The Angry Corrie 66: Nov-Dec 2005

Plaques, photos and the personalisation of hills

Gerry Knight

Thirty-odd years ago when I first walked up Lochnagar from Glen Muick, I turned off the path to drink at the spring. The Bill Stuart memorial cairn stands a few yards further on. I felt then that positioning such a memorial near the spring was wrong. Memorials should be sited (if they are to be sited at all) away from normal routes, and should be discreet, in a quiet place where family and friends can go and remember. The Lochnagar memorial is rather large - but, as it's been there a long time, fair enough.

What I do object to strongly though is the recent addition of a plastic plaque including a photograph. This in my opinion is in very bad taste. Loved ones should be remembered by their loved ones. Photographs of them on the hills are not appropriate. I mean no disrespect to Bill Stuart and his relatives, but I'm afraid a plastic photo on a memorial in such a prominent place offends me. Can you imagine the tourist routes up the hills if every accident was remembered by building a large cairn with a plastic plaque attached?

Bert Barnett

Through four decades of hillwalking, I have seen changes which have both improved and lessened the quality of the game. I enjoy new paths and car parking when I revisit old haunts, and I encourage friends and family to share in my enjoyment of the outdoors. I am pleased to see how popular the hills have become, but these same family and friends would laugh at this suggestion, knowing the old grump that I am. They know I abhor litter and noise, the downside of the popularity of walking, and I admit that I avoid the busy places, just to be on the safe side.

An issue which I find increasingly unwelcome is the growing popularity of memorial cairn-building. Litter comes and goes, but these unnatural semi-permanent monuments are inappropriate to hilltops. I have come across quite a few memorials on hillsides, and have no problems with those in isolated locations. My hackles were first raised a few years ago, however, when I encountered a pseudo-ceremony on top of Suilven. The people seemed a bit presumptuous and loud for my liking, so we moved out of earshot to enjoy the view in peace. Perhaps we should have approached the group, but I was swayed by the air of negativity and the exclusive atmosphere. We returned after the party departed to find a plaque had been erected in memory of a friend. I felt like removing it there and then, but was conscious of the sincerity of the people and left it be.

It is a couple of years since I was last atop Ben Nevis, but I recall my determined denial of the array of memorial cairns. I believe the John Muir Trust and the Nevis Partnership have been looking at ways of resolving this. Recently, I caught wind of a charity group planning to erect a new memorial cairn on the summit. I advised the JMT who have since contacted the family to discuss an alternative. The JMT were grateful for the information and would be pleased to receive advance notice of other such proposals. As for mountain tops with no overseeing body such as the JMT, I imagine the popularity of cairn-building will continue to grow in much in the same way as the West Highland Way has caught the imagination of the general public.

image from source document

The would-be Nevis cairn-builders also planned a charity walk - I believe this put 29 people on the summit on 17 Sept, but they didn't linger and no construction work appears to have taken place. I gather that the JMT and the Nevis Partnership are obliged to live with charity walks, as the influx of visitors means good business for Fort William. I can understand this, and it is unreasonable to deny the benefit these events provide. Likewise, I have no bother with a few pals joining up for a last Munro, but I have personal experience of charity walks and organised completions that have resulted in unfortunate circumstances.

Some years ago I was on Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair where I spoke to a pair who were taking part in a charity effort and I learned that the youth was suffering from serious foot problems. They had a long return walk ahead of them, and I remember wondering if the pressure of the big day had affected their judgment to carry on to the top.

More recently, I took part in a Corbett completion which involved pals, wives and bairns. The day turned out to be a horror. The saving grace was that there had been storms the whole night before which continued into the morning. The postponement happened without thinking, but imagine the discomfort had that weather arrived on the hill.

I also recollect speaking some years ago to a rather overweight non-hillwalking acquaintance who astounded me when he told of his participation in a charity walk up Carn a'Chlamain. No easy day, and I was not surprised to learn he gave up soon after the real ascent had begun.

I have organised many ambitious (non-charity) group outings amongst friends and family, and I am thankful we always escaped unscathed. I am also aware that my views may be looked on as scaremongering - keep the masses off the hill and leave the wild places to us mountain men - but I would guess that the risks are largely underestimated by those who organise group walks.

Charity begins at home. I say keep it that way.

Ed. - On-hill memorials, their appropriateness or otherwise, is a subject that has cropped up often in TAC over the years, most recently in reference to the pile of stuff on top of the Pap of Glencoe commemorating a dead toddler - see TAC64 p15. So it's been interesting to see the debate hit the wider media in relation to the Nevis proposal, where one of the would-be memorial builders, Morag Robinson, offered a fine piece of kindergarten theology by way of justification: "It's the highest point in Britain and there's nowhere in Britain where you can be closer to heaven."

Alternative views have included a four-page spread in the September issue of The Scottish Mountaineer, where Balmoral ranger Glyn Jones made a succinct point in relation to one particular plaque-afflicted boulder on the estate: "I wonder if 'Doug's favourite place' would have been his favourite place if, when he had first visited it, he found a plaque already on it declaring it to be 'Bob's favourite place.'" Muriel Gray (Guardian, 15 Sept) was also at her stroppy, spiky, eminently sensible best: "Whatever the reason, it has to stop. John McEgo, 1952-2005, may well have been 'a much missed man who dearly loved this mountain', but when others who also love it stand atop its summit and wish to think their own thoughts, frankly they don't give a toss."

The old tradition used to be that it was something of a dance: people would occasionally put things up, whereupon other people, usually hard-nosed hill types, would quietly take them down. I freely admit to having done a bit of removing in my time, usually late in the day and with no one around - it seems important not just to return the hill to its same-for-everyone state, but to do so in a low-key, unceremonious way that itself leaves no trail or trace (which is why the modern trend for hard-to-remove superglued/cemented memorials is so annoying - it forces the remover to use brute force or to go back up with a set of tools).

In recent years, what with Diana-style displays of ostentatious public grief and the maudlin fad for roadside memorials to RTA victims, there has been a predictable increase in on-hill memorials. There has also been a marked increase in the peer pressure to be borne when suggesting, however politely, that such things should be removed or not put there in the first place - there's often a reaction along the lines of How could you be so callous? or an observation that there's plenty of space on the hills, so what's the problem?

Any thoughts on this (and on page 20)? TAC67 awaits.

TAC 66 Index