The Angry Corrie 69: Nov 2006-Feb 2007

Weir's away

Tom Weir, quite possibly the best-known and best-loved of all Scottish hillgoers, died on 6 July at the age of 91. Here are a few short pieces in appreciation of a particularly entertaining, eventful and productive life.

The friend

THE PHONE RANG - it was Tom in a voice more urgent than usual - "if you are going to do the Bhasteir Tooth in the Cuillin then we had better go now as a good weather window is opening tomorrow for the next few days". Like the American Minutemen of old, we were off and camping at Sligachan that night. Next morning I was amused to find Tom having a wash in the outside sink reserved for dish-washing - I'd forgotten that he was ever a "wild" camper and that this was his first sample of a modern commercial site. He was quite speechless when I then showed him the gents' amenities.

We soon found our way up the Tooth - by the Naismith route with Tom sporting a plaited climbing rope of dubious vintage, but beside himself with the good rock and nice exposure. "Conquering" a peak was something neither of us spoke of - he was too modest and I abhor the term.

This was an instant and unplanned trip in which Tom rejoiced, typified by the Latin term quoted by his pal Bill Donaldson in one of his erudite moods on such an occasion: "carpe diem" - seize the day! I still go out with Bill, who was a fairly long-standing friend of Tom, and he plus Ian McNicol (who, like myself, had known Tom since the 1950s or so) made a foursome every Sunday for years. Indeed on one such occasion we (the "four gunners" as Tom called us - he had been in the artillery) met up with TAC's editors at Leum an Eireannaich. (TAC26 p5.)

Meeting people on the hill was amusing - Tom was ever a honeypot to passing stravaigers - so the other three of us would stand around and bask in the sunshine of Tom's well-deserved adoration.

We four made a happy group with never a wrong word among us for all the years we went out - Sundays, of course! It was a feature of his character that Tom never miscalled anyone, and every time we met we all shook hands and repeated the ritual on parting - much to the amusement of my wife.

For weekdays the team was usually Tom and myself, as Ian was at business and Bill had other things to do. While the Cuillin ridge with Tom was a memorable outing, another great one was in celebration of his eightieth year, for which we did the Aonach Eagach together. Having traversed from east to west, I as ever viewed the return trek along the main road far below with dismay and suggested we simply retrace our steps back along the ridge. Tom was of the same mind and so we did the double traverse. He always had a manner of placing his feet with precise and goat-like care when descending rock which I've never seen with anyone else. We could both move fairly quickly, and we easily overhauled younger folk on such terrain, some of whom were obviously struggling a bit with a few of them out of their depth. I swear that I'll meet a woman and a pram some day up there - it is so popular now.

Obviously an experienced and careful climber, Tom nevertheless had used up quite a few of his nine lives - an avalanche on Stob Ghabhar, involving Ian as well, a roped fall on Ben A'an, and a broken wrist with myself on the Buachaille, to name a few incidents. (He escaped drowning on Loch Lomond several years ago when in a canoe - he never liked the water very much.) On the Buachaille we had gone up by the side of the chasm from the Loch Etive road and, on returning from the top behind me, he stumbled among boulders and sustained a nasty compound fracture of his left wrist. Diverting to scree, we got down with the arm in a makeshift sling - but it took us a couple of hours, after which a two-hour car journey got him safely to Alexandria Hospital. Although the wrist was very painful for several weeks, he was quite upset that his old friend the Buachaille had done this to him - he had climbed it over 100 times by then.

Our handshake ritual continued right up to his last days in his nursing home. On what turned out to be the last time I saw him, he grasped my hand wordlessly but with amazing strength and held it for quite a few seconds, and I knew what he meant.

Eric Drew

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The fan

LIKE MANY FOLK, I first encountered Tom Weir when he presented short filmed inserts about Scottish lore, landscape and history on Scotland Today. These were eventually compiled to form the first series of STV's long-term winner, Weir's Way. I didn't know then that Weir was an experienced expeditioner who had served his time in the Himalaya and other ranges. Now he was in the Ochils, the Campsies, threading the Whangie and scrambling up the Auld Wives' Lifts on Craigmaddie Muir, an explorer who could find stuff worth seeing just down the road.

Later, I started reading the Glasgow Herald and the Scots Magazine, got to know his writing and started collecting his books. I learned that he was born in Springburn, like me, and started his hillwandering on the Campsies, getting there on the Campsie Glen bus, again like me. Mountaineers who got on the telly were often stout, rugged Etonian types, but Weir was one of us.

Tom Weir's Scotland (1980), a collection of his Herald and Scots Magazine pieces, is my favourite of his books. His articles were unlike those you found in the outdoor magazines. Yes, he wrote about walking and hills, but enthusiasm carried him over into ornithology, wildlife and, most of all, history. "Taste the History Before the Climb", one of his articles is called (it's about Criffel), and he always lived up to that advice and demonstrated a welcome curiosity about how the landscape had come to be.

Weir had the writerly knack of evoking a sense of place, but his personality and feelings rarely intruded on to the page. Weir's World, his "autobiography of sorts", gave little away beyond the mere facts of his life, enthusing rather about the hills, conservation, companions and wildlife. However, when he did write with passion - about the Cailness track's despoliation of the Loch Lomond shore, say, or in the piece "Some Stravaigings" where he remembers his lifelong friend, Matt Forrester - the effect was powerful, even devastating.

I had three actual encounters with Weir. The first was a lecture he gave at Strathclyde University union. At that time, the union saw packed gigs by the Police and Blondie, but the man in the bobble hat (not worn that evening) also attracted a full house. When the Scots Magazine published my short story about working-class 1930s hillwalkers, I was delighted to receive a kind letter from him complimenting me on the piece.

Then, not so long ago, I was waiting for a bus at Balmaha and in the queue ahead of me were Tom and his wife Rhona. By now elderly and frail, Tom could no longer explore the hills, but he could still enjoy a bus trip along his beloved Loch Lomond-side. He chatted to a West Highland Way walker who was bussing back to his B&B in Drymen. The lad was from overseas and couldn't know how revered a figure he was talking to.

An outdoor "guru"? If the ability to encourage, influence and inspire through writing and broadcasting are criteria for guruhood, then "guru" it is.

David McVey

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The editor

IT'S NOT OFTEN you start a working relationship with someone when they're 80, but that's what I found myself doing with Tom Weir. When I joined the Scots Magazine in 1995, Tom was still producing his regular My Month pieces and would continue to do so every month, without fail, for the next five years.

It was a process that became easier as Tom grew older. During the 1970s and 80s, Tom's purple patch - TV, books, public appearances - my predecessors had a constant struggle coaxing the My Month copy out of him with deadlines looming. I was spared this, but was treated to many an account from battle-scarred veterans. I don't recall the word "couthie" cropping up.

One cause of the delays was Tom's determination to get it right. When his manuscripts did arrive, in those days of manual typewriters, they were a thick patchwork of strips of paper - change after change glued on top of one another. This accompanied by two or three rolls of Fuji film which were urgently processed in the firm's photo lab (another casualty of the digital age). My Month was quickly put together and a proof sent out first-class for a final check.

Tom's ritual was to take his regular walk up Duncryne behind his Gartocharn home, then on his return pick up the phone. Although his comments on the proofs could be brief, they were always followed by a long conversation. Tom loved to share his news, insights and often strong views on anything from the environment to the controversy surrounding the Holyrood building project. These calls were a highlight of the month's work.

Looking back on these later My Month pieces, it's obvious that Tom's health and fitness fluctuated during this time. One would be little more than an account of a lunch with some interesting individual he had encountered, and another his tales of derring-do on the Aonach Eagach.

Everyone will have their favourite My Month. My own dates from my time as a Scots Magazine reader, when in 1984 Tom sailed in rough seas on Graham Tiso's yacht Sea Eagle to the most northerly Hebridean island, remote, uninhabited North Rona. Tom's evocative account of the expedition, following in the footsteps of Fraser Darling, is all the more remarkable for being just another monthly piece, one of hundreds.

He was an infrequent visitor to the magazine's offices. We were more likely to meet Tom at an exhibition opening or at one of his book signings or lectures and, most memorably, when he was awarded the John Muir Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Tom was always held in the highest regard by the magazine staff, but we were reminded of how many Scots shared this view as we approached Kilmaronock church for his funeral. Stewards in reflective jackets directed us into an overspill car park with the service still more than an hour away.

John Methven

Editor, The Scots Magazine

The archivist

ALTHOUGH TOM WEIR's fame rests on his work as a photo-journalist, film-maker and television presenter, he was no mean climber, and a very enthusiastic explorer. His early climbing before Hitler's War was carried out with a small circle of friends, none of whom seemed to be involved with mainstream climbing clubs. However, in the last years of the war, he climbed with new friends made through photography - Archie MacPherson and Douglas Scott - and in 1945 he joined the SMC. His climbing picked up strongly during this post-war period and he achieved some impressive ascents, notably two testing winter traverses of portions of the Cuillin ridge, as well as cutting his Alpine teeth with a short summer season in which he persuaded the chief guide at Evolena to take him up the Dent Blanche for nothing, and an Easter ski-mountaineering season in the Oberland which included an ascent of the Finsteraarhorn.

These new skills and associations led to his inclusion in Douglas Scott's expedition to the Garwhal in 1950, along with Tom MacKinnon and Bill Murray, and this was the beginning of a ten-year period of continuous exploration in the greater ranges. In the Garwhal the party completed a difficult route up the 20,000ft Uja Tirche, and attempted several other peaks, but the expedition's real success was in traversing a huge area of unknown ground, a true journey of exploration.

After "twelve months of darkroom to fill the coffers", Scott, Weir and Adam Watson set off again in 1951 to explore the Lofoten Islands and Lyngen Fjord in northern Norway, a region hardly visited by British climbers since the pioneering visits of Slingsby and Collie 50 years before. Although Weir's party enjoyed successes in both regions, notably an ascent of the awkward Rulten, their efforts were overshadowed by Dick Brown's Edinburgh Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland expedition - there at the same time - which climbed 40 peaks in Lyngen, six being first ascents, and 15 being new routes up peaks already climbed.

In 1952, MacKinnon, Scott and Weir returned to the Himalaya, along with George Roger. Their journey took them through 350 miles of the country east of Kathmandu, and they climbed several peaks around Nangaon in the Rolwaling valley, including one of 22,000ft.

1953 was a quiet year for Tom. In the spring he was involved in an accident, an avalanche on Stob Ghabhar, in which he broke his knee. He nevertheless spent the summer in the Julian Alps, making ascents with local climbers, and with friends from Glasgow.

In 1955, Tom and Douglas Scott visited the High Atlas, inspired by the example of Bentley Bentham who had been a bird-lover like them, and an Atlas enthusiast. They were joined eventually by Jim Green from Carlisle and made a number of difficult ascents in the ranges around Toubkal. He found the Atlas very attractive - "one of the finest mountain ranges on which I have ever climbed" - and greatly admired the Berbers who lived among the peaks. So he was delighted to return in 1958 with Alf Gregory, another newly converted 16mm-film enthusiast. They filmed in several Moroccan towns and made a long traverse of the Atlas and Anti-Atlas.

In 1956, he again teamed up with Scott to visit the little-known ranges of the Sat Dagh and Cilo Dagh around the 4170m peak of Geliasin in Kurdistan. The region had been visited in the early 1950s by a Austrian party led by Hans Bobek. Scott and Weir made interesting ascents in both ranges, and also managed an ascent of Geliasin. When Tom was interviewed by Magnus Magnusson in 1984, he counted this expedition as his particular favourite, emphasising his respect and admiration for the mountain Kurds - "the finest people in the world".

Tom's last major effort abroad was to carry out scientific work with Iain Smart (observing arctic tern colonies on Menanders Island) as part of Sir John Hunt's expedition to Scoresbyland in 1960.

It should not be thought Tom neglected Scotland during this decade of exploration. He continued to climb at home to a good standard, winter and summer, and formed a long-standing partnership with Len Lovat. In 1970, when Tom was 55, the pair had an accident on the summit rocks of Ben A'an in the Trossachs. Tom had the worst of this, breaking various bones and sustaining back injuries that affected him for many years, and which hampered his climbing.

Tom wrote his fingers off, piling up two million words in the Scots Magazine on top of four books, and so his Weir's World was only, as he put it, "an autobiography of sorts". Admirably reluctant to repeat himself, he glossed over his prodigious journeyings of the 1950s, and dwelled only on the scraps not recorded elsewhere. This fails to do justice to a mountaineering career which - like that of his constant companion Douglas Scott - was as adventurous as any of his contemporaries.

Robin N Campbell

Honorary Archivist, Scottish Mountaineering Club

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Ed. - My own fondest memory of Tom Weir doesn't relate to the only time we met, the 1995 Balquhidder day mentioned by Eric Drew, enjoyable though this was. Rather, it concerns a day at the end of 1985 when I was part of a crowd who saw in the new year at Onich. Conditions were remarkable: ice right down to road-level. On the first evening, Saturday 28 December, I arrived before the rest and unlocked the unheated cottage: the thermometer in the hall read minus 19C. Next day a few of us set off before dawn for Binnein Mor and Na Gruagaichean, and returned after dusk. Both the rising and the setting sun turned the snowfields a delicate salmon-pink. It was utterly windless - as we climbed the steep eastern side of Sgor Eilde Beag and popped out through the cornice, conversational voices could be heard. These were from a couple chatting high on Sgurr Eilde Mor, a mile away. We could hear the crisp clink of their axes against the rocks.

I was relatively new to winter hillgoing at the time - indeed this may well have been the first time I ever wore crampons with serious intent rather than just pottering about in them for practice. Hence the whole day carried an edgy mix of newness and nervyness - the steep down/up between the two Na Gruagaichean summits had a don't-make-a-mistake tension that remains vivid to this day. I wondered at the time whether it really had been such an exceptional day - as the more experienced members of the party were saying with grins splitting their faces - or whether it merely had some kind of routinely wonderful quality that would become familiar as I did this more and more over the years.

A week later, on the drive south, the question was answered. I bought a copy of the Glasgow Herald, in which Tom Weir had a Saturday column. That same Sunday, 29 December, he had been on Stob Ghabhar, "the most tremendous birthday present of my 71 years of life."

"I've had a few superlative winter days on Scottish hills in my time," he wrote, "but never one of such absolute perfection. So still was the air that morning that we could hear the wing-beats of a raven cavorting about 2000ft above us. The big waterfall coming down between the rocks of the corrie was frozen so the silence was unusually complete".

After reaching the sunlit ridge ("frost crystals like flowers on the crusted rocks"), Weir and Iain Smart stood on the summit, with "mighty views on every side of us, the twin points of Cruachan, the peak of Ben More in Mull, with what we took to be the dark flat of Colonsay on the Atlantic." He ended thus: "In fact we couldn't tear ourselves away. We stayed up there walking around the mountain top to keep warm as the sky took on multi-layers of colour as the sun became hidden under a mighty cone of developing cloud. Shadows were deepening, corries becoming more pronounced, silver ridges becoming rose pink as we left the top reluctantly. At 71 years of age I may never see such perfection again. The moon was rising over Loch Tulla as we got down, casting the reflection of its orange in the loch. Next day the grey clouds were down and it was snowing."

Hillgoing - especially hillgoing in great conditions - mixes the intensely personal with the sense that a lucky few, on nearby hills, are sharing the experience. In the 20 years since that perfect day and Weir's fine description of it, I've often enjoyed stunning winter conditions (but nothing quite so exquisite), and have several times been on the eastern Mamores and on Stob Ghabhar. And on each of these occasions I've at some stage found myself thinking of Weir, and his enjoyment of his 71st birthday.

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