Wim van Velzen photography - articles

Mustn't grumble

account of a 2006 Scottish family holiday

part two: around Loch Tay and the Grampians

part one - who, why and where
part three: Wester Ross and conclusion


land, nature, sheep and some personal feelings

Since long this landscape of hills, glens, lochs and burns has been inhabited by people. They lived their lives here, shaped by the landscape and at the same time shaping the land.
Now there is a beautiful mix of fields, forests, moorland, farmhouses and hamlets. Pleasing to the eye, but not without its problems.

The main environmental problem, especially on the higher grounds, is overgrazing by sheep and deer, and to a lesser extent the erosion caused by the many visiting walkers. This becomes immediately clear when one visits the nature trail, a part of the total National Nature Reserve of Ben Lawers, that is fenced around to keep grazing animals out.
Here the number of different plants and small animals is enormous, showing the quality Scottish forest and moorland can have. It proves that most of the moorland outside the fences, empty but for the sheep, is botanically speaking a desert. Moody and romantic, sure, but a desert nevertheless.

When keeping out the grazers is the solution, then why aren't sheep and deer kept out of the entire Nature Reserve area entirely? After all, it is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
Well, things aren't that simple. Farmers have grazing rights for their sheep here and they depend heavily on the sheep for their income. Even if it were legally possible to remove all the sheep from the Reserve, it would have a severe drawback on the local communities.

In a way this is quite ironic. Between roughly 1820 and 1850 all over the Highlands large numbers of tenants were driven from the land they had been working on for generations, as sheep keeping was far more profitable for the landowners - a social disaster known as the clearances.
The introduction of the large sheep flocks meant the end of many small communities, causing many a human tragedy. The worse, I feel, because it was not for natural causes, but just for the benefit of the landowners. Often the tenants were evicted from their houses and left on their own, forcing them to emigrate to the New World or the slums of Glasgow or industrial England. Derelict cottages remind of these gruesome times.
Visiting Castle Menzies, a few miles East of Loch Tay, I noticed the motto on the Victorian part of the house "Lord, in Thee we trust". I immediately had to think of what my grandfather used to say. As a son of a poor farm-hand he loathed the once common idea that the Dutch East Indies as a colony were 'given to the Netherlands by God'. He said: "I do believe that God is the Lord of all, but in this case they just omitted the word 'Mammon' after 'God'."

But then, I could have it all wrong and the Castle Menzies owners showed great care for their tenants.

tents, showers and the stone age

From the real dramas and tragedies of life back to our own wee camping problems. What about a generous amount of yoghurt thrown into the sleeping bags by Klaas, during his attempt to prevent Teun from tearing Klaas' cartoon book apart? Or looking for some dry matches, after you dropped an entire pack in your coffee? O such sweet misery!
The real pleasure for me in camping is the primeval character of it all. Sleeping on the floor, almost no furniture and the smell of grass under your feet. The only luxury are the showers in the sanatairy blocks - they just spoil the idea of living like our nomad ancestors...

The owners of most campsites appreciate this feeling and subtly include some sense of survival into the showers. First of all there is either too little water coming out of the pipes, making you shiver because of the all pervading draught, or when there is enough water, it is too hot for all but the die hard Finnish sauna fanatics.
A second problem is how to keep your clothes dry. Sure there are some hooks, but you can hang either your towel there and your undies, or the other clothes. Either way, some of these and certainly your used clothes have to find a place somewhere on the floor. And floors in the shower area are always wet.
The last problem you have to tackle, is how to get your feet dry into your shoes. After drying say your left foot, you have to pick up a sock (I always put these in my trousers' pockets before entering the shower block), get it over your foot and place it into the left shoe without ever touching the floor. During all this you are waggling on your right still bare and wet foot, either on a slippery wet floor or on some mat pressing an unpleasant pattern into said foot. Big chance you loose your balance and you'll have to lean to the walls, that of course are wet...
Life is tough.

Speaking about primitivity - we also visited a crannog, at the Crannog Centre in Kenmore, the Eastern part of Loch Tay.
This is the kind of building you always wanted to make as a child, but never had enough resources for. A large thatched wooden house on piles in the water, kept at their places by large boulders sunk under the house. Bracken on the floor, deer skins as blankets and fish tackle for catching lunch!
There have been hundreds of these dwellings in the lochs of Scotland, some of them occupied well into medieval times. Once providing comfortable homes and shelter from wild animals and plundering rodents, some of them are still recognizable as small islets in a loch.

on skin infections and a mountain area

In 1990 I visited Scotland for the first time, at the tender age of 16, with three friends. Together we climbed Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, and Cairn Gorm and Ben MacDui in the Grampian mountains.
I cannot resist to remind my family of these enormous accomplisments ('son, do you see that summit - from there I walked even to the Ben MacDui, 7 miles further to the East!'). An evening walk with my son makes it clear that I shouldn't try to the same walks again.
Fortunately my heavy gear pack is a great excuse not to go climbing!

Apart from walking in the mountains (well, a few miles maximum - ever tried to walk with a children's buggy on a stony path?), our main concern is the health of Teun. His upperlip and left eye are infected with some skin infection, probably the same beast Klaas had a few weeks before.
Teun is clearly in a bad temper because of it and can't really sleep well at nights, while he normally does. The anti-biotic ointment we got for him in the Netherlands certainly isn't enough to cure it. So we decide to visit a GP in Aviemore.

The owner of Rothiemurchus Campsite (OT: this site has showers with enough space to keep all your clothes dry! But don't start me on the piping hot water...) advices me to call first, otherwise we could be waiting in the Health Centre for hours.
So I phone the Centre and I am helped by a receptionist wanting to know my full names, my son's names and his and my days of birth; our address in the Netherlands and in Scotland. And honestly, I am quite able to make myself understood in English, even when a phone makes things less easy. But spelling is really hard for me. In English the "a" is pronounced the same as "e" in Dutch, "e" the same as "i" and "i" the same as "ei". Don't even think about "g" and "j". But well, Teun Vanvalzen is a nice name too.
Then she wants to know what is wrong with the little one. I make the mistake to talk about small wounds instead of infection. Immediately I feel that the child abuse protocol is doing its work and I am questioned about the kind of wounds and the kind of knife or other gear that caused these traumata. Then I have the brightness to utter something about spontaneous little wounds caused by bacteria and she links me to a doctor.

A friendly voice asks me what is wrong with Teun and after my description of the problem she immediately tells me she wants to see him in the Health Centre at 10.10 a.m. That is within an hour - very good, as we still could go to Inverness as planned.
In the end we have to wait till 10.40, as the doctors take their time for the patients. We have a nice time in the waiting room though. Not just because of all the magazines, books and toys, but also because of the way patients and staff interact. Aviemore is not that small, but people are known by their first names here and the room is filled with gentle conversation. Teun is fondled by an old lady who obviously fancies him.
Dr. Martin is a very friendly woman, who easily makes contact with Teun. Soon she has a diagnosis and treatment. To be sure she makes a swab for the lab. She is sorry the anti-biotic drink she prescribes has a horrible taste, but it is the best one available for impetigo. The Aviemore pharmacy probably will have to order it, but she reckons we should have no problem getting it in Inverness.

Within a few days Teun´s skin is healed, as is his temper! It is just that the taste of the drink is so bad that we need all our hands and knees to keep him quiet, have him open his mouth and catch all the stuff he manages to get out of his mouth.
Never seemed 10ml such a vast quantity.

The night before we go to see the doctor, Teun has an uneasy night. At 5.00 a.m. my wife is getting desperate, so I propose to take him with me for an early morning photo shoot. I use to wake up around 6.00 anyway, so this was not too much of a sacrifice.
Fortunately he likes the music I offer him in the car, as well as the cookies. I park the car at Loch Morlich and take out my gear to set up the tripod and wait for the sunlight to get over the mountains to the North-East. When I return to the car to get the camera itself, Teun is already asleep.

From the shore of Loch Morlich there is a very nice view towards the Cairn Gorm mountains, Stac na h-Iolaire, Baineag Mor, Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, Cairn Gorm, Cairn Lochan, Braigh Riabhach. One of these, Cairn Gorm itself, shows some strange scars on its skin.
In Winter this is Britains largest snow sport area, with ski lifts and all. Lots of low fences have to keep the snow at its place. In Summer this looks quite ugly, although the view from the Ptarmigan Restaurant at 1080meters, accesible by a funicular railway is nice enough.

Somehow I see a parallel of my son's infected skin and what we made of mother earth. These ski lifts, parking lots etc. are probably not too harmful to the environment of the entire area, but it really is a shame of such a beautiful surrounding.
The stupid thing of course is that we as tourists make use of 'the scars' to be able to enjoy the area's beauty! Without the railway we as a family would never have been able to reach such a height.

And what to think of this: Rothiemurchus Estate, owner of most of the wooded glen between Cairn Gorm and Aviemore, aims at sustainable development of the estate - in forestry and in tourism. And the area certainly is managed well (at least as far as I can judge from my visit and from the information of the Scottish Natural Heritage website). Then why on earth can they promote quad bike tracking in their area?
Of course, I am sure environmentally low-sensitive areas for this kind of 'fun' are chosen, but thinking of the noise and bad breath these motorbikes produce makes me feel miserable.

Right you are, of course, in putting the question forward why I do drive a car then? Umm, because, umm. Well, now you have got me. Maybe I am just the grumbling old man, as my wife sometimes accuses me to be (which she does with a loving smile, I have to say)! Complaining about other people´s behaviour, finding every bit of noise a big disturbance to my personal well-being.
Although, grumbling? Then the warden (*) in a parking lot near Loch an Eilein would be wrong. He tells us 'We get only nice people from Holland!'. I thank him for the compliment, but suggest that not every Dutch is nice. 'You are right sir, all Dutch people coming here are nice - the other ones go to Spain!'.
Well, who I am I to disagree? No grumbling on this opinion!

* that is right, a park warden. This area is more touristy than most Highland areas, so you even can find these officials here!

some culture thrown in

We do not spend much time in Inverness. I buy some more second-hand books and a Salm CD (a Gaelic psalmsinging experience - listen for a trailer on this website: Gaelic Psalm Singing). In a music store I also buy some Capercaillie and Runrig CDs - although as genuinely Gaelic as the Psalms, the sounds are rather different, to put it mildly.
Inverness is quite a pleasant city - and a real metropolis. Its 45.000 inhabitants make it the largest town in the Highlands by far. Not a town to spend a few days, but certainly worth a visit.

Klaas is very much excited by Fort George, built after the last Jacobite rising (Bonnie Prince Charles and all that) to totally subject the Highlands at last. Even now the stern fortifications bring more awe than the sense of beauty many old castles have.
Klaas must be about the only pacifist with a strong love for weapons. But I guess when you are eight years old, this makes perfectly sense. So the collection of 18th century muskets with bayonets impresses him even more than the soldiers who walk around. The fort is still in use by the army, but to Klaas' disappointment there are no modern weapons.
By the way, these muskets, hundreds of them, were found in the 1970s on an attic of some castle or mansion, more than 200 year after they had gone missing. I suppose they were lying just left of the cupboard with the skeletons.

Slightly disappointing is the fact that the Moray Firth dolphins (there are a couple of hundreds in this sea loch) deny us even a little show, although the temperature is close to 30 degrees Celcius and everything looks rather Mediterranean...
Well, you can't have it all.

And then we head to the West, along the now mostly barren country between Inverness and Kinlochewe. I am already enjoying the thought of the coming magnificent view from Glen Docherty over Kinlochewe and Loch Maree, when we drive right into a traffic queue because of some major road works. The old single track road makes way for a broadened, leveled and altogether more modern road.
Instead of seeing a lovely view we smell a fresh, warm road surface. Well, again: you can't have it all. For the local people these new roads really make their lives easier, so who am I to complain?


part one: who, why and where
part two: around Loch Tay and the Grampians
part three: Wester Ross and conclusion


This article is written by Wim van Velzen, © 2006.
Comments and questions are always welcome!

Most of the photos in this 3 part article are placed in the following portfolios:
Breadalbane (2006)
the Grampians
Wester Ross (2006): from Applecross to Shieldaig
Wester Ross (2006): Torridon and Gairloch
Wester Ross (2006): Gruinard Bay and Dundonell
Culross (soon)