Surviving Scotland's mountain

The Rest And Be Thankful is in motion - literally.

This is Glen Croe in Scotland.

The road before you if often shown as the 'A83', but in fact it is not. The A83 is the rather thin sliver near the top-left of the photo, barely visible as a horizontal gash in the hill itself. That is the main artery, believe it or not, taking the weight of up to 4,000 vehicles a day. The road snaking precipitously into the far distance is the Old Military Road (OMR), a single-track, just-about-paved road, never designed for the hundreds of vehicles which have been increasingly using it.

But they often have to, because this is a mountain with big problems and it is known as the Rest And be Thankful.

Part of what is called the Arrochar Alps, the road passes through Glen Croe and Glen Kinglass on its way towards Inveraray and consequently below the slopes of two of the more unstable hills in Scotland :the popular 'Cobbler' and lesser known 'Beinn Luibhean'. Already a dangerous route with steep drops, the area has been plagued with landslips for some time; decades in fact. So why someone put a main road through it is really anyone's guess, because this artery, when not frequently closed by landslips (the last one deposited some 6,000 tons of soil and rock onto it) is often closed for 'safety reasons'. When that happens, the OMR is deployed under a convoy system (essentially it's a single track road) although quite often even this route has to be shut as the landslips high above have a distressing tendency to overspill the A83 and thunder onto it. As you can imagine, this causes some dismay and alarm to those people using it.

In the meantime, the organisation responsible for much of Scotland's roads (Bear Scotland) scramble around trying various clever solutions like digging what they call 'catch-pits'. This amazing engineering solution involves digging a huge hole at the base of the mountain in the hope that:

a) the landslip will choose this spot to fall into and

b) it will be big enough to catch it all.

I have to say the evidence is mixed. Often, the landslips decide to come down in totally random places, usually where there are no handy nets to stop it or big holes in the ground. But even when it does slide in a known place, the nets seem to have little effect, often ending up in the middle of the A83, and the catch-pits just fill up and overflow anyway because they are not big enough. The narrative is depressingly familiar to those who use the A83 and goes something like this:

It rains... (this tends to happen a lot in Scotland).

The mountain absorbs tons of water (being tree-less, the only thing absorbing it is some grass and a bit of moss).

Unable to bear the weight, the mountain collapses, leaving anything up to 30,000 tons of rock and soil on the roads below. Amazingly, no one is killed.

A diversion is set up that is 57 miles long and everyone gets a bit annoyed.

Eddies Ross, Bear Scotland's representative, tells us that his teams are already clearing the road and putting in 'mitigation measures' (i.e. digging another catch-pit).

After anything from a few days to a few weeks, Mr Ross triumphantly informs us that the A83 is going to re-open under traffic light control (I have to attest that sitting under a red traffic light, that takes about ten minutes to turn green, at the base of Beinn Luibhean is not a life-enhancing experience).

He goes onto explain that he is taking a 'safety first approach', which is kind of nice of him. He further explains that road user safety is the main priority and uses words like 'will be kept under close review', 'further mitigation measures' and finally thanks everyone for not firing him (sorry, I mean he thanks everyone for their patience).

It rains...

You can see that there is a kind of financial merry-go-round going on here that has provided a steady stream of income for Bear Scotland (nearly £14 million) and a job for Mr Ross for some time. And this is just to keep the road open.

Someone somewhere had the idea of planting small trees on the mountain based on evidence that they hold soil and rock together more efficiently than nets. The plan is sound and based on experience from other countries where is was successful in reducing landslips. This was years ago, so can you guess how many trees or shrubs have been planted on Beinn Luibhean?

None. Not a single twig.

If there is one thing to take away from this debacle it is this: it is a mistake to think you can hold back an eroding mountain with chain-link fences and a big hole in the ground.