They were “lucky to be alive” said Kiera and Fiona Smith, the mother and daughter whose car was caught in a landslide last month, which swept it along with mud and debris into the ravine below.  

As they drove the Old Military Road, the alternative route to the Rest and be Thankful - which had itself already been closed as a result of the weather - their vehicle became stuck on rubble or a stick on the rain-washed surface. A police officer yelled at them to run as the landslide began its terrifying descent.

“We were running down the road screaming to all the other cars,” Ms Smith described following her ordeal. “Telling them to go back. The second landslide hadn’t even all made its way down and our car was just gone, down into the ravine. It was like being in a wave pool. The landslide basically did that to our car. It looked effortless - like it was just pushed down into the ravine.”

“Lucky to be alive”, is a frequent refrain when it comes to tales of the landslides that have swept mud, debris and boulders onto Scottish roads in the past few decades. It was what was said when in 2019 Jane Else’s car was driving the Rest and be Thankful and her car was left hanging in the air by a 200-tonne landslip. It was what was said in 2004, when 57 people had to be airlifted to safety at Glen Ogle after getting trapped between two slides.

Alongside this phrase come others like “someone is going to be killed” and “threat to life”, uttered by those who fear there are more and bigger landslides to come, and that the Scottish Government has not done enough when it comes to measures – both in terms of engineering and cheaper nature solutions – to prevent them.

As yet, over the past two decades of landslips, no one has died on the roads as a result, but the threat has been present - and tragically, lives were lost to landslide, when, in 2020, three people lost their lives in the Stonehaven train derailment.

Experts tell us that such events, caused by extreme rainfall, are on the increase due to climate change. Yet, across Scotland, in landslide-prone areas, the speed of efforts to mitigate and provide protection appears more glacial than avalanche. 

When it comes to landslides the Rest and be Thankful is Scotland's poster child. The stretch of the A83, the “gateway to Argyll”, climbing below the steep slopes of Beinn Luibhean, and offering a view over Glencroe to revel in (if you dare tarry), was the site in 2020 of two enormous landslides.

It was closed for five weeks that year after 100mm of rain caused 10,000 tonnes of debris to flow down the slope, some of which was caught in catch pits, but 1,500 tonnes of which hit the road. Since then it has been dogged by closures, mostly for “safety reasons”, including a total of 13 days and 57 nights in 2021.

Over £100 million has already been thrown at the problem, yet still the landslides; still this lifeline to the people of Argyll is repeatedly broken.

Following last month's deluge, the road was cleared rapidly – and reopened four days after, following, according to BEAR Scotland, the removal of 10,000 tonnes of mud and rocks.  "The catch pits worked," said a Transport Scotland spokesperson, "and the fences stopped around 2,500 tonnes of debris and have ensured that only a small amount reached the road at the Rest and be Thankful itself."

But the wider problem is still to be solved. 

The Herald: Clean up operation is underway on the A83 near the junction with the A813, (Image: BEAR Scotland)Clean up operation on the A83 near the junction with the A813, (Image: BEAR Scotland)

Like our broken ferries, it is a key symbol of many connecting political and practical issues – and in particular slowness of the Scottish government to tackle the problem and its neglect of rural communities.

The Rest and be Thankful also delivers a lesson in the way extreme weather events associated with climate change may impact us as they intensify. It speaks of the need to find cheaper land management solutions, and execute them faster.

But it’s not the only road at landslide risk in Scotland. Over the weekend of October 7 and 8, the area around the road saw a month’s worth of rainfall, around 160mm, in the space of 36 hours. Multiple landslips occurred across Argyll.

On the same day as Kiera Smith and her mother watched their car swept away, the A83 at Glenkinglas, just over the hill from Glencroe saw eight landslips, one of which blocked the junction of the A815 Dunoon junction, and an estimated 6000 tonnes of mud, rock and debris took out the A816, submerging cars, at Ardfern.

The past twenty years have also brought notable landslides to other roads. When the record rains of August 2004 triggered calls for action and a report, it wasn’t the Rest and be Thankful that was the problem; it was the A83 between Glen Kinglas and north of Cairndow, the A9 to the north of Dunkeld and the A85 at Glen Ogle.

But it’s the story of the Rest and be Thankful that haunts the Scottish Government. Work has happened on the slopes above the road. Catch-pits have been created, debris fences erected, Forestry and Land Scotland have begun planting trees on the hillside and the delivery of seeds by drone has been trialled. Regularly, traffic is diverted from the A83 to the Old Military Road.

Asked for comment on the recent landslides, a Transport Scotland spokesperson said:  "We remain committed to delivering a long-term solution to the landslip risks at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful, our announcement in June of the preferred route option for the long-term solution was a significant confirmation of our commitment to improve the route, alongside the £127.2 million investment in maintenance along the full length of the A83 since 2007.

“At the same time, we are working hard to increase the resilience of the temporary diversion route along the Old Military Road (OMR), with construction expected to begin later this year on the first phase to realign its southern end."

This long-term plan is for what's called a “debris-flow shelter” - a kind of open-sided tunnel -  at a cost of £470 million and it is broadly popular.

When it was put out for public consultation earlier this year, comments on the A83 Facebook group were mostly approving, though many have said that this answer should have arrived quicker.

Not everyone, however, backs the idea. Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, for instance, described it as “ugly” and “the worst of all possible outcomes”, expressing a clear preference for the road to be raised on a viaduct, under which debris could flow.

The Herald: A computer-generated image of the proposed new £470m shelter over the A83 east of the Rest and Be Thankful Image: Transport ScotlandA computer-generated image of the proposed shelter over the A83 east of the Rest and Be Thankful Image: Transport Scotland

Meanwhile, this shelter solution is likely to take years to complete. It’s also only an answer to one landslide site, and doesn’t come close to tackling the wider issue. For, with climate-change set to bring more intense rains, landslide frequency is only likely to increase. According to one of the world’s experts on landslips, Professor Dave Petley of the University of Hull, it already is.

“We will inevitably see more landslides," he says. "We are seeing increasing numbers of sites with stability issues. This is to be expected, and it will get worse. Slopes are prone to instability during very intense rainfall events, and these are getting more frequent and more severe. They also respond to prolonged periods of rainfall – a very wet winter for example – and the seasonal extremes are getting worse. And finally, we get mudflows in heavy rainfall after wildfires – and sadly the incidence of wildfires is also increasing.”

Such landslides, he says, are not only likely to have an impact on Scotland’s roads, but also the railway network. “A landslide caused the Stonehaven railway accident a few years ago. Many of our railway tracks are Victorian in age, built for a climate that does not now exist. We already see frequent landslides on the railway network – managing this hazard in light of climate change will be expensive."

READ MORE: Can trees prevent landslides like the Rest and be Thankful?

READ MORE: Fears of community following landslide. "We now know the hill is unstable"

Among those who have been watching and studying landslides across Scotland is the national parks campaigner, Nick Kempe, who writes the parkswatchscotland blog. His interest first began 20 years ago when he edited a book about Scotland’s mountain environment titled Hostile Habitats, but intensifed in 2019, when a huge storm washed away part of the railway at Ardlui.

“I’ve written a bit on the Rest and be Thankful,” he says, “and I realised it’s part of a much bigger problem. It’s only just one bit and it’s like the one bit that the system has focussed on. But it was also that what was happening in response to the Rest and be Thankful wasn’t dealing with any of the fundamental issues.”

Mr Kempe believes that the chief problem lies in Scotland's land management – the way the lack of trees and grazing of land by sheep, cattle and deer, have left our slopes unstable. He is an advocate for, where appropriate, the simple cheap, preventative solution of planting trees. 

The storms of recent months have been another reminder of what may come more frequently with climate change. October was, reportedly, the wettest month on record in Scotland.  When it comes to landslides, we often focus on risk to life – but extreme weather events have other impacts on business, education, and health. They can deliver a blow to local economies.

Last month a landslide delivered that kind of blow to those living in the Craignish peninsula when a landslip blocked their main route south, the A816, at Ardfern.

The Herald: A816 landslide at ArdfernA816 landslide at Ardfern. Image: Gordon Turner

The people of Craignish were not expecting this landslide. It came as a surprise, says resident Vicki Burnett.

“Obviously the Rest and be Thankful goes down on a regular basis and we’re aware of that - and there’s a way of working round that with the military road. But it’s not something we’ve experienced here. I’ve lived here for five years and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced before nor have others I’ve spoken to who have lived  here for a long time.”

Last year, in the 'Is Scotland Climate Ready?' report, the UK Climate Change Committee listed landslides as a key threat not just to road networks, but railways and digital infrastructure. It said: "In future, modelling shows that changes in soil moisture will lead to increased risk of failures and is likely to be the most significant geological hazard to UK infrastructure."

The Ardfern landslide is a reminder of the need for a more thorough piece of research into the wider landslide risks in Scotland - and not just those that involve roads. Information is needed on both where the risk is and how we can mitigate it, ensuring that security of access and connection for communities.

This mapping and data-collection around landslide risk is among the measures that Nick Kempe is calling for.

There can be no resting on the notion that we have only one Rest and be Thankful. Climate-change will likely bring us more if efforts aren't made to mitigate. And, will we be able to afford a £470 million debris-shelter for every one of them?