14. Dougie Baird, Mountain Path Builder
Dougie Baird has spent his working life building and repairing upland paths. That makes him the the perfect person to help protect one of Scotland's greatest mountains.
It sounds a strange thing to say about a 400 million year-old mountain like An Teallach… but it's fragile"
That mountain is the ever-popular group of serrated sandstone peaks we call An Teallach - a mountain area eroding quicker than you might expect not just due to "rainfall, footfall, scars, and cycles of erosion" but also under the twin pressures of climate change and funding cuts.
This is why the environmental charity Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland, of which Dougie is CEO, has teamed up with Mountaineering Scotland and other partners to raise a much needed £300,000 path repair fund for An Teallach, and beyond that to raise awareness of the deteriorating state of so many of Scotland's mountain trails. It's an issue that should concern all hill-goers, from walkers to climbers, backpackers to mountain bikers.
If everybody who went hillwalking just gave a little bit every month, honestly, that would help look after the mountains
The recently-launched campaign, It's Up to Us, aims to begin a wider conversation around the need for investment to maintain upland trails on privately owned land, an essential bit of walking infrastructure that most of us probably take for granted, and about how this might be paid for.
In this hour-long interview, Dougie discusses more about and why there's a need for this three-year campaign, but also goes into great depth and detail about how paths help protect mountain habitats, how anyone with the time and inclination can help volunteer to build and repair them, and what the joys and challenges are of a life dedicated to just this cause.
Stone pitching is the trickiest part of path building. You can't just throw a bunch of rocks together and expect people to walk on it
He'll also explain what 10 consecutive 10-hour days working in the high mountains look and feel like: how "you'll get most of your best work done in the morning", how powerful a thing it can be to close your eyes "for just five minutes", why the worst thing about it is the chilblains, how working in conservation can feel like a form of "national service", how rare and precious it is to see the mountains as the sun goes down and all the walkers have left, and how fulfilling it is to work on a project that's "going to outlive us".
Hear all of this and more in Mountain Air Episode 14:
00:00 - Introduction
02:22 - Welcome, all about "It's Up to Us" (https://savemountainpaths.scot/), "there's not really any organisation or government body that's there to care about this problem", complex funding models and the loss of European money
09:30 - "... it's physically very hard, the conditions are often unpleasant to say the least…"
10:34 - Why is it important to repair and maintain the paths on An Teallach? Rainfall, footfall, scars, and cycles of erosion… "some of it looks like it's been shelled"
13:50 - "It sounds a strange thing to say about a 400 million year-old mountain like An Teallach… but it's fragile"
18:50 - Is it possible to repair every path on every hill? And how to volunteer
21:55 - A day in the life of a path repair team
30:10 - "There's nothing worse than having a bag of helicopter stones even fifty metres away from where you want them. It's a nightmare"
33:13 - "The few days where it's nice to just lie back and enjoy the scenery and soak up the sun are so rare that you'll take a bit of time off for them, you really will. More often than not it'll be quite cold. Possibly raining. Possibly snowing. Possibly hailing"
37:45 - "Day eight was a killer. You felt like you were working three times as hard, but your productivity definitely dipped. Your effort didn't, but your productivity did"
38:25 - Women in path work
40:20 - Getting started in path repair, being an "unemployed youth in 1980s central Scotland", working with redundant miners, discovering conservation "I'd just seen land as a thing I grew up in that you used to be able to work in and couldn't anymore"
46:59 - "My gear was… so bad"
49:00 - "I'll never forget watching the sun go down at 11 at night in late May, with the eagles circling… the mountain you see after all the visitors and hillwalkers have left… I thought it was absolutely fascinating"
51:10 - Finding funding for conservation "I never knew if I had a job next year until New Year's Eve"
56:35 - Taking part in work "that's going to outlive us"
57:30 - Greatest Mountain Memory: climbing Kebnekaise in Sweden in a "hostile, extreme physical environment" with 24hr sun, "I'll never forget having the entire mountain to ourselves as we walked out at two, three in the morning in that glaciated, arctic landscape. That'll stay with me forever"
59:44 - All the time, money, freedom… where would you go and what would you do? Walking the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, "there's something about it… it's got culture and history that I find really compelling"
- To find out more about It's Up to Us, the new campaign to fund Scottish path upkeep, see here
- As an environmental charity promoting sustainable public access throughout Scotland, the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland (OATS) innovates, develops and implements path building, habitat regeneration and other outdoor access projects. There's more on the work they do here
Interview recorded 06/07/23
Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). This is the third series Dan has produced, and the second to be made in partnership with UKHillwalking. We'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months.