Fiona Reynolds laments the lack of national parks in Scotland, and explains why the creation of new ones would benefit everybody.
England and Wales have 13 national parks between them; Norway has 44 and Sweden 29.
Scotland, by contrast, has only two: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs plus the Cairngorms, both designated less than 15 years ago. Surely everyone would agree that Scotland has some of the most spectacularly beautiful countryside in Britain, as worthy of national park status as anywhere in the world and which would benefit from being designated.
The dearth of national parks is not for want of trying. Back in the 1940s, when the outdoors movement finally persuaded Government to legislate for national parks in England and Wales, an investigation into potential areas in Scotland, chaired by Sir Douglas Ramsay, came up with five proposed areas: in addition to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms, he suggested the mountain landscapes of Glen Coe and Ben Nevis, Wester Ross and the majestic inland glens centred on Glen Affric. The response, however, was silence and it took another half-century before there was any official movement in favour of national parks.
“The only argument against seems – now – to be about money, but there’s ample evidence that national parks create a net financial benefit.”
Preoccupied as I’ve been with looking after beautiful places in England, Wales and Northern Ireland through my time at the National Trust, it was a bit of a shock to realise that my family holidays in Scotland (mainly on Skye and the glorious west coast) were decades ago and I’d hardly been to rural Scotland since. I grabbed a chance to speak at the AGM of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and dip a toe into Loch Lomond.
I was astonished by the contrast. My memories of staggeringly beautiful countryside were confirmed, but Scotland has now grasped the fact that managing entrancing scenery is, along with the country’s welcoming approach to access, not only good for conservation, but also good for people’s well-being and the local economy, too.
The Forestry Commission, once pilloried for its fixation with Sitka spruce, now provides campsites, cycling and walks for millions of Trossachs visitors. The country is criss-crossed by long-distance cycle routes and walks; even in March, the West Highland Way was busy.
Gorgeous little Balmaha, a fishing village on the quiet eastern shore of Loch Lomond, has undergone a renaissance thanks to the stylish interventions of Sandy Fraser, whose Oak Tree Inn, village store, coffee shop and tasteful holiday accommodation offer a terrific base for some of the best walks in the national park. Fortified by one of the Oak Tree’s breakfasts, we had to eschew the chance of getting to the summit of Ben Lomond 10 miles away and confine our walk to Balmaha’s loch shore and mini summit of Craigie Fort.
Although it was a disappointingly gloomy morning, the quality of the light was still exquisite as we walked over one hillock, descended to the loch and then climbed the other mini-summit, from which we could survey the whole southern end of the loch. The Ben, which should have been visible to the north, was shrouded in cloud, but we had a spectacular view of the Highland fault line, which cuts through the loch and is marked by a series of islands emerging, like the proverbial serpent, out of its glassy waters.
All too soon we reached the end of the walk, a romantic pier from which boats ply out to the islands. We returned, refreshed by glimpses of the upper loch, the more populous western shore and the craggy path that takes determined walkers up the West Highland Way towards their eventual destination of Fort William.
It was a fantastic experience, but there’s clearly unfinished business. At the last election, all the parties bar the SNP included in their manifestos a commitment to creating more national parks.
The only argument against seems – now – to be about money, but there’s ample evidence that national parks create a net financial benefit. This is a no-regrets ambition: let’s have more in Scotland so that more people can be uplifted and refreshed by their beauty.
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Fiona Reynolds is the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ (Oneworld). You can follow her on Twitter @fionacreynolds