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Scottish Parliament Speech: Hill Tracks (Scottish Uplands) (June 2010)

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I thank Peter Peacock for lodging the motion. I suppose that I have an interest to declare, in that I wrote the entry in the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" on the historian James Bryce, who was the first to propose an Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill. That bill was defeated in the 1880s by deerstalking interests, but was the forerunner of the access that we now enjoy, and of what could be called the over-access that some tracks provide.

About 25 years ago, I crossed the pass in Wester Ross that separates Achnashellach from Torridon. I remember that, when I was at the summit, I strayed 100yd eastwards to escape the midges. That was not difficult, as the surface is of great stone slabs of almost billiard-table smoothness. There, I discovered something that amazed and still amazes me. At the centre of one slab was an indentation, and at its centre was a spherical boulder that was a bit smaller than a football. It was possible - only just - to lift it, and if it had been allowed to trundle down the rest of the slabs, something that had been there since at least the last great ice age and for possibly 10,000 to 30,000 years would have been disturbed. That gives a sense of how remote the Scottish Highlands are and how much they are an empty quarter, as John Buchan would have called it, of the human mind.

However, such isolation is breaking down. As Alison McInnes said, the quarter has dropped in size by a quarter in the past decade. That is partly because of wind farms but also because of our prioritisation of mobility, from the trail biker to the quad biker and the four-by-four. A track that is blasted and bulldozed to allow for the power of all-terrain vehicles will be unsurfaced and, in that sense, temporary. I have seen - I speak more from experience in the Alps - heavy rains erode a surface so that it becomes a watercourse and its floods accumulate in ditches. Over time, such a track becomes as impassable and as subject to landslips as are the whin and heather around it - indeed, far more so.

The additional traffic that hill roads generate is passed on to our inheritance of common roads, whose condition is frequently near catastrophic through overuse, as members remarked in the earlier debate on cycling. The hill tracks campaign has rightly expressed concern about the increased construction of tracks, particularly for vehicular use. Those concerns are by no means aimed against the legitimate rights of crofters, farmers and forestry workers. The issue becomes problematic when uplands are involved with no restriction or control over the nature of the construction.

Way back at the beginning of the last century, the Liberal politician Charles Masterman called the United Kingdom "landlords' country", whereas in much of the continent was peasant country that confronted the visitor. There was a dense network of routes between farms, crofts and the like that could easily be turned over to use by cyclists and pedestrians. There is a need for more byway construction in the Highlands. That takes up the point that was made in the earlier debate on active travel about access for bicycles and pedestrians when main roads are often congested and dangerous. We should follow the example of the continental countries that accommodate cyclists, riders and walkers on such field ways. There is a network of those between France and Germany and in the alpine areas.

It is not only the construction of such paths or more careful regulation that we ought to bear in mind. We must also remember that, within a decade, we might have to live with oil at $200 a barrel, when in 2000 it was $10. As with this afternoon's debate on active travel, that ought to concentrate the mind wonderfully on the country that we want to live in, and if possible move in, in a decade or so.

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