The Cycle Track “Mind the Gap”


Highland Titles wants to encourage everyone to discover the great outdoors. Not only do we want to create spaces that provide places for wildlife to live, we also want to help people get out and experience the great outdoors for themselves. I spent my life walking and cycling and I want to encourage others to do the same. Creating a love for the countryside will ensure that people want to care for and protect the countryside. It’s a win win.

Sustrans is a charity that enables people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day. Their aims are aligned with ours and I am a long term Sustrans supporter. In 2007, Sustrans approached Highland Titles to seek permission to bring part of their new National Route 78 through our land at Duror. The Caledonia Way is a 237 mile path which runs from Campbeltown to Inverness – following Kintyre and the Great Glen, iconic features on any map of Scotland. It offers a variety of cycling, from challenging on-road hills to lengthy sections of traffic-free path through the spectacular scenery of the west coast of Scotland. We were keen to get involved.

Years passed and whilst the rest of the route took shape, the short section south or Duror remained incomplete, in part because of local politics and difficulties in reaching agreement about the best route. Should it come over Keil Hill, with its 60 metres of climb, or should it find a flatter alternative. Much of this route follows the course of an old dismantled railway line,with its flat gradients. Unfortunately in places ownership of the line had become complicated and uncertain.

I felt that a small detour through our magnificent nature reserve would be welcomed by most walkers and cyclists, so in 2009 we began to build the cycle-track ourselves.

This was not as altruistic as it might sound, because we were getting a rising number of visitors as we began to sell plots. Our visitors needed proper tracks to find their land and explore the beauty of Keil Hill. What we soon found was that building a track over Keil Hill was no simple matter.

We entrusted the job to long-time friend and Digger expert, Stanley Cameron from Spean Bridge. If anyone could find a route it was Stanley. After a month of careful work, during which he came close to sinking with his digger in the bottomless peat bogs, the route was finished. It then had to dry out for a year before we could be certain of success.

A review of the track in 2010 found that much of it was still soft. This was because the track was supplied with water from below from a multitude of springs. Stanley recommended reinforcing the clay of the track with crushed rock and then adding a six inch topping of crushed rock. Fortunately we were able to create a few quarries close to the track which  now provides several useful new habitat sites. Stanley and his digger returned to Keil Hill for a few weeks and with the additional support of rock crushing machinery and a big tracked dumper truck to move the rock along the track, we made some considerable improvement to the track. Time to leave it for another year to consolidate and dry out some more.

After another six months, we could see that the the track was shaping up, so we brought Stanley back in the summer of 2011 for another session quarrying rock and topping off the track. This was becoming an annual event!

But the result was excellent as you can see in the photographs below, taken in May 2013. Not yet fit for road bikes, but an excellent walking track, capable of safely taking the estate vehicles and perfect for horses (no, we have not had any horse-riders yet, but they would be welcome to visit). Visitor numbers were doubling every year and by 2013 we had recruited local volunteers to help with the needs of visitors. In December 2013 I had the pleasure of taking local resident Jimmy Cormack to view the Nature Reserve for the first time. Jimmy asked whether we had plans to improve the track to be suitable for disabled access and I assured him that the plan was to add a surface suitable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Unfortunately this depended entirely on the local roads department resurfacing a road somewhere close, because we planned to purchase the tarry road planings, which form a perfect road surface. This could be this year or in several years, I could not know which. This lead to our purchase of a John Deere Gator which has proved to be not only a vital means of providing access to visitors with disabilities, but it has also been a hit with everyone else.

The year slipped by and became 2014. We put out feelers with everyone who might hear about resurfacing work, but it was quiet. As you can see in the photographs below, taken in May 2014, the tracks were very solid, but not yet a cycle track!

Then we got the call, and in early 2015 we took delivery of 2,000 tons of road planings, which we had the tedious job of moving in 6 ton loads, as no larger vehicle could safely navigate the track. Our local machine man, Hamish, with help from volunteers, got to work spreading the planings along the track and by the summer of 2015 we had a cycle track, six years after the first roughing out work! It is impossible to say how much faster Sustrans could have achieved the track, but I think they would have had the same problems with water and would, like us, have needed to allow years for the base to dry out and consolidate. We may yet get to find out, but I am getting ahead of myself. Below are photographs taken in 2015 which show the new, surfaced track, in use.

As an aside, we had been working on several other trails, most of which were simple footpaths. Footpaths have two advantages. They permit access to the parts of the reserve which are particularly lovely and they temd to discourage visitors from roaming too freely and disturbing the animals and plants that call Keil Hill their home. Striking a balance between a Nature Reserve, which is best left undisturbed, and amenity land, which is designed to be visited, is a balance which we take very seriously.  Over 10,000 visitors a year require some careful thought if they are not to damage the very thing they come to see!

One trail that gets a lot of use is the “Loch View Trail”, which provides magnificent views of Loch Linnhe and access to areas which we are clearing of bracken with our pigs. With its topping of planings, this track is also ready for cyclists.

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Which brings me back to the subject of National Route 78. Once we had topped our tracks and built a small bridge over the outlet stream from the old lochan, we were “bike ready”. Unfortunately a few hundred metres of the track down to the old graveyard does not belong to us and so it had not been improved, but this is a very solid track and even if cyclists dismounted for this part the route was still a safe alternative to the main road. Time to contact Sustrans and see if they wanted to advertise it. But before we got around to it, Sustrans contacted us.

In January 2016, Transport Planning and Engineering (TP&E), working with Sustrans, emailed me in the following terms

“TP&E on behalf of Sustrans are progressing a review of the NCN 78 which currently uses the A828 south of Duror. In an open and transparent process we wish to meet the landowners prior to engaging with the communities about the options available to deliver an off road route. We are aware of the history and constraints of this route hence an off road route has not been delivered to date. I must stress we are contacting landowners first prior to the communities due to the known sensitivities of the route. “

This approach lead to Sustrans and Highland Titles, amongst others, joining the Duror community council meeting in March 2016 to discuss the two route options (Footway (A828) or Remote Footpath (Keil Hill)).   Members of the Council were unanimous that completion of the cycle track should be expedited but no decision was taken as to which route was preferred.

Over the following months, Sustrans looked carefully at the alternative route to Keil Hill, which would be to run alongside the east side of the A828. They dismissed this option because of the the traffic risks to cyclists and others in following the level route within inches of fast-moving traffic on this busy trunk road. The east side of the road at this point is overshadowed by a steep rock-face, which would need to be cut back for a considerable distance to allow for the construction of a path of even the minimum width. Compared to the small (60 metre) climb to traverse Keil Hill, with its views and beauty, Sustrans preferred the Keil Hill route. However, they did not propose to use the track which we built, preferring another route over Keil Hill, which approached via an existing forestry track, but then proceeded across slightly lower ground with less steep gradients. This, they felt, would make the passage over the hill less strenuous for users. The traverse of the Highland Titles Nature Reserve, with its ponds, bird-life and upland scenic location would make this an attractive alternative to ‘going alongside the Main Road’.

Sustrans have now sent us their final report and we wait with interest to see where the cycle track journey takes us. I feel it would be a shame if Sustrans decides to go to the expense of building a second track which I feel has no particular benefits over the track we have already built. But, if this is the only way to take vulnerable cyclists off the busy and dangerous main road, then I certainly don’t object. What it tends to prove is that public funds are often wasted. But then I already knew that. Cyclists are very welcome to use our cycle track, but without publicity and signage, few will even realise that it exists.

 

The Charity

Some people are unclear about whether Highland Titles Ltd is a charity and the simple answer is that it is not a charity. It is a simple for profit limited company, (Registered Company Number 1599) registered in the country where I live (Alderney), with one share – which is owned by the Guernsey registered charity, The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland (Registered Charity Number CH444).

We are set up, therefore, in much the same way as the National Trust for Scotland (Registered Charity Number SC007410), which wholly owns a for profit trading company, called National Trust for Scotland Enterprises Ltd (Registered Company Number SCO95585).  The National Trust for Scotland Enterprises Ltd is not a charity, but as it is owned and controlled by the National Trust, it behaves much like one. The Company trades for the benefit of its shareholder – the National Trust for Scotland, and Highland Titles Ltd trades for the benefit of its shareholder The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.

This arrangement of a Charity owning a trading company is one recommended by The Charity Commission and HM Revenue & Customs. They recommend that where a charity relies on trading (rather than or in addition to donations), then they should create such a subsidiary trading Company. Highland Titles starts from the premise that there are enough small charities milking donors for funds and so we have chosen not to simply hold out a begging bowl hopefully. We offer a product that is popular and profitable through a subsidiary trading company. Those profits are all ploughed back into Scottish conservation.

 

Google Maps

Google has been a great help with our project in many ways. They have enabled us to reach out to the world for support; most of our visitors come through a Google search. But perhaps the most helpful service that Google offer, and a free service too, is the Google map. Google maps have meant that we are able to provide all our customers with a link to their plot, so that they can view where it is.google-street-view-logo1Quite a lot can be seen from the road. In 2014 Google added a

A few years ago Google launched Google Streetview with Scottish data and users could drive past the nature reserve; there is almost a mile of the A828 road which runs alongside the Duror Nature reserve. The A87 runs through the middle of the Reserve at Mountainview, home to Wildcat Haven and Bumblebee Haven. tour of the Duror Nature Reserve. Unfortunately they did not feature all the tracks – there are many miles of these – and the pictures are now more than two years out of date. But it still provides an opportunity for lairds who have no expectation of ever visiting to see what they own.google-earth-keil-2016-1

This year we have begun our own digital mapping of the reserves, using drones, so that customers will have access to higher resolution photography. Google too, have updated their mapping, releasing a new series of maps of the area that show features absent from the old maps. The repaired old lochan and the new lochan, the new tracks, the bracken free areas created by our pigs, the wildlife viewing hides and several other features that might be visible only to those who have known Keil Hill over several years. Missing, unfortunately, are the areas of cleared Sitka and the work we have done to boost the number of habitat boxes and benches is not visible of course.

To take a closer look at the Nature Reserve at Duror, please click on the Streetview logo for a tour, or the map on the right to compare the old map with the new map. Or just explore Google Maps below.

 

 

Defamation

After J. B. Handelsman, The New Yorker

What has defamation got to do with conservation? I hear you say. Well “not a lot”, of course, but I take an interest in an eclectic range of topics and for the last few days I have been reading Professor Kenneth Norrie’s fascinating book, “Defamation and related actions in Scots law”.

The right to protection of reputation is recognised as being guaranteed by
Article 8 ECHR. In Scotland there are two routes by which one can protect
reputation against false statements that cause damage: defamation and verbal
injury.

The delict (that simply means wrongdoing) of defamation in Scotland is interesting. In general terms, it takes place when a person communicates an untrue and damaging imputation against another person. Prof Norrie sets out the following “peculiar” features:

  • it is an intentional delict in which the intent to injure is usually irrebuttably presumed“;
  • it is a delict only if the statement or communication upon which it is based is false, but with which falsity is rebuttably presumed…”;
  • “the pursuer does…always have the onus of proving that the statement or communication complained about is “defamatory” and that it has been “communicated”

Essentially, if someone thinks that what you wrote about them is defamatory,  the onus will be entirely on you to prove that your comments are true in court. In other words, if you make the claim, you’ve got to prove it!prove-it

Defamation has long been defined as something that “tends to lower the plaintiff (pursuer in Scotland) in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally“, and whether something is defamatory is up to the court to decide. True words can be defamatory but in order to found an action in defamation a defamatory statement must also be false. However, interestingly, if found to be defamatory, it is not up to the pursuer to show that the material is false. The defender bears the onus of showing that his statements are true.  In order to found an action in defamation a statement must also be made with malice (it must be intended to cause injury). However it is a presumption that anyone publishing false and defamatory statements, does so with malice.

So, how can the defender who made the defamatory allegations avoid being held liable for defamation? The available defenses fall into several broad categories.

  • justification; i.e. the material as published is true
  • fair comment; this protects statements of opinions or comment on matters of public interest
  • privilege, absolute  or qualified;  this guarantees immunity from liability in certain situations e.g. in parliamentary and court proceedings

Fair Comment

Lord M’Laren has described the Fair Comment defense as follows: “The expression of an opinion as to a state of facts truly set forth is not actionable, even when that opinion is couched in vituperative or contumelious language.”   The defender must prove that the words complained of were comments, not offered as facts and the facts upon which the comments are based should be stated. and that these facts should be true. Finally the comments must be on a matter of public interest.

Anyone who repeats allegations can also be sued. Seeing something written somewhere else doesn’t mean it is true and does not make it safe to repeat. Also, Scots law provides no special protection to website publishers.

The defamatory statement must be communicated. As well as traditional forms of publication, this may now include blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Trip Advisor and similar.

Scots Law will compensate the injured party for hurt feelings, reputation and/or honour. The greater the circulation by the original defamer the greater the sum of damages is likely to be. It may not only be the originator of the statement who is possibly liable, but also those who repeat the statement. We all know how fast a Facebook thread can spread. If the post contains a defamatory statement then each time it is shared its audience increases as does the number of potential defamers and the size of the liability.

The ease with which actions for defamation can be launched in Scotland has got some people worried. For a discussion of this, see ScotsLawBlog and the Discussion Paper on Defamation published in 2106 by the Scottish Law Commission.

The law as it stands in Scotland appears to have only one feature that stands in the way of Justice and that is the cost of using it. Not only does this mean that many people and businesses cannot afford to defend their reputation, but that anyone who is “without substance”, who for example is unemployed, does not own property, has no savings, etc, is essentially impossible to sue as even when the case is won, the costs cannot be recovered.

I suggest that the Scottish parliament would do well to consider a small claims service dealing with defamation, able to require apologies and the removal of material when this is found to be false. They should have powers to award modest awards. In return, access would be inexpensive. No barristers. Simple court processes and a fast consideration of the facts, perhaps by written submissions.

In addition, I would make it easier to take action against Internet Service Providers (ISP), or blog hosts. Blog sites such as Google and WordPress are currently the Wild West for hosting defamatory sites. They should take far more care about establishing the identity of the content providers and the accuracy of the content. Imagine that I wished to defame or bully someone and offered to pay a national newspaper for the space to advertise. The paper would read the content with care before publishing it. The same cannot be said about WordPress.com, who will publish anything, however outrageous and then cannot be compelled to remove it without a court order. This situation cannot be permitted to continue.

Scottish Trees

When I started Highland Titles in 2006, it was with a view to fund the planting of Scottish trees in Scotland. Years of government grants have expanded the number of exotic trees at the expense of native trees. Unfortunately most softwoods, planted at the densities desired by commercial forestry, provide nothing of value to any other animals or plants. A Sitka plantation is a sterile desert as far as Scottish wildlife is concerned.

But what to plant and where? The first question that we faced was what trees to plant and by that I mean not just what species, but where did the seeds come from?

It is important to use local stock for planting native species. Genetic adaptation to environmental factors has developed over time making it important to plant trees grown from locally sourced seeds.  Even more important is to avoid imported trees, which are often available at a discount, but which can bring into the region pests and diseases that have no resistance in the local tree stock. An example of this is Ash Dieback – also known as  Chalara dieback of ash. This is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. (The fungus was previously called Chalara fraxinea, hence the name of the disease.

Since we planted our first trees in 2007, we have relied upon the professionalism of a local tree nursery, Taynuilt Trees. They are a small family-run nursery in Taynuilt, Argyll just a few miles from our Duror nature reserve.  Taynuilt Trees specialise in tree species native to North Argyll.  All their stock is traditionally grown in the open ground from seed they collect ourselves in the surrounding woods using a traditional rotational growing system. We will doubtless continue to make use of Taynuilt Trees, but this year we plan to create our own tree nursery to supplement Taynuilt stock – using seeds collected in our own woods at Duror and where we can get permission, surrounding native woods. We plan to collect seeds from at least 20-30 well dispersed parent trees.

More news later.