To be moved by mountains: Scotland's high places are the ultimate realm of the wild, yet we strangle and devastate them, says Jim Crumley

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The Independent Online
THERE are no new mountains, nothing we can nurture or take credit for. We cannot take mountains into our care like an endangered species and nurse them through a captive breeding programme, releasing their offspring back into the wild to give our deserts and oceans, our forests and jungles, their soaring dimension. We cannot save mountains. We can only save them from ourselves.

As I write, the fate of a small mountain on Harris, in the Hebrides, is being sealed. To accommodate the largest superquarry in Europe, which will provide the motorways of England, Germany and America with bottoming, a mountain made from the oldest thing we know - Lewissian gneiss 3,000 million years old - will be more or less removed. It is not faith we need to move mountains any more, just commercial expediency and political indifference - that and the dangled carrot of a few jobs.

Yet we are not deaf to the mountains' summons. They are such still things, such stoics; the direct opposite of ourselves - animated, short- sighted, town-dwelling, creature- comfort creatures that we have become. Mostly, those who answer the summons go to the mountains for fun, to relax, to test their strength, to recharge their batteries, to follow tourism's thoughtless advice. Mostly, we have forgotten how to live in the mountains' midst, and that, too, puts distance between us and our understanding of the mountain world.

There has always been more to going to the mountains than mere mountaineering, just as there is more to a mountain than the particular fluke of geological circumstance that created a chance shape of rock. There are, among those of us who scour the Scottish Highlands and Islands for a living, the throwbacks for whom the mountain world offers, however fleetingly, a sense of rediscovery. No landscape so assists the human mind's preoccupation with reaching back, with what we have been and where we came from.

I nod my admiration and agreement each time I read David Craig's pillar of mountaineering literature, Native Stones: 'But when I sit on a 6in ledge with my feet dangling above a 200ft drop, the hart's- tongue fern and dwarf hawthorn a few inches from my eyes, the air smelling of moss, wood pigeons clattering out of the tree-tops down below, then at least for a time I have grafted myself back into nature, and the sense of rightness achieved, or regained, is unmistakable.'

I have never been much of a sitter on 6in ledges, but that sense of 'rightness achieved' - and particularly of 'rightness regained' - is one I, too, can lay claim to. Indeed, I believe I may have known the sense of it for longer than I have known mountains, that I tread the footsteps of older denizens, an earlier mountain order who found not danger and thrills in the mountains but safety and comfort, who walked there confident and attuned.

The mountains were their world, meeting their needs in a way that escapes us now, that escapes me, except that as my own sense of rightness in the mountain landscape has evolved, the need it meets in me has moved down the mountain. It is being among mountains that matters to me now rather than the lure of summits, and that feeling seems closer to the spirit of those older forebears who were the guardians of my mountain inheritance.

They were mountaineers for sure, the first truly professional mountaineers: they had to be mountaineers for a living, crossing passes and watersheds and judging weather, sheltering beasts in high corries, hunting bird and beast and knowing their ways, prising furtive flowers for their powers and properties and knowing their secret lairs in cranny and boulderfield. They must have been unconscious conservationists, balancing their own needs with those of nature so that both they and nature thrived - a tricky feat, a lost skill. The Glencoe Macdonalds who fled the massacre of 1692 were such people. The great Gaelic poet Duncan Ban Macintyre might be held by posterity to be their spokesman, but by the time he died in 1812 the map of the Highlands was changed, damnably, for all time, and the denizens were done for. Then the mountaineers came.

I have no idea how many Munro and Corbett summits I have stood on, and I don't care. Turning mountains into something collectable and clubbable has always seemed to me both bizarre and a disappointing response in a human breast to the mountain superlative. There is a handful of mountains and mountain landscapes to which I return addictively, like an unrequited lover craving favours, secrets, intimacies.

I think: what has it been like to be this mountain, to be so old, to have watched the rise and fall of the wolf, the spread and shrinkage of birch and pine forest, the devastation of sheep and deer, the deepening indelibility of man's stamp, to see all of that as so much transience, yet to be buoyed up or wounded at every advance or retreat of nature?

Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac is possibly the greatest work of nature writing, wrote: 'I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.'

How much truer is that sentiment in Scotland, where our mountains have been wolfless for centuries, where the wolf has been supplanted by agricultural and sporting regimes as contemptuous of mountains as their perpetrators' ancestors were contemptuous of wolves. Leopold wrote: 'Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.' In Scotland, only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the wolfless quietude.

It is a formidable rot that has set in, as powerful as it is political, but it is not invincible. Alas, conservation thinking has mostly grown moribund and dull (honourable exceptions include the John Muir Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which in the Highlands in particular has evolved into far more than a bird protection agency). Land use is all but extinct. Only land abuse thrives. Those social and economic dinosaurs we call sporting estates still hold vastnesses of mountains in straitjackets that inhibit any natural vigour.

Imagination is not a conspicuous tool of the Highland landowners' trade, and to talk of land reform within their earshot is to invite accusations of anarchy, treachery and worse. Yet few things are more certain in our mountain landscapes than the need for reform of land ownership.

I believe now, though, the day of the deer forest is done. The Highlander has always treated it with something between resentment and polite contempt. It did as much as anything to drive him off his land and it perpetuates a class system that is now little more than a crumbling facade.

The climate of public opinion has shifted to such an extent that an organisation like the John Muir Trust can come into being, dedicated to owning land, restoring indigenous habitats and sustaining a native population. The only reason for its early success is that it has tried and others have not.

The Highland hill farm has reached its most marginalised and subsidised extreme, while the next most degrading land use for mountains - tourism - has dwindled in the face of recession and poor weather.

There is a better way, a sustainable industry with employment for all time, and one that is not dependent on the weather. It is to rectify the devastated terrain on a scale as vast as the devastation.

Assume for the sake of argument a Government (preferably one sitting in Edinburgh) that acknowledges the worth of the mountain landscape for its own sake and the need to nurture and reinvigorate society in the sparser corners of its realm, much as they do in Norway. Ten years should be enough to put in place an introductory programme dedicated to the return to health of our mountain landscape and the Highland population.

The elements in such a programme would be as follows. No individual could own more than 10,000 acres. No organisation could own more than 10,000 acres without a track record and a declared and detailed intention to manage with conservation as first priority. No land could be owned, developed or grazed above 2,000ft. Native forest would be restored and recreated on a scale at least commensurate with commercial forestry. There would be relief from overgrazing of mountains by sheep and deer. The red deer would be restored to its true place in the mountain landscape as a woodland animal, and the sheep to its true place in the mountain landscape - oblivion. Crofting would be greatly expanded on new tracts of land made available specifically for the purpose.

The mountains are the ultimate realm of wild nature. Nature barely recognises us there now, we are such strangers. Nature needs the mountains. We do not, although if we can learn again to live in their midst we can benefit greatly from a respectful association with them.

The world stirs to the summoning of its environmental conscience. We berate the fellers of rainforest, the despoilers of polar wilderness, the whale-slayers, the puncturers of the ozone layer. But who should heed us, we who preside over the near extinction of our pine forest, we who poison our own eagles, we who strangle and devastate our mountain terrain?

Yet we, the race of people called Scots, are the mountains. Their landscape is what others judge us by, and whether we think of ourselves as Highlanders or Lowlanders or Islanders or something else, we all look to them as the unyielding granite in the backbone of our nation. We are shaped by them. They have given us our stoicism, our reputation for hospitable shelter, our stormy temperament.

Nothing will assist the mountains' cause so readily as increasing our own living presence in their midst, so long as it is an understanding, sympathetic, proud, native presence, willing and eager to renew the ancient bond. The bagger of peaks may scoff but I would ask him to return to a peak he has already bagged, to dwell not among summits but silences, to see if he cannot hear the wolf or an older footfall, or glimpse, however fleetingly, a sense of rightness regained.

The writer is the author of 'Among Mountains', published by Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, at pounds 14.99.

(Photographs omitted)