White Bridge. The NTS has also started the long process of removing the dreadful Beinn a'Bhuird track.
So what do folk think? The confusion and complexity surrounding this is shown in Bill's comment that "The word prohibited is not used" - when it effectively is, in the phrase "to dissuade, and where possible to prohibit". This appears, remember, in a paragraph on "mechanical and wheeled vehicles", contained within a section of the Plan specifically and unequivocally entitled "Cycling".
Bill states that "The Trust consists of nearly 250,000 Scots" - so there must be a substantial overlap with TAC's thousands of readers. Not that opinion is in any way confined to Trust members, or to Scots: the Cairngorms are open to all, and merit input and opinion from all.
TAC 40 Index