Monday, 22 February 2010

A Winter Bivvy on Sgurr a'Mhaoriach

Took on a mountaintop bivvy on Saturday night on Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach, a hill at the to the north of Loch Quoich that is commonly climbed before the nearby Munro, Sgurr a 'Mhaoriach. An island in the loch was previously occupied by an outlaw who shared my name - Ewan Macfie. He refused to pay any taxes and took potshots at anyone who approached too close to his island. 

bivvy site fresh

I passed two very pleasant hours approaching the summit by moonlight, arriving just before 2000, and used my snow shovel to excavated a little hollow, as a hare would.

brewing up inbothy bag

A gentle breeze tempted me inside my bothy bag to get some tea and food on the go. I'd underestimated the logistical difficulties involved in cooking inside a bothy bag. It gets quite warm inside but the steam freezes on the fabric then flakes off and melts, making the inside slightly damp. It would have been far easier and more pleasant just to get my lower body inside my sleeping bag before I started doing anything else and that's the course of action I'd recommend.

knoydart sunrise

What a great view to eat my porridge to - the early morning sun catches the face of Ladhar Bheinn and the south ridge of Sgurr a 'Mhaoriach.

bothy site on sgurr coire nan eiricheallach

View from the bivvy site towards the heavily snow covered summit of Sgurr a 'Mhaoriach. Inside my hollow I have a warm sleeping bag (800g down) encased in a Rab Survival Zone sleeping bag cover. A good sleeping bag is essential if you want to pass a restful night in a winter bivvy, as is a full weight Thermarest and a warm belay jacket with a hood. 

There wasn't a single light visible anywhere, the only trace of human activity was a very faint hint of light pollution from distant Fort William. I wasn't alone though - if you look carefully in the lower left corner of this photo you'll make out the tracks of a fox who passed within 2 feet of me as I slept.

back along ridge to sgurr coire nan eiricheallach with glen quoich below

Back along the ridge to Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach with Glen Quoich below.

forward along ridge to sgurr a mhaoriach

Forward along the ridge to Sgurr a'Mhaoriach.

loch hourn and ladhar bheinn from sgurr a mhaoriach

Spectacular view from the summit of Sgurr a'Mhaoriach to Loch Hourn and Ladhar Bheinn. Barrisdale Bay is to the left of the islands.

Stag with Gleouriach behind

Stag with Gleouriach behind.

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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Informal snowholing and a new full length article in pdf

There's been a fair amount of chat this week about the banning of 'informal camping' on the east shore of Loch Lomond. This isn't a term I'd heard before and I suspect it has been coined recently to differentiate car-side, bevvy fuelled,  litter producing camping from the more honourable pedestrian based, zero impact ideal of 'wild camping' that is permitted under the access legislation.

A trip to Cairngorm at the weekend revealed that 'informal snowholing' is a possibility at present! The slopes immediately to the south of the Ciste car park have a two rows of commodious looking snowholes dug into them. If the urge took you you could simply park up and sneak inside for a night's kip.

This discovery inspired me to add a new article to the site, documenting a less than entirely restful night spent stormbound in a snowhole, high on the Cairngorm plateau. Click on the link to the right to access a pdf file containing 'A room without a view: snowholing in the Cairngorms'.

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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Jonathan Meades: Off Kilter in the Outer Hebrides

Jonathan Meades has been a favourite commentator of mine for some years. Despite his predilection for the tackling of esoteric and often unfamiliar subject matter, a combination of insightful criticism and beautiful cinematography make his television programmes a joy to watch. It was a delight to see the great man bring his rose-tinted spectacles and considerable vocabulary to bear on a subject close to my own heart in a programme entitled 'Off Kilter'

He started with a irreproachable but cutting demolition of all the twee and sentimental things that are commonly held to represent Scottishness: tartan and bagpipes; tribal patriotism; the roots racket with its attendant glorification of the 'good old days' of poverty, overcrowding and feudalism. The latter portion of his programme was spent on the Long Isle of Lewis and Harris where he was captivated by the elemental beauty of the landscape and was, I think, at his Meadsian best when describing its built environment.

 The Butt View Stores, so called because its position on the west coast of Lewis affords it a fine view of the equally amusingly named Butt of Lewis

Partly for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Meades, but mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, I have transcribed a passage below. Rendering his uniquely verbose rhetoric presented an amusing educational opportunity, liberally spattered as it was with words that I had not yet ushered into my own vocabulary. In some instances I had to make repeated attempts to convert an unfamiliar sound into aprocession of letter interpretable by Google. Rather than smugly parade my newfound knowledge I have elected to come clean about my recent ignorance by providing below the definitions I was forced to look up in the course of the transcription.

'This is perhaps the only place in the world whose townships and villagescapes, urbanism and landscapes, are wholly infected by the Calvinist mentality; that is by a blindness to prettification, by an aesthetic bereavement so absolute that it is a sort of insouciant anti-aesthetic. In a way the everyday buildings are the very contrary of Mathieson's (Stornoway Castle). They suggest that to complete with this most magnificent terrain would be both hubristic and certain failure, so they simply didn't bother to compete. The unsurpassible strangeness of the island resides in the chasmic gulf between the naturally evolved and the negligently created, between scarp and scrap, between the sublime and the substandard........... The island shackscape is the apogee of the Northern Hebridean anti-aesthetic. Members of the National Trust and of kindred bastions of insipid taste will no doubt fail to acknowledge the beauty of what is here; these scapes are beautiful in the way that a lupus is beautiful, or mould on fruit, or decaying meat or scar tissue, or amputations, or diseases of the skin, or anatomical freaks.'

insouciant – marked by blithe unconcern, nonchalant
apogee - highest point, culmination
lupus - any of several forms of ulcerative skin disease

This was one of very few gems that make paying for a TV license worthwhile. Why oh why was the first episode withdrawn prematurely from the iplayer before I was able to fertilise my mind with what was surely another rare counterstrike against the dumbed down populist drivel that makes up the majority of the contemporary televisual output?

The third and final part of 'Off Kilter' is broadcast on BBC4 tomorrow (Wednesday).

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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

An alternative to Alladale

Might independence be a necessary precursor to the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish hills? This week's post discusses deer management, re-wilding, access and land reform.

Monday brought the dismaying news that the local licensing committee have renewed Paul Lister's license to keep 17 wild boar and 2 elk in a fenced enclosure on his Alladale Estate. It would be better if they had nipped this misguided enterprise in the bud, for if Lister gets his way far worse is to come. He is widely expected to submit an application for a zoo license in February. If this application is successful he would erect a fence around part of his estate, imprisoning an unspecified number of wolves and frustrating the access rights of a far larger number of hillgoers. Thankfully the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) have announced their intention to protest this proposed infringement of our access rights.

An elk near Jasper, Canada. This isn't the type of elk that Lister keeps in his enclosure at Alladale - they are European Elk,  the same as Canadian Moose. Is that clear?

Like the MCofS, I object strongly to Lister's proposals. I am, however,  in favour of reintroductions and re-wilding  in general and would not be surprised if history records Lister as a visionary, albeit a misguided one. The recent reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale demonstrates that such exercises can be successful. Watching a documentary about wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone some years ago opened my eyes to the potential benefits that a similar exercise may confer to the Scottish hills. Within a few years of reintroduction there was a marked change in Yellowstone's vegetation. In the absence of predators, grazing animals eat everything in their path;  throw a few wolves into the mix and they have to stay on the move. The result is that trees start to grow beside rivers and other water sources, creating habitat for other wildlife as they do so. While I'm in favour of beavers and wolves, I would draw the line at bears. See this previous post for an account of an unsettling bear encounter!

There can be no doubt that significant environmental degradation is being caused at present through overstocking of red deer. In principle deer numbers are kept in check by deer management groups.  In practice the brutes are actually fed during the winter on some highland estates. On a winter walk in the upper reaches of Strathconon a couple of years ago I saw red deer filling their bellies with baled silage while surrounded by dying birch and alder, the bark of which had been stripped by the same hungry deer. An electrified wire lay impotent on the ground, a half-hearted attempt to prevent the deer from killing the few remaining trees,  

[I have noticed that silage and slurry are often confused in popular imagination so I will clarify. Silage is fermented grass which is used as winter feed - a nice silage is sweet and rather tasty, even to humans. Slurry is liquid dung, used as a fertiliser. I don't know what it tastes like but it smells awful.]

In Glenfinnan one April I got close enough to a stag to throw a playful stone or two in its direction. The animal stood calmly as my first few shots landed in the mud at its feet. It scampered off only after I managed to land one squarely on its rump. It makes me to laugh to think of fat Germans and Americans paying a fortune to stalk and shoot these animals, many of which have been rendered practically tame by winter feeding. I imagine the deerstalker, eager for a tip, praising the hunters on their stealth as they crawl towards the beasts, whispering that they have never before managed to get so close to a stag.  When one considers the detrimental effect of overstocking and the fact that these buffoons have in many instances been Range Rovered to the hunt on tracks paid for by the public purse, crying might  be a more appropriate reaction.

I'm in favour of species reintroductions in general but I would draw the line at bears - too much nuisance value. I photographed this one in Yosemite.

The reason that Lister will need to lock his wolves away behind a fence is because one estate is not sufficiently large to provide adequate habitat for a pack of wolves. On a BBC documentary broadcast in 2008 Lister advanced the view that co-operation between the owners of neighbouring sporting estates would be necessary to create wolf habitats of sufficient size. 

I'd maintain that we'll never see wolves being introduced without land reform; action on an almost country wide level would be required to create the required habitat. Specifically, we would need to  nationalise the sporting estates and convert them into National Parks along the lines of the North American model. It fundamentally wrong that anyone with sufficient funds can buy up large tracts of what should by rights be protected land. It is easy to turn a blind eye to this injustice so long as we have free access, but Lister's current small enclosure, and his proposal to extend it, demonstrates how easily such access rights can be derailed.

The current arrangement, that of deer management funded by income provided by wealthy sportsmen, is one that primarily benefits the landowners. I contend that the contribution of sporting interests to the rural economy is consistently overstated and that the establishment of National Parks would bring far more economic benefit and local employment.  

Having given the matter some thought I have taken the position that Scottish independence is a necessary precursor to such land reform; I simply cannot believe that a Westminster government would ever endorse the wholesale nationalisation of the sporting estates. By inference, independence is then also a necessary precursor to the re-introduction of wolves to the Scottish hills with all the attendant benefits to the ecosystem as a whole. 

It is ironic that voting for the SNP may be the only currently available option that would allow us to move towards the necessary land ownership reforms. Given the current SNP government's shameful conduct over Donald Trump's golf / housing development on the Menie Estate, I fear they may be more likely to side with Lister and his absurd zoo proposal than with the MCofS and the interests of hillgoers.

I was guilty of repeating some dodgy figures in the original version of this post - this BBC link gives the areas as:

520 acres - size of existing enclosure 
23,000 acres - size of Alladale estate 
50,000 acres - proposed future wolf area comprised of Alladale estate and neighbouring land.

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