Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

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A recent report in the  Lochaber Times told of the unreasonable delays in the building of the new Belford Hospital on the Blar.  We need the hospital facilities, there is no doubt about that, just like we need affordable housing in the area. But the delay makes me sad for all that was lost in getting to this point.

My partner needed a house once; he had a young family and was lucky enough to have a croft to build on. So we built. There is a photograph of me striding through brown rushes and bog trying to work out roughly where the living room was going to be.

I do not remember at any point looking down at the ground beneath my feet back then and wondering what was living in there before the diggers came in.  But I do remember walking on the Blar, after the site had been cleared and when cars could still park there to use the rough track for a quick walk.

The bare earth was surrounded by heather, bog myrtle, and large ponds of freshwater fringed in rushes. It looked as if someone had planted some trees, as there were plastic protective cylinders jutting out from the green-brown ground cover here and there – presumably gone now.

Heather growing on the Blar at Fort William - but for how long? Photograph: Kirsteen Bell. NO F36 Heather on the blar_Kirsteen Bell
Heather growing on the Blar at Fort William – but for how long? Photograph: Kirsteen Bell.l

The stone road was sheltered by a tall dark peat bank, its depth exposed by the digging work, a fringe of scrubby silver birch teetering at its brow.  I remember disturbing oyster catchers, their sharp black and white shapes arcing away from me towards the roundabout.  Now that I am writing this, I have realised that I haven’t noticed them on the roundabout in more recent times.

When the superstore that the ground was originally cleared for changed its plans, the wholescale clearing of the surface of the Blar seemed nothing less than a waste, a pointless desecration of habitat – not just of the wildlife that had lived there but of our own habitat, peat being a major carbon sink on a planet that needs it more than ever.

However, the future use of the West Highland College’s new STEM Centre, housing, and the new hospital are all of such benefit to the community that it seemed to go some way towards balancing the scales – or it might, when it eventually comes.

When I think of our own house, I wish I had known then what I know now. We may have built smaller, more sympathetically with the existing landscape. But then again, we may not have. I may be doing our past selves a disservice.

A growing family needs an affordable home.  The human species is just more fortunate that it can call the shots more easily than, say, the house martins who nest under our eaves, or the oyster catchers who make do with a roundabout.