Friday, November 19, 2010

The Friday Review - WHO OWNS SCOTLAND

You would be mistaken for thinking that Scotland was the land of enlightened land access and ownership for all, given the high profile success of community-spirited buyouts such as Eigg, Gigha and the recent campaign against Donald Trump's Despicable-Me impersonation (if only it were impersonation). 

But things are not as they seem and a new book which has opened my eyes to the deep land injustices of Scotland (not just the Clearances) is Andy Wightman's 'The Poor Had No Lawyers - Who Owns Scotland And How They Got It', published by Birlinn.

Andy is a longstanding campaigner and investigative journalist who runs the excellent website Who Owns Scotland, dedicated to a transparent listing of all the landowners in Scotland and how they got the land. The book to accompany this campaign is a follow up to his 1996 book Who Owns Scotland and goes a lot deeper than many landowners would feel comfortable with. It  is refreshingly polemic for such a detailed analysis of 'feus', 'non domino titles', 'superiorities', 'entails' and all other manner of highly dubious legal tricks implying righteous ownership of our lands and commonties.

In a deeply researched account of the history of landgrabbing in Scotland, Robert the Bruce does not quite appear the hero some would make of him. Bruce was a murdering warlord who parcelled up Scotland for his own gain and influence, selling off land under feudal tenure to foreign lords and royalty, disenfranchising the people from a barely bawling Scottish state. The centuries fell one after the other as the rich and influential sold off a Scotland they simply did not own. Nobles colluded with the church and the Reformation helped 'legalise' their ownership by highly dubious acts such as the Acts of Registration and Prescription of 1617, 'sealing' land ownership in the hands of the rich who could afford Edinburgh lawyers and felt that a brief tenure of land (20 years!) was enough to claim the deeds to it. And so it went on through the tragedy of the Clearances until, all too belatedly, we had the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act in 2000.

In that longue durĂ©e of 8 centuries, Scotland's land, totalling 19.5 million acres, lost over 10 million acres to 1550 private landowners in estates of over 1000 acres! And it has not slowed down -  modern land grabs by the rich have attempted to seal off land for private use, tax benefit and corporate expansion. Andy Wightman feels the law must go a lot further to protect our common land from total disappearance: land laws must be repealed, Crown rights should be abolished, Land Funds and Land Policies should be enshrined in statutes for the benefit of communities and our new devolved government should set our Law Commissioners the task of reform on the scale Lloyd Goerge once attempted.

We may have National Parks, the Right to Roam and the new Community Buyout rights, but the bald facts are that Scotland is still at the mercy of overpaid law firms, absentee landlords, the self-absorbed rich and far too few enlightened enough to hand back something to the people.

The book is an essential read for all of us who want to live in the Scotland we imagine... it can be bought from Andy's own site here >>>

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Pinnacle - Review

The latest film from Hotaches, The Pinnacle is a welcome historical tribute set amidst our normal dietary blizzard of modern Youtube ascents and techno-sodden bouldering movies.  Tracing one epic week on Ben Nevis in 1960, and the two climbers who took to the wintry corries of Ben Nevis (Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith), it brings into focus a clear Scottish ethic that climbing is about the landscape, the adventure, the friendships and the moment...something which Jimmy Marshall insists is the core lesson of a lifetime in the mountains - that climbing is not about the noise afterwards but rather those brief moments of unseen joy in the mountains.

This filmic tribute is in essence a remembrance of Robin Smith, a luminary climber of the 1950s and early 60s who sadly lost his life in the Pamirs in 1962. In one of the many poignant interviews in the film, an older but still rugged-looking Marshall describes Smith's climbing prowess with an undiminished clarity of remembrance, describing him as possessing 'startling brilliance' on the rock and ice. Had he not been outlived by Jimmy, Robin would have gone on to climb just as many legendary ascents in Scottish climbing, and in this particular case Smith's early demise does not romantically exaggerate his boldness, talent and  vision.

The legacy of routes he did leave behind reads like a climbing version of the illuminated Book of Kells: Shibboleth, Smith's Route, Yo-Yo, Orion Direct, The Bat, The Big Top, Pigott's Route, The Needle... and so on. These routes, in most folks' guidebooks, lie underlined and starred but mostly unticked! Three of these are hard winter classics on Ben Nevis, climbed in that one special week in February 1960 when the two had the mountain largely to themselves - Marshall describes The Ben in winter as a 'wedding cake' and this is an apt metaphor for two climbers who combined a very special mountaineering marriage of skills. That week they entered a time of legend through the simple dedication of men with axes and gloves and nothing more than a length of old rope between them.

The film takes great pains to highlight this week as a watershed as much as a pinnacle of winter climbing achievement in Scotland. The routes that Smith and Marshall climbed were the last (and hardest) done in the old style of step-cutting without front-point crampons. This laborious style of climbing is the only moment in the movie where the two modern tribute climbers - Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner - look decidedly common and discommoded. They quickly return to their modern front-point crampons, curved drop-head axes and ice-screws for protection, all of which is roundly booed by entertaining old-schooler Robin Campbell of the SMC.

As the two modern lads smoothly tick off the daily diet of historical climbs, in lean but benevolent conditions on the Ben (something the producer Paul Diffley must have been thankful for!), the void between the new and old eras yawns open and it becomes apparent how our expectations, staminas and prorities can change so much in 50 years. Marshall talks of the difficulties they faced as irreversible in many instances and Ken Crocket provides some honest testament to how even three days on the Ben can wear you down dealing with fear and death at every climbing moment. The depth of fitness and inner resolve to climb for seven days on such an alpine set of cliffs (and pack in a day's Munro-bagging and an arrest for stealing dominoes in a Fortwilliam pub) is simply staggering to our modern sensibilities. The walk they did on their 'day off' leaves Macloed and Turner lost in the dark scrabbling for map and compass, exhausted, dehydrated and, in Dave's words, with their 'legs singing'.

The film is a rare jewel of climbing history and and a visual treat for the guilty armchair mountaineer! It ends on a grand panorama of Andy Turner topping out on the Ben Nevis plateau to a stunning Scottish winter horizon. It leaves me with a feeling of profound longing for those special mountaineering moments that become ever more rare and inaccessible.

Our greatest danger lies in growing reliant on exterior motive and engineered moments, rather than the indelible purity exhibited by elegant climbers such as Smith and Marshall. Thankfully, The Pinnacle never loses sight of this and both Dave MacLeod, Andy Turner and the production team should be proud of their tribute week on the Ben. The Pinnacle captures something very fleeting about the games climbers play and the joys they discover.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Bouldering in Scotland 2010 - High End stuff

There has been lots of new activity as usual this year in Aberdeen, the NW and Dumbarton Rock in particular. Some venues continue to expand their repertoire such as Glen Nevis, Glen Lednock and Torridon and Applecross, with Coire nan Arr the best of the bunch in terms of rock quality and stunning new lines.

Cubby, Dave MacLeod and Donald King found some good accessible conglomerate bouldering south of Golspie at The Mound, Loch Fleet (NH 766 978).

Macleod's Arisaig cave was a hardcore find and Dave found some high-end training traverses on immaculate quartzite. His two main problems there were At Eternity's Gate 8b, Triangulation 8a and All the Small Things Font 8a.

The sea-cliffs at Aberdeen continue to provide meaty testpieces and good traverse training. Tim Rankin did a new problem on the roof just right of the Big Grey boulder called Delirium at 8a+, very slopey and condition dependent through the lip.

Delirium 8a+ Clashfarquhar - pic Tim Rankin

At Coire nan Arr, Richie Betts discovered the Universal, a 7b of immaculate red Torridonian sandstone, as well as a handful of good circuit problems and mid-range grade classics. Hopefully we'll have the guide out in 2010 for this incredible area!

The Universal, Coire nan Arr - pic Richie Betts

At the end of the autumn season, Richie succeeded on his project high on the slopes of Glen Torridon to bag the almighty prow of The Essence 7b+, which was shortly repeated (after 3 dedicated Scotrail weekend journeys from Glasgow!) by Murdo Jamieson.

The Essence - Torridon - pic Richie Betts

At Dumby, Will Atkinson and friends set about the Mugsy roof to create a whole new breed of problems linking up traditional classic lines. Perhaps the best is Nice &Sleazy 7c, linking up Mestizo Sit, Mugsy traverse and Malky...not a bad line at all! Malcolm Smith also crushed out the obvious link of Pressure into Firestarter to give Firefight Font 8b.

Harris saw some particularly avid attention this year, Dave MacLeod climbing Proclamtion 7c+ at the Clisham boulders, plus a few new problems at Sron Ulladale in between trad epics.

Proclamation, Clisham - pic by Dave MacLeod

Mike Lee did his usual touring of remoe spots and quietly climbed some hard classic lines... at Glen Lednock he did a lovely 7a called Afraid of the Wave, a kind of direct of the Wave problem. He also did numerous eliminates at Dumbarton, including the excellent 7b+ Le Tour de Technique.

Afraid of the Wave 7a - Glen Lednock - Mike Lee

I'll add more if I hear of anything but next up is a feature on the new circuit problems - you know, the ones most of us can do!