Old, well known paths are like familiar friends, unchanging, dependable, there for you when you need them. I’ve walked this little path many times but as soon as I leave the road I feel uneasy, something has changed.
There is a plague in the Highland countryside, an infection that is changing the face of the Highlands forever. Just about everywhere I go, and I go lots of places, freshly bulldozed tracks head up our green and pleasant glens, leaving long wicked grey scars in their wake. ‘This is progress,’ they will tell you. The tracks, I am sure they would explain, when you protest at their random wanderings, are there for a purpose and to help the highland economy. They can tell me all that, and perhaps they are right, but each time I see a freshly bulldozed track I feel a twinge of sadness that another quiet glen has passed into memory.
So today, when I leave the main road near Loch Carron, to head up to the little bothy, Coire Fionnaraich that nestles beneath the hills on the old way over to Torridon, my heart sinks when I notice a shinny steel gate that wasn’t there the last time I walked this way a couple of years ago. I pass the little house, through the wee wood and then on towards the bothy. Moments later my feet hit the hard, uncompromising gravel of a newly constructed road. It’s not tarmac but it’s pretty close. Half a mile later there is a new bridge across the river and beyond that a building complete with satellite dish that sits in as much sympathy with the landscape as a branch of Macdonalds.
A newly pained sign gleams at me, telling me that the footpath does not cross the bridge but heads right. I detest signs on the hills, my love of Scotways, the rights of way charity that peppers the landscape with useless metal indicators, is well known, (if you a reading this in America, you might need an irony alert here.) Although even I must accept that there is a point to this sign as the new path is not yet on any maps.
I turn on to the newly made path with growing sadness. What was here only two years ago was a delight of a path. A path created by the feet of hillwalkers, clansmen and shepherds over hundreds of years. It took a line in sympathy with the landscape. Here and there it had been maintained as it had to be, but the work that was done had not changed its character. I knew this path well, have followed it on occasions for 40 years. I’ve walked it in summer heat and in winter blizzards, been soaked on in torrential heat and tortured by midges in the summer. It’s a right of way, part of the Cape Wrath trail and a significant path in the Highlands.
It’s snowing gently, on this cold November day, as the path steepens and begins to rise. All trace of the old path has gone, the new route is twice the width of the old path and ‘engineered’ with steps constructed and drainage. There has obviously been a great deal of work done here and no little expense but why? The old path seemed pretty solid to me and didn’t need such a drastic overhaul as to make it unrecognisable. The old way used to cross a small stream which could be a little tricky after heavy rainfall and might have even meant you got your feet wet. Walkers with wet feet are totally unacceptable in the 21st century so now there is a nice bridge in place. Heaven forbid steaming socks by the bothy fire.
More on bothies and my adventures in The Last Hillwalker
Eventually I made it in to the little bothy beside the track and spent a happy few minutes munching cheese sandwiches and reading the bothy book, safely out of the growing snowstorm. Nobody else bothered to mention the state of the track and the bulldozed order that has been wrought. Even some bloke called Geoff Allan, who has written some sort of Bothy Bible, had been there. Who on earth would read that? Perhaps I am just some elderly curmudgeon moaning, as all old men do, that things were better in my day but these tracks are spreading everywhere. The Monadhliath mountains, just south of Inverness and straddling the national park border are riddled with them. What used to be remote moorland is now networked with tracks running through and between wind farms and the linking shooting butts of the tweed wearing grouse haters. The Monadhliath are now a vast desert populated only by birds awaiting slaughter, a few deer, whose number is also up and few wealthy folk who panic if more than twenty feet from there luxury all-terrain vehicles.
There is precious little evidence of any attempt to impose planning restrictions on the estates who construct these motorways. Perhaps one day, men older than me, will look back with misty eyed fondness on the tracks I revile today. By that stage the whole of the Highlands will have been turned into a car park for access to wind turbines and shooting anything that moves.