The Angry Corrie 64: March-May 2005

Northward Ho! Hills of the North Rejoice!, by Ralph MacGregor

Curlew Cottage Books (Curlew Cottage, Hilliclay Mains, Weydale, Thurso, KW14 8YN), 2004, viii+212pp, ISBN 0 9538703 2 4, £14.95

Depending on your prejudices, first impressions of this book may be off-putting. The accompanying flyer states that Hills of the North Rejoice! is the successor to Ralphs Far North (sic) and, in the book itself, while God gets all His capitals, munros are consistently lower case. The spelling of Gaelic names is sloppy, and then there are the exclamation marks! While that of the title is legitimate, many of the dozens of screamers which pockmark the book, especially at the end of chapters, might make you wary. And they are unnecessary: MacGregor does write stuff that will provoke exclamation, but through recognition, empathy or amusement.

The book is largely based on MacGregor's fortnightly column in the Caithness Courier. Most of the pieces are therefore three pages long, which is adequate for accounts of cycle journeys to and from work at Dounreay or a day out on Orkney, but is too cramped for a decent description of a two-day crossing of the Monadhliath. I enjoyed all the more extended pieces: a longer trip to Hoy, a nine-day cycle trek to the Yorkshire Dales, and a January West Highland Way in a well-described variety of rain.

There is some repetition in scene-setting, but a bigger problem with the book's origins is the assumption of local knowledge in the many chapters about Caithness and Sutherland. A few maps or some additional editing for a wider audience would have helped. The first chapter, "Old trainers", is the account of a jog up Ben Alisky. Where? Don't know, doesn't matter, keep going, there'll be more clues soon. Loch More - not much help - Backlass, Dunbeath, Morven - OK, I know that one. Half a page further and I admit defeat and go to find the OS map. (Ben Alisky, 348m, is at ND045386 on Landrangers 11 and 17.)

The book is clearly not intended as a guidebook: MacGregor recommends that readers dip in at random and perhaps his desire to impose serendipity is the reason that he provides neither index nor mean-ingful chapter headings. But sometimes the expressed intention is to persuade others to at least investigate the excursions he has made, so he needs to give some of us more help. When he asks, "When were you last on top of Ben a Chielt [sic] above Causewaymire?", the question is addressed to a limited audience. Some readers may be able to accept the pieces as tales in the abstract or as writing for its own sake, but I found it hard to concentrate on the content without context.

If you can look beyond these irritations, you will find that MacGregor does interesting things and writes well about them. I knew it was worth persevering when reading "Ben Loyal the Hard Way" (been there, though I still got the map out to follow his route). The Hard Way is with a mountain bike: real rough-stuff cycling, as with many of his "with bike" trips, and his expectations of ease of progress are not high. When crossing the Einich plateau, for example, he describes the terrain as "easy bike-wheeling, and even possible to ride the odd few yards."

The reason for the encumbered expedition over Ben Loyal was that the cover of his first book showed "a man carrying a bike up a very steep mountain with a loch far below in the background." The loch was crossed by a line which could only be the Tongue Causeway and so the mountain had to be Ben Loyal. MacGregor writes: "I'd never taken a bike over Ben Loyal. I had to make sure to do it before the publication date of the book in July 2000!". Here is real authorial integrity: if this man describes a day on a Corbett, I will be confident that he's been there.

MacGregor is a cyclist and runner as much as a walker - and I, despite being neither, could see the appeal for him. He also relishes weather. There seem to be more descriptions of "bad" days than good ones; certainly they are the most memorable. His view is that "weather doing things ... is invigorating, exciting, adds adventure to otherwise routine days." He is defiantly anti-gear in the TAC tradition, believing you can get a decent set of waterproofs for £50 (he doesn't seem to mind being wet) and delighting in the discomfort of the "space-suited climbers" who saw him on Carn Mor Dearg in winter with "everything I was wearing and carrying [bought] for less than the cost of their crampons."

The highlights of the book are the most idiosyncratic chapters: a search for 100 "readily distinguishable" wild flowers in a day; his outline for a "Walks around Heathrow Airport" booklet; and the final chapter on the challenge of swimming in every Caithness loch. The lochs, of varying sizes, depth and peatiness, are listed in an appendix "in roughly alphabetical order". Why not simply "in alphabetical order"? I don't share TAC's obsession with numbers, but I do like letters to be organised helpfully.

I did enjoy this book, and recommend it, but doubt if I would have picked it off a library shelf, let alone bought it. MacGregor may be content addressing his faithful, familiar audience; but, with minimal extra effort, his writing could have the wider appeal it deserves.

image from The Angry Corrie

TAC 64 Index