On 17 August 1771 Edinburgh botanist, James Robertson, made the first recorded assent of Ben Nevis. An artist and botanist with a special interest in mountain botany, Robertson travelled extensively through the Highlands and Islands researching his subject and collecting botanical specimens. 2021 marks the 250th anniversary of his summiting of Britain’s highest and most iconic mountain.
Ben Nevis, the ‘mountain with its head in the clouds’, stands at 1345m and is an international Scottish icon; a mountain recognised far beyond our shores. It has deep cultural and environmental significance, with a large part lying within a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The encompassing mountain landscape of Glen Nevis constitutes one of Scotland’s most accessible and cherished National Scenic Areas, the entrance of which is a short walk or cycle ride from Fort William. It is the high profile and national importance of the area together with its accessibility that attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually. Indeed, the number of people enjoying Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis has doubled in the last 20 years and this trend is set to continue.
We are blessed in Scotland with abundant natural resources to rival the best in the world, and it is clear that the Scottish Government recognises that we have a duty to protect and enhance these assets as essential to our economy, culture, way of life and the wellbeing of future generations. However, for the Nevis area, this is a critical moment. If we are to continue welcome everyone who wants to explore the Nevis area and take advantage of the well understood benefits to health and wellbeing, we need to have a long-term structure in place that will care for our visitors as well as for the landscape and the nature that thrives in it. We need to develop a framework for a move towards a carbon neutral, circular economy which directs funds raised from visitors to Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis into visitor and environmental management of the Nevis area.
The Nevis Landscape Partnership have already taken the first step towards developing our mini circular economy by working with Jahama Highland Estates who have agreed to lease Lower Falls Car Park to us rent free. We, in turn, secured funding from the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to improve the facility into a low impact, visitor hub. The works will include toilets, a bus stop, bike racks, visitor information and links to the wider path network. The aim is to both encourage better, greener choices in how people access Glen Nevis, reducing congestion and pollution, whilst at the same time directing the income derived from visitor parking into the care of the area. However, this one facility on its own will not sustain the Nevis area.
As restrictions lift many more people, will see visiting and spending time in the outdoors, connecting with nature and wild land, as a safe way to recreate and to recover from the stress of lockdown, tackle isolation and improve their mental and physical wellbeing. For many people this will be a new activity, with some people nervously taking their first boot steps along tracks to explore our natural world. There is an identified need for an encouraging welcoming face, offering opportunities to learn about these wild landscapes, to participate in its care and, to promote leave no trace principles to help tackle negative impacts, including litter, which was such a big issue in many beauty spots over 2020. In the Nevis area we worked with John Muir Trust to source funding to employ a Seasonal Ranger team in the area last year, to be that welcoming face our visitors, and we hope to do the same again this year, although that is funding dependant.
Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis benefits people, our local communities, it drives our visitor economy, and plays an important role in reaching CO2 and global warming targets. However, to ensure the Nevis area can be sustainably enjoyed by future generations we need to put in place new, secure, long-term resources to care for this unique national landscape. At the same time, we must also be aware that Glen Nevis has internationally acclaimed cultural and natural heritage assets. In balancing economic drivers, we must be careful not to detract from the very qualities which make Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis a unique place to live and to visit.
As we are not a National Park, we do not get the Scottish Government funding provided to those areas to promote access and care for the area. We believe that, as well as National Parks, there should be a companion designation for specific and discreet areas of national importance with direct access to Scottish Government funding. This funding could be routed through experienced and accountable, constituted community organisations, to assist in securing the future of these nationally important areas.
It is time to recognise Ben Nevis as Scotland's National Mountain, with the beautiful Glen Nevis at its feet.