Friday, September 9, 2011

power lines, uprisings and cattle droving

'You'll maybe no be welcome in there now,' the driver said to me as I got out of his pickup at Laggan Stores. 'It’s Chief Anti Campaign Woman runs the shop’.

He was referring to the fact that ‘Balfour Beatty’ was emblazoned along the side of the vehicle in which I'd just hitched a lift – the company now installing a much resisted power line between Beauly and Denny. In fact, I knew ‘Chief Anti Campaign Woman’, and so I was welcome. But the BB boys had already told me how they were barred from certain B&Bs, pubs and even roads, because of their association with the project.

This had a familiar ring. I live in the heart of Scotland, where large-scale hydroelectric systems were installed as part of a socialist vision in the late Forties to give work to men returning from war and to modernise some of the glens of the Highlands still in the dark. Not everyone welcomed the large-scale engineering that poured concrete across crevices in the land, dammed and tunnelled and diverted water channels. Opposition was so fierce that in Pitlochry, where the village of Faskally was flooded, all but one of the local hotels refused hospitality to any workers associated with the scheme. The fear was the loss of tourism value of the area. Today 500,000 visitors a year flock to see the dam and fish ladder.

I had no idea when I decided to take the Corrieyairack pass from Laggan in the upper Spey valley 25 miles through the Monadhliath mountains to Fort Augustus, that my chief walking companions would be striding pylons and the BB boys. What attracted me was the history of cattle droving on this route, still common till the second half of the nineteenth century, and the paving of the way by General Wade in the early 18th-century as part of attempts to quell Jacobite uprisings. It’s a brave way, crossing a high mountain pass of nearly 800 metres and answered my attraction to old ways and through routes -- paths with a purpose. It was a link for me between East and West, offering a new mental map, altering geographies largely determined by the twin track references of the easterly A9 and westerly A82, which both stretch towards the north.

Having done little long distance walking recently, I also wanted peace, fresh air, mountain heights, the possibility of a last gasp of light before autumn set in. I hadn't expected BB to be slicing new roads along the glen for pylon construction access; to be accompanied by concrete mixers, bleeping diggers, the flash of fluorescent jackets along a parallel track to my north for the first six miles.

General Wade's roads are famous for the beauty of their stone bridges. Framed within one of the lovely double arches of Garva Bridge was a busy scene of contemporary bridge construction just half a mile away. I'm fascinated by engineering of any sort and would love to know what principles of construction and tools both Wade and Balfour Beatty had in common, and what has changed.

It seems to me that although we now revere Wade’s well-laid roads and stone bridges that have sunk and meshed themselves into the landscape, the disruption and mess and mass of men working might well have seemed intrusive at the time; an alien force moving north and west, demanding order from wild tracts of land. The drovers certainly resented them, claiming that the paving would harm their beasts’ feet, finally leading to the practice of shoeing cattle. The drovers were also hostile to enclosures and to the new dykes which restricted their movement in an effort to protect arable land. I was reminded of reading somewhere that dry stone dykes, when first laying out their great, straight intrusions with glittery bare stone, were considered an abomination on the landscape.

Enclosures. Wade. Balfour Beatty. Change. We don’t like it. I find the controversy over these giant pylons interesting. Ugly but necessary to link renewable installations to the grid and save us from climate change? Or an act of vandalism? Such thoughts kept my attitude to the BB work curious rather than hostile, as I ambled on alongside the march of the existing – more petite – pylon line. I’ve sometimes been appalled by their intrusion, but sometimes visually enjoyed the lines they make through a chaotic landscape, and sometimes thought how early on in the lighting up of the Highlands, they might have been seen as a symbol of great progress and modernisation by communities affected.

At Garva Bridge, I left Balfour Beatty behind and started to climb gently on a road of Roman straightness. Overhead ravens croaked and groups of geese flew against me, trailing sadnesses east. It felt like the real journey had begun, and all the usual pleasures of walking alone returned to me along with sore feet and the ache in my hips from carrying a full pack. As seems inevitable when you walk west, a wall of wetness awaited me somewhere ahead; lumpen masses of cloud brooding over the hills I was to cross.

Over a rise in the road, came the suggestion of a horn sounding, then over its brow poured a red-brown cavalcade of cattle, jostling hoof and horn, complaining gently as they were pushed forward by a dog, a Land Rover and its horn -- the modern day drover’s tools. The cattle passed me coyly, curiously, skittling off the road to leave me a wide berth, and then gradually quietening into the valley behind me.

On into the wide gentle strath, and some sunshine, I was definitely now alone with the pylons, the stone bridges, the cobbled road that then began leading up more steeply towards a rake of zig-zags to the summit of the pass. A rising wind rang in the power lines, making them sing out and growl above me. Views opened to the west – the spiky outlines of Knoydart’s peaks jammed up against each other, navy blue; a matching weight of sky seared with blizzards of white light.

I started to descend towards the wooded ravines of Glen Tarff, found a green bank on which to pitch my tent. Shivered as the wind lashed, and the wet weather encroached.

The next morning, I followed the silvery strip of wet road down to gentler climes, welcoming the return of colour in beds of heather and flashing rainbows, the muted reflections of Loch Ness. And I met Balfour Beatty again, climbing upwards with a similar clamour of engine, splattering mud, bleeping warnings on their road-cutting toward the other team. From Fort Augustus, I journeyed on to Moniack Mhor, where I was guest reader on a travel-writing course run by the fabulous pairing of Chris Stewart and Mairi Hedderwick. It was wonderful to arrive, windswept and dishevelled off the Great Glen Way, refreshed by the sort of travel that I love best.

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