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Rob Roy Rides Again (March 2009)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Foresting Glen Arklet goes against the essence of what makes Scotland unique. Locals should evoke the spirit of Rob Roy


Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, the ‘Three Lochs tour’ existed. You took the train to Callander – ‘Tannochbrae’ of Dr Finlay's Casebook (brought to you by Scott's best-seller Rob Roy, 1817) – then travelled by bus to Trossachs Pier on Loch Katrine. Thence down the loch on the old steamer Sir Walter Scott to Stronachlachar, where another bus took you up to the mountain loch in Glen Arklet, and down alongside a torrent to Inversnaid, where you boarded the paddleboat Maid of the Loch to Balloch and back to Glasgow by Electric Blue Train. From scenes like these, Old Scotia's grandeur sprang.

Glasgow used Loch Katrine as its reservoir after 1859, and the Corporation exploited the resource brilliantly. Three Lochs tours started. Queen Victoria made the trip, and Gladstone. Jules Verne wrote about it in (as ever) excessive detail. But it was a troubled young Catholic priest, visiting from a slum parish in Glasgow, who was moved to write one of the greatest of all nature poems about glen, loch and torrent:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins' sharp sensuality captured Glen Arklet's surrounding hills thrusting great shoulders of "wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern", with heather in season as purple as in Brigadoon, and in winter the jagged summits of the Arrochar Alps, sighted across the gulch of Loch Lomond are crowned with snow. It is, to use an overworked governmental image, an ‘iconic view’.

Which is now threatened. A project has evolved in the dense undergrowth that is the Scottish administrative state, to create something called the Great Trossachs Forest. This is supposed to sweep from Loch Katrine over Glen Arklet to the banks of Loch Lomond at Inversnaid. It is going to act as a means of capturing carbon dioxide and also to enable wildlife to roam across a variety of habitats from east to west.

All very Blue Peter. But Glen Arklet has never been forested, since the first Scots chopped the Great Caledonian Forest for firewood three thousand years back. It is heath, moor and blanket bog.

Had it been up to the local authorities, the foresting of Arklet would probably have been a non-starter. But two prize quangoes are up to the job: the Loch Lomond National Park and the Forestry Commission. The first has not been notably successful in keeping Loch Lomond free from jet-skiing and the bonnie banks from alfresco bevvying. The second is obsessed by the old curse of ‘arbitrary numerical targets’, and wants to make good the clearance of 20,000 sheep from the locality as a result of the hill-farming collapse. Hence the Trossachs Forest.

But as usual they reckoned without the locals, headed by the community council, who have petitioned and gained the support of the provost of Stirling council and the local MSP Bruce Crawford. Last Wednesday, they held a consciousness-raising reception at the Scottish parliament, convincingly presenting the visual and environmental damages that planting in Glen Arklet would do to MSPs, researchers and the interested public. My own reaction as the local MSP was: "Loch Arklet is a miniature of the country: what makes Scotland Scotland: and within an evening's drive of Glasgow. If we allow ourselves to lose it, our entire tourist industry is problematic."

Will this register on Park Authority and Forestry Commission? Both have been undiplomatic; no soft-sell (a usual tactic) has been tried on the locals. Shut up and accept our decision, would sum matters up. Such a line, deployed by lowlanders in the 18th century, notably didn't convince Rob Roy MacGregor. We may be in for another such stramash. But better that than a bourach (the Gaels have the word for ‘total cock-up’). And Manley Hopkins' words are graven on the ‘speaking stones’ outside the Holyrood parliament: "Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!"

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