Why Alain Baxter should have his Olympic medal returned

I wrote the following piece in October 2002, a few months after Alain Baxter from Aviemore had his Olympic Bronze Medal taken away because a banned substance was found in his urine sample. He was later cleared of any intent to cheat, but his medal has never been returned to him and he has never been reinstated as bronze medallist of the 2002 Men’s Downhill.

First published October 2002 in Strathspey and Badenoch Herald

I hope you’ll forgive me for straying from my usual outdoors subject this week but like so many other folk in the Strathspey and Badenoch area I am both disappointed and furious at the decision by the Olympic Committee’s Court of Arbitration for Sport not to return Alain Baxter’s bronze medal to him.

By all reasonable logic the medal belongs to him. He won it fairly, and he won it with no small degree of skill and courage. He should also be awarded a gold medal for the attitude he has shown through what must have been a time of private torment. His public personna throughout the whole sorry period has been an example to other sportsmen around the world, many of whom are pampered, overpaid individuals, and I’m sure we can all name plenty of them, who like to complain about trivia.

Perhaps what has stimulated me to write this column more than anything else is not only the way Alain has been treated by the Olympic fat cats, those bureaucrats who wouldn’t know one end of a ski from the other, those legal administrators who are completely tied up in the letter of the law and who lack grace, understanding and common decency. And it’s not only the fact that on the one hand Alain has been described as honest and sincere man who had no intention of gaining a competitive edge but at the same time is not, apparently, worthy of the title of Olympic medallist. It’s not Alain’s reputation that has suffered this week, but that of the Olympic Committee, and that brings me to my point.

Two years ago I walked through the Alps with a New Zealander we had met on the trail. He told me the story of his father-in-law, a Glaswegian who had emigrated to New Zealand some time ago and had become the FIFA representative for Oceania. This gentleman had gone to FIFA to represent his area as the organisation discussed which country the next football World Cup would be held in. Such was the level of corruption and bribery that he witnessed that my friend’s father-in-law returned to New Zealand in disgust, and also somewhat concerned about his safety.

It’s a fact that modern sport is all about money. Mammon rules worldwide, from the highlands of Ethiopia where local runners see athletics as a way out of their poverty, to the fat cats of the world governing sports bodies and their burgeoning expense accounts. As a former international long jumper I can now look back at the day when my own former sport, track and field athletics, turned professional. It’s never been the same since. Rugby has gone the same way. I don’t begrudge those athletes and rugby players and footballers who dedicate themselves to a highly disciplined life a decent living, but the amount of money that goes to the top performers has become absurd. Maybe that’s why so many are prepared to cheat, to take drugs to gain unfair advantage and secure financial independence for the rest of their lives. In modern sport, hypocrisy abounds.

Drug-taking in sport is a deadly cancer that eats at the very heart of the Olympic ideals and it is right and proper that the authorities do all in their power to stamp it out, but those authorities have to be seen to be fair and considerate, especially to those who are innocent. Alain was only guilty of a silly mistake that any of us could have made and he has been treated abominably for it.

We now know that Alain Baxter is not amongst those sporting cheats, and we can be proud of a local lad who has brought nothing but honour to the sport of ski-ing. As far as I’m concerned Alain Baxter is Britain’s first Olympic medallist but much more importantly, his courage and integrity and the way he has conducted himself over these past few hellish months have made him an ideal role model for young sportsmen and women of the future.



The Carbon Cycle – Book Review

I heard on the news this morning that the Met Office now believes that climate change is likely to be a factor in the extreme weather that has hit much of the country this winter.

Chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo said the variable UK climate meant there was “no definitive answer” to what caused the storms. “But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” she added.

Whether that climate change is caused by man-made pollution is another matter, but it would appear that there is much evidence to suggest it is. In fact there is so much evidence that links carbon emissions with climate change we would be foolish to ignore it.

I’ve taken some comfort in the past from scientists like David Bellamy who say that climate change is cyclical and attempts to fight it is purile – I’ve even supported him on anti-windfarm marches, but the amount of scientific evidence that is available now to suggest that mankind is exacerbating the problems, along with the melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, has made me think again.

I should point out that I’m no climate scientist – I’m no scientist at all, but I am concerned at the evidence I’ve seen in other countries of the effect of climate change. In the Himalayan countries for example, glaciers are shrinking fast and the amount of water that will be available in years to come is diminishing. Water will become a prime commodity in some countries in years to come, while here in the UK there is so much of it at the moment that people are being flooded out of their homes every time there is a big storm. Climate change is creating very different problems in different parts of the world, and no-one is immune.

A few weeks ago I was attracted to a book by its title – The Carbon Cycle. At first I though it was a treatise on the latest all-carbon road bike, but it wasn’t. It was about a 4553 mile bike ride from Texas to Alaska by a Cumbrian-based ‘outdoor philosopher’ by the name of Kate Rawles. And the purpose of that journey was to discover, at first hand, the effects of climate change on the various populations she met along the way.

Author and outdoor philosopher Kate Rawles

Author and outdoor philosopher Kate Rawles

Kate chose to ride up through the US and Canada for very good reasons. The President at the time of her adventure was Bush, a climate change denier and leader of an administration that was completely in thrall to the oil industry. And this was a country with 5% of the world’s population but which produces 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, Kate realised that “cycling in the USA offered fantastic opportunities for a random sampling of what citizens of one of the most oil-hungry, oil-dependent countries on earth thought about the climate consequences of this particular addiction – and the implications of trying to give it up.”

It’s safe to say she experienced all kinds of responses to her simple questions on climate change; from outright denial from those involved in the oil industry to the shoulder shrugging of the religious right – Jesus will return and save us all!

In Wyoming she was warned to keep her voice down – this was the state of Vice President Cheney, and apparently he didn’t take kindly to anyone who rocked the oil boat that had made him a multi-millionaire.

But it wasn’t all dark denial – many Americans were convinced that climate change was happening, that it was wholly or partly caused by man’s activities, and were trying to do something about it, in their own lives and in their communities.

All of this constantly challenged Kate’s own assumptions and ideas about climate change, and where better to sort out the morass of information, ideas and thoughts than on a bike on a long journey, where space and time allowed the mind to provide some kind of sensible pattern to it all.

At the end of her journey Kate came to a conclusion that is very familiar to me – a tune that I’ve been singing for a long number of years now. In the West we desperately need to reconnect with nature. This is how Kate defines it;

“Our ordinary lives, by and large, reinforce our feelings of disconnection rather than confront it. We don’t witness the impacts of our lifestyles on natural systems and other species, and we don’t feel part of the ecosystems we’re damaging. We spend more and more time with computers and televisions and less and less time ‘in’ nature, around other species, aware of the ‘vividness and vibrancy’ of life. Our political leaders and powerful elites are often even more disconnected than we are, isolated from the feedback we badly need to receive and from the kinds of relationships with nature that might inspire its protection.”

This disconnection is of course only one part of what is a huge problem. We have become very comfortable with our Western lifestyle and we’re not keen to give it up. We hear of the Indians and the Chinese building huge numbers of coal-fired power stations so we shrug our shoulders and say “what’s the point in doing anything”. Even outdoor lovers (including me) complain about renewable energy because wind turbines spoil our views, while our Westminster Government chops and changes its environmental policies to suit whatever political wind is blowing the strongest.

I’m not sure if we can halt, or slow down, or eliminate climate change. The pessimist in me says mankind is simply too greedy, too self-centred to care. The optimist in me agrees with Kate Rawles – the fight against climate change is not necessarily about giving things up, it’s about finding ways to do things better. We must “step back from our ordinary lives and ask what really makes us happy. And then throw all our ingenuity, creativity, intelligence and passion into coming up with single planet answers.”

I would go as far as to say that The Carbon Cycle is a book every outdoor enthusiast should read. We have to make ourselves aware of the problems and risks of climate change and ask ourselves what kind of world do we want our children and grandchildren to live in. For a very readable and hugely enjoyable account of a great bike adventure The Carbon Cycle is a great book. But read it and go beyond the adventure – like me, you might just begin to question your own motives and lifestyle choices.

The Carbon Cycle, by Kate Rawles, is published by Two Ravens Press and costs £11.99



A very snowy Cruach Ardrain


Approaching the summit of Meall Damh, en route to Cruach Ardrain, the main peak in the distance

I haven’t seen this much snow on the Crianlarich hills for years.

Climbed Cruach Ardrain on Friday to film a Wild Walk for BBC Scotland’s Adventure Show and it was little short of fabulous. Shifting mists, beams of sunshine, snow covered hills and pretty stable snow conditions made it a day to remember.

Having said that, it was tough going. My calves are still aching, too days later. Thanks to Simon and Paul for great company – they are the guys who do all the work. All I do is blether to a camera…

Will be broadcast in the spring.

Robert Burns’ plea for Bruar Water

Bruar Falls

Bruar Falls

LAST Friday Gina and I were guests at the Scottish Farmer Burns Supper. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and I had to sing a couple of Burns’ songs but I suspect I got the best of the deal.

It’s always a delight to hear other folk’s interpretations of Burns’ work, the ploughman poet who is often regarded as a genius while undoubtedly being a bit of a rogue, a womaniser and a lad who enjoyed nothing better than a night out with his friends in a tavern singing bawdy songs. In short, a real human being.

It was on our way home that we thought we’d visit a Highland Perthshire site that has strong associations with Robert Burns, a place that looks its best after periods of heavy rain.

The natural miracle of hydrodynamics is best observed in very wet weather conditions when our moors and mountains harness all the fallen rain, soak it up like a gargantuan sponge, then, by unseen energies, forces it up though the surface of the ground in the form of bubbling streams. The Bruar Water, just north of Blair Atholl, feeds from the great soggy plateaux and moors of upper Atholl and, initially flows gently down the empty miles of Glen Bruar before, chameleon-like, changing character completely.

As the ground falls away the waters become agitated and turbulent, before crashing and thundering down the deep gorge that cradles its bed. At the foot of the gorge the water roars over a series of falls and cascades before finally surging through a natural arch in the rock and into the pools below. The river is at its finest during and immediately after periods of heavy rain – that’s the best time to view the aquatic power of these Bruar Falls.

What makes Bruar so spectacular is the simple combination of rock, water and trees, basic elements that offer grandeur on a magnificent scale, but in the late eighteenth century this narrow glen was virtually devoid of trees. One visitor to the falls, William Gilpin commented, “One of them indeed is a grand fall, but it is so naked in its accompaniments that it is of little value.”

But it was Robert Burns, in1787, who was responsible for changing the character of this beauty spot. He wasn’t all that impressed with the place and later wrote “The Humble Petition of Bruar Water to the Noble Duke of Atholl.”

This eleven-verse poem contains the lines, “Would then my noble master please, To grant my highest wishes? He’ll shade my banks wi’ tow’ring trees, And bonnie spreading bushes.”

The Duke of Atholl acquiesced and the first trees were planted in 1797. Sadly the Bard died before the plantations grew but others have left their impressions in words and pictures – William Wordsworth, William Turner, Queen Victoria and thousands of appreciative visitors from home and abroad.

Whenever I pass through Atholl I’m reminded of the influence of the ploughman-poet. Generations of Dukes of Atholl have planted trees in and around the area, indeed the woodlands of Atholl are one of the rich characteristics of the region and it’s probably amongst the best wooded areas of the highlands. I wonder what Atholl would be like today if Robert Burns hadn’t felt the need to advise the mighty laird on how to improve his property. The power of simple verse changed attitudes and an entire landscape.

We have a lot to thank Robert Burns for, and not just his wonderful legacy of song and verse.

Hills of the Dead End – Remembering Patrick MacGill


The poignant Blackwater Dam graveyard

IT was one of the most poignant destinations of any route I’ve walked. We had tramped from the Kinlochleven side of the dramatically named Devil’s Staircase and then dropped down alongside a water pipeline that ran from the Blackwater Reservoir high above the birch banks of the River Leven. There was a sheen of newly minted green on the trees and the sky was blue. Spring was turning to summer and birdsong, especially that of the ebullient skylark, filled the air. It was hard to imagine the desolation, the strife and the sheer pathos of the industrial scene that dominated this landscape a hundred years before.

In the distance a long, low wall ran across the horizon, the line of the Blackwater Dam, and as we approached it a dumpy, drumlin-like hillock took our attention. Fifty metres from the track and pipeline a wooden fence straddled the hill, tracing the outline of the most unusual graveyard I’ve ever seen, for all the world like the Boot Hill of a western movie. Twenty-two headstones stood proud of the ground, concrete plinths, some with names etched on them, some without. Daffodils swayed in the breeze offering a hint of softness in the harsh surroundings of heather, rock and water.

Here lay the remains of some of those who had died in the building of this great dam, and the reservoir that lay behind it. Some names are scratched on the stones – John MacKenzie, W. Smith, Darkey Cunningham, and curiously, Mrs Reilly, a lone woman in this male-dominated environment. What stories lie behind these simple stones, gravestones not of marble or slate but the material with which these such men worked – concrete? Another stone bears the word ‘Unknown’, a reminder that these folk were the misfits of the day, itinerant workers who knew no home or family. I realised quickly that this little graveyard, in its wild and remote setting, is more than just a cemetery. It’s a monument to those who were once described as ‘the outcasts of a mighty industrial society.’


The Blackwater Reservoir project was the last of its kind, when men, largely using hand tools and without the use of mechanical earth moving machinery, gouged this great reservoir from the earth. It is thought to be the last major project of the traditional ‘navvies’, who made such a major contribution to the construction of Britain’s canals and railways in the early part of the twentieth century.


In 1906 the British Aluminium Company opened a plant in Kinlochleven, turning what had been a tiny settlement of two or three farm houses and a shooting lodge into a ‘model village’ to house the hundreds of itinerants who were expected to come and work on the smelter project. To provide the power for the aluminium smelter the Blackwater Reservoir, four miles to the east of the town, was slowly gouged from the bowels of the mountains themselves.

The dam at Blackwater was the product of the second major hydro-electric project undertaken in Scotland by the British Aluminium Company. The company wanted to build an aluminium smelting plant, using hydro-electric power, at Kinlochleven and they knew there were suitable hills above the village – hydro-electric power depends on height to generate a strong enough flow of water – but there was no suitable water catchment. The company had to create a loch to hold sufficient water to create the hydro power. 

In 1904 construction of the dam, and subsequent reservoir, began with 3,000 itinerant workmen, many of them Irish navvies. The men didn’t even know what they were building and referred to the construction as ‘the waterworks’.

“If a man throws red muck over a wall today and throws it back again tomorrow, what the devil is it to him if he keeps throwing that same muck over the wall for the rest of his life, knowing not why or wherefore, provided he gets paid sixpence an hour for his labour. There were so many tons of earth to be lifted and thrown somewhere else; we lifted them and threw them somewhere else: so many cubic yards of iron-hard rocks to be blasted and carried away; we blasted and carried them away, but never asking questions and never knew what results we were labouring to bring about.”


The Blackwater Dam, the last big building project in Scotland that didn’t use heavy plant

In reality they were making one loch out of three, with a dam that was over 900 metres long. The Blackwater Reservoir – 75 feet deep, nine miles in length – would eventually contain 24,000 million gallons of water. 

One of those itinerants, a young Irishman from Glenties in County Donegal, graphically described the terrible isolation and horrendous conditions the navvies had to endure as they toiled against the broken earth: “We were men despised when we were most useful, rejected when we were not needed, and forgotten when our troubles weighed upon us heavily”, he wrote.

Patrick MacGill’s semi-autobiographical account of life as an itinerant worker in the early years of last century, Children of the Dead End, vividly portrays the horror of the times, and other accounts of the times verify his descriptions. The nearby Moor of Rannoch is a silent witness to those who succumbed to its chilling wintry horror as they left the warm bar of the Kingshouse to make their way on foot to the worksite at Blackwater. Those victims of cruel hypothermia were still being discovered many years later – they had no-one to report them missing. MacGill writes of one incident;

“That night Maloney was handed his lying time and told to slide. He padded from Kinlochleven in the darkness, and I have never seen him since then. He must have died on the journey. No man could cross those mountains in the darkness of mid-winter and in the teeth of a snow-storm.

“Some time afterwards the copy of a Glasgow newspaper, either the Evening Times or News (I now forget which), came into our shack wrapped around some provisions, and in the paper I read a paragraph concerned the discovery of a dead body on the mountains of Argyllshire. While looking after sheep a shepherd came on the corpse of a man that lay rotting in a thawing snowdrift… Nobody identified him, but the paper stated he was presumably a navvy who lost his way on a journey to or from the big waterworks of Kinlochleven. As for myself, I am quite certain that it was that of big Jim Maloney.”

But what of this young writer who became known as the ‘navvies laureate’, a young man whose words have informed several generations of the lives of individuals like Moleskin Joe, Carroty Dan, Norah Ryan, Gourock Ellen and Red Billy Davis. I’d love to see a statue of Patrick MacGill erected in Kinlochelevn, just to remind us of the lives that were lost and the terrible conditions that thousands of men had to endure just to earn a meagre pay.

By all accounts MacGill was an extraordinary young man. He arrived in Scotland at the age of 14 after ‘escaping’ from a Country Tyrone farmer who had ‘bought’ him at a hiring fair in Strabane at the age of 12. He worked in Ayrshire as a tattie-howker during the potato picking season and as a navvy the rest of the year, reading the books in any spare time he had that would educate him and lead to his own life as a journalist and author. He became a member of a number of circulating libraries, consuming the works of Thomas Carlyle, Victor Hugo, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte and Montaigne. It’s said that he read to take his mind off the horrors that real life was throwing at him, the intolerable conditions of the time that allowed young boys and girls to be lodged alongside drunkards, gamblers and prostitutes. And yet, whether he was writing of life on the open road as a tramp, or that of a gang-labourer or navvy, digging and toiling in the most horrendous conditions that a Scottish winter can throw down, he managed to achieve something quite extraordinary. He had the ability to transform the horror and the pathos into poetry and prose, often with more than a dash of humour

His first published work appeared when he was only 20. Not surprisingly they were poems of emigration, including To Erin, The Exile of Erin and A Tale of the Bogland. At the time he was working as a member of a repair gang, platelaying on the Glasgow to Greenock Caledonian railway. His poetry, much of it based on his own experience as a navvy, reflected his growing preoccupation with the poor and the downtrodden and those navvies who, like himself, toiled in the dirt to build civilization, but lived on the outside of society.

By this time MacGill had written a number of volumes of poetry, which he sold from door to door in Greenock, where he was living at the time. The relative success of these books, together with articles he’d had published in the Daily Express, resulted in his being offered a job by that newspaper. Bound for London, his life was to change overnight.

Here was a young man who had never worn a collar or tie, had never learned how to use a knife or fork and had never mixed in the kind of society that he was now engulfed in. He didn’t take readily to London, or to journalism, but it was at that time that he wrote his first major success, an autobiographical novel called Children of the Dead End.

In the space of a very short time the 23-year old Irish navvy had become a journalist in Fleet Street with an acclaimed literary success behind him. His journalistic career didn’t last long for he was taken to Windsor Castle by the eccentric but influential Canon Sir John Dalton, who had been chaplain to Queen Victoria and tutor to the Princes Edward and George and who was now in of charge of the administration of the Castle buildings including the magnificent St. George’s Chapel.  McGill was appointed King’s Librarian to George V and worked in the Chapter Library at Windsor Castle translating old manuscripts. However his socialist ideals did not wane, he still gave the occasional radical lecture, but the clouds of World War 1 were closing in and his years fighting on the front line provided the raw material in which he told the story of his experiences. He wrote five books about the war, and as in his earlier works, his main themes were of man’s humanity and humour in suffering and adversity.

He later emigrated to the US and continued to write, with some early success, but with the 1930’s came changing tastes and styles and of course, the Great Depression. McGill’s final years were dominated by poverty and ill-health. He contracted multiple scleroris and continued to write but with little success. He died in 1963 and is buried alongside his wife in Fall River, Massachusetts.

In Children of the Dead End, MacGill described the mountains that look down on Kinlochleven, recognising perhaps prophetically, a cruel sense of irony in the timelessness of the hills.

“Above and over all, the mystery of the night and the desert places hovered inscrutable and implacable. All round the ancient mountains sat like brooding witches, dreaming on their own story of which they knew neither the beginning nor the end. Naked to the four winds of heaven and all the rains of the world, they had stood there for countless ages in all their sinister strength, undefied and unconquered, until man, with puny hands and little tools of labour, came to break the spirit of their ancient mightiness.”

Their “spirit of ancient mightiness” remains unbroken. Instead it’s the smelter that’s been run down while the hills remain, steadfastly undefiled and unconquered. Once again the workforce “has been rejected when not needed” but paradoxically there is a ray of optimism shining on the area. Tucked away at the head of the fjord-like Loch Leven, Kinlochleven nestles at the foot of the Mamore Forest and is completely dominated by high peaks and soaring ridges, the same mountains that ironically offer hope for a resurgent ‘green’ economy.

The highly popular West Highland Way, the 96 mile long distance trail that runs from Milngavie to Fort William, passes through Kinlochleven bringing welcome revenue and jobs, and a bunkhouse and camp site have been established. An indoor climbing wall with a permanent ice climbing facility, the Ice Factor, also attracts climbers at all times of the year. The hill slopes around the village boast a remarkable network of stalker’s paths, many of which attract mountain bikers and hill walkers keen to use them to access the clutch of Munros on the nearby Mamores ridge.  Kinlochleven has re-invented itself, just as Patrick MacGill did all those years ago.

 First published in The Scots Magazine