The Angry Corrie 52: Dec 2001 - Feb 2002

New mountain heritage railway for the Cuillins

from our northern correspondent

NO SOONER have hillwalkers reconciled themselves to the reality of the Cairngorm funicular than there comes news of another proposed mountain railway, again with the aim of boosting tourism. At a press conference held in Dunvegan Castle, the Cuillins RAilway Project (CRAP) unveiled its plans to construct a "mountain heritage railway" to the top of the most spectacular peak in the Cuillin range.

Sadie Deall, the CRAP press officer, unveiled the company's vision of a railway running from Glen Brittle to the 3000-foot summit of Sgurr Dearg, where there would be an "interpretation centre" for visitors. "The centre would be built around the famous Inaccessible Pinnacle, which has a fearsome reputation as the hardest peak in Scotland, if not the world," Ms Deall explained. "The Pinnacle would be enclosed in a special tower of Pilkington glass to commemorate the first ascent by the Pilkington brothers in 1880.

"The glass will ensure that the Pilkington Pinnacle will be preserved from the ravages of the weather for all time. The very top will be gained either by stairs or by disabled-access lift, facilitating usage for all while removing the risk of further erosion of this vital heritage site. For a small extra charge, we intend to allow traditionalists to abseil off the Pinnacle if they so wish. Similarly, there has been a problem due to Munroists having their ashes scattered on the Pinnacle, so we will do our bit for the environment by providing an eco-friendly cavity where people can pay to store their urns."

Ms Deall went on to give details of the railway itself. "From the start of our planning," she said, "we were concerned to enhance rather than damage this very special environment. That is why we are routing the track into a tunnel at the foot of the cliff known as Sron na Ciche. A point close to the spectacular Cioch Rock will host a viewing platform built behind glass (again donated by Pilkingtons). This, we believe, will prove to be as famous as the window on the North Face of the Eiger. On Cioch Rock itself a piper will always be on hand to inspire visitors before the train moves on.

"The tunnel will lead round Coire Lagan - emerging on to another viewing platform on Collie's Ledge - before reaching its terminus near the summit of Sgurr Dearg. The exhibitions inside the interpretation centre have yet to be finalised, but they are likely to include state-of-the-art virtual projections of Victorian climbers. For safety, and out of concern for the fragile environment, no visitors will be allowed to access the actual mountainside from the centre. The interior will however fulfil all possible natural heritage needs."

Rob Barron, chief executive of CRAP, then fielded questions. A reporter from the Broadford Globe asked how many jobs for local people would be created and how much public money CRAP hoped to obtain by way of subsidy. "At least 12 permanent or seasonal jobs will be created," Mr Barron replied, "and we hope to receive at least 27m in grant aid. We already have enthusiastic support from Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise as well as from the local tourist board. This project is the most exciting proposal seen for many years, harbouring tremendous potential for Skye tourism. The Pilkington Pinnacle will also aesthetically enhance the chain of mobile phone masts planned for other prominent mountain-tops. In the case of the Pinnacle the mast will be discreetly incorporated into the tower structure, so resolving the problem whereby Glen Brittle is a notorious blackspot within the Highland communication infrastructure."

At this point a HIE representative was asked if he had any links with the construction company thought likely to win the railway contract. This he categorically denied, and Mr Barron then declined to answer a query about how much money his company was putting into the project alongside that from the public purse. "Such matters could not be discussed on the grounds of commercial confidentiality," he said.

Ms Deall was asked about the wisdom of transporting sightseers up to 3000ft given Skye's reputation as the Misty Isle. "We have solved that problem with the help of Pilkingtons," she responded. "Their special glass makes it possible not only to admire the view when it is visible, but in cloudy conditions the same all-round panorama can be projected on to the glass which then becomes a gigantic screen. The quality of the product is such that most visitors will be hard pushed to tell the projection from the real thing."

Stewart Longside, president of the Compleaters Club, then intervened: "Do you not realise that climbing the In Pinn represents a considerable achievement which will be devalued by your CRAP scheme, and can you confirm that the only way to gain access to the Pinnacle will be via the railway?" Before Mr Barron could reply, the SNP's tourism spokesman Ewen Ferguson angrily interjected: "This is typical of the elitism which prevails among some hillwalkers. The hills have an egalitarian heritage and should be available to one and all, without discrimination. My party believes it is the right of everybody, including the elderly and the infirm, to reach the summit of every Scottish mountain on demand. The pinnacle railway will do away with nonsensical inequalities such as "the hard side" and "the easy side". In future there will just be the one true railway route, available to all at 15.99 a time."

Mr Barron confirmed that access to the Pinnacle would henceforth be by railway only. "A precedent has of course already been set by the hugely successful Skye Bridge project," he said.

Sandy Lenzie, councillor for Glen Brittle and Carbost, noted that local people were unanimously behind the project. "I have come across just the one person who opposes it," Lenzie said, "and he earns a substantial living from guiding walkers up the Pinnacle. Needless to say, he is an incomer. Real local people recognise that the scheme will bring much-needed jobs to Skye and they are sick and tired of having their opportunities threatened by conservationists in far-off cities."

A very aged local man, John Mackenzie, then asked if, in view of MacLeod of MacLeod's claim to own the Cuillin, a deal had been done with the local laird. "I can confirm that we have come to an arrangement whereby funds from the railway will allow the leaky roof at Dunvegan to be fixed," Ms Deall replied. "His Grace the Honorable MacLeod of MacLeod is pleased that his beloved Cuillins will be developed in a tasteful, viable way rather than falling under the dead hand of conservation groups and eco-terrorists. If the Dunvegan roof-repair proves successful, there might even be scope for the whole ridge to be similarly covered, as with the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I'm sure climbers would be delighted at the prospect of always traversing the Cuillins in the dry."

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