Severe Gales from the North-East

An alternative view of the Scandinavian experience

Countryside recreation is more than just provision, more than just the product of conferring, debating, drawing up strategies, supplying demand, appointing staff and providing a management structure.

In Scotland, we seem these days to be caught up in the throes of a frantic round of fora, conferences, seminars, workshops, debates, position-taking, stating of missions, establishing of committees and focus groups, and the setting of time-scales and delivery schedules. There is a real risk that all this activity may have become rather vulgar and undignified, with too many individuals and organisations competing for the moral high ground and for the limelight as they race to provide their own particular version of recreational Utopia None of them can be wrong, of course, because the business in hand is self-evidently good. Or is it?

The perceived wisdom is that Scotland, having survived late into the twentieth century with a fairly casual, relaxed and unmanaged "non system" of recreational provision in the countryside now needs a massive "fix" of "management" in order to redress all the omissions which have gone before. In response to this imperative, all the expected important bodies with "Scottish" in their titles are now working hard to put things right.

It is understandable that national bodies are applying themselves; however, commercial interests are hard at work too. Never before in the history of our relaxed and peaceful countryside have so many been making so much (booty, that is) out of the gentle, the individual, the "recreational" pursuits. Everything can be bought: bikes, boats, books and boots; canoes, compasses, cagoules and crampons. If you don't want to buy, you can hire: a guide, an instructor, a horse, a snowboard, a skilehrer, a bergfuhrer. If you want safety in numbers, you can join a club, join a trek, take a course, read the book, share a snowhole, buy the T-shirt: Ok? Or is it?

Do the Utopia-seeking "consumers" simply have to wait a little until all the current strategies and action programmes have run their course and delivered, until all the outdoor pursuits centres are built, staffed and fully booked, until all the minibuses are filled and chugging off to the countryside? Or, is it just possible that it could all go horribly wrong? Could the much vaunted goose, having laid an apparently golden egg, turn out to be the parent of a very ugly duckling?

What do I mean? As part of all the wordage surrounding the subject of countryside recreation, we are often told that the Scandinavian countries have the answer and all we have to do is transplant the off-the-peg model into Scotland. But hear this..

In the beginning, the Scandinavians went out in small numbers, often in family groups, to explore the quiet of the almost endless forests, lakes, mountains and snowfields; they gathered the fruits of the forests and fished for the fish of the lakes; they sought - and found - quiet, solitude and the chance to "re-create" themselves, to discover themselves while at the same time discovering their country; in making these pilgrimages to the countryside, they revisited those former times when everyone relied on the land, had daily contact with the land and enjoyed that inward transfusion of good and positive things.

But the good, pure, clean-living Scandinavians - like us - can now buy experience, buy instruction, buy ski-mobiles and motor-boats, and they are awakening to the fact that the baby has very nearly gone down the plug-hole with the bathwater. There is now a reaction to this "development" and commercialisation of something precious which ought to be natural, personal, unstructured and unsullied; there is a feeling that something needs to be done now - and quickly - to recover an ethos which may just about be beyond recall. As a recent study of countryside access in Norway expresses it,
Organised activities, facility provision, new equipment and other intrusions disturb those wishing peace, draw people away from traditional forms of outdoor recreation and put psychological and spiritual benefits at risk.

The same document goes on to refer to outdoor recreation being "in the hearts" of the Norwegian people and "legislation having a philosophical basis". There is an ethos there of which we should rightly be jealous. The story from Sweden is similar:
The increasing commercialisation of outdoor activities, involving commercial land uses and technical equipment, poses serious concerns.

Most of those who read this will be involved in the provision of outdoor recreational facilities or opportunities in some form or another; indeed many will owe their present employment to the current wave of interest in such provision. Might it be worth pausing and considering what will have achieved once we have provided everything we can think of, have created structures and management in every sphere we can imagine, have stimulated tourist-related commercial activity in every way ever conceived, have attracted more people to the best spots than ever before, have interpreted more heritage and more nature than anyone can ever take in? What will have been achieved?

I write as one who is trained both as a Physical Educationalist and as an Environmentalist; I see an unthinking and uncontrolled rush to provide in the countryside the level of organised sport - facilities, instruction and competition - which is wholly appropriate to the city sports field, the gym and the sports centre, but adds nothing to the natural benefits of forests, riversides and hills. "But does it matter?" someone will say, "Surely it is self-evidently good?" It does matter, because citizens who spend most of their time in artificial urban settings and who can no longer find anywhere which offers them a contrast to that daily routine, will risk being drawn down the well-charted road of stress, frustrations, artificial addictions, unfulfilment, social disfunction, crime and - ultimately - unhealthy, stunted and wasted lives If the countryside comes to offer no more than transplanted city values, then something will have gone most horrendously wrong.

The alarm bells are ringing in Scandinavia; let's heed the chill in the east wind and see what there is to be learned before our combined - and, of course, wholly justifiable - "busyness" destroys the ultimate resource.

Alastair Lawson, Scottish Rights of Way Society

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