Munro with cancer #122 and #123 – a tale of midges and tourists

14:00 – Meall a Bhùiridh (M045), 3635ft, 1108m

15:00 – Creise (M050), 3609ft, 1100m

16:00 – Meall a Bhùiridh (again)

I should have known from recent visits to Glen Coe that 12:30 in the afternoon of the busiest Sunday in August would not be the best time to find somewhere to park before climbing Buachaille Etive Beag. Apart from numerous already parked mountain people’s vehicles, there are as many hordes of gormless tourists consuming the scenery and striking poses with selfie sticks as midges trying to suck their blood, vehicles of all shapes and sizes come and go with no regard for anything but finding an immediate place to pull in, parking is random and chaotic, traffic is dangerous, lives are put at risk, humanity’s more antisocial, rapacious and cynical traits are displayed for full public scrutiny. Or at least, so it appeared.


I was planning a walk up Buachaille Etive Beag in Glen Coe with my better half on the way home from our holiday on Barra and the Uists in her fantastic camper van. There is a nice gentle walk in to a relatively easy ascent, after which she could either attempt the climb or more probably walk on up the glen a bit and meet me again on the way back down. I thought it would be a nice way of finishing off our holiday. But it was not to be.

The previous morning we awoke at Skeabost Bridge on Skye after arriving on the last ferry from Lochmaddy. On the Outer Isles, midges are a minor irritation that is attenuated by sea air and wind. Not on Skye. So we decided to get moving as quickly as possible. We had not reckoned though on the true extent of the massive influx of visitors the island endures at this time of year. I cannot remember ever seeing so much vehicular stupidity within such a short period – an extreme contrast to the courtesy and care on display on the Outer Isles. And the strain placed on the island’s infrastructure is palpable. We stopped for breakfast in Broadford and heard horror stories of people sleeping in bus shelters, blocked public toilets, piles of litter and human excrement, and of shops and garages running out of supplies. Back on the mainland, the chaos seemed only to intensify. We had great difficulty finding somewhere for the night among the huge flocks of other travelers searching for a roost in Lochaber, but eventually took advantage of the last available pitch at a very nice, albeit pricey, campsite in Glen Coe village.

I might have hoped that this experience would have prepared me for the traffic in Glen Coe. As I drove into the potholed overcrowded mess of vehicles in search of a space, I could feel my hackles rising. After somebody nipped in before me to a space I was aiming for, I simply could not deal with the behaviour of the other drivers any more, nor could my better half trust that her van would remain safe in our absence, so we decided on the spur of the moment that I climb the hills behind the Glen Coe Ski Centre and she take a stroll along the West Highland Way and back. As I attempted to rejoin the road, a car parked directly in front of me and its occupants got out to take photos and offer their blood to the midges, without the least regard for my indicated intentions. I experienced a brief moment of real rage, winding down the window and telling them in no uncertain terms to move their vehicle now, or else. Happily, the car park at the Ski Centre is huge and is used on the whole by mountain people parking their vehicles sensibly, rather than for tourists to stop briefly to gaup at themselves with the big shepherd in the background.


It is a short sharp slog underneath ski lifts up to the big corrie basin where the skiing happens and another up the crag behind it. I reached the summit of Meall a Bhùiridh in less than an hour and a half, in spite of being caught in a very nasty squall on the way up, sheltering a while behind one of the ski buildings and contemplating a return to the van for a cup of tea. But I persevered. At the summit, the clouds had passed and the views were spectacular.


I met some people who had experienced the squall at the top of Creise. They were not happy. I looked over at the high exposed plateau and felt their not happiness. I imagined why being caught up there in a squall at any time of year would be challenging. It is long and flat with absolutely nothing protruding. At least at the top of pointy mountains, there are crags and rocky outcrops that afford a degree of shelter, whatever the wind direction.


The traverse to Creise appears large and imposing, with a bit of a scramble at the end, and for a moment I thought about saving it for another day. Only for a moment though. As I approached the summit I met a large party of no longer quite in the first flush of youth Bearsden and Milngavie Ramblers. I suggested that this was a notch above rambling, not that I have anything against rambling of course, in response to which I was regaled with tales of a previous outing to Stob a’Choin at Balquhidder, in comparison to which this was a doddle. It was a pleasure to make their acquaintance, although I did decide on the way back to Meall a Bhùiridh to take lunch out of earshot of their weegie banter. Later on the arête I overtook them, and then some caught up with me again at the summit. They had been here during the squall and were happy to linger as I took the leisurely route back to the van. The midges kicked in again on the final steep descent, after which I yomped down much faster than is good for me and arrived sweating for a very nice cup of tea that was waiting for me. But the midges were hellish.


The peace, tranquility and sheer unadulterated beauty of the Outer Isles is special. They operate at a different pace from the rest of the country. Their weather is more extreme and intense, the people more resilient, mindful and gentle. The colours of the planet are staggeringly beautiful here. And there are fewer midges. Perhaps the price of passage on Calmac’s splendid services, even with generous state subsidy, is too much for travelers already forking out a small fortune. Perhaps the facilities are too basic, the centres of population too sparse, the roads too narrow. Whatever it is that prevents the chaos of mainland tourism from infecting the Outer Isles, long may it continue.

The frustrations of returning from this holiday paradise to the realities of the mainland disappeared on the top of the mountain, as I realised that everything had turned out for the best. In spite of coming off the last ferry at Uig late at night, we found a nice secluded spot to park up. In spite of much toing and froing in Lochaber, we found a well appointed campsite. In spite of chaos in Glen Coe that made it impossible to park where we planned, we were able quickly to make a new plan to park at the ski centre. My better half enjoyed a lovely walk along a bit of the West Highland Way and had a chance to reflect on her own journey. I got to climb another two of the top fifty, to escape the tourists, to meet with some lovely mountain people and to learn a little more about my reactions: everything turned out for the best after all, there was no need for any of that irritation, rage or annoyance.


Except that this is not only a personal matter. Of course, it is my responsibility to conduct myself with good sense and decorum and to be aware of how my emotional reactions might be inappropriate, unnecessary or insensitive. But these feelings have causes. They arise in specific real life situations, they are visceral, not inventions of my mind.


Great efforts are being made to encourage people to visit this country. Visit Scotland has a website where the usual gaudy display of shortbread tin Scottishness is wrapped up in anodyne stories about Scottish history, ecology, society and culture, devoid of political context, that omit all mention of the violence, struggle and hardship experienced to this day still by many hundreds of thousands of Scots. There is not a lot about midges either. It is little more than an advertising hoarding for Scotland PLC and its many subsidiaries, employing the scenery of the land to purvey everything a wealthy visitor might require. A cursory examination is enough to conclude that tourists are expected to consume good food, stay in exclusive accommodation, to enjoy the sunshine on unspoiled beaches, to gaze in wonder at the marvels of nature, to be actively engaged in some outdoor activity that requires (the hiring of) special equipment, and to visit castles, beauty spots and museums. After investigating this website for a while, I had to stop because I thought I was going to be sick.

The relative value of Sterling against the Euro makes it cheaper for Continentals to come here and for Brits to stay at home. I have heard rumours also that Auntie Beeb has been promoting the country, or at least, displaying it favourably, with documentaries and travelogues. The popularity of a certain historical drama series no doubt also contributes to the increasing numbers of visitors. The suspicion arises that only the purveyors of tourist services are profiting from this overcrowding of public space; no conspicuous effort is being made either specifically to improve the toilet facilities on Skye or the car parking spaces in Glen Coe, or more generally to ensure that infrastructures are fit for purpose, able to cope with the large numbers of people who come here to spend their money.


Predominant ideologies of neoliberalism would have us believe that business is good for everybody, that wealth trickles down, that there is no need for complex social planning, or long-term, joined-up thinking, and that the operations of the market – ie, the pursuit of personal profit – will ensure a stable and happy society. This makes about as much sense as expecting a dog willingly to share food with other dogs, or allowing the motivations of the most venal, rapacious and self-interested individuals in society to ensure the welfare of everybody, or thinking that midges will stop sucking blood.




Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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