It is meant as no insult to the Welsh, Cumbria, Peak District or anywhere else to say that Scotland has the most extensive rugged landscape in the British Isles—or, for that matter, Western Europe. There are more mountains to scale, coasts to kayak, wildlife to watch, islands to explore, etc. than almost anyone can cope with in one lifetime.
But this huge variety of inspirational places lie at the heart of Scotland’s attraction as a tourist destination that brings so many people to visit has a darker side. Whereas Mountain Rescue England & Wales do sterling work rescuing over 1,300 people who get into trouble and recover some 30 fatalities each year, Scottish Mountain Rescue, covering only 8.6% of the UK population rescue almost 700 people and recover over 50 fatalities each year. Those figures alone mark Scotland as a dangerous place.
Rather than scare the socks off potential visitors, the consistent message put out by VisitScotland, SMR, RNLI and related organisations is welcoming but firm: do come and visit us; but dress appropriately, bring appropriate equipment, check and be wary of weather/sea conditions—last but not least—let people know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
Most people, when setting off to climb the Buachaille or sail out of Oban or explore the Summer Isles by sea kayak, are too busy with their arrangements to consider who is going to come to their rescue if the mist falls or the mast breaks or a kayaker develops appendicitis. So effective are our rescue services that it is small wonder people give them little thought. But just like checking your pack for map, food compass, foul weather gear, and having some idea where the nearest refuge is, being aware of what rescue services there are and their capabilities is sensible prep work.
The Scots (and their many visitors to its magnificent outdoors) are generally appreciative of the well integrated and equipped rescue services and the professional and resolutely brave people who staff them. Other than the Forces and Coastguard, they are all volunteers who regularly put themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of others.
Across Scotland (not just in the Highlands) are the 1,000 volunteer members of the 27 Scottish Mountain Rescue teams (plus 3 police and 2 RAF). Among them, they spent some 24,000 hours deployed in 2011, getting 157 urgent cases off the hills by helicopter, lugging 65 off by stretcher, walking 71 to safety and getting another 24 out by vehicle. Of the rest, 157 were found to not need evacuation and 25 managed to find their way to safety without the team finding them first.
The MRTs are backed up by some indefatigable flyers operating out of five ASR helicopter bases around the country, flying the big yellow Sea King helicopters:
- Rescue 102 & 103 at MCA Coastguard at Lerwick, Shetland
- Rescue 100 & 101 at MCA Coastguard at Stornoway, Lewis
- Rescue 137 & 138 at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray (‘D’ Flight, No 202 Sqdn)
- Rescue 177 & 178 at RN HMS Gannet, Prestwick, Ayrshire
- Rescue 131 & 132 at RAK Boulmer, Northumberland (‘A’ Flight, No 202 Sqdn)
These assisted in 197 rescues in 2011 and were supplemented in another 9 by Scottish Ambulance Service craft and 19 by police helicopters.
If you have no concept what their job entails, watch the Highland Rescue TV programme to get some idea of the skills they deploy and risks they take to whisk the seriously injured from some inaccessible crag direct to hospital. Frequently the pilot will be holding the craft in winds, sleet or mist with rotor tips just metres from a cliff while the winchman dangles down to administer first aid and ease the casualty onto a stretcher.
The ASR helicopters also assist in many of the sea rescues that occur around Scotland’s 10,000 km of coastline. Here the RNLI are usually involved under direction of the Coastguard. Like the MRT, RNLI crews are all volunteers and, thanks to the generosity of the public, operate a dense network of stations for both inshore RIBs and deep-water displacement lifeboats all around the British Isles.
The RNLI regularly make 8,000 launches (‘shouts’) all around the coast of the UK and Ireland, regularly saving over 300 lives each year, with Scotland contributing 1,000 launches and over 40 lives to those statistics. One reasons Scotland plays a more proportional role in RNLI statistics is that, despite our long coast, the bulk of shipping and recreational boating is elsewhere.
All RNLI stations are proud of their record of almost 90% of ‘shouts’ resulting in a launch within 10 minutes and an enviable reputation for skilled boatwork getting people out of life-threatening situations. They work closely with HM Coastguard who direct them to the scene and co-ordinate any ASR helicopter involvement to take casualties ashore and/or to hospital faster then the lifeboat could achieve. This is one reason why the loss of Fife and Clyde coastguard stations was objected to so strongly—the masterful knowledge of the coast exhibited by coastguards is hard to retain now that the three remaining stations each average 3,500 km of rugged coast to be familiar with.
But the biggest difficulty of all is people and—dare we say it—their stupidity. Despite the warnings, despite their putting members of the rescue services in harm’s way, the general public seems to be getting more cavalier about venturing into mountains or out to sea not properly prepared. Whereas 53% of MRT callouts were from slips or illness or avalanche and could not reasonably have been predicted, 44% came in because people got lost, were overdue, got benighted or some other reason where carelessness and/or bad planning was the cause.
This is also reflected in the RNLI statistics. Whereas barely 10% of their callouts are to professional sailors, 51% are to pleasure craft (mostly powered), 18% to people in the water and another 13% to people stranded. There were 128 incidents from running out of fuel, 185 ‘man overboard’s, 505 stranding/cut off by tide and 622 groundings. While these can theoretically happen to anyone, any sailor worth their salt would be acutely embarrassed if they were responsible.
A corollary of our more affluent lifestyle is not just more time off and easier access to more remote places but also ownership of recreational vehicles such as jet skis. Given that rescues on both land and shore have increased some 40% in the last decade, the question whether irresponsible behaviour that causes such rescues should be penalised is being asked.
One ‘yachtsman’ had to be rescued twice in two days; he was using a road map to navigate the North Sea. Another family with no maps torches or proper clothes also got lost a second time in two days (despite a broken ankle from the first incident), causing three MRCs to waste 150 hours in the Lake District. In one out-of-control stag do, several young males in t-shirts had to be stretchered off Snowdon.
Certainly no-one in danger should be left. But if a disdain through lack of respect for nature and the elements is what caused the danger in the first place, why should brave, skilled, selfless people have to put themselves in harm’s way to make up for such irresponsible stupidity without some form of comeback?
Or perhaps such behaviour should just be treated as a category of Darwin Award.