Who has the right to roam in the Cairngorms?

The Cairn Gorm funicular. <em>Picture: keepwaddling1</em>
The Cairn Gorm funicular. Picture: keepwaddling1
By John Knox

I’ve just returned to lower-earth after a camping trip on the high Cairngorm plateau. What a wonderful upper-earth experience that is … in good weather. Mountain ranges stretch into the distance, beneath an ever-changing sky. Corries and cliffs, sharp peaks and gentle brown moorland trace the near sky-line. Beneath your feet, like paving stones, the rocks are smooth and white/grey. The air is so fresh, filled with oxygen and the scent of heather. Snow buntings sing. But who has a right to roam in this other world? All of us, or just the careful few?

On a good summer’s day, a thousand visitors will come up here on the funicular railway. Only a handful will climb the mountain all the way from the car park to the upper station at 1,097m. Those who take the railway are not allowed out of the enclosure around the top station and restaurant, for fear they will damage the rare arctic and alpine flora or that they will get lost on their way to the summit, a kilometre away and up another 148m.

This rule has been hotly debated ever since the railway opened in 2001. I debated this with myself and my companions as we walked across the plateau to Ben Macdui and then pitched our tents down by the lochans above Loch Etchachan. What a privilege to be here, I thought. And what a thrill. Should anyone, however unfit or lazy, be denied this breath-taking experience ? It’s one of the precious things life has to offer.

On the other hand, this can be a dangerous place in bad weather, a place where winds can reach 176mph, temperatures can drop into the minus 20s and snow can lie waist deep. Conditions can change from summer to winter in half an hour. It’s not a place for scantily clad tourists.

It’s also a SSSI, a site of special scientific interest, where the landscape, and its flora and fauna, are protected by law, European directives and international treaties. The tramping feet of tourists, however they are dressed, could easily damage this fragile arctic environment.

I’m reminded of the short story by HG Wells in which a man travels back in time a couple of billion years and is warned not to step off the protective walkway extending from his time machine. But he does so anyway and stands inadvertently on a rare plant. When he returns to the present day, there is nothing there! We don’t want to stamp out the tiny signs of life on the Cairngorm plateau.

So there is tension here between what is good for man’s spirit of adventure and well-being and what is good for his environment. I tend towards the spirit. And I don’t see what harm a few thousand rubber-soled boots would cause on the rocky surface of the plateau. So I would allow people who ride up on the railway to walk on to the summit unhindered. Of course, they should be advised about the weather and urged to stick to the path but otherwise they should have the same freedoms at a thousand metres as they do down at the car park.

Happily, the two sides in the argument have reached a compromise which seems to be working well. You can now buy a “Walk at the Top” ticket for £14, which includes the rail fare (£9.95) plus a guided walk to the summit. And probably such compromises are the way to handle the dilemma we increasingly find ourselves in, in a nation which is gradually rediscovering its countryside. And in a nation which urgently needs to improve its exercise rate – only a third of us take regular outdoor exercise, which is why the other two thirds are overweight.

Unfortunately we are not looking after our protected areas any better than our health. A report out last week from Scottish Natural Heritage found that only 77 per cent of the 1,881 sites (SSSIs, SACs and SPAs ) were in a favourable condition, no increase on the year before and way short of the government’s target of 95 per cent.

Some of this is not only our own fault. Climate change, for example, has meant a decline in many sea-bird sites. But we are still guilty of draining our peat lands, or allowing over-grazing by deer or permitting invasive species to spread. And, of course, we daren’t mention golf courses on the sand dunes. It’s strange that we are so precious about the rocky surface of the Cairngorm plateau and so careless about other areas of natural beauty and wonder.

One way of protecting wildlife sites is to manage the thousands of visitors who come to see them…. building paths, interpretation centres, providing car-parks, restaurants, toilets, and at times railways. These honey-pot developments allow mass tourism in some places and at the same time divert people away from wilder places where only a handful of walkers and climbers will have the time and energy to venture.

When Queen Victoria climbed Ben Macdui, on 7th October 1859, she noted in her diary that “it had a sublime and solemn effect” on her. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all benefit from such an experience ?