Sunday 26 June 2016

Will the UK Survive Brexit?

I have supported independence most of my adult life. The reason is mundane - I am Scottish. Some people think that support for self-determination is small-minded. And it is natural and unsurprising that people who identify as British think this. For me, wanting your country to run its own affairs, and being outward-minded, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are uncertainties about finances of course in the short term. But taking a step back from claim and counter-claim and looking at the fundamentals - reviewing Scotland's assets and liabilities and seeing how other small Northern European countries fare - shows that there's no reason an independent Scotland cannot thrive.

No reason except one.

Uh oh - EU Referendum results:

There is and always has been a key prerequisite for Scottish success, whether inside or outside the UK, and that is good relations with England. The days of cross-border peace before the 14th century Wars of Independence were prosperous, as was the age of the British Empire when we were inside the tent, pissing out. But between the 1300s and the first Jacobite rising, life in Scotland was often a struggle for survival in the face of hostile English attention. The tone of England's relations with its neighbours is key to their security and prosperity.

Membership of the EU and NATO altered that. One guarantees trade, the other physical security. Small European countries flourish today in a way that was impossible in the 19th century, when they were gobbled up by empires. And while the consensus today seems to be that Brexit will trigger Scottish independence, I am not so sure. England and Wales being out of the EU is a problem for Scotland. While others rush to the Indyref 2 banner, I'd rather see how things pan out first.

Perhaps there is now no way of avoiding a period of awkward relations with the rest of the UK. If so that would be a shame. And it would be an ironically Scottish outcome - similar to the failure of the 18th century Scottish elites to rebrand England as 'south Britain' - to gain independence not through a self-empowered choice, but by England declaring it first...

Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Remote Hill - Part 2

Now Beinn Lair is a remote hill. Guarded by cliffs, lochs, other hills and rough paths, it is an awkward bugger to reach. But Beinn Lair is just the appetiser. There is an even more awkward hill to reach in the 'Fisherfield Wilderness' - Beinn a Chaisgein Mor. And I was heading for it.

In Fisherfield:

This area is prized by hillwalkers as one of Scotland's wildest. Hidden between Dundonnell and Achnasheen, Poolewe and Garve, is a roadless wedge of land 30km by 50km across. Its core is the 90,000 acre Letterewe Estate, owned by the family of the late Paul van Vlissingen. In an age of absentee feudal landowners accountable to nobody, Paul was one of the good guys when it came to encouraging access to his land. Nowadays the right to roam is enshrined in law.

Looking back at Beinn Lair:

A path - sometimes rough, but mainly good-going - took me to the causeway between Fionn Loch and Dubh Loch, and then up into the stony heart of this area. Here is A'Mhaigdean, the remotest Munro in Scotland. I savoured the atmosphere. It is a bastard to get here, but now I was, what a place!

A'Mhaigdean from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

The airy summit plateau of Beinn a Chaisgein Mor contrasts with its rocky surroundings to make a grand viewpoint. Slioch, A'Mhaigdean, An Teallach, Beinn Lair, the watery wilderness towards Poolewe... The wind tousled my hair and I breathed it all in, a deep breath of freedom. But there is a price to pay for this. It is a long way - 24km and two hill passes - from Kinlochewe. And by golly, did I not feel it on the way back. I had hoped to climb Meall Meinidh, a Marilyn across the pass from Beinn Lair. But my legs were leaden. With a nagging sense I might regret it, I chose instead to carry on down to Loch Maree. With the hill abandoned I was delighted to see early evening clouds settle over the summits.

Furnace ruins:

Back at Loch Maree I still had another 12km to go. I camped discreetly, not far from Furnace. There are numerous ruins amongst the bracken. These are larger than the usual abandoned hovels. Believe it or not this is because Loch Maree was an industrial site! The Highlands hosted a number of 18th century ironworks using imported ore, mainly founded by English companies after the union. But Loch Maree was worked earlier, founded in 1607 by Sir George Hay of Perthshire, an enterprise using ore from Fife.

Loch Maree evening:

There are far fewer trees around Loch Maree today, but still enough to catch the sun and glow in beauty.

As I walked out the next morning, fantasising about dry feet and a bath, I realised with a jolt that the last time I had been along this path was 21 years ago. Back then I was unhappy. Coming to the hills helped me then, an escape from unemployment. Discomfitingly, three days backpacking alone had recalled past unhappiness and reminded me of my mortality. In another 21 years, will I be fit enough to be able to come here at all?

I sang folk songs to cheer myself up and decided to try to just enjoy each moment as it comes.

An Teallach from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

Click here for Part 1.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

A Remote Hill - Part 1

The group of middle aged hillwalkers arrived in the car park with the footsore and haunted look of soldiers fresh from a battle. "Brutal," said one about their nine-hour ascent of Slioch. It was raining stair rods and I had just arrived at Kinlochewe. My two-night solo camping trip in Fisherfield was starting badly.

I had nurtured a dream for years. Buy a solo tent, drive to Kinlochewe, walk up Loch Mareeside, camp on the summit of Meall Meinidh, bag Corbetts, climb A'Mhaigdean, return via Lochan Fada. It would take three days, I would camp high, feel the winds of freedom, the sunrise and sunset photos would be spectacular. It would be the ultimate short backpacking trip.

The fantasy - A'Mhaigdean from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:

But there would be no sunset photos today. Half an hour into the walk I sheltered under an oak and considered my options. The summit of Meall Meinidh was out of the question. It was more important that I got the tent up before everything was inundated. I found a flattish, exposed spot (always find the most exposed spot possible when summer camping in the Highlands - the wind is your friend against the midges) and cut the evening's walk short. I had got the tent up in time. It was cosy inside. Except for the fact my feet would be wet for the next two days, I was as comfortable as could be.

Wild camping:

I rose late next morning to sunshine that quickly turned dull, struck camp, and battled the path to Letterewe in sodden shoes. Kinlochewe to Poolewe looks magical on the map. But it is the kind of walk you only want to do once. The walk-ins of the Cairngorms are long, but are on easy trails where 6km/hr is possible. The Fisherfield walk-ins are slightly longer, but are rough going and I could only do half the speed. Oh for the well-made, dry paths of Italy! Yet despite this grumble I got what I came for - a sense of wildness. In the Cinque Terre, we saw thousands of people each day, hundreds on the trails alone. Over three days walking in Fisherfield, apart from the Slioch baggers at the car park I saw five other people. The third person I saw was camping by himself on Dubh Loch. "Busy, isn't it," he said. He wasn't being ironic.

It was noon by the time I reached the Bealach Meinidh. I had originally intended to camp here last night so would have to alter my plans for the rest of the trip - but in what way? It would become clearer later. In the meantime I had a Corbett to bag.

Beinn Lair view:

Beinn Lair is flat on top but is guarded to the south by Loch Maree, to the east by Slioch, and to the north by one of the longest continuous cliff-faces in Britain. Its inaccessibility makes it a great prize for the bagger. I put my map and camera in my pocket, dropped the rucksack, and headed up its slopes. The mist descended. Was this to be my last view today?

Summit of Beinn Lair:

But the weather was just toying with me. The cloud lifted. The sun came out. I met a couple on top. I could tell they weren't local because I was in a t-shirt and they were wearing down jackets. They were surprised to see someone else here. They were German, had come in from Poolewe and were camping at Fionn Loch. It was magnificent up here and I revelled in the easy-walking tundra of the summit plateau, a horizon ringed 360 degrees by steep, characterful hills. It is for situations like this that we go up hills, the drudgery of the walk-in forgotten.

Beinn Lair's magnificent north face:

Back at the rucksack I luncheoned ravenously on ham sandwiches and malt loaf and considered my options. Beinn Lair is remote, but there is a hill even more awkward to reach than Beinn Lair, one with better views, and I had it in my sights. But that's a story for another day...

Read Part 2.