The Angry Corrie 47: Oct-Nov 2000

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Perkin Warbeck: A few barbed comments

What do we know about Norman Collie? Discoverer of the eponymous ledge and of the Cioch, as well as pioneering some Stygian route up the Bhasteir Tooth. Quietly eking out his sunset days in the Sligachan Hotel. And always exotically referred to as "Professor". His ledge was, for me, a fantastic feature. You scramble up some typical Cuillin pit-bing scree to the ridge, find yourself rock climbing without a rope for a few metres and suddenly there it is: a superbly exposed promenade round to the easy way up Mhic Choinnich.

Driving by the Free Presbyterian Church in Struan, I remembered that it contained the graves of Collie and his friend-cum-guide John Mackenzie, side by side apparently. In a "first shall be last" manner, they were the humblest graves in the place. Scarcely more than a pickle of stones, a metre apart. It took us ages to find them. "John Mackenzie Cuillin Guide" and "John Norman Collie FRS", were the legends. Nothing more. As a beardless youth I had lectures from a couple of Fellow of the Royal Society type geezers, one lucid, one impenetrable but both certainly what Ian Dury would have termed "clever bastards". I wondered briefly about the chemistry Collie mucking about with inert gases and ketomethylene groups.

The proximity and simplicity of the graves was unexpectedly moving - and, before we left, tears had been shed. (Ya big softie - Ed.) The mood was soon ended, however, by the intervention of a couple of sheep which had somehow found their way into the churchyard. Scarcely FRS material, they galloped about, fittingly enough, in what Collie might have characterised as Brownian Motion.

The child-sheep, which should have been the stupider, showed remarkable nous and ran off away from us. The mother-sheep, intent on passing on its learning, tried to hurdle from a standing start the barbed-wire fence. It was not re-miniscent of Colonel Harry Llewellyn astride Foxhunter. As it passed over the top there was a flurry of hooves and one foot became caught on the top strand of barbed wire. The front feet were on the ground, while the third foot was flailing madly.

The Ed and I once got involved in an abortive "turn over a sheep that's stuck on its back" scene, and it seemed that another was on the cards here. Clearly the beast couldn't be left the way it was. Fortunately we were spared. The animal wrenched its sorry hoof free and limped away, albeit now separated from its progeny.

My Collie-and-Mackenzie reverie was well and truly over. From musing on the intense comradeship of the hills, I was reduced to cursing the barbed wire. What exactly is it for? How exactly is it meant to deter? Here are some hypotheses:

I had never really thought much about barbed wire before. It's a given presence for walkers, part of the lore of the Tam Weir generation who not only used Daily Records as blankets but also laid them across the barbed stuff as protection for their stout tweed breeches. In the days when Grolsch the co-editorial dog could still drag himself up hills, I had to lift him over the wire, which was comical and occasionally dangerous. But one assumed that, in the giant open-plan zoo which is rural Scotland, the containment of the fauna depended upon it. My experience in the churchyard appeared to contradict this. Barbed wire suddenly seems very stupid. Sheep are too stunted to even know it's there until impaled. The day a cow shows any interest in escape from its ruminant imprisonment it will probably write a thesis on it. And we walkers can usually negotiate it anyway.

So what's it all about? Is it subject to an EU subsidy such that it is cheaper to use than the non-barbed stuff? Maybe they're actually paid to use it. The four-metre-high razor wire around Faslane assumes intelligent peace activists who, despite strong motivation, still value their health and make the appropriate risk assessments. Why on earth should the same principle be applied to unfeasibly stupid animals on whom the national diet for obscure reasons still seems to depend?

Ed. - Also on the subject of Professor Collie, Noel Williams' recent Skye Scrambles (SMC, 2000) controversially renames his eponymous ledge: "It was discovered by the Irish climber Henry Hart with John Mackenzie in 1887. It is commonly known as Collie's Ledge, but Collie did not team up to do it with John Mackenzie until a year later, so the credit should really go to Hart". TAC is all for historical revisionism given good evidence, but what do readers think?

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