The Angry Corrie 35: Jan-Mar 98

TAC 35 Index

Sron na Ciche without cliché

W H Murray's Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland reissued

Ken Wilson at Bâton Wicks has been busy of late, reissuing hill books in omnibus form. The first two to thud down on TAC's doormat have not been dealt with via orthodox reviews, but by bearing in mind that the approach, attitudes, and activities of numerous hillgoing readers will already have been consciously affected, or subconsciously influenced, by these books over many years. One "reassessment" - of Hamish Brown's Mountain Walk / Climbing the Corbetts - will appear under your Editor's name in the next SMC Journal, and examines Hamish's Big Walk in the context of the subsequent Munro boom. All that, however, is a world away from Bill Murray and the greatest of post-war hill book pairings, as now discussed by Gordon Smith...

It has become the stuff of cliché to describe the demise of a famous individual as the end of an era, but in the case of the recent
death of Bill Murray, the phrase is just. For few now remain of the pre-war hard men of the Scottish mountains, and certainly none with such a literary reputation. This posthumous re-issue of his two most famous books, Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, allows us a timely opportunity to re-appraise the man and his work.

When the review copy arrived from TAC Towers, the first thing that struck me was the photo of the author included by the publisher for the purpose of illustrating reviews: not a picture of Murray balaclava-ed on the Buachaille or axe-wielding in the Alps, but a formal portrait of the author in the uniform of an officer of the Highland Light Infantry, looking for all the world like a poet of the First World War. Then I realised how apt was the picture, and how appropriate the comparison: for Wilfred Owen and Murray, Romantics both at heart, wrote their best works in reaction to their experience of war, which both saw as a perversion of Nature. Whereas Owen's response was Keatsian, plunging into empathetic sensations, Murray, like Wordsworth, sought escape in the what he perceived to be the divine and Natural order of the hills.

Escape is the operative word: Mountaineering in Scotland was written in various PoW camps following Murray's capture at Tobruk. Originally composed on toilet paper (he used pages of the Complete Works of Shakespeare for his ablutions, thereby becoming the earliest-known contributor to TAC's Bard v Glencoe debate), the manuscript was found by the Gestapo, who, believing it to be a form of code, interrogated him at uncomfortable length. He was fortunate to escape with his life, if not his manuscript: he then began again the labour of recreating a record of his pre-war climbs. It may be noted that evidence of Murray's desire to escape from the evils of the war to happier past experience is to be found not only in the subject matter, but in the language itself: it is a commonplace for writers to employ the imagery of battle in describing the hazards of mountaineering, but when Murray does so, he refers to grape-shot, to campaigning seasons, to Nelson at Copenhagen - all images from another era, safely at arm's length from his own war.

Nevertheless, his combat experience must, as it did with millions of others, have proved indelible and ultimately inescapable. As I write this review, I have in front of me a letter from Bill Murray in which he very kindly congratulates me on a piece I once wrote satirising guidebook writers: in passing, he metaphorizes your humble reviewer's pen into a "six-shooter", and refers to himself and fellow SMC worthies as "the riddled corpse". Whereas the former metaphor is capable of being seen as an image derived from cowboy movies, I found it astonishing, and still do, that the latter could be so (apparently) casually used by someone who was so nearly that very thing. In an article for Mountain in 1979, he described his capture by the 15th Panzers thus:

They machine-gunned the ground for five minutes till all was still. Then the crews climbed out to deal with any survivors. I was one of the lucky few. I rose to my feet and was faced by a young tank commander ... He was just as raw-nerved as I. In his position, with the crying need to release tension, I could imagine myself squeezing the trigger.

Perhaps in those two little metaphors we can see evidence not only of Murray's escapism, but also of a subconscious recollection of the reality he was trying to escape from.

Emotion recollected in tranquillity is, of course, Wordsworth's own formula for poetry, and in Murray's enforced tranquillity of the PoW camp, he sought to recollect positive emotions. He says in the Mountain article:

I had in mind to say what I'd found of beauty, effort, fun, and delight. I would try for the truth only, and while knowing it could never be said, still I would try.

It is no accident that he uses the language of the Romantic poet here, and there seems to be a deliberate echo of Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn:

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Just as Keats sees in the urn a silent symbol of the eternal verities, so Murray turns to the Scottish mountains. In the essay Crowberry Gully in Winter, he describes a profound moment:

A mysterious twilight, like that of an old chapel at vespers, pervaded these highest slopes of the Buachaille. We stood at the everlasting gates, and as so often happens at the close of a great climb, a profound stillness came upon my mind, and paradoxically, the silence was song and the diversity of things vanished.

His response to the mountain is hardly different from Keats' Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity ...

It is, however, with the pantheism of Wordsworth that Murray has most in common. The quotation above is a typical expression of the fundamental theme of his mountain books, namely that all things Natural are divinely interconnected, and that on the hill we sometimes have a powerful awareness of this. This concept is not of course exclusive to either Wordsworth or Murray: various prophets head to the hills for the same reason in the Bible, and a decade after Mountaineering in Scotland, Jack Kerouac was doing likewise in The Dharma Bums. Murray's clearest exposition of the theme is found in what is arguably his finest essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen:

Toward four o'clock in the morning we returned to Glen Etive. Our most sanguine expectations had been met; our eyes feasted and our hearts elated. We had set out in search of adventure; and we had found beauty. Thus we had found them both in a fuller sense; for in the architecture of hill and sky, as in great art and music, there is an everlasting harmony with which our own being had this night been made one.

The philosophy of this essay is almost Buddhist, and would elicit nods of agreement from Kerouac's Zen beatniks. He goes even further in On the Rannoch Wall in Winter, where he contrasts the horizontal of Rannoch Moor with the vertical of the Buachaille, and sees in their juxtaposition a sort of harmony of Yin and Yang:

Wherever there is a union of the pairs of opposites so perfect that Reason confounded cries: 'Two distincts, division none!' there too is an exceeding and eternal weight of beauty.

The philosophy may be oriental; the language, however, is derived from the English literary tradition, and in particular the great essayists such as Hazlitt. I do not intend to examine Murray's debt to Hazlitt at length: I would direct anyone interested to The Ice Climbers, an excellent piece by Jim Perrin which may be found in his collection On and Off the Rocks. I would, however, like to explore the possible influence of the Victorian critic Ruskin on Murray. That he had read Ruskin is clear, given that he quotes him briefly on page 54 of Mountaineering in Scotland. What is not clear, but nevertheless is an interesting subject for speculation, is whether he had read Ruskin's Modern Painters, and in particular, the chapter Of the Open Sky. In this essay, Ruskin argues that the sky has an immense importance in art, and that the beauties of sunrise and sunset have moral significance, offering us divine messages. The finest portrayals of the sky, he says, are to be found in the works of J M W Turner. Consider now the very first paragraph of Mountaineering in Scotland:

It was ten o'clock at night, in Glen Brittle. The June sun had left our little cluster of tents, which nestled behind a screen of golden broom between the Atlantic and the Cuillin. Eastward, the peaks were written along the sky in a high, stiff hand. High above us, the brown precipice of Sron na Ciche, which reacts, chameleon-like, to every subtle change of atmosphere, was dyed a bright blood-red in the setting sun.

The sensuous description of the colours of sunset, the juxtaposition of sky, sea and landscape: all are suggestive of Turner. Note also the implied moral dimension of the third sentence: not only is it a vivid and economical description of the ridge; but it also contains a suggestion of the biblical Writing on the Wall.

Murray's work is notable for such brilliant descriptions of the sky. Here, he creates an astonishing picture in three simple sentences. Like Coleridge, he is able effortlessly to convey a sense of the supernatural in his nightscape:

The moon was new-risen. It balanced like a yellow apple on the black barb of Schiehallion. The flood of its mellow light poured far across the moor of Rannoch.

Ruskin's influence aside, there may be another reason why Murray writes so poetically of the sky. We remember the famous lines from Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky.

Perhaps the fact that Murray was a prisoner for so long may have something to do with his ravishing descriptions: they are yet another means of escape from physical and mental captivity.

I have said little in this review about the mountaineering exploits and achievements recorded in the two books: but in the history of Scottish climbing, these must be considered significant landmarks. The Cioch and Crack of Doom in Skye, Slav Route and Rubicon Wall on Ben Nevis, Clachaig Gully; Rannoch Wall, Crowberry Gully and North Buttress of the Buachaille in winter: all perhaps now surpassed in technical difficulty by modern mixed routes, but quite literally cutting edge in the 1930s. Murray's climbing skill, determination and courage would have been enough to earn him his place in the Hall of the Mountain Kings; his greater achievement, however, was to transform these experiences into an artistic form which cries out de profundis about the beauty of Nature and the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and of how the imagination can escape physical confinement:

When I looked to the mountains of the future from behind barbed wire, I thought ... not only of solemn hours but of the familiar joys of mountaineering, for in these too there is beauty: dawdling under a blue sky up the crest of a sun-warmed ridge; the irrepressible gaiety of rope-mates, forcing wet slabs in mist and windy rain; stimulating doubts upon the blue ice-bulge in an unclimbed gully; the plunge into a shining tarn; the crackling fire in an inn after a blizzard - the beauty of living and of life itself.

Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, Bâton Wicks, #9.99, ISBN 1 898573 23 9

TAC 35 Index