Earlier this month, beneath a blazing sun and a clear blue sky, I smeared on the factor 30 and headed up Sgurr Alasdair with my pals. The tallest mountain on the Isle of Skye, weighing in at 3,255ft (992 metres), it was one of the most thrilling climbs we’ve ever done. The views – of the island, the sea and the mountains stretching across the mainland beyond – were stunning.
But there was one niggle. Just as we reached the halfway point, near the beautiful clear waters of the loch at Coire Lagan, I heard a noise like a dentist’s drill. It got louder and louder until I saw its cause: a drone. It whizzed round the boulders, sped over the loch, then hovered in close to film me, like the world’s most annoying midge, the high-pitched whine of its four rotors ripping right through the spell this place, ringed by mighty cliffs, casts on climbers. I looked around for a rock to chuck. But then it occurred to me that, despite being halfway up one of Britain’s finest peaks, I was effectively on CCTV.
This weekend, the UK government announced new regulations which will compel owners of drones weighing more than 250g – heavier than many available on the high street – to register their details and demonstrate that they understand safety and privacy laws that affect their use. The measure has been proposed because of safety fears after dozens of near-misses with aircraft near airports, and will mean that users will be forced to take a safety awareness test.
But I would like to see regulations extended further. My worry is that, with drone sales booming and there being no apparent curb on their use in our wild places, the experience I had on Skye was not an annoying blip but the start of a dreadful trend. Flying drones is forbidden in only two of the 15 national parks in the UK – the Peak District and the New Forest. What’s to stop the glens and the dales one day ringing with the whine of drones?
You only have to look at Instagram to see how popular drone photography is becoming, delivering bird’s-eye views of places that have seldom been seen before; there are currently 4,231,849 posts tagged with #drone and 1,288,816 posts using #dronestagram. “Drones are fantastic for capturing the sense of being in the wider landscape,” said Scottish professional rock climber Dave MacLeod in an interview last year.
To my eternal annoyance, I didn’t say anything to the drone’s owner. Here’s what I should have said: “I take real exception to you flying that here. How dare you inflict this on climbers out to enjoy this fabulous place. How can you possibly justify turning these hills into an airstrip?”
Starting out on our climb that day we saw what we thought was a sea eagle hovering in the air up ahead. It could have been a buzzard, of course, and I was hoping it would hang around, so we could get a closer look when we reached Coire Lagan. Fat chance of that.