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'I HAVE ASCENDED almost every principal mountain in Scotland'. Who claimed that? Sir Hugh Munro? Hamish Brown? No and no. And you won't find the answer in any lists of peak baggers for the man who made that bold statement, John MacCulloch, died in 1835, long before mountaineering became a popular pursuit. MacCulloch worked in Scotland as a geologist and published four volumes entitled Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland in 1824. He ascended most of those hills regarded as worth climbing at the time plus some that were little known. His creditable list of ascents included Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond, the Perthshire Ben More, Schiehallion, Ben Chonzie, Ben Cruachan, the Cobbler, An Teallach, Beinn Lair, Goatfell and one of the Skye Beinn na Caillichs.
Such fascinating stories make up the bulk of Ian Mitchell's well-researched, well-written book. The author sets out to cover what he describes as a 'serious gap' in Scottish mountaineering literature, namely the 'pre-history of Scottish mountaineering', which he describes as 'explorations, ascents, travels, social relations in the mountains, before mountaineering became an organised sport from the middle of the last century'.
The author also sets out to 'redress the balance a little in favour of the native Highlander' and makes a very good case for many hills having been climbed by locals before any outsiders arrived. This theme recurs throughout the book and to some extent I think it's overstated. Does anyone really doubt that the people who named the hills and their features also walked on them and sometimes went to the summits? The emphasis on this also lies oddly when the first ascents are credited to various people, most of them non-Highlanders. What these are, of course, are the first recorded ascents, a very different thing. Many are only probable or possible first ascents anyway and I think the author places too much emphasis on trying to work out who climbed what first.
Let me stress though that these are only minor criticisms of what I think is an excellent book and one that anyone interested in people and their interaction with the hills will enjoy. This of course has always been Ian Mitchell's theme, right from his first mountain book, co-written with Dave Brown, Mountain Days and Bothy Nights.
Here Mitchell takes a broad sweep through the history of the Highlands between roughly 1580 and 1880, looking at the wide variety of individuals, organisations and events that slowly opened up the area to outsiders. He describes too how the way the mountains were viewed changed dramatically during these 300 years. In this period the Highlands went from being little visited and regarded by those to the south as a savage wilderness inhabited by equally savage and dangerous people, to being regarded as a splendid place to visit for the imposing scenery and the wonders of nature, while the Highlanders became quaint inhabitants rather than feared barbarians. As well as showing how venturing into the mountains for pleasure slowly developed, Mitchell also shows how the environment people were learning to love was simultaneously being degraded by the people who owned the land as they changed from clan chiefs to landed proprietors.
This is not just an account of the past with no relevance to the present however. In a final chapter the author discusses what effects the changes to the Highlands have had. Here the mostly objective historical discussion of the rest of the book is abandoned for an attack on landownership and access restrictions. As well as decrying the damage landowners have done to the land Mitchell argues that access only became a problem due to the new deer stalking estates and points out that he could find no records of access problems until quite late in the 19th century.
History books have a bad reputation for being boring but that's not so in this case. Rather than the dull recitation of facts and figures this is a very readable and entertaining volume full of fascinating characters and interesting episodes. Familiar hills are seen in unfamiliar ways and the author recreates past times well. It is astonishing to learn of just how much was done in the hills before the advent of even the most basic equipment, never mind our modern high-tech luxuries.
The book is organised by geographical region rather than chronologically, which does mean that the text jumps back and forth in time and many characters appear several times. This approach took me a little while to get used to but, as the author himself points out, the alternative approach would mean breaking up the history of different hills into sections, which could also seem disjointed. Anyway, there is a chronology at the back of the book covering ascents, explorations and important general historical dates affecting the mountains, such as the Jacobite Rebellions.
As well as the main text there is a section of plates of pre-photographic artists' renditions of Highland scenes plus a few other pictures, including examples of early maps, scattered elsewhere in the book. I would have liked to have seen more of these but expense was almost certainly the limiting factor. There is also a comprehensive bibliography and an index. The latter is essential in a book like this, but unfortunately the one provided is only just adequate. A much more detailed index with more cross-referencing would be better.
All in all though this is a welcome book and one from which all walkers in the Highlands could learn much. We do not walk in a social or historical vacuum and this book does much to describe and explain the background to today's situation.
TAC 43 Index