So tomorrow (April 21) is John Muir Day – the birthday of ecologist, naturalist and writer John Muir who was born in 1838.
And it got me thinking. His influence is everywhere – the John Muir Way runs near my house, the John Muir Trust helps protect some of my favourite Scottish landscapes and both myself and my children have completed John Muir Awards, given for work with nature.
We’ve got a lot to be grateful to him for so I thought I’d write this wee piece about him to mark the day but also make it the first in a series looking at Scotland’s outdoor pioneers, those folk we owe a debt of gratitude to for paving the way for us today.
Scotland has had John Muir Day since 2013 but all this recognition has been relatively recent – for years Muir was somewhat forgotten here as his pioneering work was done in the US.
Born in Dunbar in East Lothian, the third of eight children, Muir grew up loving the countryside around his home, hunting for birds’ nests and going on walks with his grandfather. He moved with his family to the US when he was 11 but Scotland was always with him, not least in the form of a book of Robert Burns’ poetry which he carried with him on his mountain travels.
This extraordinary man studied, explored, wrote about and fought for the wilderness that he loved. His influential writings helped create the first national park in the US, Yosemite. He took the US president Theodore Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite wilderness in 1903 and convinced him that the country’s wild places needed more protection from man’s intrusion. He was an inventor, botanist, geologist, glaciologist and activist whose influence is almost impossible to quantify. And that influence bounced back to Scotland in the form of an increased interest in protecting our wild places, even if it was nearly 100 years before we got our first National Park.
Muir lived before the days of sound bites but because he understood the beauty and power of language every bit as much as that of nature, I find his quotes far from meaningless platitudes. Instead they have a deep resonance and often come to me as I’m out on the hills. His most famous quotes are probably: “The mountains are calling and I must go,” and “Wildness is a
necessity”, which you can fit on a T-shirt but which seem to have layers of meaning. My favourite is: “All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” A quote I try to keep with me to remember wherever I am, so long as I’m in nature, I’m in the best place in the world!
The Victorians liked to knock about in the mountains and glens of Scotland. However, to be made welcome you really had to be looking after huge numbers of sheep or shooting some of the wildlife. Early climbers, for example, were often banned from what are now popular routes unless they were from the right part of society; and that right part of society wasn’t the part that worked in mills or even on a farm below the rock faces.
By the early part of 20th century access was still restricted, and not just by landowners, many early pioneers in the Arrochar Alps cycled from the shipyards of Glasgow to get to the high hills.
After the Second World War the advantages of outdoor education were becoming more of a “thing” and places such as Glenmore Lodge were established – in 1947 the Scottish Section of the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Scottish Tourist Board used the Aviemore Hotel as a base for a course involving snow and ice climbing, hillwalking and skiing.
Field sports were still the king but wildlife and the appreciation of being active in the landscape was appreciated more
Now we are in a much better place in terms of looking after and having access to the environment but maybe not so good in our urbanised life at understanding nature (there’s a difference in appreciating it).
But still arguments rage about how we treat the outdoors – a lot is viewed as black and white but even then things become muddled. Take grouse shooting and the heather moors where it takes place. If, as many call for, natural tree cover was increased on the moors the numbers of grouse would fall. Then, some of the people who wanted rid of grouse shooting would lament the decline of the birds. Those with an interest in such things could be forgiven for thinking that is an absurd way of looking at an issue but if we want to change the way we in Scotland, all of us, look at nature, it has to include everyone, not just the experts.
My children are going through the Scottish education system and have been given talks about farming – by someone from Tesco, not a farmer. They’ve also learned about climate change and the need to act, but it is taught on a global level, on a local level they learn about turning lights off or walking to school but not about land use. Imagine if primary school children in the leafy Glasgow suburb of Hyndland were being taught about a need to cull rabbits – there would be outrage. But it is that balance in how the countryside is treated which will see improvements, rather than a blinkered view that things are right or wrong. I am not particularly keen on deer stalking as a “sport” but if other people are doing it and keeping numbers down then that will have a benefit, as long as other land uses are taken into consideration.
It is that balance in the countryside between nature, farming, and a whole host of other activity from rock climbing to deer stalking which also keeps local communities going. If one sector went too far – a gamekeeper allowing deer numbers to get too high, or someone bulldozing sub-arctic tundra to build a railway we, as a society, would be better informed to keep them in check, rather than the current attitude which seems to be “ we don’t like that, so ban it completely”. Over to you education secretary – time for a re-think in the way we are educated.
Good news at last! At the last minute the Scottish government has stepped in with a support package to help outdoor education centres which have been at the risk of closure.
They found £2million to mitigate the financial challenges facing the residential outdoor education sector as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The government said the package “will include funding to help centres provide safe, impactful outdoor learning experiences to support young people’s education and wellbeing through this challenging period”.
Congratulations must go to all behind the #SaveYourOutdoorCentres campaign – this is great news because there is no doubt that the issue is about more than children getting a kick out of abseiling or kayaking. Outdoor centres have a two-fold benefit, one outward-looking, one inward-looking. The outward looking benefit is that young people learn to appreciate the outdoors – see my previous blog on why the Government needed to act here. After a summer of littering, vandalism and outdoor toileting gone wrong it’s rather important for the future of our outdoor heritage. But it also has an inward-looking benefit, a benefit to the individual. Risk-taking, teamwork and going beyond the comfort zone. Yes, you can learn some of those things in the classroom but nothing you can do sat behind a desk compares to the feeling of achievement of having abseiled down a rockface after standing wobbly-kneed at the top for ten minutes.
A couple of years ago my daughter went on P7 school camp to an outdoor centre down in Dumfries-shire and she loved it. Probably the best bit of her whole time at primary school – and that’s saying something as she loved the school. And she already knew a fair bit about the outdoors having been dragged around the countryside with her dad. But even I, an outdoor enthusiast who has spent their whole life banging on about the power of nature, was surprised by the transformative effect on the whole class.
Sadly, last year the P7s at her old school missed out on their week’s residential because of Covid. Like so much in 2020, it was cancelled and the knock-on effect means this year’s P7s might also be left without the chance to enjoy and learn on a residential trip. Hopefully, the government funding will go some way to help centres provide some of them with at least day courses.
For me introducing the joy of the outdoors to just one person who would otherwise have thought that sort of thing wasn’t for them is priceless. If you don’t believe me, watch this video made with Ardroy Outdoor Education Centre.
The Cairngorms do pretty well as a tourist destination – even in a normal Covid-free year it is often hard to book accommodation in the spring, summer and autumn months and in the winter skiers and snowboarders love the place, when it snows.
In recent years there has been much written about and argued over when it comes to the funicular railway and associated “ski resort”. The details are long and complex but it is enough to say millions have been spent and at different times it has gone bust or broken down.
Now the government has announced £16m will go into repairing the railway as part of a £20.51m package which Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said will “unlock the full potential of Cairn Gorm to make it a destination people can enjoy all year-round.”
There are a number of things which raised my eyebrows at this. Not least the staggering amount of money being spent in one area when other ski resorts were getting nothing and, as covered in my last blog, that there was no money to save Scotland’s outdoor education centres – shut because of Covid and then not invested in by the same Scottish Government.
Further, Cairn Gorm is already a year round destination – the main thing that has hindered it is that some years it doesn’t snow very much and when it snows a lot, the roads are closed.
You could also invest in keeping the roads open – imagine if the routes to ski resorts in the Alps or Pyrenees closed as often as ours do? But that’s not very cool, a funicular railway, however, is big and shiny – it looks great on photos, better than a snowplough anyway.
And it is big and shiny things that Scottish Government appear to be in thrall to – think about the way our two National Parks were launched, with press releases about a Loch Lomond visitor centre containing a Jenner’s outlet and the focus in the Cairngorms was the funicular railway.
Peatland restoration, conservation of habitats for upland birds or reforestation with native trees could have been the main focus – but a peat bog doesn’t look great in a photo op.
Think also why there is no money for outdoor education centres, infrastructure such as toilets on the extremely popular North Coast 500 or for car parks on over-crowded Skye – none of those things are big and shiny.
A Scottish Government press release about this investment had the title “Strengthening Cairn Gorm’s future” which led the cynic in me to think Cairn Gorm did pretty well for millions of years without human intervention and if there was really a concern for it as a habitat, and geologically, you would minimise any intrusion on the landscape rather than build something big and shiny like a funicular railway.
Yes, there need to be built infrastructure to help the skiers, our landscapes are there to be enjoyed and some disturbance is inevitable but please, let’s stop thinking big and shiny is best.
This summer, as the hills and glens were thronged with more visitors than ever before, there were reports of much anti-social behaviour, from littering to campfire left smouldering, from verges used as toilets to trees being chopped down for firewood. Photographs on social media from harassed rangers left to clear up the crap led to much hand-wringing among the outdoors community (I include myself here) about a throwaway culture where tents are cheap and not worth the bother of taking down and woods can be used as open toilets because someone else will clear up the mess – that’s what happens on hols.
I think the general conclusion was that a bit of education would have helped – that we (the outdoors-loving community) had been lucky enough, as children, to have been taken out by our families or by the Scouts or other outdoor education bodies with adults who showed us how to light a safe campfire, how to build a shelter; and we didn’t just learn how to do it but why we do it, why it’s important. We learnt a respect for the countryside and a desire to leave it in the same state as we found it so we and others could continue to enjoy it.
So in a year which has generally been dripping with irony, it should have come as no surprise that the Scottish government should on the one hand bemoan the state the countryside was left in and on the other fail to support outdoor education centres, the main places where many children and young people get their first, sometimes their only, taste of the outdoors. I should say here, yes it wasn’t just Scots causing the problems (just as it wasn’t just the English) and yes it wasn’t just young people – in fact not even mainly young people. But instilling a love of and respect for the outdoors is something which should be started with young people.
It must be hard to be in government. All those people clamouring for attention and wanting their concerns addressed. However, there are sometimes issues which to the average person seem to be no-brainers, and one is supporting outdoor education centres.
Outdoor education centres are not just places where children and young people get an adrenaline rush when they abseil, kayak or rock climb, they help build health and well-being. For the disadvantaged it can be first taste of the great outdoors and for all it is a chance to build confidence away from any pressures at home, or in the academic setting of schools.
In August the Scottish Government said councils could not allow school residential trips to take place until the spring term of 2021, and that they would not review it until December. That meant that without financial support many of these places would close. So far there has been none.
Re-opening schools has been a priority but not all of education has been given the same level of importance. Classroom activity is good but activity at outdoor education centres is also incredibly beneficial to children and young people. It might not lead directly to exams but that should not mean it is less relevant to a proper education. We are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Schools become important not just because of education but because they are child-minders for parents needing to get back to work to kickstart the economy. And somewhere along the line, the education bit gets lost – it becomes about logistics; shunt the kids here so the parents can go there. But education isn’t just exams, it doesn’t have to be indoor, desk-bound learning. It is at the moment because we have made it so. But can we not take a step back and say what do we want our children to know, to have learned, to be able to do in 20 years and prioritise our education system around that?
None of us knows what kind of world is ahead for our young people – if we didn’t know it before, this year has most certainly taught us we don’t even know what the world will look like the following week. More than ever, our next generation need to be adaptable, flexible, resilient. They need to be problem-solvers, team players, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to care about our country and our world.
However, even with outdoor centres, the amount of countryside education our children get is well below what should be the norm in a first world country. At my daughter’s state secondary only a handful get to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and local rangers now have to charge schools for courses (despite them working for the same council which is providing the children’s education). This reduces an introduction to the outdoors children are getting and reinforces the belief in them that exams are the only thing worth worrying about.
The Scottish Government said earlier this month it was “fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers”. So far, that appears to be untrue.
Please write to your MSP and the Scottish Government, and sign this petition to pressure the decision makes into making a decision.
Exercise is good for you, we all know that. But before lockdown many of us didn’t do enough. I might go on big walks every week but in between them I can be as guilty as anyone at avoiding anything too strenuous – my only exercise sometimes being to walk to my office at the bottom of the garden (and our back garden is not as big as Monty Don’s).
Then came the lockdown restrictions and a feeling that we were trapped in our homes – only allowed to get out once a day for a walk or cycle, or jog. As a result we grabbed that chance and religiously started going out, planning our route to maximise whatever form of greenery / nature we could – all we needed was two feet.
That is a wonderful thing and with any luck some will continue to stride out near where they live. People have used the word leveller incorrectly during the pandemic but a local walk is for everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t need any fancy “kit” that hillwalkers can obsess about (me included) – waterproof, breathable or, stretchy clothes are not necessary, you can just wear whatever you like, although it is best to change out of your pyjamas and slippers.
And, there is no competitive side to it – people compare walks they have enjoyed, rather than talk about how fast they did it, how many miles they went or how tough they had to be to get through it.
As a family, we have discovered new places nearby, observed nature and enjoyed the feeling of being in the fresh air. My daughter knows the difference between a health walk and a stroll – when she has the idea of doing the former, it can leave me trailing behind but that is not a bad thing. The health side is a real plus to a local walk – you don’t need a fancy gym membership with cardiovascular optimisation apparatus or a supply of isotonic drinks, just go out of the front door and start walking. Remember, all you need is two feet.
I am a journalist whose love of the outdoors and all things rural has seen me walking the highest Munros, eating Scottish seafood in Singapore, stalking deer with a camera and just about everything imaginable in between... Find out more...