John Muir Trust: Back to the future

Published: 25th September 2017

Trust Founder Denis Mollison writes about the beginnings of the John Muir Trust's conservation work

Partners - Trust 1987

As Trust Founder, first Treasurer and long-standing Trustee, Denis Mollison has a unique perspective on the enthusiasm and dedication that gave the John Muir Trust early momentum and a reputation for first-class conservation work. He points out the valuable lessons learned over 30 years that can give the Trust confidence for taking on its first projects in England.

On 10th July 1987 we celebrated the ownership of our first property, Li and Coire Dhorrcail.  What a moment it was:  the culmination of more than five years of interest in Knoydart, and two years of negotiation for this part of it.  You can imagine how it felt getting the John Muir Trust off the ground, making the protection of wild land a reality at last.  We had only eight people, all volunteers, actively involved in running the Trust, and now a £67,000 overdraft, for which as Treasurer I was responsible.

With the other seven mainly tied up in fundraising efforts, I had a free hand to start thinking how we might manage our land.  Eight years earlier, during disputes about the National Trust for Scotland's mountain management, I had been struck by a remark of their head ranger, Donald Bremner: `It wouldn't seem so easy if you had the responsibility of management'.  My response had been to think `You're right, but it would be a great deal more enjoyable'.

I began, with the help of our Executive Committee (when I could get their attention),  to draft a management plan, trying to connect our ideals -`to conserve and protect wild areas while respecting the needs and aspirations of those making their living in such areas' - with what we might do in practice. The first steps in implementing the plan began while it was still in draft. Listing all the aspects that we needed to consider inevitably led to ever-wider discussions with experts who could help us with information, research or surveys.

Planting the first tree at Knoydart (left) and the first pine today (right)

Knoydart Tree Planting

Andrew Currie, the local officer of the Nature Conservancy Council (later Scottish Natural Heritage), responded not only by providing many useful contacts, but also making the first of many visits to the property that autumn to survey its flora and fauna.  (One of the contacts he gave me within NCC itself was a young staff member in Aviemore, Andrew Bachell.) Andrew Currie was very much a community-based naturalist, with his fortnightly column in the West Highland Free Press. He later gave much help to the Trust when we bought our properties on Skye.

Other experts across the spectrum of human and wildlife issues were enlisted, and JMT's first work parties were organised for the following summer.

By that time we had our first member of staff, Terry Isles, and the public launch of the Trust on John Muir's 150th birthday (21st April 1988) was bringing in a flood of new members, from fewer than 100 to 700 by the end of the year.

Happily also, our overdraft was paid off and I handed over the responsibilities of treasurer to Bill Wallace, taking on instead the convenorship of a new Property, Research and Information Committee.

partners - Knoydart 1988Our first work party was held on a weekend of sunshine in June. Archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones identified a wide range of bumps in the ground as evidence of early inhabitants, from nousts (boat haul-outs) on the shoreline to shielings in upper Coire Dhorrcail.

Her survey was later followed up by a full official one from RCAHMS.  Dave Mardon, the NTS ranger from Ben Lawers, added to our flora list, while Bob Aitken surveyed the main footpath accessing Ladhar Bheinn.

In August we returned, again in fine weather, to follow up Bob's survey by starting work on some of the worst parts of the path.  More importantly, Professor Paul Jarvis of Edinburgh and his wife Margaret came, a visit which led to the thorough survey of woodland regeneration potential by research student Mary Cunningham the following year.

And so it continued to expand.  We put together funding from the World Wildlife Fund, Countryside Commission for Scotland and Tiso's to employ the Trust's first Conservation Officer (and first full-time employee), Andrew Thompson. His remit was to oversee not only our own property with its continuing woodland programme, but also to stimulate conservation work across the whole of Knoydart with other owners.

As to lessons learnt that might help as we take on conservation management in England for the first time, there are at least two.  One is that openness brings in more help and ideas than you're likely to have imagined. The other is that being seen to have your feet on the ground gives an extra dimension of credibility when it comes to influencing policy or campaigning. Oh, and as Douglas Bremner made me recognise, doing your own conservation work is hugely more enjoyable than complaining about how others do it.

Below: Read the Trust's first ever newsletter, from August 1985.