Roger Cox: Ben Nevis needs National Park status

WHAT’S more Scottish: whisky or haggis? Neeps or tatties? Which of these things best sums up your nation: football or literature? Cycling or art?

Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. Picture: TSPL
Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. Picture: TSPL

By the time you read this, we will know whether Ben Nevis has been voted “Scotland’s National Treasure” in a breathtakingly pointless survey conducted by the National Lottery. Also in the running for this “coveted” title, to be decided in an online poll by people who presumably have nothing better to do with their time, are Hampden Stadium, the National Museum of Scotland, the good ship Discovery in Dundee and the Kelpies in Falkirk.

Somewhat bafflingly, the Isle of Gigha is on the shortlist too. I’m sure Gigha’s lovely, although I’ve only ever seen it from the mainland, but of all of Scotland’s hundreds of islands, what makes this one particularly deserving of National Treasure status? Why don’t larger and better-known islands like Mull and Skye get a look-in? What supremely intelligent higher power cast his or her eye over the 780-odd islands that dot Scotland’s coastline, weighed up their myriad pros and cons and then decided, after much careful deliberation, that, yes, Gigha should be put forward as the one best equipped to do battle with the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Emirates Arena in Glasgow for the chance to be named our National Treasure?

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The answer, of course, is that to have a chance at being named Scotland’s National Treasure in the National Lottery’s poll, you must first have received funding of some kind or other from the National Lottery. In the case of Gigha, £2.5 million of lottery funding helped the island’s residents complete a landmark community buy-out in 2002. Similarly, Hampden, the National Museum, the Kelpies and the rest have either been built or renovated using lottery cash. Ben Nevis has been awarded a total of £428,000 for the conservation of its crumbling footpaths via the Heritage Lottery Fund, so it too qualifies for this thinly veiled marketing exercise.

Of course, none of the organisations involved can say anything negative about the poll in public, even if in private they might think it’s based on a seriously shaky premise – that would be biting the hand that feeds. But while Tristan Semple, development manager of conservation group the Nevis Landscape Partnership, gamely entered into the spirit of things the other week and urged people to “back the Ben” in the poll, he also used his moment in the spotlight to make the point, politely but firmly, that the fight to prevent Britain’s highest mountain from being further scarred by footpath erosion shouldn’t really be dependent on the vagaries of lottery funding.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to gain public support for Ben Nevis and the recognition that it is Scotland’s most cherished, popular and iconic natural asset,” he said.

“Whilst being a national treasure, Ben Nevis is not in a national park so cannot access the associated funding – a situation which surprises many of our visitors.”

The mental image his words conjure up is of a couple of American tourists standing at the bottom of the hill and saying to a local, in tones of utter disbelief: “What?!? So you’re telling us your government doesn’t even care enough about Ben Nevis to fix the path to the top?”

As I mentioned in last week’s column, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland recently re-submitted their report from last autumn, Unfinished Business: A National Parks Strategy for Scotland, to the Scottish Government. The document makes the case for seven new parks, of which Ben Nevis/Glen Coe/Black Mount would be one.

So, while I think the National Lottery’s poll is more than a little silly, I’ve still voted for Ben Nevis and I hope it wins. Not because I think for a second that it’s more worthy of “national treasure” status than art galleries or museums – that’s as pointless an argument as neeps vs tatties – but because a win for the Ben might give Mr Semple and others a chance to argue that it should be the centrepiece of a brand new national park.