Monday , January 30 2023

‘It suits the strong-willed’: Scotland’s mountain path makers – a photo essay

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The National Trust for Scotland Mountain Path Team are at work repairing a path up near Mullach an Rathain summit, on Liathach in Torridon. The team’s primary aim is to prevent irreversible environmental damage to fragile habitats, not to enhance access. The NTS cares for some of Scotland’s magnificent landscapes and more than 400 miles of path on Glen Coe, Kintail, West Affric, Mar Lodge Estate, Grey Mare’s Tail ,Torridon, Goatfell, Ben Lawers and Ben Lomond.

The Mountain Path Team is committed to conserving and maintaining the trust’s network of over 400 miles (643km) of mountain paths for future generations, wherever possible building by hand using locally sourced material.

Without the Mountain Path Team and the Footpath Fund, erosion would lead to irreversible damage on Scotland’s most magnificent landscapes.

NTS Mountain Path Team at work repairing a path up Mullach an Rathain summit, on Liathach in Torridon

Nan Morris | Team member

“What people don’t realise is that one person stepping on the vegetation is not going to make any difference, but when hundreds of people are stepping on the same bit over and over again, the plants get killed off, the roots are no longer holding the soil together, and then there is nothing to stop the next rainfall washing everything down the hill.”

“Eventually,” she chuckles, “Scotland will be as flat as Holland, if you do not stay on the footpaths.” More seriously: “It destroys the environment … some plants aren’t very rare but it all supports insect and animal life, it’s a holistic environment. You are killing everything really.”

Nan has been path building for 15 years, 13 of those with the NTS after completing a course in environmental conservation at Lochaber college.

Nan Morris
Nan Morris
Nan Morris

“I was a housewife and mother before going on the course. I just went into the jobcentre and said that I wanted something that was physical and outdoors.

“Most path workers work for contractors which is great but it can be feast or famine. Personally, I like the continuity – knowing that I am employed on a long-term basis by the National Trust for Scotland in their team.”

Tools of the trade

“I love it. I won’t pretend that I’ve always got a massive smile on my face when the weather is absolutely horrendous and it’s bucketing down for hours. I like the fact that I can lose myself in a bit of building work or switch my brain off and carry buckets all day, if that’s how I feel.

Nan Morris and Ben Farrington

“We generally don’t get rock dropped for us. With big contract jobs, they’ll often get a helicopter drop or rock delivered. For us, it’s a case of sourcing the materials we need on the hill which is a skill in itself. Some rocks we use are a quarter-tonne in weight (250kg). [With] a rock that size we will have a couple of people on it with pinch bars, sometimes a small hand winch. You need to know how to sensitively landscape, taking turf from round about without causing erosion, taking a little bit from various spots, then the grass, as it grows in, will hold everything where it’s put.”

Nan Morris (pony tail), Ben Farrington

“Some of the wildlife we have seen is amazing. Eagles, foxes, pine martens, hares. We’ve had amphitheatre views of two herds of deer rutting and two stags roaring at each other all day, just waiting for them to start to fight. We had a raven on Goatfell on Arran, and as soon as we would stop for lunch it would be there.”

On Ben Lawers, to their alarm, they witnessed a cartwheeling sheep rolling down the steep hill like tumbleweed. Bumping into a rock it came to a standstill, stood up and staggered of groggily.

Nan Morris (pony tail)

Nan’s take home message: “Think about the facts, when you are out in the hills: there might be a thousand people following in your footsteps, is it sustainable? It’s not just you. The numbers have increased dramatically for years – since Covid they have exploded.

“Most people say thank you and listen to us – when we explain about sticking to the path – but you do get the odd one that gets a bit indignant about there being paths in the hills. They don’t want to see a footpath but I think they are missing the point: they don’t realise we are trying to protect the mountain; we are not doing this to make life easier for walkers.

“If you need to use walking poles, fair enough, but put a rubber tip on them. If you don’t need them don’t use them, they hasten the erosion, you get tiny little holes in all the surfacing and the verges along the sides, which allows the water in. You are basically widening your own footprint by a good foot on either side by constantly using these poles.”

Team leader Ben Farrington

Ben Farrington | Team leader

The mission of the path team is not to improve access but primarily to protect the environment and prevent erosion.

Ben says: “It’s about keeping people on the path by making it a good path and blocking places where they might come off, because if you don’t, erosion scars form and damage fragile vegetation such as the rare alpine plants of Ben Lawers.

“This is ultimately to the benefit of the individual visitor – rather than being confronted by the scars caused by cumulative crowds of walkers. If you get hundreds or thousands of visitors each year then that is a big issue.

“You could see that in recent times: when everyone was let free from lockdown so many people went to the hill, it was overloaded. There was such a volume they were avoiding each other, a lot of damage was done in a short period of time.

“If you imagine that over years, and if you didn’t do any footpath work, there would be lots of scars and the water would then get in; before you know it there’s gullies. People don’t want to walk in them, so they move over and start anew.”

Ben started with the team in 2004. Asked what qualities are required, he says: “It suits the strong-willed, fiercely independent, who care for the outdoors and don’t mind graft.”

The team works all year round, in winter working lower down to avoid the snow.

Ben Farrington at work

Of the Coire Na Tulaich walk over Buachaille Etive Mòr, Ben says: “They created a line through the scree field and boulders, with a bit of tampering with bars and putting steps in, a bit of revetting and surfacing. That’s a good example, as it’s hardly had to have had any maintenance work done to it.

“Much of it is donkey work but sometimes you put your ideas together and you make something very technical, and it’s like: ‘wow’. You come back in several years and it’s still there.”

Team member Kieran Fogarty, The NTS Mountain Path Team at work repairing a path up Mullach an Rathain summit, on Liathach in Torridon

Kieran Fogarty | Team member

Here in Torridon we have some particularly old stone – Torridonian sandstone – which to my knowledge is 600-800m years old, and that sits on a layer of Lewisian gneiss which is 2.7bn years old, so that’s some of the oldest still exposed stone in the world, I believe, with only older stuff appearing in Greenland and Canada.”

“It’s mind-blowing, especially with the Torridonian sandstone – obviously at one time it was other stone and it’s already been eroded to the point where it’s sand and resettled as sedimentary beds and formed as rock. That just gives you an idea of the geological epochs gone through to create it.

Nan Morris and Kieran Fogarty

“I am quite a magpie for finding things. The most exciting thing I have ever found was a 3,500-year-old funerary burial pot, with a cremation inside. I ended up, unfortunately, putting my mattock pickaxe through it. I found all the bits and pieces and the Peak District national park archaeology department analysed it.

“Now it’s in Stoke-on-Trent Pottery museum. They found that the individual who had been cremated was a 35-45-year-old woman and she was cremated along with two pigs. They could tell intimate details of her life from the bits of bones left – that she must have had a hard working life.”

“The three stock phrases we get asked all the time are: Are you digging for gold? Are you putting an escalator in? Or are you tarmacking it?”

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