Autumn forest

Below Des Thompson shares his views on Dick Balharry’s vision for land use in Scotland. This article is the fifth in a series of responses that we have collected and hope you have been enjoying. This is the final response for the current series of articles, we hope these responses will have inspired more to follow.

Where is the voice in the mountains?

Des Thompson, Scottish Natural Heritage

John Morton Boyd often remarked that his calling was in response to “the voice in the mountains”. He was a remarkable naturalist, former Director of the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland, and co-author with Fraser Darling of the Collins’ New Naturalist series book The Highlands and Islands. With son Ian, now Chief Scientific Adviser with Defra, he later wrote The Hebrides in the same series – both superbly evocative books on wild landscapes brimming with wildlife appeal and challenges. Another term Morton often used was ‘valency’; in his meaning, reflecting the combining power of the elements. I’m struck that in the essays in the autumn 2015 edition of The Geographer, on Scotland’s mountains, there are clear themes – changing natural and socio-economic forces, contested landscapes, opportunities for some new developments whilst others seem to diminish, and of course advances in our knowledge and understanding on mountain ecosystems. But, I’m left asking whose voice are we hearing in the mountains now – who or what motivates us to spend time in the mountains, work for and write about them, and indeed worry over their plight?

My own feelings on this have been keenly felt whilst contributing to the recently published book Nature’s Conscience: the life and legacy of Derek Ratcliffe. Some exceptional people featured in the book, many of them motivated by an urge to safeguard nature in the aftermath of the Second World War. A few contributed directly to the war effort, such as the redoubtable Max Nicholson, and other pioneers for nature conservation worked at this time and beyond to give us the firm footing nature now has in legislation – Arthur Tansley, WH Pearsall, Dudley Stamp, Julian Huxley, John Dower, J Douglas Ramsay, James Ritchie, Peter Scott, Norman Moore and Derek Ratcliffe. Some of them were household names in their day.

These were exceptionally talented people, gifted with the pen and in the field, and able to devise and develop visionary ideas – and ideals. Of course, in the mountains of Scotland beyond the discipline of drafting official papers and government command papers, they were exceptional field men – it has to be said, almost entirely men – working to develop our understanding of nature. Some of them active since the War are still with us, and forthright, active and critical in their thinking: Adam Watson, renowned expert on the Cairngorms, remains an acerbic, scientific commentator and advocate; Charles Gimingham, Roger Crofts, John Mackay, Chris Smout, Colin Ballantyne, John Birks, Bob Aitken, Chris Ferreira, David Welch, Mick Marquiss, John Gordon and Alan Werritty, to mention a few, are all still active in mountain and moorland work in Scotland despite being ‘retired’. Their forebears, such as Seton Gordon, WH Murray, Alex Watt, Grant Roger, Donald Watson and Desmond Nethersole-Thompson, were great naturalists able to communicate with enthusiasm and verve their observations and findings. Each of them not only responded to a ‘voice in the mountains’ but uttered it.

And this little sortie takes me to Creag Meagaidh, in September 1996, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the NNR and publication of Paul Ramsay’s book on the mountain reserve, Revival of the Land. I was Morton Boyd’s driver for the day, and we met and spoke with a wonderful range of characters – some of them the “Gods of your field”, as Morton proclaimed to their delighted countenances! But a half hour away from the melee, with Morton and the late Dick Balharry, recipient of the RSGS Geddes Environment Medal, I saw and heard something rare now. Deep in Coire Ardair, they argued and gesticulated wildly over how the reserve should be managed. They shouted, Morton cried (as he often did when moved, as much by the beauty of nature as by a reminisce) and two beards vibrated in unison. Morton had been Dick’s boss, and Dick was now supremo in charge of how the reserve should be managed. But what provoked this exchange? Passion. Quite simply a pure, unbridled and clean-cut desire to see the mountain better cared for. There was no jargon, no grandiose guff or a need to resort to heavily tabulated plans. No, here were two of our mountain heroes slugging it out to have their way in determining the fate of the reserve. Each heard the voice in the mountain, and for me they enunciated it. They belonged to a tribe of field naturalists deeply rooted in a mountain landscape that deserved far better care. They belonged to a rich seam of talented environmentalists who gave us so much of the nature conservation framework we work with today.

I just hope we don’t lose sight of these remarkable people. We need passionate debaters. We need informed, reasoned and sometimes loud voices – there no harm in that, so long as you are prepared to listen. But most of all we need to hear the voice in the mountains – we need to hear it spoken, and with passion.