The Angry Corrie 65: Jul-Sep 2005

The Scottish Mountaineer (review)

HERE'S A STRANGE thing. For many years I've been a member of the Long Distance Walkers Association and a reader of their Strider magazine, yet I've never been to a single LDWA meeting and have no interest in taking part in a mass event, with entry forms and checkpoints and finish times and certificates. I'd much rather go off hillwalking on my own or with a friend or two. Similarly, I was a member of the Ramblers' Association for several years, yet I never attended any RA meetings, and I struggle to identify with long lines of stick-wielding folk filing through fields in Essex. (I suspect Scottish Ramblers are a tougher bunch, but I've never rambled with them.)

image from The Angry Corrie

As both the Ramblers and the LDWA are oriented toward England, whereas I spend much of my time in the Scottish hills, I finally twigged that it would make more sense to join the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, so I sent off the £14.50 as specified in their leaflet "Where to 'Go' in the Great Outdoors". (It's now £20 for individual membership.)

I'm not sure why I'd never joined before. Perhaps it was the Groucho Marx thing of not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member, perhaps it was just to retain my lifelong sense of alienation, but also I think it was the magazine. Despite being called the Scottish Mountaineer, every issue seemed to have a cover photo of some brightly clad figure dangling from an indoor wall, roadside boulder or sea cliff. Still, not wanting to judge a magazine by its cover, I thought it was time to delve inside, and TAC's Ed was wanting a review, so it seemed only fair to do the thing properly and subscribe.

First impressions were not good. Along with the March 2005 edition of the Scottish Mountaineer, I received 21 separate pieces of paper, cards or leaflets. Ouch! What a lot of clutter. So instead of eagerly opening the magazine, I put the whole lot back into the envelope, under various other piles of stuff, and forgot about it.

One wet Sunday several weeks later, the bumf finally emerged again and I began to work my way through it. Some of it was surprisingly interesting, even the annual report, and as I read the various oddly formatted black-and-white information sheets, I started to warm toward the MCofS. Here was a largely voluntary organisation that shared most of my attitudes and philosophy toward the hills. Even the safety stuff was not too patronising - these people didn't want to make mountains safer, just help hillgoers be better informed. The huts directory even had me thinking it was about time I stayed in some of them, now that my camper van had expired.

So, with bumf duly filed or dumped, I finally turned to the magazine and read the opening comments, by the MCofS vice president Fred Belcher. This was a plea for volunteers to help double the number of individual members from 2500 to 5000, and included some self-important vacuous corporate tosh ("the MCofS has become an influential player") of the sort you might find in an in-flight magazine. Not a good start.

Being a natural categoriser, before reading any further I decided to classify the content and count the pages allocated to each topic:

Total pages 84   Contents pages 2
Adverts 27   Weather 2
Rock climbing 23   Wind farms 2
MCofS notices, courses etc 8   Letters
Bothies 7   Hillwalking 0
Advertising features 4   Mountaineering 0
Indoor climbing 3   Scrambling 0
Book and DVD reviews   Bagging 0
Access and conservation news 2   Wildlife 0

By mountaineering, I mean the process of getting to the top of a mountain (any place, any height), as opposed to climbing a steep bit on one side and then going down.

To summarise, 57 pages seemed to be of little or no interest (adverts, climbing), 21½ pages of minor interest (contents, weather, bothies, notices, reviews), and 5½ pages of real interest (letters, windfarms, access and conservation). I'm not saying the other content was no good - it just didn't reflect my own interests or activities. Now, I'm not so narrow-minded that I'll only read about topics I'm already interested in, but it needs more than six pages out of 84 to draw me in.

I gave up reading TGO years ago, after it sacked its best writer, as its price-to-interesting-content ratio rose ever higher. Yet despite its plodding approach and dull fixation with equipment, most issues of TGO would have a couple of features to identify with. And a recent issue of the irritatingly bitty Trail magazine had some great features (top ridges, top ten grid squares, fantasy mountain) and a refreshing, light-hearted approach. In contrast, the Scottish Mountaineer seemed to have very little for hillwalkers, with indoor climbing being about as interesting as indoor walking. So my conclusion was that this magazine, and by implication this organisation, was not for me.

When I finally read the magazine cover to cover (which doesn't take long if you skip the adverts), it turned out to be slightly more interesting than the pagecount promised. I was determined not to be too pedantic, but there were some glaring errors on the reviews page, and even a letter complaining about the multitude of misused apostrophes (which the magazine contrived to spell as "apostrohe's"). But I note that the editor, Kevin Howett, is also the MCofS national officer, and he must be exceptionally busy with other stuff, so let's cut him some slack.

As for the content, the debate about sticking bits of metal into rock to make it easier to climb was illuminating and depressing. (Why not go the whole way and use a ladder, or just take an easier route?) The article about climbing Waterpipe Gully on Skye was of some interest, perhaps because I've been up the rocky ridge alongside it. Both the advertising features were about entry-level walking. One was an advert for walking festivals, which hold no interest at all, and the other suggested a kit list (wow, map and compass, great idea). One of the articles about bothies turned out to be about Munrobagging, so that's three pages of hillwalking, not none. It was OK.

The piece just called Breathe, about running to call a rescue party, was inventive and very good indeed, although it's unclear if it was fiction or recollection. The windfarm piece was by a Conservative MSP, the first of a series of guest articles, which is a good idea. The climbing round-up was dull stuff for someone like me who doesn't know what all the numbers and letters such as 7b 8c+ FA mean, but it's fair content for the magazine. There was an amusing bit in the final paragraph, where the predictions for 2005 included "a resurgence of climbing in the mountains". Ah, mountains, those old-fashioned things.

Of course, I'm not opposed to climbing being covered, but the massive domination of climbing (and adverts) is so alienating. I'm not even a complete duffer on rock (I enjoy unroped scrambling and can make my way round most of the Cuillin without assistance), but the magazine makes me feel like a duffer, and it's not a pleasant feeling. The balance may shift a bit in future, but unless it changes substantially I would not recommend the magazine to hillwalkers or anyone else. Pity really.

And yet I'm still reluctant to write off the MCofS. After all, they did help establish the new access legislation, which is a notable achievement. Yes, the magazine is pretty devoid of interest for hillwalkers, it should be called the Scottish Climber, and I wouldn't pay 25p for it, never mind £3.25. Yet look beyond it to the scattered information sheets packed with useful and friendly advice, look at the MCofS website, and you get a completely different impression, that of a hard-pressed organisation fighting important battles on behalf of all hillgoers. If only they issued a simple low-cost newsletter, covering access and conservation properly, and stopped trying to compete with Climb magazine; if only they would shed their delusions of grandeur, and drop their fixation with insurance and competitive indoor gymnastics, then they might be worth supporting. Instead, I foresee moves toward rebranding, with new logo, new name, new business plan, higher subscriptions and hefty consultants' fees. If so, then it really will be time to write them off.

Postscript: "MCofS is currently undergoing an internal review" are the ominous opening words of the June issue of the Scottish Mountaineer, which appeared just before TAC went to press. But what's this ... six pages of hillwalking, six on trekking abroad, ten on access and conservation, and just nine pages of climbing. Someone must have noticed the lack of balance. Maybe hillwalkers should consider joining the MCofS after all, to help keep them on the right track. And let's face it, with the Scottish landscape about to be devastated beyond belief by subsidised opportunist profiteering windpower developers masquerading as environmentalists, those of us who care about this ought to be on the same side, not squabbling about apostrophes. The MCofS is far from ideal, but I suppose we need it. I just don't think we need its glossy pseudo-commercial advert-fest of a 7b 8c+ FA magazine.

Alan Blanco

TAC 65 Index