Cameron McNeish’s latest book, in conjunction with photographer Richard Else, is the guide to his grandest project yet, a Scottish National Trail. When I say guide, it’s not pocket sized, and the route descriptions are in some parts rather vague. That’s not in any way surprising though, as it’s a guide to a trail which doesn’t exist on the ground, not in the commonly accepted sense anyway. At present the trail is only marked in two places, Kirk Yetholm near the start of the trail, and Cape Wrath, the end. The route in-between is a mixture of existing and established long distance footpaths, rights of way, canal towpaths and even roads, running from the Borders to Edinburgh, across the central belt to Milngavie, before heading north to Kingussie. The trail then heads west for the final section before getting back on track for Cape Wrath. The guide breaks the trail into these 5 stages, each prefixed with an overview map of that stage. Each stage may be broken into shorter legs, which are probably there to break the book down into a more readable format than anything else. And it is very readable.
It describes a walk through Scotland, set against a backdrop of a country moving towards possible independence. Along the way Cameron looks at Scotlands past, present and possible future. From Border Reivers to Highland clansmen, he provides an interesting look at the historical events which took place along the route. There is a snapshot of contemporary life along the route where he speaks to characters who live and work in these places. Some of these may be familiar to you if you saw the two editions of The Adventure Show aired in December 2012, which was the TV adaptation of the book. He also looks to the future, which is where he really shows his concerns about the future of Scotlands wild land and the growth of the wind turbine industry.
He has come in for a lot of criticism from some quarters, as having recently nailed his flag to the Scottish national party mast, he has joined probably THE most pro wind power party in the land. I can understand his position, and can only hope that he can use his media and public profile to put the reins on some of those who would turn our wild places into industrial powerhouses.
The other point which has come in for criticism is that the trail is sponsored by Gore-Tex, and is officially known as the Gore-Tex Scottish National Trail, a fact repeated often throughout the book. Considering that the route as it stands consists of two signs and nothing else inbetween I wonder if it was really necessary to do so. Despite the trail being endorsed by the Scottish Government (it was launched officially by Alex Salmond) and by Gore-Tex, as far as I am aware there are no plans to signpost the route, and as it stands it is more of an aspiration than anything else.
My own criticisms of the book are minor ones I suppose. Cameron has his obligatory dig at Trail magazine, a trait I have noticed over the years in TGO magazine. While not naming them directly he alludes to a mistake made by ” a magazine that claims to be the UK’s top selling hillwalking magazine”. Not TGO then…
I also find that letting your own politics slip into your writing about the hills, or anything else (unless it is of course politics) can annoy, aggravate or niggle folk, and it Mr McNeish’s support for the SNP comes out unnecessarily in a few places.
My last criticism is a personal one, and perhaps the most serious. On page 162 Cameron states that “I’m thankful that here in Scotland we can drink safely from almost any mountain stream”. I, and my stomach (not to mention somewhere else), beg to differ. I had the misfortune to run out of water of the Cruachan ridge many years ago on a hot July day. I took a “deep draught” as Mr McNeish would say, and it was indeed cold, and lovely. But in an area of intense sheep farming, perhaps not the wisest move. My own opinion now is to drink from as close to source as possible, high up a mountain where only where there is little animal activity, and never, ever, downstream of a rotting carcass. Call me Mr Picky…
Criticisms aside, this is a very good read. It’s certainly not dry, and the text is wonderfully accompanied by photographs from Richard Else. I’d say its purpose was two-fold. To let people know that the trail exists, and to inspire them to take on the challenge of doing it, in whole or in part, and in those respects it succeeds. The book is nicely presented, with the layout, maps and design all courtesy of Gregor McNeish, the author’s son. Whether you intend to walk the route or not it’s worth making time to read through this, and let it carry you all the way to Cape Wrath.
Scotland: End To End