The Angry Corrie 4: Nov-Dec 1991

Always a little fervour (books review)

In much the same way that Premier Division football clubs now bring out a slightly amended version of their away strip at the start of each season, thus plunging the most loyal fans into the dilemma of whether to blow a fair whack of hard-earned dosh on something they have virtually got already, so it now seems de rigueur for a new but not very original guidebook to the Munros to appear on the nation's coffee-tables every twelve months or so. The latest edition is the most mean-minded yet - a work so dire in conception and of such bland execution to have caused all previous efforts to momentarily shine like stars in the firmament. It has also induced in David McVey a paroxysm of nostalgia for the good old days, when books all had dustwrappers, coffee-tables were made of teak and Munros were just plain, anonymous hills...

On Saturdays the Glasgow Herald used to feature short pieces of writing about Scotland's hills and countryside, usually by Tom Weir or Hamish Brown. They were minor but enjoyable, filled with a love of the hills, wildlife, flora and the peace of the quiet places.

Now, sandwiched between the reviews of biographies of Ukrainian post-modernist poets and the dung-filled gardening column, you'll find the modern-day successor to these features: the Munro diary, based on Cameron McNeish's Munro Almanac. Each weekend there's a terse, telegrammatic series of instructions on how to climb a particular Munro, written rather like the directions for assembling an Airfix Spitfire. It has all the literary merit (and is perhaps the middle-class equivalent) of a kiddies' Jason Donovan factfile. Hillwalking journalism and publishing has hit a new low.

Ironically, it was Hamish Brown who started it all: Hamish's Mountain Walk is a zestful piece of writing encapsulating a lifetime in the hills, rather than just the three months of his Munro Marathon, in its fine evocation of wildest Scotland. But this splendid piece of writing boosted the Munro habit more than the activities of Munro himself. The number of hillgoers increased, their average IQ decreased, and the books written for them reflected this. Titles like The Hillwalker's Guide to Scotland and The Best Hillwalking in Scotland concealed coffee-table potboilers whose coverage scarcely justified their titles. And so to McNeish's book, even duller than Richard Gilbert's Memorable Munros of some years before. These books are aimed at the Saturday hillwalking accountants you see in Arrochar laybys each weekend; they tear off #150 trainers and replace them with enormous Zamberlans, Phil Collins or some other yuppie-rock blaring on the car stereo. They disappear, only to reappear six hours later, re-don the Nikes, and drive off in a blur of gravel, baldy Phil crooning again. They have acquired nothing of local history or culture, contributed nothing to the fragile Highland economy, and could tell you nothing of the landscape, animals or plants in the area. Ten years ago they'd have played squash instead.

OK. So the real hill-lover doesn't crunch to the foot of hills in a BMW, and runs the greatest risk of exposure when waiting for the last Glasgow train from Bridge of Orchy on a wet October night. What can be done to feed his or her head in the way of Scottish mountain literature? Works currently in print don't offer much hope, other than Brown's classic. Plodding statistics and step-by-step instructions are in, not passion or fervour for the wild places. Craig Caldwell's Climb Every Mountain is likeable, well intentioned, but poorly written; Martin Moran (The Munros in Winter) is a White Settler who sells mountaineering instead of pottery; and Irvine Butterfield (The High Mountains) is irritatingly macho in decrying any hill without a Cuillin-style profile. (He even describes some of the CAIRNGORMS as dull! People this unimaginative deserve a good kicking and a prize holiday of fourteen January nights at lnshriach Bothy.)

Fortunately, Alistair Borthwick's Always a Little Further is still in print, the only just fate for a classic account of working-class Glasgow hillwalkers and climbers in the 30's. Colourful characters and comic incidents mingle with accounts of squalid journeys, If you are irritated by the overpriced inessential hillwalking gear we are conned into purchasing, the simplicity of this book and its characters is for you. Tom Weir's Highland Days documents the same era and is worth a read too.

You'll have to dig a bit in secondhand shops or libraries to find anything by Campbell Steven, but his stuff is well worth searching out. The Story of Scotland's Hills is a fascinating record of man's varied association with our hills down the ages. Enjoying Scotland is a delightful series of off-beat expeditions in the hills (e.g. across Rannoch Moor by boat, langlauf from the Dee to the Feshie). And anything by W.H. Murray is worth a read.

Don't forget fiction. Pity the Scottish walker who hasn't ever read Kidnapped, Weir of Hermiston, Waverley, The Thirty-nine Steps or Witch Wood (Or Ice Station Zebra - literary-minded Ed.)

In short, next time you see a book along the lines of The Good Crocheting Guide to Family Walks by Roger and Sally Arnjersey, boycott any shops which sells it. Hopefully, the trendy outdoor activity of the future will be rottweiler-baiting in hang-gliders, or something like that. Then we can all get back to enjoying peace and quiet.

TAC 4 Index