Walking in the hills for pleasure prodded the land access movement – the ‘unshakeable’ Scottish attitude that ‘the countryside is ours’, as Adam Watson puts it. Days out on the moor brought working people close by ruined shieling or Summertowns their fore-families occupied a few generations before.
Ruighe na Cruinnich
Adam Watson gives the name of this long abandoned dwelling as shiel of the mist. It was nearby the Glen Beg Burn in the ancient Ballochbuie Forest, owned by Trustees on behalf of the Queen, and saved by Queen Victoria from felling for profit.
An environmentalist summarizes the argument: private property rights diverge from public interest in the Highlands. It’s the ecological richness of the moors, relic pinewood, and sub-Arctic tundra in the region that prompts such judgments. The same criticism could be made of a gated community with a 4×4 in every drive, or a lawn whose sprinkler is always fluthering. It is the extent of the land and fondness people feel for it that give the Cairngorms a status within our culture akin to that of Yosemite. National Parks in Scotland don’t come close to matching those of the USA. Some would argue that the American parks are ecological museums, but they do have statutory powers, while the Cairngorm version, CNPA manages the eco-system on a ‘Voluntary Principle’, so, inevitably, some argue, international standards in terms of conservation are not met. Adam Watson defines the national interest in the Cairngorms as:
“unquestionably the natural evolution of landscape, habitats and wildlife, and hence the informal recreation which depends upon these and which forms the mainstay of the local economy … this national interest has been seriously damaged for over a century by overstocked deer, and land use of only local interest for a tiny minority…’.
Others define the local economy more pragmatically, in terms of the existing estates, with their sporting interests.
Where ownership has, notionally, been achieved on behalf of us, the public – as with the Forestry Commission – there has still been ecological damage. A soft fringe of birch and rowan screens some sitka plantations, highlighting the density beyond. These forest factories belong to us. Signposts point the way along paths leading for miles through umbrous corridors of tree-trunks with more dead branches than living. There is more space between the towers of a wind-farm: it would be common sense to combine the two enterprises, even if the trees do have to ensure there is clearance for wind currents. Combining these extractions is less an economy of scale and more a commitment to an improvement that would follow. Declare them a community owned time-based exchange: after the spruce has been harvested for local biomass energy supplies, after the wind-towers have become redundant, realize a conservation zone planted out with natives. Intensification leads us to separate productivity from ecology, perhaps they need to be established together as part of a living conversation?
People who walk the same paths rarely need be at odds. As Colin Miller says: ‘In Scotland the hardier hill-goers and the traditional stalkers enjoy a mutual respect, borne of a shared dedication to “the hill”’. Conflict is more likely to come from path-owners; track-makers who have decided the forms of production the hill is given over to, whether harvesting timber, or, intensive in their own way, grouse and deer.
Purposes and pleasures define ecology: above all, in the Cairngorms, ‘sport’.
Peter Drummond describes stalking as ‘the sale of a life style which depended for its marketability on exclusiveness and the Victorian cult of the Arcadian countryside’. In this Arcadia there are no shepherds; the crofts were cleared in the 19th century. Rentals for Highland deer forests multiplied twentyfold between 1835 and 1860. Today the unsustainable quantity of deer hefted to the hill reflects their commercial value in terms of land prices. Totemic deer and grouse are conserved in order that they can be killed at the moment of a buyer’s choosing. The new tracks forced into the hills speak to the intensification of this process. A policy described as preservation traditionally involved killing other animal and bird species to extinction, to stop them killing grouse chicks. Recent reports of wildlife crime suggest not enough has changed. As for deer, not enough are being killed to ensure the herds are healthy and the pines can return.
Deer herds may look wild but they are maintained by regular winter feeding; without it they die, sometimes en masse when the winter storms come. Preserved as an asset the deer strip saplings and keep the heather moors as vast and bare as they are. Jim Crumley has made a motto of the old foresters ideal:
deer and trees belong together
Can the two totems, pines and antlers, be re-integrated? Can we overcome the dug in heels of those with bullets in their pockets and those with pinecones in their hands? Fewer deer and more woodland would transform the herd shivering by a fence in the lee of strips woods into healthy wild animals.
The passion of those who stalk is no different from those that climb, or any other wilderness craze. Still, it’s hard to monetize climbing – unless we count Tiso’s – and no one makes enough from alpinists to support the upkeep of a glen.
Sportsmen bring their own appreciation to the hill. They can tell you of the nineteen corries on Beinn a’ Ghlo, the Mist-veiled Ben, in which a rifle can be fired without being heard, so secluded is the mountain from hearing or habitation. Speaking on behalf of the ‘gentleman’ stalker Victor Balfour-Browne claimed: ‘the sport is stalking not shooting’, and there are still those who follow the old principles of walk-up, setting the experience of pursuit and craft above the quantity of the day’s bag.
No-one has easier access to the hill than the monied shooter who expects to be driven up to his butt in a climate controlled land-cruiser along new hill tracks. Still, those who talk of the killing fields need to consider history: hunting has always involved ritual slaughter, as elrig, eilrig, or elrick names remind us. In the days before shotguns these natural corries were used as corrals for ambushing deer, into which the tainchel beat the herd, kettling them for the clan nobility to dispatch with spear and dirk, while the chief, or royalty, watched on from the hilltop.
Tom Odhar na Seilg
Grey Knowe of Hunting
Coire an Fhiadhaich
Tom Odhar na Seilg is one of the old hunting-related names, as is Coire an Fhiadhaich, which Adam Watson gives as Corrie of deer-hunting. There are two corries of that name; one north-east of Invercauld, between Craig Leek and Meall Gorm, another below Càrn Dearg, Reddy Cairn, in lower Glen Gairn. Liath is properly grey-green, for the dull pallor of the grass. The Tom is beyond the abandoned – or should that be cleared, the terms are often confused? – township of Auchtavan, on the lower reaches of Bad nan Cuileag, Spinney of Flies. (Surprisingly these aren’t the dreaded midge, – meanbh-chuileag in Gaelic, literally wee flies – but some other insects, maybe clegs?).
The following name is for a path through Ballochbuie Forest where shot deer were hauled.
The Drag Path
These names belong to the sub-culture of stalking; none appear on the OS maps.
Landseer’s masterpiece, ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) found its ideal location in the refreshment room of the House of Lords, where the Nineteenth century stag cult held sway. Hunting has romanticized and distorted accounts of Highland ecology for decades. This stag-centric argument given by Michael Wigan is typical:
‘The establishment of the sporting estate, emulating the enthusiasm of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Balmoral, is often cited as the start of land management for deer, the animal that has existed alongside man for the longest time and has been utilised by him most consistently. Scientists have now found that not only were deer managed by man in the Highlands long before the Victorians, but long before the early medieval hunting forests too. A study of bones and artefacts reveals that at the end of the Ice Age deer were being culled selectively, intrinsically a policy of control and conservation. In the warming environment, with the growth of scrub birch and pine, red deer proliferated, replacing the reindeer of the earlier tundra. There is evidence to show scrub was burnt, as heather is now, to provide fresh shoots for deer to eat. Winter feeding of deer, hailed by some as an unnatural innovation on deer forests in the 1980s, actually began thousands of years earlier.’
Setting aside the rights and responsibilities of ownership, anyone dedicated to ‘the hill’ enters a complex ecosystem. In the span of mountain-time all is change: we walk upon habitats, but the hill is no static reality. Estates cover vast tracts of land, though in terms of the clans each glen was usually divided-up between septs.
Those who would divest sporting interests of their purchased right to leisure must consider what becomes of the land? There are progressive lairds, such as Anders Holch Povlsen who has reduced the deer population on Feshie to 1 per square km, rewilding the glen. When the scale of ‘wild’ land and the population to care for it are out of proportion, and have been for decades, or centuries, then there are no easy answers. The welcome innovation of the community buy-out depends on there being a community present, and their having the confidence – itself a form of access. Ecological solutions tend to be microtonal – community woodlands, islands of Scots pine connecting relic Caledonian Pine-forest, the knowledge shared by a place-aware mountain guide, a bothy with berths for a half dozen, or a new community hydro scheme, such as Corriemulzie, which went online in May.
Spend a day reading an SSSI report and every footstep on the hill can seem to endanger a rare moss or lichen. Moorland could be returned to woodland, but what tree species? Should the trees be planted, or must we wait for them to return of their own accord? If a Great Wood should return to cover the hillside then what would that mean for the delicate ecology of the peat-moor?
If one walks North-South or East-West through the Cairngorms one crosses over five or six different estates; a mix of private and public ownership, each one with an evolving policy on afforestation, tree planting, timber extraction, deer management, shooting for ‘sport’, and alternative systems of energy generation. All too often policy debates are locked in to views that stubbornly refuse to listen.
Negotiations between interest groups, the whims of private owners and the disparate policies of public bodies, define the appearance and biodiversity of the landscape. The Cairngorms’ ecology has been a product of leisure pursuits and profit for centuries – sitka plantations, muirburn, the funicular railway, the gash of new roads, and the lack of wind-farms on Royal Deeside. The same powers determine whether paths are open, or blocked by deer fences and padlocked gates.
Place-names reflect hierarchical divisions of the land.
As Adam Watson notes: no trees in these forests, only open moor and a hill forming the ancient deer hunting territory between Balmoral and Lochnagar. The name distinguishes it from the grouse moors of Girnock and upper Glen Muick.
Joe Dorward gives Clais Mhadaidh as hollow of the wolf, a dry steep-sided gully down which deer were driven to slaughter. Seton Gordon described it as ’curious and far-stretching’.
Recently the RSPB have given up trying to negotiate a voluntary agreement with landowners on the preservation of hen harriers. Coming to terms with the gulf between the various parties that define ecology and leisure is wearying – it’s hard enough to understand the denuding effect one proprietor may have, harder yet to close the distance between two parties with such opposed outlooks.
Access alone is not the answer. In truth, isn’t the issue one of care and a deep consideration of what form, or forms, of ownership engenders that? Given the size of the great Estates should the principle of care be detached from ownership? Do new forms of transhumance offer a solution, if not now, perhaps someday? (This is an idea I will return to).
John MacKay, in Adam Watson: ‘The Ecology, Land Use and Conservation of the Cairngorms’Ann Glen: The Cairngorm Gateway
Colin Miller: email to AF, August 2016
T.C. Smout, ‘Landseer’s Highlands’, in Richard Ormond: The Monarch of the Glen, Landseer in the Highlands
Michael Wigan, Introduction to Glyn Satterley: The Highland Game
Lea MacNally: Highland Deer Forest:
Adam Watson: The Place Names of Upper Deeside
Adam Watson: review of Charles Gimingham (ed), The Ecology, Land Use and Conservation of the Cairngorms
Gill Russell, Glen Ey: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Plantation, Invercauld: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Griffin wind-farm: Alistair Peebles, 2011
Deer, Glen Ey: Hannah Devereux, 2015
Landseer: Monarch of the Glen’, etching by Lowell Hartford Ins 1890
Hillside: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Scots pine, Glen Derry: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Scots pine, Glen Derry: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Braemar Hydro Scheme: courtesy Braemar Community Hydro, 2016
Muirburn (Heather burning), Geallaig: Hannah Devereux, 2016
Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.
The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.