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Waymarking in the Scottish hills. The time has come.

When you write opinionated commentary for a living you have to expect to make enemies. It goes with the job. You can�t be nice about people all the time, especially politicians. Even when you�re nice about them they take offence.
When you write opinionated commentary for a living you have to expect to make enemies. It goes with the job. You can’t be nice about people all the time, especially politicians. Even when you’re nice about them they take offence. However, I suspect I will lose more friends from this column than from any I have written – except, perhaps barring when I said that some of Burns’ poetry is sentimental doggerel. Some icons really aren’t worth being clastic about.
No, the reason this column will attract such ire is that I am about to tread on very dangerous territory indeed: Scotland’s wild land. I have long believed that our unique refusal to introduce waymarking and a proper system of highland pathways is an anachronism. Now I am beginning to think it is more than that: it is pig-headed, conceited, environmentally damaging and, given the numbers going onto the hill, increasingly dangerous. Thousands of people come to Scotland from all over the world at this time of year to experience Scotland’s mountains and are bemused and shocked to discover that there is no proper system of waymarking. It is time to end this silliness and start giving people the odd direction or two.

Some long distance pathways are marked, of course, like the West Highland Way tourist route. But away from the Lowland bridleways there is virtually no waymarking in the Scottish Highlands. If you spend any time hill walking in Scotland you rapidly discover that it is almost impossible to find your way around without a map and compass and a good deal of local knowledge. Especially on the higher mountain routes where knowing where you are can be a matter of life and death.
Yet, if you go to the French Alps or the German Black Forest, you can hardly move for signs telling you where you are, where you are going and how long it is going to take to get there. In the Black Forest alone there are 45,000km of waymarked hiking routes, Scotland has 570km. In Germany they even have shelters every couple of miles where you can rest and get fresh water. There are a handful of mountain bothies in Scotland, but nothing comparable.
And don’t tell me that the Germans don’t value their hills – they protect their remote areas with a dedication we can scarcely imagine and hill walking is almost a national obsession. It’s the same in France. Not just the Grand Randonee, but almost every significant mountain pathway is colour-coded and signposted. If you go into the mountains in Haute Provence or the French Alps you will find red, white and yellow markings at almost every juncture telling you where you are. The 240,000km of waymarked routes , maintained by 6000 volunteers, are considered a great national resource and an essential tool of mountain management.
But suggest anything like this in Scotland and you are likely to get a tirade of abuse. It is a hugely explosive issue. Even cairns are considered an act of vandalism. Many Scottish mountaineers and ramblers believe the purity of the land would be destroyed were anything like the continental system introduced here, even though some Scottish hills are being destroyed by erosion from random walkers. Why is Scotland alone afflicted by this mountain nihilism? In part it is history and land ownership. Scotland used to be a game reserve for the English upper classes, and they didn’t want to encourage ordinary people onto the moors.
Mountain elitists today argue that people should not be encouraged to go into the hills without a compass and a knowledge of how to use it. Well, yes, in an ideal world everyone would be able to navigate in a white-out, but there are precious few who can. I’ve been on Outward Bound and mountain leadership courses and I’ve been going into the hills for 30 years but I still can’t navigate confidently in bad weather. But the main point is that on many mountain walks a compass is largely useless because it isn’t precise enough to tell you which fork to take in an indistinct path or which rock feature marks the start of a route.
I go up Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor three or four times a year, and I still sometimes start on the wrong buttress. One of my favourite hills is Liathach in Torridon – one of the great mountain ridge walks of the world. But when you come to the end of it, there is a choice of paths and if you rely on a compass you will almost certainly take the wrong one. A simple marker, a daub of paint, a cairn and there would prevent a lot of damaged knees.
Sacrilege! To deface the mountain amounts to criminal damage in the eyes of many Scottish hill fraternity. To which I say: if you really want to keep Liathach to yourselves, don’t build a path up it. For, incredibly, there is now a stone-built path – NOT waymarked of course – leading almost to the start of the ridge, from where walkers are left entirely to their own devices. To lure people up mountains and then not show them how to get down is as irresponsible as it is incomprehensible. It is the same on many popular mountains in Scotland.
These stone staircases have been built to combat erosion. But the principle cause of erosion is the impact of the aimless feet of thousands of hill walkers losing their way. Some mountains, like Stac Pollaidh in Wester Ross, will probably never recover. There are whole hillsides in Glencoe that have been completely destroyed, like Clachaig Gully descent route from the Aonach Eagach.
It is amazing that there are so few accidents on the Scottish mountains given the absence of waymarking. Hill walking is a mass participation sport and people come here from all over the world. You can’t just tell them not to come unless they’ve spent 20 years learning all the routes. Anyway, it is a kind of conceit, a form of vanity, that only people who are experts in hill craft should be allowed to go on the hills. It is mountain apartheid. The paradox of wild land is that it has to be managed to keep it that way. It’s time to start telling hill walkers where to go.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


5 thoughts on “Waymarking in the Scottish hills. The time has come.

  1. Completely support you in this Iain. Although I'm no hillwalker I live in an area of Perthshire which attracts hillwalkers from all over and, with the exception of the Cataran Trail, there are no waymarkings.Walkers from Europe are particularly confused when they are so used to good signage in their own countries and I think many decide not to return to visit our beautiful country.

    Posted by subrosa | September 26, 2009, 1:07 am
  2. i have to say i have mixed views on this.i selfishly perhaps enjoy the solitude that you sometimes you have in the hills.i suppose waymarking would increase the amount of people accessing the hills.what you said about landowners did get me thinking are we just following their idea of 'guarding'the hills for our own benefit.this possibly is not in the mind set of the say the germans or french. so easier access is not a bad thing.however waymarking tends to channel people onto 'routes' which the landowners may prefer.

    Posted by hector | September 26, 2009, 9:23 am
  3. A very expertly written article – well done. However I disagree with all the above as you show a complete lack of understanding of the issue. I also disagree with deleting comments that don't support your argument.

    Posted by Steven Delaney | October 5, 2009, 3:51 pm
  4. On this issue you could not be more wrong Iain. Lack of waymarks and signposts is one of the main features of hillwalking in Scotland (and the rest of Britain and Ireland incidentally) that sets it apart from the tamer, more spoiled continental norm. This uniqueness should be celebrated, not eroded by misguided emulation of other traditions – and there are plenty of dedicated continental walkers who would agree. It is not lost walkers who cause erosion so much as too many walkers all following the same route; something that signposts would only exacerbate. Waymarking is not a good way to improve safety either, since poor visibility is common throughout the year (far commoner than on the Continent); fail to spot the next sign through the mist and you'd need a map and compass after all, plus the ability to use them of course. That's not elitist or nihilist (whatever do you mean by that comment anyway?); it's simply the minimum sensible level of ability required of anyone who hopes to remain safe in the hills. We lack the traditional infrastructure of manned huts common in the Alps – and without that, signposts are simply redundant at best. Marking trails would encourage more ill-prepared under-skilled people to go to places they really shouldn't; it would lead to more accidents, not fewer. Signposts would also undermine the unique selling point of the British hills, small but serious mountains in which self reliance is the key to wellbeing. People ought to be encouraged to learn the required skills, not to seek to reduce the mountains to their inadequate level of expertise. If you genuinely cannot master the key navigation skills as you claim (though they are not rocket science) then I would humbly suggest that you try harder. You dispaly both arrogance and ignorance on this topic. It is tempting to suggest that you stick to political reporting, and I mean that helpfully, not in a derogatory way.

    Posted by dannyboy | October 5, 2009, 4:30 pm
  5. If you know how to use a compass and read an OS map you dont need waymarking. If you can't use a map and compass you should avoid hills. Waymarking will bring about a false sense of security which may be fatally dashed by low cloud or carelessness.

    Posted by Rory | October 6, 2009, 11:57 am

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