Mill Glen closure notice
It is perhaps inevitable that discussion of the effects of the cuts and general economic restrictions tends to focus on urban projects, given that the population density is so much greater in such areas – but there are rural consequences, too.
One example, from the world of recreational land use, can currently be found in the southern approaches to the Ochils – the handy, half-day-sized range of hills on the northern edge of the central belt. Here, one of the main access routes both for hillwalkers and low-ground strollers – the Mill Glen at Tillicoultry – is closed, awaiting repair, with no immediate sign of it being reopened.
The majority of ascents of Ben Cleuch, the highest hill in the range, are made from the Hillfoot villages of Alva and Tillicoultry, or from the woodland park picnic site just off the A91 between the two Clackmannanshire communities. The most popular way of all is to start in Tillicoultry, walk along the gorge of the Mill Glen to the bridge at the foot of the Law (the best part of a kilometre in distance and requiring a deceptive 130 metres or so of ascent along paths and stone steps built in the early 20th century), before a steady 450-metre uphill grind brings the plateau, from where easy-gradient ground brings the 721-metre high point with its fine 360-degree views.
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Except that, since February this year, the lower part of this direct way up has been out of bounds, with Clackmannanshire Council having closed the glen due to risk of rockfall. There are plenty of other ways up, from Tillicoultry and elsewhere, so it’s not as if the hill itself is in any way out of bounds. But the Mill Glen (or Tillicoultry Glen as it is sometimes known) provides the most direct approach, and has steadily increased in popularity since a footbridge was constructed across the Gannel Burn at the north end of the walkway in the late 1980s.
There are three main Hillfoot glens, each with a different management situation. Dollar Glen comes under the governance of the National Trust for Scotland, while Alva Glen is mainly under traditional local authority control but with the Alva Glen Heritage Trust also taking an interest. The middle one of the three, the Mill Glen, is essentially a council-only job – or at least that’s what appeared to be the case until the complexities of modern-day repair funding kicked in.
All three glens have maintenance issues, mainly involving bridge and walkway repairs or concern over rockfall and landslips, and the Mill Glen is particularly vulnerable at a couple of points. Roughly halfway along on the eastern side, wet weather or freeze-thaw conditions can see rubble or even the occasional tree fall across the path and into the burn – there was a significant landslip of this kind two winters ago following a multi-day deluge.
And near the southern end of the glen, on the western side just along from where a massive area has been quarried away over many decades, some very shoogly rock pillars could cause considerable damage were they to ever topple just as someone was passing underneath. It is this stretch – of only a few strides, but increasingly loose-looking – that initially prompted the closure.
“Consultants were appointed in late 2009 to assess the risks from man-made structures, natural features and vegetation in Alva and Tillicoultry Glens,” said Martin Dean, the access and countryside projects officer for Clackmannanshire Council, when asked in April 2011 for some background to the situation.
“Their report, in March 2010, identified that there was a high risk of major rockfall on to the path in Tillicoultry Glen, at a point just north of the quarry. The path is a core path and is the principal route to Ben Cleuch. They identified that the risk should be addressed in the medium term, ie within 12 months. A working group was established to look at how the council should address the matter and met for the first time on 30 September 2010.
“It was agreed (after consultation with the Health and Safety Executive and consideration of relevant legislation, guidance and good practice) that signage which warns users of the risk of rockfall should be posted at the top and bottom of the glen, and that a safe alternative route on the east side of the glen should be highlighted for those not wanting to expose themselves to the risk. Relevant persons and groups were advised of our actions and the signage inspected at regular intervals.”
This duly happened – the signs went up in early October 2010, but were at that stage merely advisory. They warned of the risk from rockfall on the short stretch past the old quarry, while stopping short of formally forbidding walkers from going that way. That was to change, however.
“The risk from rockfall in Tillicoultry Glen was discussed by the Access Forum at a meeting in January 2011,” said Dean. “Reservations were voiced by some members over the actions taken by the council, with some suggesting that a precautionary approach should be adopted. Inspections by the Ranger Service during the winter identified a number of minor rockfalls in Tillicoultry Glen and raised the possibility that the rock identified at risk of rockfall might be less secure than it had previously been.”
The council’s legal services department reviewed their position and in February the path was closed under Section 15 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Closure signs were put in place at both ends of the glen – a little way along from the southern end where it meets the road in Upper Mill Street, Tillicoultry, and also at the point where the “safe alternative route” – the slightly longer “outside path” or “middle path” which contours the hillside to the east of the glen – drops to meet the walkway just before the bridge at the start of the main hill-climb.
Four months on, this remains the situation, with some work having taken place but not enough to allow a reopening – there is still said to be a “medium to high risk” of rockfall alongside the quarry. In the course of the initial work, however, a further problem came to light, concerning one of the half-dozen metal bridges that allow the walkway to worm its way into the hills. “[The contractors] also advised that the condition of the rock supporting the uppermost bridge gives cause for concern,” Dean said, “that failure of the abutments is most likely to happen when the bridge is occupied, and that [carrying out] repairs to the bridge is the higher priority.”
As to the cost, both sets of repairs – to the quarry-side rocks and to the problematic bridge – are expensive: Dean quotes figures of £33,500 and £23,500 respectively. Clearly this money has to be raised before the glen can reopen, but from where?
“Revenue budgets have reduced across all council services in Clackmannanshire as a result of reduced government funding,” Dean said at the end of May. “This has implications for countryside maintenance, including path repairs. Repairs of the scale of those in Tillicoultry Glen are outwith the scope of our revenue/maintenance budget and there are many competing priorities for capital monies.
“The government funding settlement for 2011–12 was for one year only, so we have to be prudent in planning further ahead than that and assume that centralised funding allocations could fall further. With that in mind, the council’s priorities will remain providing services for the most vulnerable. We’re working as efficiently as possible in order to maximise the resources available for all our services.”
This is where the modern, complicated style of land-ownership and management comes into play, as maintenance of the path in the glen relates to a funding submission made by the Ochils Landscape Partnership. (The OLP website is offline at the time of writing, having been hacked; a new one is in the process of being developed at Stirling University.)
The OLP has a total budget of £2.2 million, which comprises £631,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £670,000 from Wind Prospect (the company which last year installed the controversial windfarm on the northern side of the Ochils and which is now looking to expand the site), £50,000 from the Clackmannanshire and Stirling Environment Trust and £5,000 from the Clackmannanshire Heritage Trust. “The balance [£843,500] is currently being sourced from other organisations,” Dean said.
The situation, if not quite stalled, looks like it could persist for some time. “The glen is still closed,” Dean said in late May (and this was still the case on 20 June, when the accompanying photograph was taken), “and will remain so until we find the funding to repair the path so that it is safe to use.”
Initial hopes from walkers that the glen might be closed for only a few weeks have already proved to be over-optimistic. It isn’t a massive problem (indeed, this is perhaps part of why it’s taking time to resolve – something of higher priority would have been fixed by now), but it is a nuisance both for visiting hillwalkers and those in the village who like to take a regular stroll along the glen for a bit of peace, quiet and exercise.
There is also the risk that the longer things stay like this, the more people will just say Sod it! and walk along the glen anyway – it isn’t blocked off by a metal fence, merely by a chain with a notice on it. Some anti-authority walkers will walk straight past such things, on the red rag / bull principle, and for them it’s a case of taking their chances. More worrying is that someone – perhaps a frustrated local who has genuinely lost patience – could walk along at just the moment that either the rock pillar or the bridge collapses.
There is also the problem of someone entering the Mill Glen from the side having started from elsewhere – feasible given that a popular alternative route off Ben Cleuch does just that, meeting the glen two-thirds of the way along.
A third potential problem comes from people erring too much on the side of caution. This was much in evidence a decade ago at the end of the foot and mouth crisis, when quite a few walkers decided to “wait until 2002” before venturing out anywhere, even though councils and other authorities were strenuously sounding the all-clear in most places throughout the latter half of 2001. The equivalent, in the current local situation at Tillicoultry, was shown by a woman met halfway up the Law who was sheepish about being seen there, having wrongly interpreted the glen-closure notice to mean that the entire route up to Ben Cleuch was out of bounds.
For now – with the initial 12-month hope from March 2010 already a thing of the past – it seems to be a case of waiting for the money to somehow come together, the engineering assessments to then be made and the work to be done. “We regret the inconvenience to users,” Martin Dean says, “but I’m sure you understand that safety is our first priority.”
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