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Newsnet Scotland

The abandoned Cononish mine in 2006 <em>Picture: Helen Wilkinson</em>

The abandoned Cononish mine in 2006 Picture: Helen Wilkinson

Yesterday saw formal approval of the application by an Australia-based mining company, Scotgold Resources, to reopen and extend the Cononish mine west of Tyndrum, with a view to extracting 20,000 ounces of gold and 80,000 ounces of silver per annum.

The mining operation is noteworthy – some would say controversial – because of its location within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park – the remit for which includes “ensuring our natural heritage, land and water resources are sustainably managed and protected”.

The park also, however, has a requirement to encourage rural development, defined as “enabling and promoting sustainable development that supports and enhances local distinctiveness and sense of place, encourages enterprise and innovation and improves the quality of life for our local communities”.

The lengthy application approval can be found here, and thus far the reaction from the various outdoors pundits and conservation bodies seems to have been generally tolerant of the idea, with an attitude of wait and see how the damage versus development and environment versus employment equations work out. (Or perhaps, given the context, that should be “pan out”.)

That said, there is also an awareness of the tension between the English national park model – where very little “development” gets past the planners (witness the recent refusal, and hefty fine, with regard to the Honister zip-wire project in the Lake District) – and the way in which the Cairngorm funicular railway has been accepted by Scotland’s other national park authority, despite the railway’s environmental impact and financial difficulties.

As for Cononish, the concerns of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland centre on access to the celebrated eastern corrie of Ben Lui and the ice-climbing area on the lower slopes of Beinn Chuirn, the latter right above the mine: “Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park has consented the re-opening of the Cononish goldmine. A&C [Access and Conservation] fought hard to ensure that access up the glen to Ben Lui was retained, a warning system would be put in place for blasting that may affect the Eas Anie ice climb, and landscape impacts were minimised.”

Chris Townsend, outdoors writer and ex-president of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, hasn’t yet blogged on the subject, but was quoted by the BBC as saying “I hope the damage is minimal and access for mountaineers isn’t restricted.”

The Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are leading with golf rather than gold on their website at present, while the mine-enthusiast community seems to be – unsurprisingly – keen on the new development. “Good news I say, fancy a National Park giving permission for some development!, wow,” said ChrisJC, on the Mine Exploration Forum.

There has also been enthusiasm, over the jobs aspect of the mine, at Newsnet Scotland: “This is fantastic news as long as there’s minimal environmental concerns,” wrote a commenter calling themselves Scottish republic. “Scotland has so much – not least of all an under promoted tourist industry. We do well but we can do much better if we give tourists a real Scottish experience to enjoy. And if we can make it cheaper to come here and spend time – though don’t know how that would be possible practically speaking.”

On the same site, ianbeag argued that the mine should have been up and running already, and saw the delay as being politically motivated: “This development could now be in production with employment for around 50 people earning £1.7 million/annum had it not been voted down by one Labour councillor in Stirling council a year ago. In spite of the full backing of the local Community Council, the votes of all the SNP councillors in Stirling Council and the backing of almost all the local organisations the planning application was defeated by the vote of this one Labour councillor. Employing 50 people in a rural area like Tyndrum is probably the economic equivalent of delivering 700 new jobs in one of our cities. Congratulations to the local groups which doggedly supported this enterprise from its inception.”

(There doesn’t seem to have been much discussion of Scotgold Resources not actually being a Scottish company, however, even though Au is more than just chemical shorthand for gold in this context.)

More unexpected, perhaps, is that the mood of the regulars on the walking and climbing noticeboards appears to be cautiously in favour. There hasn’t, at least, been an outbreak of the wordy squabbling that accompanies any new upland windfarm proposal.

“In many ways, not an unreasonable decision given that the mine was there before it was designated a National Park,” said a commenter named Liathach on the Scottish Hills forum. On the same site, munros111 noted that “when doing the WHW [West Highland Way] a year ago there was a small landslide at crom allt, tyndrum, a local person was panning for gold in the river and he told us that he gets enough gold from the river to make a couple of rings each year.”

Across on Walkhighlands, spiderman said: “There was a lot of publicity about the Cononish gold mine in the late seventies and early eighties when I was visiting Ben Lui on a frequent basis and I was fearful of the visual impact it would have on the area. There was no visual impact in the area and it is just the same today as it was in the seventies. There was also talk of how Tyndrum would change with the influx of a large number of labourers but this never happened. Maybe this latest development will turn out the same way.”

There have been expressions of doubt, however. The grough news site has been following the story, and under its 14 October piece – at which stage the application had been recommended but not yet formally approved – a commenter named CL said: “Although I am an investor/speculator in metals mining and exploration, I find it almost astonishing that there is an intention to disturb a precious national site for so small a sum as £22m. […] If the working adults were taxed or donated a few pence per year for the period you could have your improvements without the harm, which is generally underestimated.”

Also on the same thread, the respected climbing writer (and occasional parishioner in these parts) Colin Wells was clearly unconvinced by the decision. “Not much of a National Park if they put profits before protecting the landscape,” he wrote. “Make no mistake, this will be a major industrial development in a landscape that is already under severe potential threat from multi-national developers. I think most of us thought National park status might at least protect some areas from the onslaught of disfiguring developments currently assailing the Highlands.

“But no. Just as in the Cairngorms, where Johnny Grant has got the go-ahead to build his new town next to Aviemore with the blessing of Park planning authority, so now with Lomond & Trossachs. Scottish National Parks are beginning to look like a joke in very poor taste. Gawd help the areas outside – the gold-diggers have got their venal beady eyes on Beinn Udlaidh next…”

Meanwhile, UKClimbing.com is, as ever, a good source of wry pragmatism. “Obviously a key concern for walkers and climbers,” wrote Ramblin dave, “is the impact that this will have on the delicate ecology of the Green Welly Stop…”.

Three final thoughts for now. Some interesting pictures of the condition of the mine during its derelict years can be found on the Transient Places blog.

Then there was the 5 Live newsreader at half-time in last night’s football coverage, who reported that the gold “is hoped to be extracted from the site in Loch Lomond.” BBC Radio 5 Live might have moved north from London to Salford, but they’re still not much closer to understanding Scottish geography.

And amid all the references to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, it’s easy to forget that the River Cononish is one of the feeders of the Tay. So should any pollutant escape from the mine, it would be those overseeing the high-class angling beats further down Scotland’s longest river, and the good people of Perth and Dundee, who would have a problem on their hands.

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c_boardsRegardless of your politics, the SNP’s stunning election victory may have one very beneficial side-effect: dragging Scotland out of the digital dark ages.

Quite how dark these are was demonstrated by Newsnight Scotland last week. Katie Grant and former Labour hackette Lorraine Davidson joined berouged Andrew Neil wannabe Gordon Brewer in declaring that new media had no impact on the Scottish general election campaign. The “new media” voice was provided by Gerry Hassan, who is a sound cove but a self-confessed late adopter. Quite why Grant and Davidson were inflicted on us, I have no idea. Perhaps they saw an interweb once.

At no point did Newsnicht define what they meant by “new media”: the web, social networks, mobile, email, Usenet or World of Warcraft? And at no point did they point out that far more Scots use Facebook, Twitter et al than watch their wee segment.

Where were the new media experts? Or the people who make a living from this stuff? This is not just me bleating because I didn’t get my fuzzy fizog on the goggle box: there are some very exciting projects in Scotland that could have corrected the programme’s erroneous conceit. How about speaking to someone from STV, who appear to be building a new media deathstar? Or Mashable? Or The Daily Mash? Or The Daily Dust? Or Newsnet Scotland? Or “Scotland’s digital guy” Craig McGill? Or social marketing genius Andrew Burnett? Or one of the many bloggers who add so much to the online debate?

There’s no excuse for this at the well-funded BBC, which has new media talent coming out of its ears. Except for viewers in Scotland, apparently.

We’re all used to the usual lazy, lazy, lazy Newsnicht approach of getting their old pals to jaw on and on, but this time their complacency was cruelly exposed. Because while Brewer and pals were parroting the mainstream media line that this web stuff is just a flash in the pan for geeks and perverts, the SNP were crafting a stunning, historic, landslide victory using … drum roll … new media.

The übersmart Kirk Torrance and digital guru Ewan McIntosh were using social media as it should be used – as a search engine for finding people’s sympathies. The party’s new media team used social networks to identify targets for their offline activity, marketing which made use of an iPhone app to record real-time intel from canvassers. Ewan has documented it all on his websbite and it is a thing of awe-inspiring beauty.

It’s not just BBC that causes despair, though. Before starting the Caley Merc, I worked as a consultant for the Scottish public sector.

Let me tell you, the will to live is a fragile thing indeed.

While working on a ludicrously ill-conceived project that cost a fortune but never came to fruition, I suggested publicising a website by creating a page for it on Wikipedia. This was shot down as “too risky”. It’s your money they’re spending…

I knew I had to get out when I was pitching to a marketing bod billed as an expert on new media. I suggested that the campaign website they wanted might benefit from the use of “tags” to aid navigation. They thought that was a great idea because they’d never heard of tags. This was in 2009. Tags have been commonplace since 2003. It’s your money they’re spending…

And it’s your money they’re wasting on lame website after lame website packed with dull content of interest only to the dreaded “stakeholders”. What’s needed is an immediate “vale for money” audit of all Scottish public sector digital activity to see what has been of use to real people.

In short, with the exception of a few NHS services, there’s only one website needed for the public sector: scotland.gov.uk, which has long been a centre of digital excellence. It’s the place the user expects to find this information, why waste money on building other sites? It’s the content and social connections that matter.

And don’t get me started on the Scottish Government’s digital advertising. We carry SG ads, but only bargain-bucket ones provided by an agency in, you guessed, London. Where’s the public sector support for start-up publications? Why don’t they advertise with Scottish new media outside the cosy arrangements with mainstream media? There’s a lot of hot air from self-appointed new media experts in the public sector about supporting online innovation.

But they don’t put their money where their mouths are. Again, this isn’t special pleading for the Caley Merc. There’s a large, vibrant online content community in Scotland – and it gets very little support from anyone except its large number of readers.

In short, there’s a big job to do to change Scotland’s approach to digital, starting with the Scottish Government’s huge marketing and advertising budgets.

Thankfully, we have a governing party swept to power by new media and who have access to the brightest possible digital talent.

Politics aside, I look forward to a brighter digital day dawning on Scotland.

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