The Angry Corrie 49: Apr-May 2001

TAC 49 Index

Safe? Crackers (musings on Smith v Gilbert)

Hamish Brown and Perkin Warbeck discuss TAC47's review of Richard Gilbert's recent book

Hamish Brown:

ALAS, it is much easier to produce vitriolic prose than praise or even balanced neutrality. My own TAC47 tirade against the poor man of Dunvegan proves the point! But I do think a whole page of demolition of Richard Gilbert's Lonely Hills and Wilderness Trails (TAC47, p3) is taking a big mallet to a wee tent peg. Let Gordon Smith try and produce a book in these sloppy days where errors don't appear. I've still to have it explained how crops of new errors appear after proof-reading. How many publications even send authors a proof these days?

Smith complains at lack of humour, especially of the coarser order, and of course manages a crap in the first paragraph and a shite in the penultimate. (And why should anyone read a poem 'for Christ's sake'?) I don't think I was the only one who cheered when the late Donald Dewar swiped back at those who criticised him for not reading/seeing the book/ film Trainspotting. (Even though it features Leum Uilleim? - Ed.)

There's an atmosphere these days (often media-led) that to be 'with it', everything - art, sculpture, music, lifestyle - has to be brought down, made crude, brash, noisome, as if this cult of the ugly made for culture. When TAC40 discussed the last Wilderness Walks series, my Atlas programme review was largely given over to lamenting Cameron's ear-ring and my 'posh' accent. This couldna be the Broon we kent, the bonnie fechter fir the wilds. The actual programme was hardly described by the same Gordon Smith, and so it is here. Richard Gilbert has been knocking about the hills (and the Scottish north-west in particular) since Smith was crapping in his nappies. Gilbert's prose may not be lurid enough but his feeling for the hills could at least be acknowledged. How much more friendly the world of Charlie Campbell's Munro trip sounded (TAC47, pp4-5), compared to this assassination. A reviewer's task is to review, not to dumb down.

That aside, it was really the ending of Gordon Smith's piece that set me fuming. I'm a dummy, apparently, for I too dislike cairns, painted arrows and all the rest of our urban mind's clutter - one reason I spend so much time in the Atlas Mountains (where there's sun, without midges) and why I find ticking Dawson's relative hills often more fun than the busy Munros where it's hard to avoid the mobile phone addicts. A map and compass is not a permanent obtrusion as are these built things. Comparing them all is a silly contrast and, taken to its logical conclusion, meaningless. A helicopter is an artificial aid, ergo, it would be far safer if everyone used them to bag all the Munros. Even safer is simply staying at home to watch Neighbours. Truth is never in extremes. In the Alps some markings could be bearable (but not for me), even to someone who is against such at home. A bit more thinking, and apparent contradictions can add up.

Waving the flag of 'safety' to justify anything and everything is ultimately meaningless. Whatever we do, the hills will find ways of killing us. The same arguments arose when a coterie wanted to bridge the Fords (sic) of A'an. Do so and you bridge every stream in the country ultimately. And people will still be drowned. But every step along these ways reduces the very quality that we are supposedly seeking. You can't have a tame wilds. You could have a pseudo one, a virtual reality one. But it wouldn't be real. At an educational conference I once heard someone advocating 'simulated adventure' for kids. Who was kidding who? Let me tell a story.

Years ago Knoydart, to many of us, was a very special, different place, largely because of difficult access and no ready accommodation. There was a treasured atmosphere of wildness and remoteness rare in Scotland. Then Sourlies was built from the rickle of stones at the head of Loch Nevis - the beachhead established, though the Carnach and the Allt Coire na Ciche still moated it fairly effectively. One summer two of us, coming out of Knoydart, saw a rope had been strung across the Allt Coire na Ciche. The crossing was simple enough, usually a few boulders to hop across in the slot of rock. A rope in those conditions was obviously ludicrous - but, in spate, the rope would, less obviously, have become a snare. When water is high enough to be dangerous, a rope does not help, not a fixed rope straight across anyway. (A rope used properly can be a life-saver.)

I cut the rope down, to the initial horror of my companions. Someone replaced it and the following Hogmanay one of my best friends, keen to return to his family at Sourlies, fell into the trap, used the rope, was torn from its false security and was washed down to Loch Nevis. His wife watched him drown.

I followed up this hard and bitter irony to find that it had been a group from an outdoor centre on a 'wilderness exercise' (sic) course who had renewed the rope. Had they left the wilderness alone my friend might still be alive. Now a sturdy bridge crosses the Allt Coire na Ciche. And Knoydart is no longer wild, not wild and special as it once was. When we have the rare chances of protecting/creating wild places, then nothing and no one should be allowed to demean them.

While in this geographical area perhaps I can add a brief tale of humour. (Gordon Smith, after all, approves of humour, though mine will have no anal adjectives.) Decades ago we fought lengthily to have the OS remove the bridge which the map showed across the Carnach. The OS swore a bridge was there simply because the old support posts were noted in aerial photographs. First-hand reports counted for nothing. When, eventually, they checked on the spot, they had to admit that there was no bridge - and the map was duly changed. While the ponderous OS wheels moved on this reality, however, a gang (who had fought tooth and nail against a bridge at Scavaig) rebuilt the bridge over the Carnach. Poor OS. They were then taken to task for not showing a bridge.

To me, the building of that bridge, and the bothy at Sourlies, was the death knell of Knoydart being the extra special place, another example of reducing to a lowest common denominator. Nothing, nowhere, must be difficult. This is equally non-sensible. We all, from Bonington to Broon - aye, and Smith - have our limitations. We should go accordingly - and not demand a world tailored for our inadequacies and misfortunes. We don't clamour to have Rangers or Celtic penalised because other teams can't match their standard. Leagues are logical, and leave room for aspirations.

What few realise, until they're survivors in the ranks of the oldies, is how constantly and perniciously our wild and lonely places are nibbled away. I'm antique enough to recall the Highlands before much massed forestry, hydro dams and pylons, even tarred roads. We fought off a scheme for a dam across the Nevis gorge. We failed to stop the line of pylons to Skye being routed where it is, the route chosen 'because there nothing was there' - and sighed as they put this intrusion through the last untouched glens of the west. In my lifetime the quality of landscape has gone down not just through monster acts such as the crucifying of Cairn Gorm, but through constant bad management, overgrazing and so on. (World War Two was a blessed relief for the landscape.)

People starting out now accept this as the normal, the acceptable, not knowing it is an impoverished in-heritance. The NTS built a visitor centre high on Lawers, paint-marked a route up the peak and erected notices pointing out the floral treasures. In a few years the erosion followed - as we warned. The centre is still there. The Smiths call us dummies for wishing it otherwise. I often feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. More and more it is crying: 'What wilderness?' It is being smashed to Smithereens.

Perkin Warbeck:

THE SPAT in the last couple of TACs between opinion-former Gordon Smith and glossy book writer Richard Gilbert made great copy. I immediately re-read Smith's TAC47 review twice. Don't know when I last read anything in TAC once - I usually rely on the regular 'digested read' feature in the Guardian to précis it for me.

My sympathies lie with Smith for being pertinent and pithy, as opposed to Gilbert who is po-faced and pedantic. But Smith's intemperate rant about mathe-maticians does seem to indicate an intellectual bitemporal hemianopia (there, I've got words in that even Smith might not know) and does him no favours. Surely he is not accusing Bertrand Russell or Alan Turing of 'number crunching'? And of course how we laughed when it transpired that Smith had got it wrong, that Gilbert was a chemist and not a mathe-matician after all.

Searching eTAC for previous mention of Gilbert, I noted that I too had mistaken his identity in TAC20, where I took him to be the Savoyard Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. He didn't write a snooty letter then.

What really caught my interest, though, was the exchange over waymarkers, be they Cuillin (bad) or Tyrol (good) according to Gilbert. The chemist appears to be trying to bowl from both the pavilion and gasometer ends here. He squirms out of it on the basis that the red markers he applauds in the Tyrol are on family trails whereas the ones he abhors on Skye are in serious mountain-man land. This deserves contention. Oft have I travelled in the land of Messner and Habeler. If necessary, I can produce a photie from the Wilder Kaiser of a place where, after much debate, we turned back. A piton was already in situ, an implausible stretch of the abductors was required ... and a red spot had been painted on the rock. This is not unique. Red and white markers exist in the Tyrol and Dolomites on all grades of path including those where protection would be prudent. Gilbert avers that 'once on the mountains themselves blazed rocks are not allowed'. This is blatant tosh. The maps show solid and broken red lines, both of which turn up as red marks on the rocks. In my experience the broken ones fall somewhere between the Aggy and Forcan ridges in severity.

Back home, one of my favourite diversions is the Curved Ridge of Buachaille Etive Mor. I have been up it four times and yet have never easily found the start. One time the attempt required a stretch that was just within the limits of the aforementioned abductors. Would a couple of red splodges really turn the Buachaille into an eyesore, Richard? I think not.

The ascent of Liathach. Up the front. It gets steep. There are two gullies. One is a scramble, the other a decent rock climb. Would a wee red blotch be such a sin? The landscape is full of the evidence of human intervention - our boots, for instance. So I say get out of your ivory bothy Mr Gilbert and drag Cairnkicker McNeish with you. If you want to oppose eyesores then join Murdo in his campaign against mobile phone masts (TAC39).

(Could I just say as an afterthought that I think the markers in the Tyrol resemble Sandinista banners and actually enhance the experience? Mind you, I located the start of the path to Spik in Slovenia by way of metre-high red writing on a rock; the arrow was human size. I wouldn't go quite that far.)

See the letters page for Smith's riposte to Gilbert...

TAC 49 Index