The Angry Corrie 56: Jan-Mar 2003

Stob Press - hill cats

Much (perhaps too much) has been written about dogs and hills over the years, both here and elsewhere, and certainly a considerable number of dogs have been round all the Munros. Hamish Brown famously completed rounds with successive dogs, and even managed the subversive coup of pseudonymously smuggling the first of these, Kitchy, into the official list of Munroists before being rumbled. (See the 1985 SMC Journal, p197: Munroist no.323, "Ketchil San, 1971." Woof woof.)

Very little however has been written about domestic cats and hills, for the obvious reason that they tend not to go together. There is however an extraordinary account in A Passion for Cats, a David and Charles book edited by Philip Wood and published in 1987 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Cats Protection League. Chapter 8, "Cats of Character", opens with Fiona M Wilkie (Munroist no. 243) telling of her Siamese cat Jane, which surely holds some kind of record for feline hill activity.

"When she [Jane] was six months old," Wilkie writes, "I had a day alone on the Strathfarrar hills and decided to follow it with an off-day with Jane. I wanted a place where I could safely let her off the lead but where she could not easily get hidden in undergrowth. We drove to Torridon and took her along the stalker's path up Beinn Eighe, the one that leads to the Coire an Laoigh with its red spur, starting at a small forestry clump where there used to be the remains of a cottage. I thought I should be able to keep an eye on her on the bare hillside and yet give her a good free run. Till we got well away from the road I kept her on the lead. When I decided to let her off she was thrilled. She is a compulsive purrer and she never stopped purring all that day. She went on and on, following me up the zigzags of the track and, before I was conscious of any great passage of time, there we were in the corrie at the end of the path. The peak of Spidean Coire nan Clach was not so far away so on we went. There is a rather messy bit, very steep, loose earth mixed with gravel and scree up which you crawl to reach the final quartz slope. On this amorphous section Jane went in front and was always just ahead, waiting for me and purring. She did not like the final scree path to the trig point - it was rough and loose and we came into the wind. We paused for the briefest of moments at the trig point and then began the descent.

"I decided to look at the route over the ridge of the red spur itself, rocky and narrow. It was meant only to be a look but we went on and on, the apparent difficulties melting away. Jane was much better on the rocks than I was and when in doubt she simply walked onto my shoulder and I had her loud purr in my ear. It took us three hours to get up and two to descend to the car on the Torridon road and we had both thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it."

Amazing. Quite aside from the ascent and the rough ground, the time taken was remarkably quick for any cat-related exercise. The old TAC cat Ebenezer was occasionally given to riverside strolls in Stirling (flat, and no more than a kilometre or so), but this was guaranteed to at least treble the time taken as compared with a humans-only wander, as he was forever sniffing around in verges and gardens, sitting down for a rest and doing all the other we'll-take-this-at-my-pace cat things.

Beinn Eighe wasn't all, though. Fiona Wilkie goes on to detail Jane's subsequent hill career, while noting that Spidean "was the only one she did on her own little paws". Over 40 Munros were visited, along with Welsh peaks such as Moel Siabod, Y Garn and Glyder Fawr, all "on my shoulder or in my rucksack". Wilkie offers several reasons for the lack of subsequent self-propelled expeditions. "[Jane] is very particular about the weather; she dislikes cold, wind and rain. If we come into conditions she dislikes, she burrows into my rucksack where, wrapped in a warm pullover, she sleeps her way over the summits. She covers many miles on my shoulder or lying on top of my rucksack. Hot weather does not appeal, either - she lies on the track and pants."

Then there was caution on the part of Wilkie herself. "I realised very quickly that I had taken great risks with her on Beinn Eighe. She was off the lead and I was close to her all the time but I felt that a bird of prey could easily have carried her off if she had been any distance from me. I then acquired a harness for her; to the harness is attached a strong lead and, to the lead, two very long bootlaces. Thus, she is on a 12ft lead, which gives her freedom but allows me control."

Jane will now have gone to the great cat basket in the sky: at the time of Wilkie's account she was already 15 years old and spending "most of her time asleep". But she could well hold the record for the highest unassisted cat ascent in Scotland. Are there any similar stories?

A cat-bagging pedant writes: The only flaw in the Torridon account is that neither Jane nor her owner/slave appears to have reached the actual summit of Spidean Coire nan Clach. At the time this was often given as the 972m trig point, but it is actually a trig-less point 21m higher and a couple of hundred metres to the north-east. So maybe the cat's Top tick (and Spidean was then just a Top, rather than a full Munro as now) ought not to count. Having said that, it's likely that Jane was simply interested in the trig point and thus content to head downhill after having noted the bench plate number (which would have been at a comfortable eye-level for a cat).

Back to dogs. Maybe it's just the way the editor looks (or smells), but he's sustained several entirely unprovoked dog bites over the years, most recently in November at the end of a round of Whin Rigg and Illgill Head in the Ponds. The circuit had been done clockwise from the Parkgate layby beneath Irton Pike: along the ridge, then down to Tongue Moor and back via Miterdale. All very enjoyable - despite some iffy weather and squelchy ground - until the final few minutes. The route through lower Miterdale uses a series of forest paths before joining a gravel track for the descent to the road. This stretch was predictably busier, and a woman with twa dugs (or whatever is their Cumbrian equivalent) was seen approaching, coming up the way.

What happened next ought perhaps be termed "Doing a Princess Anne". Both dogs were off the lead - fair enough given the circumstances - but only one was under control. While the docile lab padded obediently along at the woman's heel, the other dog, a big black lurchery thing, hurtled up the intervening 100 metres of so of track and barged past at speed. It then swivelled, ran again from behind, leapt up and twice sank its teeth into the editorial sleeve. Thankfully the sky was drizzling at the time, and the cagoule prevented any blood being drawn or diseases transmitted. But what was really annoying - or, rather, just plain disheartening - was the reaction of the dog's owner who had by this time arrived on the scene. The conversation went thus:

Owner [halfway between concerned and mock cheery]: It's OK, she's only a puppy.

Editor [shaken, and just a tad indignant]: It's not OK. She's just bitten me twice.

Pause of several seconds. Awkward silence. Owner doesn't want to risk further editorial anger, and editor has no desire to make the owner feel intimidated - we were up an isolated track, after all.

Owner [deliberately]: All right. It wasn't OK. Goodbye.

Now credit must be given to the owner for admitting culpability, as the normal reaction if challenged on such matters is to blame the walker/child/parent for allowing themselves to be jumped on / bitten. But it was predictable, on glancing back a minute later, to see that the biting dog was still neither close at heel nor on a lead. And what is it that makes dog owners trot out the "It's OK, s/he's only a puppy" line in such circumstances, even when mere muddy paws, as opposed to sharp teeth, are involved? Other versions include "It's OK, s/he's only playing" and "It's OK, s/he won't hurt you." Owner-insecurity, presumably, but it's so common as to be near-endemic.

The proof-reader adds: What the Ed omits to mention is how often the new TAC cat bites his (and my) ankles.

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