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Loch Long

The In Pinn – in the news <em>Picture: Perkin Warbeck</em>

The In Pinn – in the news Picture: Perkin Warbeck

Turning away – for a moment at least – from the politics and palaver of the Fisherfield hill-survey saga, a few other recent outdoors stories merit mention.

First up has to be the heartwarming tale of the charity donation box accidentally left on Ben Lomond by a team of path-repairers. This, rather than being snaffled or emptied as tends to be assumed to be the modern way, turned up not just intact but containing more money than when it was lost.

The incident was reported in the aftermath of the English riots, and formed a nice contrast to those, a kind of anti-looting story. Rather than taking stuff, people made donations (admittedly of cash, rather than of plasma TVs, iPhones and horrible designer sportswear) without any prompting.

It would be wrong to overanalyse this, however, and to portray it as Scottish generosity versus English graspingness – plenty of non-Scots climb Ben Lomond, after all, and there’s a fair chance that a charity box left inadvertently on, say, Skiddaw in England or Tryfan in Wales would likewise receive a top-up.

Neither is it metropolitan materialism versus gentler rural ways, given that the majority of people who climb Ben Lomond surely come from urban areas. It is, though, a nice story, from which everyone emerges in a good light.

Talking of boxes containing money, the latest pay-to-park story is being subjected to scrutiny and discussion. The latter part of this month sees the start of a two-year trial period in which visitors will be asked to make a voluntary £2 donation when parking at the humongous Coire Cas car park – alongside the funicular railway base station and at the branching-off point for a variety of hill paths, eg across towards the Northern Corries.

Whether the charge would then, come 2013, be made compulsory remains to be seen – but that has been the pattern elsewhere following voluntary trial periods. The donation scheme is being introduced by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML), having been approved on 22 July by the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

It wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be something entirely new at Coire Cas. As Colin Kirkwood, chief executive of CML, has pointed out, until the early 1980s there was “a manned booth which charged on exit”. Kirkwood argues for the new charges on the basis of “looking to ask visitors to put something towards a reinvestment in footpaths, environmental projects, car parks and facilities”.

Certainly the path network hereabouts has been upgraded massively, to a high standard, and such things do not come cheap. On the other hand, there are those who see the whole going-like-a-fair aspect of Coire Cas as already being an unwelcome and very visible commercial intrusion into the hills.

Add to that the old tensions between skiers (who pay for all sorts of stuff – day passes etc) and walkers and climbers (easy to portray as freeloaders given that they simply park the car and march off self-reliantly on foot). Add also the old argument that £2 is next to nothing on top of fuel costs – which tends to assume everyone is a holidaymaker coming from miles away, rather than a Strathspey local who might like to go to Coire Cas every few days and for whom a regular £2 hit would feature much higher in the mix.

And add, too, the curious lopsidedness whereby pay-to-park for hill activities has become established in certain places on the east side of the Highlands – Glen Muick, Linn of Dee, etc – but not so much in the west (Loch Long excepted). What, if anything, does that say about different-area mentalities?

For now, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland – a key voice in the Coire Cas debate as it has an interest in walking, climbing and skiing – seems happy enough about the voluntary charge but cautious about what might happen thereafter.

See also the discussion at Winterhighland. One to watch.

Turning briefly to less serious matters, readers of the Sun and the Daily Mail last week were treated to – and perhaps puzzled by – a photo-story in which Graeme Ettle climbed the Inaccessible Pinnacle, photographed by Dave Cuthbertson.

“He’s a Pinn-up”, was Wapping’s take on it, while Paul Dacre’s staff opted for the more formal “Conquering the In Pin: Intrepid free climber reaches the summit of Britain’s most Inaccessible Pinnacle without a rope”.

Nice pictures, for sure, and “daredevil” Ettle does appear to have made a free ascent of the steep end of the second-highest lump of rock in the Hebrides (although the Mail mentions “a flimsy rope”). But is not “Climber climbs In Pinn” roughly along the same lines, in newsworthiness terms, as “Walker completes West Highland Way”, or “Motorist drives along M25”?

Quiet news day, perhaps.

Finally, mention should be made of two recent deaths. Alan Blackshaw was one of the great and the good of the mountaineering world, heavily involved in matters domestic and Alpine, both in terms of actual on-hill activity and in the committee rooms. He was, for instance, president of the British Mountaineering Council 1973–76, of the Ski Club of Great Britain 1997–2003, and of the Alpine Club 2001–04. He undertook numerous other roles over the years, including being heavily involved in the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), again with a spell (2004–05) in the presidency.

He was the author of Mountaineering: From Hillwalking to Alpine Climbing, published in 1966 and often referred to simply as “Blackshaw” in the same way that Eric Langmuir’s Mountaincraft and Leadership is just “Langmuir”.

Blackshaw’s death on 4 August, aged 78, prompted numerous obituaries and tributes: see the Daily Telegraph, the Herald, the Scotsman, the UIAA, the Alpine Club, the BMC and the MCofS. Also by Dave Morris at the Ramblers, fellow Newtonmore hill man Cameron McNeish, and Chris Townsend.

Also widely reported has been the death of Ian Redmond, aged 30, who was attacked by a shark on 16 August while snorkelling off the Seychelles. He and his wife Gemma were on their honeymoon.

Amid all the sadness and horror of the incident, and the discussion about the dangers of sharks, there has been little mention of Redmond – from Lancashire – having been a climber. Condolences and tributes can be found in a thread on UKBouldering.com, including this, from a friend named Adam Jeewooth: “To me Ian is a bouldering, sport climbing and a genuine friend. We both have shared many experiences in the time I knew him from meeting at BoulderUK, getting snowed off in Northumberland, drinking wine in Ceuse in a shit rental car and bouldering in font [Fontainebleau]. He was totally in love with Gemma (his wife) and was a family man.”

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Trident submarine on the Clyde <em>Picture: JohnED76</em>

Trident submarine on the Clyde Picture: JohnED76

By Rob Edwards

The safety of the nuclear bombs and submarines on the Clyde is being increasingly jeopardised by the UK government’s spending cuts, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) report has warned.

The public, military personnel and the environment could be put at risk of accidental explosions, spillages or radiation leaks, according to a new assessment by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board.

A summary of the board’s report for 2010 by its chairman, Howard Mathers, says that safety issues “present a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that the defence nuclear programmes are being managed with due regard for the protection of the workforce, the public and the environment.”

The report by Mathers, posted on the MoD’s website without announcement, warns that there is a “lack of adequate resource to deliver the Defence nuclear programmes safely”. There is an “adverse trend in resources’, Mathers points out, “which I expect will become yet more painful.”

Mathers adds that “the frequency and significance of incidents remain too high as a result of poor control of work”. The principal dangers in the medium term, he says, “are the adequacy of resources, both money and staff complement, and the maintenance of a sustainable cadre of suitably competent staff.”

The MoD was accused by one of its former senior safety officials of allowing defence cuts to “trump” safety. Lessons from previous reports had been “ignored”, said Fred Dawson, who was head of the MoD’s radiation protection policy team before he retired in 2009.

“Decisions were taken in the defence review without a proper consideration of their impact on safety generally and nuclear safety in particular,” Dawson said. “The ability of the MoD’s internal regulator to do its
 job is being compromised by the lack resources.”

The assessment by Mathers is the latest in a series of warnings from within the MoD about the impact of cutbacks on nuclear safety. It comes in the wake of reports last week that UK defence ministers had decided to hand over the management of the nuclear bomb base at Coulport on Loch Long to a group of private companies, including the US arms dealer Lockheed Martin.

Trade unions, politicians and disarmament campaigners warned that public safety would be endangered because companies could be tempted to cut corners. A motion expressing concern was lodged in the Scottish parliament by the SNP MSP, Bill Kidd.

The Coulport sell-off was also condemned as “absolutely horrific” by the SNP minister and newly-elected MSP for neighbouring Argyll and Bute, Michael Russell. “The privatisation of weapons of mass destruction is a policy without precedent and can only be described as both foolhardy and reckless,” he said.

The move, however, was defended by the local Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Reid, who pointed out that the site would still be owned by the MoD. “The Labour Party started the privatisation of our nuclear deterrent,” he said. “This is a continuation of the process begun by Labour.”

An MoD spokesman said: “The MoD takes its nuclear safety responsibilities very seriously. Work is underway to deliver continuous safety improvement in the areas raised by the report.”

Rob Edwards, environmental news and comment.

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Loch Long

Loch Long

There’s something magical about Kintail. Its mountains are rugged but don’t have the brutality of those in Torridon. Their lower slopes are clad in mixed woodland which at this time of year are particularly verdant. There are lambs gambolling in the fields and an abundance of wildlife.

For groups, a great base is the National Trust for Scotland hostel at Morvich. It offers easy access to spectacular scenery such asthe Falls of Glomach and to great hill walking, including the Five Sisters ridge. But there’s also a good selection of houses offering B&B in the area.

Morvich is also home to the Kintail Mountain Rescue Team. In late May, its members cycled some 1,200 miles in an effort to raise cash for a new headquarters. They managed it in just under four days with individual riders taking it in turns, sleeping only two hours a day.

As someone with historic injuries, climbs to the high tops are now but a distant memory. But there are wonderful low-level walks and cycle rides in the area. While a mountain bike would help in some of the rougher country, a sturdy hybrid is enough for most ground.

Starting from Morvich, take a ride to the Clachan Duich burial ground, where many of the Clan MacRae are interred. It’s worth it for the view from the war memorial alone. However, in the ruined church which dates back to 1050, there’s a plaque to mark the grave not of one man’s bones but of his dreams.

Sir Colin MacRae WS (Writer to the Signet) was an Edinburgh lawyer. In the early years of the 20th century, he petitioned the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, for the official right to call himself Chief of the Clan MacRae. He could establish a lineage back over 20 generations.

In 1909, the Lyon Court rejected that petition. The rusting, cast iron tablet does not record why it was refused. But elsewhere in the chapel, there are gravestones to the family, all of which describe him (despite this) as the “acknowledged chief” of the Clan.

From the Clachan Duich, cycle round the bay to the east, making sure you cross the road just after the Jacobite Restaurant and take the path that leads along the shore. Otherwise, you end up having to ride through a section of the road, cut through rock. There’s little room for traffic to pass a cyclist on the road and not much visibility for the car or lorry driver.

Half a mile on, turn right on to the single track road that takes you towards Glenelg. This is an easy ride but, after a few hundred yards, you’re then faced with a choice. The road to Glenelg itself is fabulous, one of the most scenic in Scotland. But you have to be seriously fit to cycle it. There’s a 15% gradient in places and it rises over 1,000 feet in under two miles!

For ordinary mortals, there’s a much easier and very satisfying route along the south side of Loch Duich. Follow the signs to Ratagan and Letterfearn. It’s a beautiful road with hardly any traffic and you’re constantly tempted to stop and look around. You can spot seals poking their heads above the water and herons trying to catch salmon from the fish farm.

After passing Druidaig Lodge, the road reaches the slipway at Totaig, where you can park the bikes safely and walk on, looking across at some of the best views of Eilean Donan.

Up on the hill, there’s an iron age broch, the Caisteal Grugaig, noted for its triangular lintel. Legend has it that it was the home of the witch Grugaig, mother of the giants Telve and Todder who built the Glenelg brochs. It’s less impressive than those because it hasn’t been restored and moss and other plants are growing out of the ruins, but the atmosphere of the place is wonderful.

From Morvich, the round trip is around 20 miles.

On the other side of the loch, it’s worth taking the bike north toward Dornie. Many riders may prefer to take the first part of the trip by car, as although the A87 is a good, fast road, it’s alarming if you’re a cyclist as vehicles are passing at up to 60mph. Up to Inverinate, there’s a cycle- and footpath. After that, nothing – and there should be.

For drivers, take the old road marked “Carr Brae Viewpoint”. It’s a tough drive up the bealach but worth every moment. It’s surprising how many cars travel up this route and then don’t stop at the most important point. The views are breathtaking. It’s rather boggy getting to the cliff edge, but the effort is well rewarded, as are the stunning views of Eilean Donan further along the same road.

The village of Dornie, just to the north of the castle, is a good base from which to explore both sides of Loch Long. It’s an attractive place with one of the smallest one-way systems in Scotland.

If you cycle up the south-eastern side of the loch, the road runs out in under a couple of miles. But if you pass through the gates at the steading, there’s a path beside the swift waters of the River Glennan. It’s not really cyclable by anyone other than hardened mountain bikers as it’s strewn with boulders, but there is scope for a round trip to Camas-luinie then follow the road down the opposite shore of Loch Long.

As I walked up the glen, I passed three shepherds separating the mothering ewes from the rest of the flock. They looked and sounded just like extras from Para Handy, but they fitted perfectly into their surroundings, gnarled and weather-beaten.

The glen itself is a louring, glowering place. The sides of the mountains are steep and the pass narrow which gives it a foreboding air. You could almost imagine Tolkien having used it as a setting for The Lord of the Rings.

There are definite micro-climates in this part of the world. Above the River Glennan, the mist was hanging round the few spindly trees. It was dark and overcast and starting to rain. Behind me, on the far side of Loch Long, the sun was shining.

Going back turned out to be a wise decision. Riding back to Dornie, a flight of herons flew down the middle of the loch, more than I’d seen together anywhere other than Jura.

Glen Glennan

Glen Glennan

Turn right at the main road and cross the bridge over the narrow straits where Loch Long meets Loch Duich and Loch Alsh. After less than a mile, near Ardelve, take the minor road towards Conchra.

You ride downhill through fields and woods until you come back to the loch where small fishing boats are moored. Passing the entrance to the Conchra House Hotel, I heard a distinctive cry overhead. Just above tree-height were three eagles. I spent a good 15 minutes watching as they rode the thermals high into the sky.

The ride to the head of the loch is not too challenging. There are up and down sections all the way to Allt nan Sugh, but they’re long and steady. From then on, the road is flat all the way to Camas-luinie and the bunkhouse known as the Tigh Ishbeal.

Riding back, the memory of those eagles remained with me and, after a while, the incessant sound of cuckoos became irritating. A short-lived distraction came when a dorsal fine broke the surface of the waters. It didn’t stay for long; but back at Morvich, the ranger’s notes said that porpoises had been seen in the area.

As I said, there’s something magical about Kintail. And there’s so much more still to do and see.