Reflecting on past history from time to time can reaffirm the values on which an organisation is built and re-energise those currently involved to continue the work. With this in mind, we asked Drennan Watson, founding Chairman of NEMT, to describe the early years- Editor
Longhaven and the birth of NEMT
I can't describe all that the North East Mountain Trust (NEMT) achieved in early years in this short article, but I will try to bring out major themes and events. Like many organisations of its kind, the NEMT arose in response to a major specific challenge. A national study proposed the demand for aggregate for road building and other developments be met by creating one or two mammoth quarries on coastal sites from whence it could be shipped easily to close to where needed. Enter Commander Titcombe, an "entrepreneur" originally attracted to the northeast by oil developments. Script of an interview he gave to an academic researcher states, "Titcombe thought business was like burgling a house. You had first to case the joint and know what the dangers were and have a good escape route and know something about the opposition."
He bought the coastal strip north of Cruden Bay from the Ellerman Trust and lodged a planning application to develop a mammoth quarry there, complete with harbour. The proposal came with stories of a contract worth several million pounds to sell aggregate to a vital Dutch project on the Scheldt, and of course JOBS would be created. These coastal cliffs harbour 24,000 breeding seabirds, a marvellous flora and coastal scenery and important rock climbing grounds. That stirred opposition among climbers!
Political activity in defence of climbing interests then was largely borne by the Etchachan Club, not least through its members Graham Boyd and the late Norman Kier. It became too much for one club. They conceived the idea of a larger grouping, perhaps a kind of "climbers cooperative" but that did not fit. The constitution of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland gave no scope for a regional branch, so an independent local organisation had to be formed - hence NEMT! Its constitutional aim was and is:-
"To protect the mountain environment of Scotland, in particular North East Scotland, for the benefit now and in the future of climbers, walkers, and others taking recreation there."
Even its first Annual Report in 1981, with eight member clubs, covered many issues including Longhaven, rights of way, an unofficial campsite on the Dee on Mar Lodge Estate, helicopters in the Cairngorms, ski developments in Glenshee and in the Northern Corries, and comments on Local and Regional Plans. Already a range of people were involved such as George Allan as coastal secretary, Greg Strange, Roger Murray, Brian Robertson as stalwart treasurer, and Gordon Strachan. All this on a total income of £2026 largely raised by the incorrigible Harriet Street Group's annual, and slightly wild, sponsored bike run to Ballater! Who we were and are is summarised in that report:-
"We are not primarily a "conservation society." We are an association of climbers, hillwalkers, mountaineers and ramblers. We are a disparate group of "chiels." We include plumbers, university lecturers, engineers, geologists, civil servants, solicitors, off-shore rigworkers and many others. What unites us is a common love of the hills and mountains and a desire to preserve them unspoiled for the generations to come, who will have need of what they have to offer."
The Longhaven quarry was opposed with verve and determination that became characteristic of NEMT. Diverse groups opposed to it formed "The Longhaven Coastal Alliance" with NEMT as a major player and chaired by myself. It was high profile campaigning with interviews on TV, and an entire TV programme on it, letters in the press, and an Alliance newsletter "Hotrocks." "The Longhaven Petition", proposing that the entire coastal strip be designated a "Heritage Coast", attracted over 10,000 signatures, largely due to the work of one ally, Allan Drever of the Buchan Countryside Group. The proposal foundered, as pressure from the Alliance winkled an admission out of the Dutch Government that the much vaunted multi-mllion pound aggregate contract did not exist, the harbour proposal emerged as impractical, the granite was not what the Dutch required and so on. Longhaven Quarries Ltd went bankrupt, as did its supporting company Longhaven Shipping. Commander Titcombe disappeared to the Channel Islands tax haven where further bankruptcies followed. Phoenix Minerals Ltd bought the site and proposed a local quarry, which was also opposed, but they transferred ownership of the entire coastal strip to the Scottish Wildlife Trust in June 1981. The quarry later closed and the coast was secure.
NEMT had learned approaches that became typical - a high profile in the media, working through alliances, and pointing to a positive alternative (Heritage Coast). It had still to learn one lesson it later applied well in the next major proposal - to develop downhill skiing in the Northern Corries and Lurcher's Gully in the Cairngorms.
Skiing development and the Lurcher's Gully affair
Downhill ski development first entered the Trust's work over proposals for development in the Glas Choire running north from Glas Maol. This raised various concerns such as impact on dotterel and other birds, as outlined by the RSPB. The company stated it assessed the area over many years and it contained two avalanche tracks - but it contains three. More importantly, NEMT assessed the capacity to evacuate the area of many downhill skiers if bad weather onset suddenly, using allies who had worked uplifts and chairlifts for years, and examining exit options. It concluded the site was a death trap. The late Roger O'Donovan, then deputy principle of Glenmore Lodge, and a sizeable group of Lodge instructors visited the area once uplift was installed. Their opinion too was unanimous -Great skiing - a death trap! We learned - don't assume the competence of developers.
But downhill skiing development in the Northern Corries and Lurcher's Gully threatened the central Cairngorms, an area of international importance, and intruded directly into corries important for landscape, scientific value, and various mountain recreations. Blocking the proposals would be very difficult. They were backed by the landowner, (the then Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB)), Highland Council, the then Scottish Tourist Board, the Scottish Sports Council and central government. The Trust again found allies like the Scottish Wild Land Group and RSPB and all cooperated throughout. The key was to force a Public Inquiry where the issue would be decided by evidence and argument rather than political clout. This was finally achieved, particularly through a presentation by the allies to the Countryside Commission for Scotland in which NEMT played a key role. This strongly helped persuade it to vote against the proposals.
In the subsequent six week Public Inquiry, formidable evidence by Adam Watson for the Nature Conservancy Council on the impacts of the past development and likely effects of the proposals was influential in obtaining a decision against the proposal. But the Trust played a vital role as key defender of the broader recreational interest. It fielded expert and effective witnesses on road design and access, snow lie, value of the area for mountaineering (Greg Strange of course), and mountain management of the area and all this demonstrated the incompetence of the proposals. It further fielded two witnesses of international standing - Professor Kai Curry Lindahl, senior ecological adviser to the United Nations Environment Programme and the foremost international expert on protected areas, and Dr Fritz Schwarzenbach, the foremost consultant and researcher on ski development.
He pointed out, for example, that the HIDB's claim that doubling the size of downhill skiing facilities on Cairn Gorm would half queuing times at times of peak demand was wrong. Research on ski development demonstrated it actually quadrupled them. Although the reporter based his recommendation to refuse development largely on likely scale of damage to the proven value of the area for landscape, outdoor recreation and wildlife, effectively, the Trust, along with Adam's evidence, demolished the case, showing it was incompetent and probably downright dangerous. We had learned that new lesson - "capture the knowledge base" - including knowledge of the kind of development, not just the impacts on wildlife, scenery and mountain recreation where lay your sectoral concern. "No effort by the Trust has involved so much work by so many people. Some forty people in seven different clubs lent their aid at different times." declared the 1981 Annual Report.
A strategic approach
The Trust now started to publish influential strategic documents like "The Future of the Cairngorms" in 1982 and its Policy on Downhill Ski Development in 1983. Subsequent years saw further battles over developments proposed in the Northern Corries, provoking a high profile fight between the HIDB and the Trust in the Scotsman of January 1985, but they came to little. Meanwhile, other issues emerged. A Rights of Way Working Party was established under Colin Miller. Mountain bothies, the Old Caledonian Pine Forest and the Glenmore Forest Park all received attention. Afforestation became a growing issue, leading to a Forestry Working Party, with a young Andy Wightman prominent in it. Bulldozed tracks in the uplands became, and still are, a major blight and issue.
In the end, did it all matter? Did it have impact? Certainly, Trust interventions in specific issues like the proposal for ski developments in the Northern Corries area, the proposal by the Scottish Rights of Way Society to bridge the Fords of Avon, and red deer culling on Creag Meagaidh were decisive. Some important ideas were cooked up in Adam and Jenny Watson's kitchen. There, I spotted upper Glen Avon was of little sporting use to its owners, had many problems, and would be for sale. We prompted the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) to enquire. It was for sale but the District Valuer valued it at less than the estate's price and NCC could not buy. After 2 years, RSPB bought it - and this started land acquisition in the Cairngorms by NGOs.
Broadly, the Trust raised the political profile of mountain issues and recreation and environmental management generally in Scotland and woke up large parts of the environmental movement. Declared Dr Bob Aitken, then chairman of the Scottish Countryside Activities Council, "I still remember the disconcerting but sorely-needed kick in the bum you administered back in the Longhaven days, and how radically you shook up our previously genteel and largely ineffective bumblings from that point on, to such good effect". The Trust was widely admired. "I gather you are disillusioned with the MCofS committee" opined the late W H Murray (we were then). "There are very few people in Scotland who give a damn about conservation of scenery or wilderness. I've been surprised - delighted by the N.E. Trust!"
Strategically, the Lurchers victory showed government it must have dialogue with an environmental lobby of demonstrated growing power. The above publications also demonstrated to government that we dealt with issues at a strategic level, on their terms, not simply with individual developments. Further, I wrote as chairman of NEMT to our NGOs allies in the Lurchers battle proposing forming a body for continuing that cooperation. That became Scottish Environment Link, now with over 30 member NGOs. The Trust joined its delegations putting points directly to ministers. LINK now has an ongoing dialogue with government. NEMT is a founder member. I was the founding chairman! That body created the Cairngorms Working Party which then became the Cairngorms Campaign.
Bob Aitken, an experienced outside observer, summarised the changes he saw which the early NEMT developed 30 years ago and which influenced others:-
By 1986, it was time for me to depart (no wonder). People like Bill Brooker and Roger Owen appeared as able chairmen. NEMT carried on, and still does.
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