Part 4

Looking to the Future

So what next?

I have the chance to "attach" myself to Alan on his 20th next year, and thus a "free pass" to the event (folk on their tenth, 20th or 30th are automatically selected and they and their walking partners do not have to go into the draw for places). Much to my surprise, Alan remarked that the next Challenge, his 20th, might also be his last, at least for a while. Coincidentally, I had been thinking the same.

Why? I can't speak for Al, but I'll try to do so for myself. The answer, paradoxically, is exactly what makes the Challenge such a wonderful experience - the fact that it is a continuous two week trek across Scotland. This means that the next day always has a destination, ground to be covered either by your planned route or a foul weather alternative. That has become a problem for me. There are some parts of the highlands that I really want to walk, and regularly feature in my Challenge routes, but every time I have been forced to take the foul weather alternative to keep on schedule. Frustratingly, the next day the fickle weather has often been perfect! So I intend to spend a little time filling in the gaps, and if the weather is bad one day, I'll simply wait it out and try the next day ... or the day after that. Then, once I've filled in the gaps, I'll feel ready to plan new routes over new ground, which after all, is what it's all about - setting yourself new challenges and seeing places that you would never otherwise go to.

But things change, and now I have begun to question whether Scotland will remain my favourite destination. Some of the best backpacking landscapes are being well and truly trashed by the industrialisation of the Highlands - especially the Monadhliath Mountains, where vast wind farms, hydro schemes and their associated pylons, haul roads and service tracks have eradicated the remote beauty that once prevailed. Just look at the picture below. This was once open moorland - now a near motorway has been driven through it, with new tracks branching off in all directions to small dams, capturing every last drop of water to redirect it to the Glen Doe reservoir. Soon this network will be expanded to serve new wind farms. We saw two or three test masts, erected to gather wind speed data; portents of the sacrifice of the landscape on the altar of green zealotry. More is to follow, as Fergus Ewing is keen to let us know.

ugly haul road for the power stations
Walkers on the road to Chalybeate Spring. Soon those turbines in the background will cover the foreground too.   photo © Phil Lambert

He, of course, sees no irony in his office combining Energy and Tourism, and will point to public opinion polls that endorse and support the growth of the wind industry. Let's face it, if the people that they poll are mainly urban dwellers (which they inevitably will be) who never venture into the raw countryside (and most don't) then in my view any "opinion" based on their ignorance has no validity whatsoever. They might as well have polled the citizens of Timbuktu.

Panorama of landscape looking west from Monadhliath Mountains
From the Monadhliath looking west - this view will soon be no more - it will be part of the Stronelairg power station.    photo © Phil Lambert

The case against windfarms in Scotland and the despoilation of wild land is mainly presented in magazines and blogs created by, for, and almost exclusively read by, the converted. Speaking to people who already agree is gratifying (we all like people to agree with us) but ultimately futile. And the case is being made from entirely the wrong perspective. Wind Farms are "ugly". So what? Most people will never see them. "They spoil my enjoyment of the hills". Well go and walk somewhere else then. You see, these arguments are presented from the hillgoers' point of view. They are meaningless to the punter in Pollokshields. And why should we expect otherwise?

"Your electric will cost twice as much, pal" - now there's a point that may have some resonance for the urban Scot. One of the things that helped me succeed as a salesman was my innate sense of what really motivated my customers, which was often diametrically opposed to what they said mattered to them.

I can't change any of this, and I guess the SNP would say that what the Scots do in their own backyard is their business, but seeing the Scottish hills bound in a web of high voltage cables and heavy duty roads, skewered by couple of thousand turbines - well, speaking as a tourist, that's a sight I'd rather pass on, thanks very much Mr Ewing.

Roger Smith has written an excellent piece in latest (July 2014) TGO titled "The Destruction of Stronelairg" in which he says that the Monadhliath has been assaulted and battered by industrialisation to the point that it may never recover. This is the final paragraph:

Whereas up to now as a route vetter for the Challenge, I always encouraged Challengers to explore the Monadhliath and discover its unique qualities, in future my advice is more likely to be to avoid the area. This is a tragedy which was perfectly avoidable and the whole sorry saga leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

A damning verdict indeed.

The map below (courtesy of Alan Sloman's blog) shows what is in store for this part of the Monadhliath. This will truly be a magnificent landscape trashed to produce an unreliable source of electricity in the most expensive way possible. And the same greener than green right-on types who support this costly eco-vandalism also have the nerve to bang on about 'fuel poverty' and how it's all the energy companies' fault. Pass the sick bag, Alice.

map of proposed Stronelairg Wind Farm
The recently approved Stronelairg power station. Red crosses are the turbine towers. The brown & purple squiggles are roads.    

What's been done cannot now be easily undone, not in our lifetimes anyway, and yet I sense a turning of the tide. A number of wind farms have not produced the returns that their investors envisaged, even with generous subsidy, and subsidies look likely to diminish as new technologies arrive, and fuel derived from fracking etc. eases costs of conventional generation and the risks to supply. It may be that the great gold rush for on-shore wind power is coming to a close, and the next couple of years will see the high water mark for new development. I hope so. Wind has a part to pay in the energy mix, of course, but Scotland has seized the green baton with a manic fervour so deep that more damage is being done to the environment than a slight temperature change (which in any event will not be mitigated one jot by Ewing's windmills).

So with luck it is possible that, although despoiled and diminished, there will still be enough left to enjoy. Let's hope so. I really do love these less frequented parts of the highlands. Away from the tramp of the Munroists and the Corbett baggers lie some truly exquisite, seemingly undiscovered landscapes, some remote, some just a few miles away from the tourist hot spots - and no, I won't tell you where they are, and I certainly won't let on to Fergus Ewing!

Right now we have next year to look forward to - and as it will be Al's 20th we have to make it an absolute belter. Plans will be made for parties and celebrations (don't drop any grapes, please) along a route carefully crafted to avoid Fergus's follies. It will however take in Scotland's finest top shelves and I should point out that it is traditional for participants to buy Challenge Legends (like wot I am) a dram. Obviously on his 20th, Al will become a double Legend, so he will, of course, expect doubles.

Here's to Challenge 2015. Let the joy begin. It already has here - I'm sipping a delightful pre-prandial Dalwhinnie.


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