SCOTLAND'S HILLS seem subject to an east/west divide just now. The west of the country is in a quiet, as-you-were phase (windfarm proposals and the recent closure of the White Corries ski centre excepted - but even that latter location is owned by the non-western Glenshee company). Over in the east, by contrast, there's plenty of action. There's the steady spread of pay-and-display car parks on Deeside - for more on this see page 16. And there's the John Muir Trust's sudden chumminess - some might say in-cahoots-ness - with its erstwhile adversary, the Cairn Gorm funicular railway.
The basic storyline is this (for more on the various subplots, see below). Over the several years of proposal, planning and protest, leading to funicular's opening in late 2001, the JMT was very much against what it saw as an inappropriate commercial intrusion into the hills, and duly campaigned alongside other objectors in what was, ultimately, a losing cause. But even accepting the need for pragmatism and realpolitik, principles don't tend to get switched off just because a battle has been lost. And given that the JMT claims to adhere to the principles of John Muir, a man strongly against intrusions into hill country, some form of continued objection to the funicular's presence was expected. Either that or - more likely - a tactful silence would be maintained prior to speaking out when some future funicular-style proposal emerged (at, say, a financially struggling site such as White Corries). At that stage the JMT would be well placed to lead objections on the basis of lessons learnt from Cairn Gorm.
What wasn't expected, however (well, other than by world-weary cynics), was that the JMT would quickly hop into bed - or at least into the driver's cab - with funicular operator CairnGorm Mountain (CGM). Yet this past while has seen a JMT exhibition installed in the T-Bar Cafe at the foot of the railway, leading to mutterings, and worse, from the conservation sector. A good example is the letter from Roderick Manson on page 17 here. Manson has put considerable time into raising money and awareness on behalf of the JMT, and it's fair to say that he feels betrayed and dismayed by the funicular liaison. There are others with similar levels of objection - for instance Graham White, another tireless JMTer, who wrote in the 23/10/03 issue of the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald (www.sbherald.co.uk) that "any conservation body which would countenance placing an exhibition about conservation values within a building which it fundamentally opposed has lost sight of its own conservation values and primary mission."
It's likely that the JMT has shed many supporters these past couple of months - which is saying something given that it lost an initial raft of such people during the FMD fiasco, when it sided with farmers and graziers against Scottish executive advice on access and then heavily edited letters of objection written to its in-house newsletter.
NOW, THOSE sideshows and subplots, all of which cast light on the main event. Let's start with the vanishing advert. In October, when Sunday Herald environment editor Rob Edwards started rummaging around (an article duly appeared in the Sunday Herald 2/11/03, www.sundayherald.com/37770), he found that the CGM website included a plug for the JMT exhibition which included this claim: "Bearing in mind that the same body [the JMT] was one of the original opponents of the CairnGorm Mountain railway, this is a remarkable reversal in stance by one of the world's leading conservation groups."
Shit hit a variety of fans at this stage, most notably when Dick Balharry - the recently appointed chair of the JMT - said the statement was "completely wrong", that the JMT had not reversed its stance, and that the railway still posed threats to the environment. Fair enough - that's much more in line with what would be expected from the JMT - and the web-ad quickly vanished from the CGM site (but not before having been cyber-nabbed by various interested parties - it wouldn't do to lose such a thing forever). And was the exhibition itself likewise shoved out of sight? Er, no - shortly before TAC went to press it was still there, in the cafe for all to see. This suggests that Balharry has yet to assert himself over JMT director Nigel Hawkins - who was quoted by Edwards as saying that Muir would have backed the exhibition, and would have relished putting across an "in their face" message "in the lions' den".
Then there is the unhealthy link between the JMT and CGM in the person of Andrew Thin. White explained this succinctly in his letter: "Presumably Andrew Thin - as Chairman of JMT and convenor of the Cairngorms National Park's board - played a role in getting this exhibition into the funicular [...] It is supremely ironic that it was the same Andrew Thin who, as a trustee of JMT at a Boat of Garten meeting when I was present, voted to instruct the trust's director Terry Isles to submit the JMT's formal legal objection to the funicular." There has been unseemly and unhelpful job-switching in relation to the funicular before - TAC47 reported the move of Iain Robertson from chief exec of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (which smoothed the funicular planning process) to a directorship with the Morrison Group (which built the damn thing). But Thin's poacher-gamekeeper shift from JMT to national park is seen by many as the most damaging yet, and evidence that Hawkins is listening more to Thin than to his successor Balharry.
Then there is the reappearance of TAC's friend Cameron McNeish. At a meeting on 18/10/03, he was co-opted on to the JMT board of trustees pending next year's elections, at the suggestion of Balharry (whose first meeting as chair this was). There were six votes in favour, two against and two abstentions (see www.jmt.org/trustees/2003/0310.html).
Now, for all that TAC has had strong words to say about McNeish's writing career (see TAC51), on access and conservation he has always seemed much better - the editor has even said this to him. So it could be that his arrival among the trustees will strengthen the JMT squad, and if he takes his views (and his conscience) with him into the trustee-room then he's likely to back Balharry and stand up to Hawkins (and, by implication, to the ghost-at-the-feast Thin). Certainly there is no love lost between McNeish and Thin. An earlier anecdote had McNeish - then an ordinary JMT member - phoning Thin in objection to the way the JMT was heading. Thin allegedly switched on the corporate charm and palmed off McNeish with: "Fine, Cameron, you stick to your bagging. We're at the top table now." A telling tale if true, and one which casts McNeish in a good light. (Re his co-option as a trustee, he'll surely inform TGO's readership of this in a forthcoming issue, and one presumes he'll also now declare an interest when writing or overseeing any JMT-related articles or comment pieces in the magazine.)
SO THAT'S roughly the state of play. Unhappy times for the JMT. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of it all is this: CGM can't be blamed for exploiting the PR benefits of the Muir link - they're a commercial company, after all. But the JMT playing the same game? What's that about?
TAC 60 Index