Adam the Author cont...
Back in 2011, I reviewed two of Adam Watson's recent books and promised to
review two more in the next issue of Mountain Views. Due to a slight hiatus
in compiling Mountain Views, this promise got missed. In the interim, Adam has
continued publishing! Here are the missing reviews and also reviews of his books
published in 2012. As even the most avid fan might get jaded by more than five
reviews, I have chosen to review his most recent book on place names in north
east Scotland, published in 2013, in the next issue of Mountain Views.
- 1) Vehicle hill tracks in northern Scotland (2011)
- Quoting from the sub-title, this is "an independent factual report
on numbers, distribution, impacts, ground reinstatement". I prefer a
less-dry introduction. It is, in fact, a truly unique book; the only authoritative
published book of both data and qualitative discussion on hill tracks.
It lists new and upgraded hill tracks throughout Scotland. Not surprisingly,
the book is focused on track development in the north east of Scotland, where
it covers all known tracks at the time of printing. References and examples
are quoted from elsewhere in the Highlands but, although they are very interesting
examples, they don't form a comprehensive list. The book is wide ranging and
includes sections on relevant planning law and the problems facing local planning
officers. Construction and reinstatement are discussed and some examples of
good practice discussed. This section includes a critique on the SNH track
construction guidelines. This background material is very useful for understanding
why the hill track situation has developed as it has.
One of the highlights is the excellent selection of photographs. They are
well-chosen to illustrate all the problems with poor construction and inadequate
attention to locating tracks such that they blend into the landscape rather
than disfigure it. The photographs and diagram showing the inexorable spread
of new hill tracks in the Cairngorms area demonstrate, in a nutshell, why
NEMT has taken a stance on the topic and, by themselves, justify buying a
copy of this book.
NEMT has campaigned against the proliferation of hill tracks in recent years
and this book will significantly help that campaign. In fact as part of our
campaign to get the Government to rethink its recent decision to leave hill
tracks as a permitted development instead of requiring planning permission,
we will be sending a copy to the minister, Paul Wheelhouse.
The book is not light reading but, if you want to know more about hill tracks,
it is an essential introduction.
I finish by admitting a certain degree of bias. NEMT sponsored and published
2) A snow book, northern Scotland (2011)
- This is effectively
a follow-on to Cool Britannia, reviewed by Will Campbell in Issue 64.
In that book, Adam described himself as a "snow enthusiast" and
this comes across even more strongly here than in Cool Britannia. This book
takes a far wider view of snow and snow patches. Cool Britannia was
essentially a collection of evidence supporting the proposition that more
snow lay on the hills in the decades before the 1930s than subsequently. This
theme is picked up again in this book, largely focused on the north east of
Scotland and the Cairngorms, but is supplemented by a much more general discussion
on snow and snow patches including the effects on wildlife.
The book is organised in a somewhat unusual fashion. Most of the chapters
are stand-alone with their own summary, results, discussion, acknowledgements,
references, etc. It covers snow cover on the Ben Macdui plateau, summer and
autumn snow fall in the Cairngorms, snow bed survival and snow lasting through
to winter and then moves to a more general discussion, including the possibility
of Cairngorms glaciers in the 18th and 19th centuries! A useful list of vantage
points for snow patch surveys in the north east is given. Then the book moves
to descriptions of skiing in and near Aberdeen in the early 1950s, the remarkable
snowstorm of early September 1976, polygonal hollows and dirt on snow surfaces,
the use of snow by birds and mammals, snow features and avalanches, lichen
and moss as indicators of snow-lie and finally, snow mould on hill vegetation.
There are a very large number of fascinating photographs which add enormously
to the book overall. Factual descriptions are brought to life by well-chosen
photographs, for example the photographs of avalanche debris are a salutary
reminder of the need to remain vigilant. Most of the photographs are a joy
in their own right - in places they are of coffee table standard (meant as
One of the appealing features in the book is the discussion of the effects
on wildlife. Photographs and discussion on how mountain hare and red grouse
use snow holes in the winter was fascinating. Who would have thought that
otters go sledging? Aren't stags sufficiently in tune with their surroundings
to not get caught in avalanches? Another feature I should have known about
but didn't was the effect of lying snow on killing lichen. Once explained
and illustrated with some good photographs, it becomes obvious.
As indicated above, the book starts off with a technical discussion on snow
patches and how they survive or not through summer. This part is a useful
collection of data from many sources brought into one place, of rather specialist
appeal, and isn't light reading. The second part is lighter and more discursive.
Overall, the book is recommended reading; highly so for those with an interest
in snow or for those with a desire to learn more about the wider mountain
3) Some days from a hill diary (2012)
- The title leaves a
lot hanging but the sub-title gives the first clue to what this book is really
about. The entries are from the period 1943 -1950, essentially, when Adam
was a teenager.
The style takes a bit of getting used to as it's very much "as it says
on the tin". The book is a series of unadulterated diary entries. Most
of them appear almost disconnected, although there are some entries from a
series of successive days. However, the style grows on you. At the beginning,
you can get left, thinking "so what", but as you progress, you realise
subconsciously that these very details build the overall picture. Gems such
as "so much for the notion that eagles kill most of the grouse"
appearing early on create a rich tapestry. (I won't give any secrets away
and will leave you, the reader, to find the context.)
In the Foreword, Adam notes that "By its very nature, any diary is partly
anthropocentric and hopes that this does not intrude too much on reader's
perception of the beauty of hill, weather and wildlife, or of the fine folk
of the hills". In fact this is one of the charms of the book; a teenage
autobiography, reminding one of Gavin Maxwell's similar autobiography from
the heather moorland in south west Scotland.
The book is split into a series of chapters; each chapter being a year's highlights.
The entries come mostly from Scotland and include two separate trips of about
a month to Iceland and Norway. They are mostly about days when Adam was climbing
or skiing and, not surprisingly, given his age, often feature his father in
the early chapters. One of the first things to strike you is the large variety
and numbers of birds noted. In some cases, there would have been more birds
around in these areas then but also it testifies to Adam's skill as an observer
that he sees more than most of us. Interestingly, you can also see early beginnings
of an interest in snow patches.
As with all of Adam's books, there is a large selection of good photographs.
They are, of course, black and white and give a good record of Adam growing
up through his teens.
I very much enjoyed reading this and recommend it. After reading it, you will
understand what lead Adam to devote his life to studying the ecology of the
4) Human impacts on the northern Cairngorms (2012)
- This book is in
two main parts; the first based on Adam's scientific evidence presented to
the 1981 Lurcher's Gully Public Inquiry on proposed ski developments at Cairn
Gorm and the second part contains material on certain aspects that has subsequently
been updated as well as some completely new material. This Public Inquiry
examined human impacts for a week and remains the most thorough Inquiry on
this topic so far in Scotland.
The first part discusses the physical features, landforms, soils and scientific
interest of the Northern Corries and Ben Macdui plateau. The second part is
written as a series of self-standing papers and looks at visitor numbers,
both in summer and winter and the effects of these visitors, and their dogs,
on disturbance of animals and birds, vegetation damage and soil erosion. These
can lead to secondary effects, such as flash flooding which is considered.
Persistence of former deer trails is discussed, showing how long it can take
for restoration of damaged areas to take place.
As you would expect, the book is well stocked with excellent photographs,
which help considerably to make the scientific evidence comprehensible to
the lay reader. Given the nature of the book, there is a large amount of scientific
tables and figures.
The book is specifically written about the northern Cairngorms. However, the
principles and approaches can be extrapolated to other areas. Thus, the book
has a wider significance than simply the northern Cairngorms.
The book is undoubtedly aimed at the specialist reader. However, it will interest
all those with an interest in human impacts on mountainous areas. Importantly,
it will provide an invaluable reference source for both planning officers
and campaigners when considering the impact of future proposed developments
in sensitive mountainous areas.
5) Birds in north east Scotland then and now (2012), jointly authored
with Ian Francis
- Readers will all know
Adam Watson, distinguished ecologist and acknowledged expert on the Cairngorms.
However, Ian Francis is less well known. Ian has been the RSPB area manager
for north-east Scotland since 1994. He is an editor of the Scottish Ornithologist's
Club's "Scottish Birds" and has edited the "North-East Scotland
The book publishes Adam's field observations, and also those of friends and
colleagues, mainly from the 1940s and compares them with recent records. Thus,
for each bird, it builds a picture of changes in distribution and abundance
since then. During the 1940s, there were few ornithologists in the area and
these observations have special value.
Over 200 different birds are listed, ranging from House Sparrows to Golden
Eagles, Crows to Willow Tits. There are many excellent photographs and a good
set of map diagrams illustrating changes in breeding distribution for the
birds where significant changes have occurred.
There are two more generally interesting Appendices on the habitat changes
that have taken place since 1950 in both the Turriff and Upper Deeside areas.
These habitat changes are a significant factor in the population changes that
are discussed in the main body of the book, but also have a wider significance.
This book has enormous scientific value and will appeal to those with a deep
interest in birds.
As noted above, a review of "Place names in much of north-east Scotland",
published in 2013, will follow in the next issue.
Adam's books are for sale on Deeside. Deeside Books in Ballater has copies
of all of them. Hilltrek in Aboyne, Braemar Mountain Sports and Dinnet Antique
Shop have some copies. They are also available from Amazon.
Other than Vehicle hill tracks, publication of all of the books has been kindly
sponsored by Bert McIntosh and McIntosh Plant Hire Ltd.
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