TAC 76

Cover
Credits
Off the Wall
Murdo Munro
Half Yorkshire half Scotland: Irvine Butterfeild
Last Munros and Listed Munroists
To Ben Nevis by Bentley
Operation Lochnagar
Avoiding those Thin Blue Lines
Boreray, passionate bagging and Bloomers
Letters
Westone Super Mare meets the Western Cym

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE  ANGRY  CORRIE

3  FERRY  ORCHARD

CAMBUSKENNETH

STIRLING   FK9  5ND

Sept—Dec 2009  No.76

 

Master and Commander

Dave Hewitt, Perkin Warbeck

Hearty shipmates

John Allen, Russ Clare, Sue Harvey, Andrew McCloy, Roderick Manson, Alan Smith, Gordon Smith, Mick Tighe, Malcolm Wylie

Brigands and Buccaneers

Craig Smillie, Chris Tyler

Below decks TCC, Ken Stewart

BackTACs: TAC4, 6, 16, 19, 24, 41–47,

49–54, 56–60, 62–75.  £1 each incl. p&p, £5 for six–nine, £8 for 10–18,  £11 for 19+. Six-issue sub: £9.

The Angry Superstore: See TAC73 p9

webTAC: http://bubl.ac.uk/org/tacit/tac/

(TAC74–76 not online at present)

The Ed is having one of his occasional spells of regular work, so over the next while expect TAC to be published two or at most three times a year. It will appear, but don’t set your watch by it. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.

 

Outlets: Nevisport and Tiso,

plus Aboyne: Hilltrek, Ballater Rd

Glasgow: Footprints, 32–34 Woodlands Rd

Peebles: Out+About, 2 Elcho St Brae

Kingussie: Paper Shop

Inverness: Waterstones, Eastgate Centre

Aberfeldy: Munros, 1 Bridgend

Pitlochry: Munros, Unit 2, Atholl Rd

Glen Coe: Clachaig Inn

Kinlochleven: The Ice Factor

Tyndrum: Green Welly Stop

Skye: Cioch Direct, Struan

Carlisle: Freetime, 12 Market St

Keswick: Needle Sports, 56 Main St

email: theangrycorrie@googlemail.com

Phone TAC: 01786 450047

Printed by Clydeside Press

37 High Street, Glasgow, G1 1LX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off the wall

Whos Who in British Climbing, by Colin Wells

The Climbing Company, 2008, vi+576pp.

ISBN 978 09 556 6010 8, price £20

Review: Russ Clare

“I thought you might be interested in this,” said the Editor, passing me Colin Wells’ weighty compendium of climbers’ biographies. We were on the way from Stirling for a day on Beinn a’Ghlo, but I scarcely noticed the journey, such was my fascination with the book.

You see I used to be a mad keen rock climber, although, unlike the characters portrayed by Wells, I was never more than an average performer, even during the ten years or so when the fire burned brightest. But in the climbing village, bumblers and stars climb on the same crags, if not on the same routes, and hang out in the same pubs and cafes, the hotshots of the day easily recognised from the magazines. So over the years I have found myself a casual observer of several of Wells’ colourful subjects. The North London Mountaineering Club weekend rally driving team, for instance, and various generations of Sheffield’s climbing mafiosi, are all on the receiving end of his humorous and occasionally waspish pen.

A few entries warranted closer comparison with my own memories. Would I agree with Wells’ assessments?

In the late sixties and into the mid-seventies an extraordinary collection of climbing talent passed through Leeds University: big-mountain guys such as John Porter, Alex MacIntyre and Brian Hall, and craggers such as Al Manson. I arrived there in 1968 along with three contemporaries who were all to make their mark in different ways — as a professional mountaineer, as an artist on rock, and, for want of a better term, as a climbing journeyman.

I recall Roger Baxter-Jones (1950–85) as ever-cheerful and good-humoured, a casual and easy-going temperament at odds with the stereotypical image of the hard climber. An incident at Tremadoc, though, revealed his mettle. A crowd was milling around the club’s coach, waiting to start the Sunday-night journey home. Snow swirled, and the rock must have been plastered and cold. Yet, on an exposed prow poking above the trees, RBJ could be seen completing the final moves on Vector, now graded E2 5c, and at that time a significant test-piece of delicate climbing.

RBJ’s personality is well captured by Wells in his account of a high-altitude and alpine mountaineering career seemingly guided as much by pleasure, friendship and a stable domestic life as by naked ambition; a life cut short by fate, not recklessness.

John Syrett (also 1950–85), altogether more enigmatic and mercurial, gave not a hint of the ability locked within during the first year I knew him. In that time I don’t recall him doing much beyond a winter walk on Great Gable, and at a post-exams gathering in Langdale he left early to pursue his own undisclosed agenda without climbing a route. Twelve months later the same crew reassembled in Langdale, where, from some modest route on Raven Crag, I watched in awe as Syrett danced his way up extreme rock nearby, his movement balletic, gymnastic and beautiful.

The following November he made the first onsight lead of Alan Austin’s Wall of Horrors (E3 6a) on Almscliffe crag. A photograph splashed in the student newspaper showed a figure “resting” on the crux moves with the rope arcing away in the wind.

The key to Syrett’s transformation was the Leeds University climbing wall designed by physical education lecturer Don Robinson. Sporting embedded lumps of rock, narrow shelves and concrete-lined cracks, the wall provided a closer simulation of outdoor climbing than anything else around. As a training tool, it pre-dated by decades the climbing walls so popular today. (Wells incorrectly describes this innovative design as “a brick wall with some bricks missing”, although, curiously, he elsewhere provides an accurate description in his biographical entry for Graham Desroy, Robinson’s one-time collaborator.)

By chance discovery or wilful exploration, Syrett found a medium on which he could unlock, express and develop his talent. In the summer of 1970, after months of effort, he emerged on the top of the game, and went on to put his name to many fine and difficult new routes. In so doing he pioneered the winter training regime now routinely adopted by leading and lesser rock climbers alike.

Wells captures this heady time very well, and, as far as anyone can judge, gives an accurate account of what followed — Syrett’s climbing at the highest standard curtailed by tendons damaged in a party accident; depression, alcoholism and an unsettled lifestyle; decline to the ultimate tragic conclusion.

The last of my trio, Bernard Newman (1950–), I knew least of all. Indeed, Wells has filled in some biographical gaps for me. Nonetheless, Newman’s commitment to the climbing lifestyle was obvious, and some outlet for his enthusiasm within the sport’s mainstream seemed inevitable. Thus, with burgeoning editorial skills and a flair for layout and design, it came as no surprise to find his name on the masthead of Mountain magazine and then Climber.

Dipping into Wells’ book stirred many memories of climbs, crags and characters, and prompted reflection on how my own attitudes to climbing have changed over the years. That was good to do, and I thank him for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.Half Yorkshire, half Scotland: Irvine Butterfield, 8 August 1936—12 May 2009

 

Irvine Butterfield, a significant and popular character on the British hill scene, has died at the age of 72. John Allen, Roderick Manson, Sue Harvey and Mick Tighe all knew him well, and here they offer memories of a man who will be greatly missed.

 

IRVINE LOVED THE SCOTTISH HILLS to bits. From first sight in 1960, when the lucky devil found himself moved to Perth by his work, he was on the trail of naturalisation among the Scots and Scottish hills. With porridge for breakfast, mince and tatties for tea, some hill wandering in between and a dram for a nightcap, this hill man would be set up for life. Moulded within the old-style Yorkshire monetary fund, he could recognise and understand the Scottish equivalent of how and where to keep his pennies safe, for himself or for any who sought his advice. He then invested vast amounts of time and energy for the benefit of Scotland’s mountain causes. All mountain-goers, hill-billies and stravaigers have profited from Irvine’s efforts.

He was born in Farnhill, a small village near Skipton, close to the moors, and in the years after the second world war his parents introduced him to cycling. Later, but before mountain bikes, he was able to resurrect some old jalopy from his garage in Pitcairngreen near Perth for the approaches to distant Scottish summits, doable in the day from his home. Times were different then.

After early years of work with the post office, Irvine got himself into customs and excise, checking out the whisky distillers, a nice little earner for the British export market. A dream ticket indeed and a dead cert for long-term employment on the government side of the fence. Time then to explore the local mountains, having fallen on his feet in Perthshire, right where a hillwalker could best start using them. And he began with the Cobbler.

During the exploratory days of his Munro round (he was to complete them on Ladhar Bheinn, 30/10/71), the Mountain Bothies Association set about renovating a distant bothy on Rum, and Irvine waded in with enthusiasm. Secretary of the MBA by now, he wrote Dibidil, A Hebridean Adventure (1972) about that period, and subsequently the detailed A Survey of Shelters in remote Mountain areas of the Scottish Highlands, now archived along with his slides in the A K Bell Library in Perth as part of the Munro Society collection.

With no profit motive, but with a more laudable and worthy aim, namely to help others to experience the joy in planning and executing excursions to all the Munro summits, Irvine set about writing a definitive guidebook. By then he had come to know the intentions of Richard Gilbert and the publisher Ken Wilson, via the need for photos for the books Big Walks (1980) and Classic Walks (1982). Irvine’s first published photograph was the one of Fisherfield on the dustjacket of Big Walks.

He knew a bit about how to compose a pleasing photograph, since his father had shown him the basics of black-and-white processing in the cellar at home. The world of hillwalkers was scoured to supplement Irvine’s own photos, and The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland (1986) was born, now a classic. A cheaper guidebook by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, requiring a committee of writers and photographers, hit the shelves around the same time, outselling Irvine’s, but both sold well. The one to own was always The High Mountains, a book of lasting reference.

Then came Volume 2, a companion guidebook on the Corbetts, as comprehensively researched and written as Volume 1, complete with photographs from many contributors; but this was abandoned at the last minute for production reasons and cost. Irvine was deeply frustrated by this, and even felt that he had betrayed his contributors and had been denied the chance to “give something back to the mountains”, that oft-repeated maxim of his conservation idol, John Muir.

As contributors, we all knew from the start that he wanted his major coffeetable books, The Magic of the Munros (1999) and The Call of the Corbetts (2001), to represent the time, effort and work of many providers, photographers, an artist and all. He felt that the books were their contributions to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad” (as per Muir again), as much as they were Irvine’s own. He channelled surplus proceeds unobtrusively into needy voluntary organisations, such as the MBA, the John Muir Trust, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the Munro Society, and campaigning groups such as the JMT’s Schiehallion project and the Perthshire campaign for inclusion in the Cairngorms national park. To Irvine, the books were a labour of profound love for the Scottish landscape as he would have it preserved.

Of other Scottish interests, Irvine had plenty. He once showed me his 16mm film of a re-enactment of the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie from Culloden to the west coast. Several of the participants dressed in the attire of the time, slept in the heather and lived frugally for the journey in order to reproduce the conditions experienced in 1746. Then there was his re-enactment of the cattle-drive from Skye to Crieff, via Glenelg and Spean Bridge, with real Hielan’ coos walking the walk. His book, The Highland Drove Walk, followed. And then there was the whisky trail from Speyside to Perth, re-enacted with the real stuff in barrels, and bottled specially for added provenance, some of which found its way on to an expedition to the Himalayas.

When I first met Irvine in the early 1980s, he had never been abroad, but in May 1989 he and his much-loved and devoted dog, Kerry, joined a small group on a walking holiday that I organised in Connemara. A really special day included a traverse over Mweelrea and a rendezvous by boat in beautiful weather that prompted Irvine to say it was the best holiday he had ever been on, with Kerry in agreement. I could hear a desolated emotion in his voice a few years later when he phoned to say that Kerry had died, never to be replaced. This, however, released him for journeys to visit his sister Irene and nephew Paul in California. He used the opportunity to trace John Muir’s background, meet the Sierra Club and photograph the national parks of the USA.

Each one of us should shed a tear for the loss of such a doughty individual, who may now be in the front-row company of John Muir, Bill Murray and Tom Weir, roaming the mountains of the sky. In following my habit of celebrating fallen war heroes with a remembrance visit to the hills, I feel the need to walk somewhere on high — perhaps to Schiehallion — to remember Irvine and his good works.

He leaves behind his partner, Moira Gillespie, and sister Irene, and Paul his nephew, who scattered his ashes beside Loch Clair in full view of Liathach on a beautiful spring day.

 

WHEN THE GREAT SCOTTISH POET Norman MacCaig died in 1996, his friend, the almost-as-great Irish poet Seamus Heaney said in tribute simply, “He means poetry to me.” I remember thinking: That is a great line; I can do something with that. It has taken a while to find the right circumstance, but when it comes to summing up Irvine Butterfield I could do a lot worse than echo Heaney and simply say: “He means Scottish mountains to me.” I think that many of his friends, along with tens of thousands who never had the privilege of knowing him except through his books, will understand that sentiment.

Maybe a handful of times in a generation you will find men so attuned to the mountains that it is difficult to tell where they end and the mountains begin. In the words and images these men create you begin to sense what Jim Crumley means by his wonderful phrase “the grace of the mountain”. Irvine may have come from the dales of Yorkshire, but he truly belonged to the mountains of Scotland. (I gloss over his work with “the Excise” as a minor character flaw.)

I don’t remember when or how I first came into contact with Irvine. It seems that once he was a part of my life it was as if it had always been that way. He was there for me as he was there for anyone who cared for the mountains. A passionate and warm-hearted man, he genuinely loved the mountains, particularly the views of them and from them.

 

IRVINE WAS A GOOD FRIEND and great supporter of Harvey Maps. A regular visitor to the office in Doune, he was always ready to advise and to give freely of his time and knowledge. Typical of Irvine’s generosity was his cooperation in connection with our three most recent publications in the British Mountain Map series. Ben Nevis and Glen Coe was the first Scottish title in the series, and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland had considerable input, with their national officer Kevin Howett providing crag drawings. Irvine, a great supporter of the MCofS, was determined it should sell, so we launched it at the 2007 Dundee Mountain Film Festival — for which occasion Irvine invented the “fishing competition”. Visitors to the Harvey stand were invited to use a bamboo cane, armed with a dangling hook, to “catch” one of a number of small boats constructed from folded waterproof maps and sailing jauntily in a developing dish. If you fished up a lucky number you won a prize, and Irvine was scrupulous in ensuring that even late-comers got their fair share of the good prizes.

For the launch of Cairngorms & Lochnagar, in April 2008, Irvine volunteered to give an illustrated lecture in Aberdeen. Organised by the Cairngorm Club and the North East Mountain Trust, it was one of his last major public appearances. His superb photographs were hugely appreciated by the packed hall of mountain lovers.

Irvine was especially fond of Knoydart, and greatly encouraged us in our plans to map it. He provided contacts, wrote text about the Rough Bounds, and related Bonnie Prince Charlie’s traverse of the area, despite by that stage being in considerable pain from his illness. He was a brave man, and a fighter, and it is my hope that he was able to enjoy some satisfaction at seeing the Knoydart map finally published about a fortnight before he died. We think of it as “Irvine’s map”.

 

WITH A NAME LIKE Irvine Butterfield you are off to a good start in life, and whilst Irvine and I never met until we were two-score or more, I certainly knew the name before I knew the man. Those who knew him well would probably agree with the assertion that he could talk a lot, and I once suggested that he audition for Just A Minute. The rules, however, did not allow for repetition or deviation, which we thought might have been a problem — although the other rule banning hesitation might not!

When he last visited us in Glen Roy he was talking as he came through the door and still going strong when he left several hours later, with my wife and I having worked a shift system as attentive listeners. His talking was born of enthusiasm for the task in hand, and he was a most sincere and enthusiastic man. Particular and meticulous are other words that come to mind, and while it is easy to scoff at such traits, society needs men of that ilk to balance those of us who are a little rougher around the edges.

This attention to detail has provided us with Irvine’s legacy in his writings and meticulously produced books, which will live on long after his passing. Finally the talking has stopped, and we are going to miss it.

 

Other obituaries and remembrances include those by Alasdair Steven in the Scotsman

news.scotsman.com/obituaries/Irvine-Butterfield.5300656.jp

Cameron McNeish in his blog

www.cameronmcneish.co.uk/2009/05/irvine-butterfield/

Ed Douglas in the Guardian

www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/21/irvine-butterfield-munro-walking-scotland

Kevin Howett of the MCofS

www.mcofs.org.uk/irvinebutterfield.asp

Nigel Hawkins of the John Muir Trust

www.jmt.org/news.asp?s=2&nid=JMT-N10373

John Burdin of the Munro Society

www.themunrosociety.com/irvinetribute.html

Chris Townsend in his blog

christownsendoutdoors.blogspot.com/2009/05/irvine-butterfield.html

and TAC’s editor on grough

www.grough.co.uk/view/2009/05/15/irvine-butterfield-giant-of-scottish-hillwalking-dies/

The Munro Society recorded a DVD of Irvine’s hill reminiscences in 2008, in its Early Munroists series. Available from 15 Ardestie Place, Monifieth, Angus DD5 4PS, price £12.

May saw the UK hill community lose a second significant figure with the death of Blyth Wright, climber, Corriemulzie Club member and avalanche expert. A tribute, by former Glenmore Lodge principal Tim Walker, can be found at www. grough.co.uk/magazine/2009/06/01/blyth-wright-a-tribute

 

 

Last Munros and Listed Munroists, an introduction — by Dave Hewitt

 

WHAT FOLLOWS is a work-in-progress that needs to be published for it to progress some more. As some readers will know, I’ve long had an interest in rounds of hills and those who complete them; TAC, after all, is a magazine as interested in the people who climb hills as in the hills themselves. Over the past decade or so I’ve chipped away at various pieces of research into Munroists, initially focusing on the “first 100” in the list, where the late Mike Geddes, aged just 18 years 315 days when he completed on 13/9/70 (does anyone know where?), is no.100. Note however that “first 100”, rather than a plain unqualified first 100. The complexity of the subject kicks in even at this early stage: eight unlisted and seven out-of-sequence Munroists are known to have completed before Geddes, making him at least the 115th person to have done them all.

With this kind of thing in mind, the research has gradually expanded into looking at all rounds of Munros. These fall into three categories: (a) first rounds included in the published list started by Eric Maxwell of the Grampian Club in 1960 and maintained by the SMC to the present day by their various clerks of the list (Bill Brooker, Chris Huntley, David Broadhead and David Kirk, all of whom have done excellent work); (b) repeat rounds by those same listed Munroists; and (c) unlisted rounds, whether firsts or repeats.

The general idea behind the research is also threefold: to construct an accurate-as-possible timeline of completions (by precise date rather than the year-only method used by the SMC); to obtain an overall picture of last Munros — which hills have seen the most or the fewest completions?; and to estimate how many unlisted completions there have been. Clearly this last point is a great imponderable, impossible to determine with real accuracy; but, as an ever-larger minimum figure is obtained, so confidence in its value increases.

The numbers of listed and unlisted Munroists are moving targets, on the increase overall although the unlisted total has scope to dip occasionally, if someone belatedly “comes out” and writes to the SMC. Good examples of this include nos.4002 and 4003 in the list, Chris Osmond of Glasgow and Bill Cook of Kingussie, who completed their first rounds in 1982 and 1990 respectively but didn’t let the SMC know until 2007. Prior to that, they would have counted as unlisted.

A snapshot needs to be taken in order for calculations to be made and trends assessed, so what follows is based on the situation in early August 2009, at which stage the ranks of unlisted Munroists were known to number 319. The true total would have been considerably higher than that, with a minimum of 500 seeming to be a reasonable estimate. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, were it to be at least 15% above the actual list, ie around 650 unlisted Munroists. Of course, no matter how diligent the research and however many unlisted people are found, there is always scope for one more; it’s like the sleeping arrangements in a bothy in that regard.

At the same point in early August, the Maxwell/SMC list had reached no.4320. This, however, includes no more than 4311 actual Munroists, as it skips nos.284 and 666, while at least seven people have been mistakenly allocated two numbers. The seven are: Sue Jardine, nos. 214 and 1597 in the list, completed on Stob Coire Easain, 15/6/80; William Mackenzie, 386 and 831, completed on Creag Pitridh, 25 or 27/9/82; Charles Alexander, 360 and 2513, completed on Beinn Dorain, 13/10/84; W Allan Simpson, 631 and 989, completed on Carn Mor Dearg, 2/10/88; Allan Bantick, 1006 and 1598, completed on Creise, 19/7/91; Chris Low, 3007 and 3058, completed on the Glenfinnan Sgurr nan Coireachan, 9/8/03; and Peter Kerry, 2997 and 3014, completed on Aonach Mor, 6/9/03.

Mackenzie, Alexander and Simpson each acquired duplicate-Munroist status by perhaps the most predictable route: both they and a well-meaning friend notified the SMC at separate times and the clerk(s) of the list didn’t twig. Jardine and Bantick teamed up towards the end of the latter’s round, then tidied up the Munros they hadn’t already climbed together, finishing this on Beinn Bhrotain, 12/5/96. Their joint round formed a sort of Venn Diagram overlap with the earlier individual rounds, but even had it not done so, neither should have been given a second slot in the list. Kerry and Low got in twice by each writing a second letter (presumably having not received replies to their first ones) and this led to them somehow each being allocated two numbers. There have been other Doppelmunroists over the years, but for only short periods before being rootled out.

By contrast, there are plenty of non-duplicate namesakes in the list, as one would expect in such a large sample. There are, for example, four David Smiths (nos.522, 659, 1275 and 2244), two Ian Dicksons (1136 and 1556) and, in recent times, two David McSporrans (4088 and 4170) and two close-together Brian Johnstons (4175 and 4183). These are all different people; the McSporrans, for example, completed on Bruach na Frithe on 21/6/08 and Ladhar Bheinn on 7/8/05 respectively. It’s an absolutely typical quirk of the list that the person who completed first has the higher number, because they delayed in notifying the SMC.

Of these 4311 listed rounds, I currently know the final Munro for 3880 (90.0%) of them. Of the 319 unlisted rounds, I know the last hill for 278 (87.1%). So the number of people known to have done at least one round by early August 2009 stood at 4630, with the last Munro being known for 4158 (89.8%).

I’ll write more about unlisted Munroists another time, but something should be said here about the by-sex breakdown, as there’s a marked difference between listed and unlisted Munroists in this regard. The 4630 first-rounders comprise 3656 men and a few boys (78.9%), 869 women and girls (18.8%) and 105 don’t knows (2.3%) — the latter being people who gave only initials, plus a smattering of could-be-either Pats and the like. The vast majority of initials-only people are likely to be male, but I’m not allocating people unless I’m sure.

The proportions for the 4311 listed rounds are much the same: male 3443 (79.9%), female 780 (18.1%) and 88 don’t knows (2.0%). But if only the 319 unlistees are looked at, it comes out thus: male 213 (66.8%), female 89 (27.9%) and 17 don’t knows (5.3%). Even allowing for this being a markedly smaller sample, the difference is striking: 18% of listed completers are female, whereas for unlisted ones the proportion is 28%.

Quite what can be drawn from this is debatable: it could just be a random fluctuation, although a pretty hefty one. It could however be that in some way female Munroists are less likely than their beardie counterparts to submit their names to the SMC. Could this be because women are less interested in lists and similar orderliness? That theory might hold good in society generally, but the sample here is of female Munroists, who by definition have already shown a considerable interest in at least one list, the Munros.

A more tenable theory might be that the higher proportion of unlisted women relates back — as almost a folk memory — to the days when the SMC didn’t admit women. This was the case less than 20 years ago, so it’s well within living memory. Could it be that a significant number of women are recalling this when it comes to completion day, and refusing to have any dalliance with a club that they still see, rightly or wrongly, as no particular friend of theirs?

It should nevertheless be noted that the proportion of women in the published list is creeping higher. The 1980s saw 78 women join the list, 13.5% of the total for that decade; the 1990s saw 279 (17.4%), and the as-yet unfinished 2000s have seen 394 (20.6%).

As to the number of people known to have completed at least one genuine repeat round, this is 212, of whom 53 have added a third round, 22 a fourth, and so on up to Steven Fallon, the only person known to have completed 11th, 12th and 13th rounds. The accumulated total of repeat rounds (eg Fallon has 12 of them) is at least 327, and probably up near 400 in reality. Of the 327, I know the last Munro for 303, 92.7%. Generally, however, I’ve been treating repeat completions as a different category from first rounds; whisky bottles might have been wielded cairnside in both instances, but it’s not quite the same. Hence if someone asks how many completions there have been on Meall nan Tarmachan, for instance, I’m likely to say 47+2 rather than 49.

ALL OF WHICH serves as background to an appeal for information. I’m hoping to publish — either in TAC or elsewhere (if any editor is interested enough to fund me, hint hint) — some extensive findings in the reasonably near future. But first I need to progress things a bit more, ideally to reach a situation where last-Munro details are known for something close to 95% of completers, rather than the 90% at present.

There are various fronts on which to operate, but for now I’ll restrict things to three basic areas:

1 — Munros with no known completions

2 — Completions on deleted Munros

3 — Earliest completions on promoted Munros

 

1 — Munros with no known completions

The sample of 4158 known last Munros doesn’t include all 284 hills in the current list. Here are the 26 Munros for which I don’t, as yet, know of any completions. They are listed in the same section order as in the 1997 edition of Munro’s Tables:

Section 1: Beinn Dubhchraig

Section 2: Carn Gorm, Carn Mairg

Section 4: Stob Coire a’Chairn, Beinn Eibhinn, Aonach Beag (Beinn Eibhinn group), Geal-Charn (Beinn Eibhinn group)

Section 5: Sgairneach Mhor

Section 6: Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain

Section 7: Cairn of Claise, Tolmount, Carn an t-Sagairt Mor

Section 8: Mullach Clach a’Bhlair

Section 9: Carn Sgulain

Section 10: Sgurr an Doire Leathain, Maol Chinn-dearg, Druim Shionnach, Creag a’Mhaim

Section 11: Saileag, Sgurr a’Bhealaich Dheirg, Tom a’Choinich

Section 12: Sgurr nan Ceannaichean

Section 14: A’Chailleach (Fannaichs), Sgurr nan Clach Geala, Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich

Section 15: Meall nan Ceapraichean

Some of these will have seen at least one completion that hasn’t as yet crossed my radar. Quite how many have genuinely seen none is impossible to determine unless the number shrivels to zero. My guess is that it’s fewer than 20, possibly close to single figures.

As will be seen from the list, these 26 “missing Munros” by and large fall into two rather predictable categories: eastern plateauxland summits, and mid-ridge bumps. The big ridge systems — Lawers, Mamores, Fannaichs etc — have seen relatively few completions even on their main hills; for example, David Child’s 25/8/08 celebration on Ben Lawers is the only finish I’ve yet found for that hill. Compare that with its near-neighbour Schiehallion, which has hosted at least 74 first-round finishes (70 listed, four unlisted) and 13 repeats. The primary reason for this is surely that Schiehallion stands by itself; similarly, the likes of Slioch and Beinn Sgritheall have seen plenty of completions.

It’s hard to believe that there haven’t been any finishes at all on hills as notable as Carn Mairg, Sgurr a’ Bhealaich Dheirg and Sgurr nan Clach Geala, or even on the end-of-ridge prongs of Creag a’Mhaim on the South Cluanie Ridge or A’Chailleach in the Fannaichs — but that’s what the research suggests at present. Carn an t-Sagairt Mor is also an oddity, given that its even less prominent neighbour Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach has seen at least two first-round finishes (by Ian Macnab, no.2586, 23/6/01, and by Alan Forsyth, no.3846, 30/6/07) plus a repeat (Robin Howie’s ninth round, 4/5/07). So if anyone knows of a finish — listed or otherwise — on any of these 26 Munros, please let me know. Of course people might now start targeting them for their own completions, in a Heisenbergesque, affect-the-experiment kind of way.

2 — Completions on subsequently deleted Munros

I know of eight. Three on Beinn an Lochain (deleted 1981): by Richard Wood, no.88, 9/6/69; by the unlisted Jack MacNab, 3/6/79; and by Mike McCue, no.226, 13/9/80. Two on Hugh Munro’s intended completion hill, Carn Cloich-mhuilinn (also deleted 1981): by Lily Mackenzie, no.131, 8/11/75; and by Ross Napier, no.212, 26/4/80. Oddly, both Mackenzie and Napier mentioned, in their letters to the SMC, having stashed bottles in the cairn: whisky in the first instance, Babycham in the second. One wonders which walkers later did the dutiful thing and brought these back down.

Two on Sgor an Iubhair (a Munro only from 1981–1997): by Jack Ashcroft, no.644, 4/6/89, and by Andrew Lazenby, no.3113, 17/9/94. And one on the Feshie Geal Charn (another 1981 deletion), by Bob Leitch, no.156, 6/8/77.

Does anyone know of other finishes on these four hills, or on any other recent-ish ex-Munros such as A’ Choinneach, Carn Ban Mor, Meall Dubhag, Carn Ballach or Carn Ban? I’m assuming, with reasonable certainty, that there were none on the various ancient and obscure ex-Munros listed by Robin N Campbell in The Munroist’s Companion: Beinn Dheiceach, Meall Chuirn, Beinn a’Chuirn, Sgor Choinnich, Carn Eas, Creag an Dail Mhor, Creag an Leacainn South Top, Meall a’Chaoruinn, Glas Meall Mor, Beinn Iutharn Bheag, Carn Bhinnein, Crom Leathad, Creag a’Choir’Aird South Ridge, Sgurr na Lapaich (Affric), Creag Dhubh, or the cairn of Sgurr Dearg — although the latter quite possibly saw a few completions of the Tops before it lost even that status in 1997.

Cruach Ardrain South-West Top might have seen the odd champagne cork popped, due to on-the-day mislocation rather than its brief spell as the Munro during the Victorian/Edwardian overlap. The same could be true of various other bumps, most notably those notorious pseudo-Munros Carn Sasunnaich on Beinn Dorain, Gulvain South Top, the Spidean Coire nan Clach trig, and the trigs on Slioch and the Sloy Vorlich — and that’s without getting into subtly confusing hills such as Beinn Teallach, the Balsporran Geal-charn, Beinn a’Chlaidheimh and Beinn Achaladair.

Munros with what might be termed swithering summits are interesting, as completions will have taken place at different points on the same hill. For example, I know of just three finishes on Beinn a’Chroin: by Ronald Burn, no.2, 20/7/23; by John Sime, no.2198, 5/9/99; and by Anne Stronach, no.3872, 16/6/07. Burn’s finish would have been on the East Top, although as he completed the Tops the same day he took in the West Top too. Stronach would have finished on what is currently regarded as the highpoint of the Munro, the cairn above the wee lochan on the West Top. Sime could have finished on either, as the stated location of the summit was muddled during the late 1990s, with Munro’s Tables still giving the East Top but the SMC guidebook giving what perhaps, with a nod to Pillar Rock, ought to be called the Old West.

Similar complications affect the Laggan Beinn a’Chaorainn (just two known completions, in 1968 and 1995) and the Baddoch An Socach (ten known completions, between 1976 and 2008). The most striking adjusted Munro where the old summit seems to be completionless is Clach Leathad / Creise, where Clach Leathad has none while Creise has had 17, starting with William Harrower, no.528 in the list, on 10/5/87. The switch was made in the 1981 revision (can anyone recall exactly when the book came out?; the dust jacket says “Revised 1980”, which implies publication early in 1981), and of the 99 pre-1981 first-round completions where I don’t know the last hill, there has to be a reasonable chance that at least one was on Clach Leathad, given how prominent and accessible it is.

3 — Earliest completions on promoted Munros

Then there is the flipside. Here are the 14 Munro modern additions, with in each case the earliest known completion. If you know of any that pre-date these, please get in touch. Note that I’m not looking for people who “topped up” existing rounds by visiting newly promoted Munros that they hadn’t previously climbed; what I’m after are those who made traditional straightforward completions on the hills in question. The number of known completions (first+repeat) on each hill is in brackets.

1981 promotions

Sgurr nan Ceannaichean (0+0)

Regarded as a Munro from the late 1970s, but only listed from 1981, when the book gave it as “already reported”. Three decades on, no one seems to have finished here.

Sgor an Iubhair (2+0)

Jack Ashcroft, no.644, 4/6/89

As mentioned above, one of only two known completions during this mid-Mamores summit’s 16 years of Munro-hood.

Garbh Chioch Mhor (4+0)

Geoffrey Maynard, no.265, 27/12/81

A fine hill, but its mid-ridge status makes it the Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain of the west, in that almost everyone tackles it en passant between Sgurr nan Coireachan and Sgurr na Ciche. The most recent Garbh Chioch Mhor completion came courtesy of Steve Bonham, no. 2837, 25/10/02. He had started with Sgurr na Ciche on 26/6/85, akin to the tendency for people to finish with Carn Mor Dearg having started on the Ben.

Liathach: Mullach an Rathain (28+3)

John Crombie, no.536, 20/5/87

Hard to believe that it took six years for Mullach an Rathain to host a completion. Andrew Martin, no.249, completed on Liathach on 12/8/81, but I don’t know which of the two Munros came last, so it could have been this one (and most people seem to go east–west). The earliest confirmed Spidean a’Choire Leith completion (of 5+0) was by Ivan Young, no.856, 12/7/83 — again, late in proceedings even allowing for Liathach being such a stonker of a hill that people are drawn to it mid-round. So: was there really no Liathach finish until 1981?

An Teallach: Sgurr Fiona (31+4)

Fraser Brunton, no.311, 15/8/81

Listed by the SMC as Fraser Burton (there are a lot of name-fankles in the list — more on this side of things another time). The two An Teallach Munros seem fairly evenly balanced as completion venues: I know of 37+4 finishes on Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill, three of which pre-dated the arrival of Sgurr Fiona as a rival attraction. Does this “equality” suggest that Sgurr Fiona was not the greatest of promotions, and that people by and large still see the hill as being one big, wonderful twin-topped lump? Or is it just that Bidein comes first on the “normal” traverse of the hill? I know of 11 unspecified An Teallach completions (the earliest having been in 1984), so the overall An Teallach total is 79+8 minimum, beginning with Nan Rae (Miss A D Miller in the list), 21/8/60.

1984(ish) promotion

Beinn Teallach (12+2)

Hamish Brown, seventh completion, 5/1/85

Exactly when Beinn Teallach became a Munro is unclear, but Hamish Macmillan Brown of the SMC was joint-editor of the list at the time and perhaps put his inside knowledge to good use in being at the head of the queue. Seven people are listed with seven or more rounds: Brown (he stuck on seven), Stewart Logan (10), Robin Howie (nine), Steven Fallon (13), Michael Slater and Dave “Heavy” Whalley (both eight), and Robert H MacDonald (seven). There are evidently more: the August 2009 Munro Society newsletter mentions someone who “casually remarked that he had about six to do to compleat [sic] an eleventh round.”

1997 promotions

An Stuc (9+0)

P Hollingsworth, no.1847, 5/9/97

Assuming that the rather mysterious P Hollingsworth was indeed the first, s/he only got there in the nick of time: the next day saw An Stuc host a joint son/father completion by Kerr and Jim Elliot, nos.1848 and 1849.

Buachaille Etive Mor: Stob na Broige (53+2)

Simon Pledger, no.1935, sometime in 1998, before 8 June

Pledger went up Curved Ridge, over Stob Dearg and so to Stob na Broige. Of the 60+1 known Stob Dearg completions, 34 came before mid-1997; so since Stob na Broige has been on the scene, it appears to have outscored its higher neighbour by more than two to one. Quite what can be inferred from this is unclear, but it does perhaps suggest that, unlike Sgurr Fiona, Stob na Broige was a good addition to the list. When it was a subsidiary Top it was viewed, by the Munros-only masses, as too distant and separate to bother with.

Buachaille Etive Beag: Stob Coire Raineach (31+0)

Ian Pascoe, no.1880, 13/9/97

Pascoe, a member of Kirkintilloch Mountaineering Club, appears to have made the only SCR completion in 1997, but there were at least six the following year, including that by the South African-born Rati Chiba on 22 August. Chiba acquired the “Munroist number 2000” tag, although he was really only no.1994 in list terms (omitting 284 and 666 and factoring in the four duplicates who were around at the time) and somewhere beyond 2300 overall once unlisted and out-of-sequence Munroists are considered.

Stob Coire Sgreamhach (31+3)

Anne Fletcher / Graham Bunn, nos.1853/1854, 20/9/97

Possibly the prime case of new-Munro confusion, in that the couple from the north-east of Albion’s Plain were a week away from heading north to complete their rounds on Sgurr nan Gillean when TAC33 plopped through the letterbox, bringing news of the alterations to the list — they had missed the SMC’s July announcement. Consternation and conundrum. What to do? Sgreamhach was the only one of the eight promotions that they hadn’t already climbed, so they drove to Skye, climbed Sgurr nan Gillean on 18 September, then finished the job in the Coe two days later. They weren’t sure which was their completion Munro — was it Gillean with Sgreamhach as a topper-upper? Given that they knew about the changes before they went to Skye, it would appear that Sgreamhach was the one, that being where they first felt themselves to be fully-fledged Munroists. Who ever said it was a simple game?

The new Munro / old Munro equation is again in evidence here: of the 30+5 known Bidean nam Bian finishes (starting with that by Richard Gilbert, no.101, on 12/6/71), 19 pre-dated Stob Coire Sgreamhach’s arrival. Overall, the south side of Glen Coe is a completion hotspot despite no single Munro in the area having seen a huge number of completions (the 60+1 for Stob Dearg on the Buachaille is the highest, but it still only makes it the twelfth most popular last-Munro choice countrywide). The seven south-Coe Munros (two on the Buachaille, two on the Wee Buachaille, two on Bidean plus Sgor na h-Ulaidh) have hosted at least 279 first-round finishes between them, an average of almost 40 per hill. By contrast, the Aggy Ridge pair have seen only 18. The 12 Skye Munros have seen 409, average 34 (ranging from 101 on the In Pinn to five on Banachdich).

Sgor an Lochain Uaine (12+0)

Patricia Notman, no.1843, 31/8/97

The only one of the eight 1997 promotions to have been a Munro before: it was in Hugh Munro’s original 1891 list and stayed there until the 1921 revision. Highest and most remote of the new bunch, it didn’t have to wait long for a completion, courtesy of the wife of Irving Notman, who had himself completed on Mull in 1993. Should either of them ever go on to complete the Donalds, they could do worse than to finish with Notman Law, the southeastern outlier of Dollar Law.

Sgurr na Carnach (3+1)

Roger Gaff, no.2304, 11/8/99

Fine timing, 11/8/99 being Eclipse Day. Kintail had it only partial at best: from my own experience in Galloway, the sky-darkening business would have been pretty iffy in the north. Sgurr na Carnach, being a bump-on-a-log mid-ridge Munro, appears to have seen only two subsequent first-round finishes (in 2004 and 2007), plus James Gordon’s sixth completion on 13/5/06.

Beinn Alligin: Tom na Gruagaich (9+0)

Dr Keith Slinger, no.2835, 23/6/00

Number 2836 was also a Tom na Gruagaich finish, by Dr David Nunn, a friend of Dr Slinger. Nothing unusual there — joint-finishes are commonplace — but the occasions were different, Nunn having completed on 15/6/02. Beinn Alligin proper, as it were, has seen at least 34 first-round finishes (starting with John Mills of the Rucksack Club, July 1973), and three repeats including Steven Fallon’s eleventh effort on 29/6/03.

Beinn Eighe: Spidean Coire nan Clach (14+0)

John Fowler, no.2996, 17/5/98

Not the secretary of the SMC: that’s John R R Fowler, whereas this is John D Fowler. There have been 27+6 finishes on the highest Beinn Eighe summit, Ruadh-stac Mor, starting with Iain Robertson, no.55 in the list and stalwart of the Munro Society, 25/8/63. Robertson was also the first to finish on the Knoydart Meall Buidhe, when it hosted his second completion, 18/7/86.

As many as nine other repeat-round Munroists could well have been the first to complete on more than one hill, with Hamish Brown seeming to have nabbed four, and Geraldine Guestsmith/Howie three. Note, however, that these figures are rather untrustworthy: all it takes is for an earlier completion to be uncovered for any relevant hill and the sands shift. The most likely “double-first” to retain their status is surely Eric Maxwell, given that both his completions came early in proceedings and both were on unfashionable hills: Chno Dearg (26/5/57) and the Culra Carn Dearg (16/7/66) have hosted only 3+0 and 7+3 known completions respectively.

RIGHT, THAT FEELS LIKE more than enough to be going on with. Any new information gratefully received, by the usual contact routes (eg email theangrycorrie@ googlemail.com). More next issue, possibly in the form of a list of the earliest known finishes on each of the current 284 Munros (although it could well be 283 or 285 Munros by then — see page 19).

 

To Ben Nevis by Bentley

A Camera in the Hills: The Life and Work of W A Poucher, by Roly Smith

Published by Frances Lincoln, 2008, pp192. ISBN 978 07 112 2898 6, price £20

Review: Perkin Warbeck

 

THE EDITOR RECENTLY SPENT a couple of days at the licence-payer’s expense, lotus-eating in the Sligachan Hotel. I’ve written in complaint at this flagrant misuse — dare I say abuse — of public money, and I suggest you do too. The Ed was keen that I hear news of his sojourn, because the Slig is a significant place for us. Don’t get all homoerotic on me here. You can have a place without it being A Place. Difficult area. The biggest fight I ever had with Mrs Warbeck was when I didn’t realise we had A Song.

At least twice in the eighties the Ed and I camped in the paddy field outside the Slig, and after the Trangia tortellini and the Guardian birthdays game (one of the Ed’s idiosyncrasies), we would adjourn to the Climbers’ Bar. It was always mobbed, so we chanced our arm, hid our wet cagoules and took our repose in the winged armchairs of the residents’ lounge that had once, we mused, been occupied by Poucher and Collie.

After appropriate fortification and having exhausted the subject of how wet the campsite was, we took to writing our diaries. Some of it involved juvenile comparisons between success on Marsco (me) and heroic failure on Banachdich (the Ed). Another theme was taking the pish out of a posh hotel resident who was obviously on one of Gerry Akroyd’s courses. He opined loudly about “Cuillin Fever” and the round of Coire Lagan. He demanded parody. We delivered. The style in which we delivered was that of Walt Poucher’s The Magic of Skye. This was possible because we both knew whole chunks of The Magic verbatim. I think that even now — at risk of boring you — I could recreate a reasonable version of the piece where Walt lingers in Coire Lagan as the sun descends: “If like me you had dallied as Apollo’s orb dappled the Titanic Walls of the Coolins”, etc.

We were not taking the pish out of Poucher, however. We loved him.

I can’t speak for the Ed, but I loved Poucher at least partly because I once climbed Bidean nam Bian armed with not much more than The Scottish Peaks. No map, no water. This may sound very naïve — but who hasn’t been? Joe Simpson’s first fall was because he went ice climbing armed with axes without loops. In contrast, I was only risking a millimetric kidney stone. The Ed had a more orthodox hill apprenticeship, but we shared a love of Walt’s chiselled good looks (sorry, his devotion to the golden fraction).

I THUS CAME to Roly Smith’s A Camera in the Hills with high hopes. Poucher is occasionally a caricature in TAC, leaping from perfume laboratory to Bentley, pausing only to stock up on film for his Leica and to apply his Yardley’s eye-shadow. But for all his eccentricities, the man was a serious player in several fields: in his profession, for instance, he gave advice on makeup to the Queen, to Elizabeth Taylor and to golfer James Braid. (I made one of these up.)

In A Camera in the Hills, Poucher’s status as a photographer seems to be up for grabs. Both sides of opinion are represented, more or less with parity. Ken Wilson, for example, states: “In my view, he was never in the pantheon of great mountain photographers like Vittorio Sella…”. Wilson then lists a few more, including Ansel Adams “…and he [Poucher] also lacked the creativity of other UK photographers like Robert Adam, John Cleare or Gerald Lacey.”

It maybe depends on whether you are looking for art. Quite a lot of hillwalkers just want to know what the hill is going to look like — preferably with a massive white line up it.

Poucher’s service in the Great War is covered extensively. As humanity staggers into another century without having quite launched the apocalypse, it is still valuable to read of how someone famous for completely unmilitary heroics (if you can call lounging in the Slig in full makeup and elbow gloves “heroic”) had to drag himself through the ordeal that was the 41st Casualty Clearing Station. Much as Michael Palin was encouraged by John Cleese to get into lion-taming via banking, so Poucher got into perfumery via pharmacy and may have saved many lives by bringing professionalism to that discipline as the casualties piled up in the field hospitals.

The perfumery is covered in detail. I was reminded of the bizarre importance of ambergris, an exotic substance found in the guts of sperm whales after they’ve eaten giant squid. This is so valuable that if you are strolling along a beach in the Caribbean and step on some ambergris, you might as well retire on the spot. Poucher had no worries about the need to retire — he was only ever half-time at Yardley’s and appeared to enjoy lecturing Liz Taylor on the thousand smells his nose could detect. This allowed him all the time he needed for his photography, golf and general sybaritic pleasures. Actually, a thousand smells doesn’t sound all that difficult: fish and chips, the Shieldhall sewage works, coconut, coffee, bread, petrol, Evo-Stik, first day back at school, Ron McLeod’s golf shop… I could go on, but you get the idea.

After the war and the perfume, I was keenly anticipating Smith’s analysis of the hillwalking. Being such a fan of The Magic, for example, I was hoping to learn more of that holiday. Who actually were the Good Companions? Poucher gave their names, including “Mr and Mrs J O Fenwick who were on their honeymoon”, but this hardly tells us why and how he knew them. What did they talk about in the Sligachan’s winged armchairs after dinner as Walt’s cigar glowed?

Unfortunately, though, for a whole chapter A Camera in the Hills really just becomes a list of titles and publishers. What it lacks are anecdotes, such as how Walt came to take up hillwalking in the first place. And why did he spell Cuillins as Coolins? Smith does mention the night when Poucher, as one of the other guests, looked on as Grace Jones slapped Russell Harty on live TV, but more on this would have been welcome. The incident appears regularly on “TV’s greatest this and that” (it topped a 2006 BBC poll of “Most shocking TV chat show moments of all time”), but with no mention of Poucher. Here, in a book dedicated to the man, we could have had interviews with the surviving participants. Smith confines himself — admittedly amusingly — to crediting Christina Stuart of Yardley’s for Walt’s own makeup that night.

And how well did Poucher know the aforementioned James Braid, five times Open champion? Braid was a fellow member at Walt’s “much loved Walton Heath”, so surely they met — Walt did after all dedicate his 1949 book The Surrey Hills to the golfer.

In James Dodson’s Ben Hogan: A Life, there is a story where Nick Faldo makes some sort of pilgrimage to Hogan’s Shady Oaks retreat in Texas. Faldo wants the great man to watch him practise, as does Hogan Company president David Hueber. There is a cart waiting for them right outside the door. “Does he play our clubs?” asked Hogan. “No,” replied Hueber. Hogan swirled his Chablis. “I think I’ll just finish my wine.”

A year after reading this I was idly thumbing Faldo’s autobiography and found a picture of Hogan with Sir Nick, obviously intended to imply a more intimate connection than the above. Without Dodson’s scrupulous work we might never have known the subtext, and this is my slight problem with the Poucher book. It doesn’t quite communicate to me the immersion in the subject I got from Dodson. Of course, there are probably marketing and format reasons for this.

A Camera in the Hills does include a whole chapter of anecdotes towards the end, but they are all relatively predictable: Janet Street-Porter, Jim Crumley, Paddy Dillon etc describe their first or only meeting with Poucher, the surprise at the full makeup, the generous lunches, the critique of his photographs and so on.

Smith does however mention an interesting spat over access between Poucher and a correspondent to Mountain Life magazine. The correspondent — Tom Dale — had suggested that the hunting and shooting fraternity deserved “contempt and hostility”, to which Walt thundered: “[This] smells strongly of left-wing socialism which is always steeped in ENVY.” He went on to say that access problems have always been solved by “a couple of whiskies with the head ghillie”. (Note to self — always carry map, compass, 12-year-old Springbank, and educate self in the sartorial differences among the ghillie strata.)

A Camera in the Hills must be close to being an authorised biography. Poucher’s son John was involved, and offered the critique that “Dad always seemed to take his pictures from the same spots […] though with different lighting”. This is a fascinating revelation — Walt decided that The View of Liathach is the one from Loch Clair, and all future snappers were destined to follow. For the posthumous The Best of Poucher’s Lakeland, John Poucher (who himself died in 2007) took the radical step of adding some photos of his own — taken from different vantage-points. (Different coigns of vantage, surely? — Ed.) One infers from the rest of the book that this would not have happened in Walt’s lifetime.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed A Camera in the Hills. A strong impression of Poucher comes over. Aristocratic and generous, in love with fast cars and fine dining; possibly a bit of a grumpy father and probably a bit right-wing. When asked by Sue Arnold about the makeup, Walt assured her: “If you mean do people think I am a pansy, never. Elizabeth Taylor said she wished more men took as much trouble with their appearance.”

My main complaint would be that A Camera in the Hills is a bit light. As mentioned already, some background to various books would have been welcome. There are many photographs, but apart from the family snaps, most Waltophiles will have these already. Having said that, the snaps are a rare treat and welcome images to add to the canon: Walt waggling his mashie niblick or staring, matinee-idol style, through the smoke of his Peter Stuyvesant.

I suppose I am coming from a somewhat quirky appreciation of the man. On page 118, Smith provides a reproduction of the photograph of Walt wearing a silly hat while gazing up at the Quiraing. To me, the caption should be something akin to the perfect line in The Magic of Skye — “I scan the gigantic precipices”. Instead, Smith has gone for “Poucher at the Quiraing”.

 

Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses

IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE for high-profile police clampdowns — on litter louts, teenage gangs, stolen vehicles and the like — to be given rather pompous and portentous names. Hence Operation Sabre (“Cleveland police force’s largest ever crackdown on crime and disorder”), Operation Maxim (“targeting people involved in organised immigration crime throughout London”), Operation ’Ello ’Ello, what’s goin’ on ’ere then? (“hassling hoodies on street corners”), and so on.

Recently, displaying laudable eagerness to keep pace with this legal-linguistic trend, Grampian Police conducted a “blitz on the region’s drug dealers” under the title Operation Lochnagar.

This seems a tad unfair, however, on arguably the finest of all Deeside hills, and indeed on Prince Charles, who has long championed it. Perhaps the Grampian bobbies know something about narcotic habits on Balmoral Estate that they’re not telling the rest of us.

But Operation Lochnagar it was, and things seem to have gone well. On 13 March, the BBC reported “151 people being taken into custody and £77,000 of drugs being seized”. Excellent: lock up the Craigiebuckler crackheids and Duthie Park dope-fiends, TAC says.

Buoyed by this success, the question that now arises is what other police operations, named after popular UK hills, could be introduced to target other menaces to society? Here are a few suggestions:

Operation Brown Cow Hill — a blitz on bovine rustlers

Operation Ben Venue — calling time on ticket touts

Operation High Raise — no more favours for fat-cat bankers (aka Operation Fuck Off Sir Fred)

Operation Sergeant Man — targeting corrupt coppers in Cumbria

Operation Cobbler — cutting out corrupt shoe repairers

Operation Roaches — coming down heavy on cannabis-addled climbers

Operation Ochils — re-educating dyslexics who can’t spell Slioch

Operation Ben Tee and Ben Hee — let’s work together to stop bad stand-ups

Operation Grasmoor — upping the number of police informers

Operation High Stile — preventing countryside discrimination against midgets and dwarfs

Operation Am Bodach — putting a stop to pensioner crime

Operation Robinson — wiping out the Weakest Link

Operation Shining Tor — waging war on Peruvian hillwalkers

Operation Brown Willythat’s enough operations — Ed.

 

Avoiding those thin blue lines

Malcolm Wylie recently became the latest in an occasional line of people to have walked a version of the UK and/or Scottish watershed. It took him 14 summers, in chunks of nine or ten days at a time. Here are a few of his recollections…

“JOHN O’GROATS to Land’s End without passing water…”. This is how Ann, landlady of the Mosspaul Hotel beside the A7, explained our venture to her bemused customers as my nephew Jonny and I were tucking into a generous supper in the summer of 2000. Our sodden map, socks and so-called waterproofs were monopolising the radiators around the bar. Ann had understood the general approach, but I usually explained it as “without crossing flowing water”, rather than making extravagant claims for the capacity of my bladder.

I’m 60, married, with two grown-up kids and a grandson. Having retired from my job as an IT manager at Cambridge city council, I now do part-time consultancy. Between 1996 and 2009, a week-and-a-half at a time, I walked the length of the British watershed. The account given here is really just a taster: a lot happened during those 14 summers and 1800 miles.

The idea

My father (still going strong at 96) introduced me to camping in my childhood, and he took up long-distance walking in retirement. My own backpacking experience started with a trek across Mull to Iona as a student, but I really got the bug in 1985 when my then-employer IBM sent me on an Outward Bound expedition. I started annual trips, normally with my son Tim — who shocked me, when he was aged 14, by completely out-walking me on our way up to Striding Edge.

The seed of the watershed idea was sown in 1989 when I saw a wonderful fictional film on the BBC, First and Last, starring Joss Ackland as a recently retired man who decided to walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Hilarious and moving. Some of you may remember it. A couple of years later, I walked the Pennine Way, and the seed started to germinate when I read Alfred Wainwright’s explanation of “watershed” in the introduction to his excellent Pennine Way Companion:

“The main watershed of northern England is the line that divides the west-flowing streams (Irish Sea) and the east-flowing streams (North Sea) […] It is not an arbitrary or imaginary line; obviously it exists although not marked on maps and not often clearly defined on the ground. […] A walk of this nature, keeping strictly to the main watershed, would be extremely arduous […] This would be an undertaking only for the toughest and most resolute of he-men carrying food and shelter on their backs.”

A couple of years later I was considering (very) early retirement, and the idea — the full British watershed — emerged fully formed. My wife, Chris, dissuaded me from trying it in one go, so I decided to break it down into annual sections, completing on my 60th birthday, 9 June 2009. This dovetailed the British watershed with my own life watershed: it would be a journey through mid-life as well as through mid-Britain. (In the end, I aimed for 20 June, a Saturday: easier to have a party.)

The feasibility study

I decided to do the walk north–south, on the basis that I fancied some excitement at the beginning and I might not be up to the difficulties of the Highlands when approaching 60. Maps were pored over, one of the joys of the exercise. It was surprisingly easy to plot the route, although I found a river apparently flowing both ways in Caithness, at ND277677 on Landranger 12. I decided that my rule would be: if it’s a thin blue line on the Landranger, and it’s flowing, then I wouldn’t cross it. Canals had to be crossed at their highest section.

This turned out to be a rather strict definition, one that took me through some pretty inhospitable places, particularly forestry plantations. ND277677, when I got there, was a dry ditch.

The pilot episode

So 10:30am on 9 July 1996 saw me posing for photos with Tim at Duncansby Head before setting off southward along the cliff to the cries of the birds on the stacks — and soon being divebombed on the moor by an annoyed skua.

Caithness is said to include the largest area of blanket peat bog in Europe, and the watershed passes through it, so we had fun plotting and leaping our way though the maze of interconnected lochans.

We picked up food dropped off in Forsinard, and had been hoping for a top-up at the Crask Inn, but it was closed when we got there. (Now, in 2009, I’m glad to see that it’s thriving.) Bog eventually gave way to hills, and the days spent on Ben Hee (an airy ascent up the correct side of a waterfall) and the horseshoe to Loch Merkland were magical: blue skies, plenty of deer.

The shock — then the start of the full series

After the success of this trial section, I started thinking about the watershed in earnest. One day I was surfing the web and discovered that Dave Hewitt, TAC’s Ed, had published a book, Walking the Watershed, in 1994. I admit, a little shamefacedly, that the prospect of being the first person to complete this journey had taken a bit of a grip, and I was shocked that someone had had the idea before me.

It came as a relief that the Ed had decided to restrict his efforts to Scotland, as “…the thought of what awaited below Sheffield was enough to make even the most hardened walker blanch. Dodging bicycles on the campus of Keele University…” — I crossed this during the summer vacation; it was eerily deserted and on first approach I thought it was a prison — “…meandering endlessly through the Acacia Avenues and Laburnum Crescents of Birmingham housing estates…” — I was in a 30mph limit for 24 hours through the West Midlands conurbation but failed to spot these particular landmarks — “…being blown sky-high by land mines on Wiltshire firing ranges…” — the watershed just manages to skirt the Salisbury Plain MOD land, but Warcop Fell is another matter.

I managed to track down the Ed via the internet, which is how I became a TAC reader. In practice, I found his book, as well as being a terrific read (shucks — Ed.), an encouragement in that he had managed to complete the Highlands without ropes.

The rest of Scotland (19972000)

A few highlights from the following four years, as Tim and I walked the rest of the Scottish watershed…

The first Munro, Conival, with our first sight of the Atlantic.

Scrabble played by natural light until midnight on Seana Bhraigh.

Successful hitch-hiking to and from the watershed, courtesy of lifts provided by a marathon champion, Mr Guide Dogs for the Blind for northern Scotland, and Ms Victoria Wine of Aviemore (“Excuse the shite state of the car”).

The ascent of Bidein a’Choire Sheasgaich along a glistening mica-speckled bagger’s path.

Sgurr a’Bhealaich Dheirg, climbed in thick cloud. Based on Walking the Watershed, I’d written “Narrow but OK” on the map beforehand. When I looked at it the following day, Tim has changed it to “Narrow but OKrikey!”

Various characters met and observed in pubs, including the Major (as in Fawlty Towers) at the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, and Rab C Nesbitt and friends at the Swan in High Banton in Lanarkshire.

Meeting a couple of Munrobaggers in 1998 on Carn Dearg south of Loch Ossian; they were planning to complete on Ben Lomond that autumn. (A coincidence: it appears that these were Joan Sherry and Peter Birbeck from Carlisle, whom I also bumped into while covering Ian Botham’s 1999 JoGLE for the Scotsman — Ed.)

Worriedly trespassing through someone’s garden east of Drymen only to find I’d been talking with them after church four hours earlier!

Meeting up with the Ed and TAC’s proofreader on Whitehope Heights in the Southern Uplands, July 2000.

Finding a place called Wylie’s Craigs (Landranger 80, NT639010) on the border near Peel Fell.

And so to England (20012008)

As 2001 was foot-and-mouth year, I couldn’t do the planned northern-Pennine section — so I walked the Cotswolds section instead and picked up the Pennines again in 2002. The Pennines were remote enough for wild camping, but south of Buxton I usually asked for — and got — permission from farmers, or at pubs with beer gardens. The highlights included…

For a short section, above Oughtershaw Side (Landranger 98, SD826834), the watershed coincides with the Pennine Way — but going the wrong way!

My grandson Rufus became one of the proud owners of the limited edition Wylie’s Watershed Way T-shirts, having been carried up Kinder Downfall aged three months.

I bent the watershed rules by walking through Netherton Tunnel on the outskirts of Dudley (nearly two miles long and dead straight), underneath some flowing water.

A man was trying to gas himself in his car at a remote spot near the M42/M40 junction. He didn’t appreciate my intervention — but he did drive off.

After Buxton, there was a lot of road-walking. There was always something of interest, but it was a relief to get back on to open moorland on Exmoor in 2007.

The penultimate section, in 2008, took me across Dartmoor in a storm with an unsuspecting older friend. I’d noticed from the map a “Letterbox” in the middle of the moor, at SX603858. We found this with the help of a GPS and it contained, along with the inkpad and unique stamp beloved of the letterboxing community, a bottle half-full of straw-coloured liquid. Would it be whisky, or the other thing? Whisky, we were pleased and relieved to discover.

I needed to round the head of the Tamar where no road or path was marked, so I asked permission of the farmer, who agreed but said I’d never make it without crossing flowing water. I did, but without a machete it took over an hour to get through 100 metres of overgrown swamp.

After this, I needed to hitch to Bude, in a very bedraggled state. No one in their right mind would pick me up, but eventually someone did. He was rather strange and refused my attempts at conversation, then dived off the main road at great speed. Was I being abducted? To my relief he was merely taking a short-cut, and dropped me near the bus stop. Don’t judge a book by its cover

Coming in to land (2009)

The fourteenth and final section was duly completed on 20 June 2009, and I was again joined by Tim, who had abandoned me halfway down the Pennines when it looked as though the walking was going to get too tame for him.

The final push started in Kilkhampton near Bude and covered the full length of Cornwall. Of necessity, there was a lot of road-walking. A large part of the A30 roughly follows the watershed, and we spent one particularly unhappy afternoon walking along a single-carriageway stretch in the pouring rain, being splashed and nearly mown down by incessant traffic. Tim started to regret his decision. After that, we avoided the A30 where we could, and by and large it was an enjoyable week.

The high point geographically was Brown Willy (420m) on Bodmin Moor, and the low point was actually sea-level — and I don’t mean at Land’s End, which is atop a cliff. When planning this section, I noticed that the watershed through Cornwall passes very close to the coast at three points — the Tamar tributaries rising in the north, the Hayle rising in the south, then the Penzance rivers rising in the north. Imagine the space shuttle losing speed by banking left and right on re-entry and you’ll get the idea.

 

 

 

 

 

So I stretched a point (but not to the point of transgression), and the penultimate day became simultaneously a watershed walk and a coast-to-coast effort from Praa Sands on the south coast to Bosigran on the north coast. Having lived with the watershed for 13 years, this gave considerable pleasure!

Other highlights included consecutive nights of wild camping in ancient settings (a bronze age cairn on Brockabarrow Common and in an iron age hill fort at Castle-an-Dinas), and walking past the china clay mountains near St Austell.

I accreted relations as the week progressed, with nine of us on the final day, and 19 for the last mile (a few of them desperate to qualify for the last two sweatshirts). Those of you who have been to Land’s End in the last 20 years will know that it’s become a rather tacky theme park, and I didn’t want that to be my last memory. So for the final mile I rather mischievously devised a “taster” for those relations who joined me. There’s a path from the entrance to the car park out northwards towards the coastal path — but it doesn’t join it before crossing a stream. So I had the whole party (some in party frocks and best shoes) follow me through 300 yards of bog-hopping, bramble-coping and wall-climbing. Only then was it a lovely easy walk along the cliffs to the official end at the Land’s End signpost, followed by a party at the hotel overlooking the Atlantic, the Longships rocks and the setting sun.

Looking back, the watershed has provided a wonderful stimulus over a long time, a store of great memories and experiences — some shared, some solo. As to the original idea of it being a journey through mid-Britain and through mid-life, I’m relieved to say that being aged 60 doesn’t at all feel over-the-hill — perhaps just a bit more grown-up.

www.justgiving.com/malcolmwylie/

Ed. — I know of five people who have done versions of this over the years: my own effort, the border to Cape Wrath in a single push, April–June 1987; the late Mike Allen, Land’s End to Cape Wrath in numerous mainly short sections, April 1988–October 1994 (he crossed the border on 24/5/92); Martin Prouse, Rowardennan to Ben Hope in one go, July–August 1994; Peter Wright, the border to Duncansby Head in eight sections, Jan–Aug 2005, see www.watershedepic.org.uk; and Malcolm Wylie’s 131-day traverse, in 14 sections. There may, of course, have been more.

For my money, the two most notable achievements are without doubt the full-length efforts by Messrs Allen and Wylie: not only were they massive in physical terms (Malcolm Wylie reckons 67700m of ascent and 2900km in distance), but the sustained nature of the logistics and the psychological stickability, if I can call it that, were mightily impressive in both cases.

 

Boreray, passionate bagging and Bloomers

Various developments to report on the Marilyn scene, both in terms of people and places. People first: Rob Woodall has become the first hillgoer known to have reached M-minus-three status, being part of a group that made it to the top of the St Kilda island of Boreray on 12 April, then three days later scrabbling up the lumpy ridge of Dun, just off Hirta. Having already been up Conachair, and all the other Marilyns, that leaves Woodall with just Soay and the two stacks to do. He must now be the bookies’ favourite to become the first to climb the whole damn lot, although quite how long the remaining three might take is anyone’s guess.

Woodall’s first attempt at further progress is scheduled for September: along with various others, he is booked on a boat with a fortnight of weather windows to play with. His assessment of what awaits is as follows: “Given good weather we are keen to get up any or all of the last three, but could easily get none of them.” In terms of the specific islands, “likeliest first”, he says: “Stac an Armin — apparently difficult landing due to currents but straightforward steep ascent with a little scrambling; Stac Lee — least difficult landing of the three, hardest climb, but looks doable; Soay — supposedly hardest landing, hardish scrambling on ascent, although didn’t look too bad from our boat recce.”

The whole damn lot now stands at 1556 summits in total, following a flurry of comings and goings prompted by resurvey activity. When the latest Marilyn newsletter came out in May (see www.rhb.org.uk/marhofn/marhofn196/), the total was 1555, up one from the previous year due to the promotion from subMarilyn status of 480m Sail Chalmadale on Arran. Raw Head (227m) in darkest Cheshire was chopped from the list, but was simultaneously replaced by 305m Mynydd y Cwm at the northern tip of the Clwydian range. That wasn’t the end of things, however. Soon after the newsletter appeared, 456m Creag na Criche above Little Glen Shee was deemed to have 150m of reascent (previously it was 148m), so it too joined the list and gridlock set in on the roads northwest of Perth, as the slavering-with-excitement baggers manoeuvred their little campervans in and out of the passing places.

These recent list-changes have come about through the doughty surveying work of John Barnard, Graham Jackson and Myrddyn Phillips, active in various parts of the country these past couple of years. Their work has received a considerable amount of coverage, eg on grough.co.uk and also on the BBC via their discovery that Mynydd Graig Goch at the southwest end of the Nantlle ridge is just over rather than just under 2000ft. The threesome have also got the gig as regards the Munro Society’s quest to pin accurate heights on borderline 3000ft hills in Scotland. The commercial surveyors CMCR did the groundwork for the Foinaven and Beinn Dearg surveys in 2007 (both of which confirmed the Corbett status of the hills concerned — see TAC71 pp18–19 and TAC72 p7), but it’s Barnard et al who have been looking at whether Ben Vane, Beinn Teallach and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean (all currently 915m) should stay in the Munro list. These three hills have been resurveyed, as has Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe (currently a 913m Corbett), and there will be an announcement on 10 September. (For late news on this front, see page 19.)

This is all interesting stuff, and it’s particularly good to see the tripod-wielding troika assessing possible demotions as well as promotions; not to do so would simply be Bad Science, but not everyone seems to see it that way. Most of the grumbling and chuntering that followed the 1981 and 1997 Munro changes concerned deletions — some people seem to feel deprived if a hill is chalked off a list, even though it’s still there on the ground and they are allowed to go and climb it. That attitude is perhaps to be expected, at least a little, in the less precision-fixated world of Munro climbing, but it seems to be cropping up in Marilyn circles, too. No one from TAC high command was present at this year’s Marilyn dinner (held in June at Strontian), but more than one report has suggested that when Barnard announced that Raw Head no longer had enough separation for it to merit Marilyn status, he got a frosty reception from various parts of the room. “There was a real sense of hostility,” according to one source who was present. Weird.

The methodology of changes to the Marilyn list has gone through three distinct phases since The Relative Hills of Britain came out in 1992. At first, there was something of a set-in-stone feel to the thing, at least in terms of a disinclination to kick anything out, à la Raw Head. Alan Dawson’s first update sheet, in 1994, included 12 additions to the original list, three like-for-like replacements, but no deletions. Under the heading Borderline Cases, Dawson wrote: “Recently published 1:25000 or 1:10000 maps indicate that these [four] hills have only 148 or 149 metres drop all round. However, due to a policy of ‘no deletions’, they retain Marilyn status, as does Scafell despite protests from certain Scots that it has a drop of only 133 metres.” Come the second update, January 1995, there was a section headed Deletions: “Originally I intended that there should be no deletions, but when I discovered Cunnigill Hill [on Shetland] had a drop of only 127 metres, I realised that it would have to go.”

Fair enough, both the original policy and the rethink. It was and continues to be Dawson’s list, and it’s axiomatic that anyone who takes the trouble to compile a list can make whatever entry-criteria changes they like.

That 1995 update saw six Marilyns deleted: the four Borderline Cases from the previous year (Sgorr Tuath in Coigach, Cruach Bhuidhe west of Loch Goil, and Hedgehope Hill and Cushat Law, both in the Cheviot hills), plus Scafell and the rather rude-sounding Cunnigill Hill (has anyone ever travelled there using Aer Lingus?). Looking back, it would appear that the tipping point for the no-deletions policy was somewhere between 133m and 127m of drop. One wonders whether, had Cunnigill Hill not been in the mix, Scafell and the others might still be Marilyns.

The early non-rigorous days have gone, but the sense of deletions being regretted (while additions are welcomed) has continued. The public announcement of the Raw Head demotion, on 15 April 2009, started with the words: “Some overdue bad news to share.” (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rhb/message/15521) It’s unclear why an increased level of precision — assuming that’s what Barnard and co are providing — is deemed to be “bad news” in a list devised with a high degree of objectivity in mind (whereas the Munros allow considerable scope for choice by the editor of the time). Surely greater precision, so long as there is sufficient confidence in it, is good news regardless of whether it leads to a hill being added to or removed from a list?

Also, the opening words of the 15 April announcement prompted at least a couple of readers to immediately think that someone had died. When the terrible news came through of Rob Milne’s death on Everest in June 2005, Chris Bienkowski’s rhb report, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rhb/message/8725, was headed “Bad News”. Compared with that, the height/drop status of any hill is of no consequence. Incidentally, in terms of hill-list politics, it’s worth noting that the Raw Head story was broken not on the rhb newsgroup, but on grough some eight hours earlier: www.grough.co.uk/view/2009/04/15/hello-marilyn-one-up-one-down-in-trios-survey-quest/ Not the greatest of scoops for grough, but a scoop all the same.

Anyway, in the mid-1990s, once it became clear that quite a few Marilyns did not merit being in the list in terms of the stated drop requirement, there was then a lengthy second phase when relatively few changes took place and the word of the Ordnance Survey appeared to be regarded as definitive. However, the lack of interest by the modern OS in upland surveying led to an increasing realisation that there was likely to be little or no progress in resolving uncertainties and near-miss situations via publication of new maps — and so the role of the amateur surveyor came into play. (New maps would of course appear, but the changes would be to roads, picnic sites, tourist viewpoints and the like.) By now, the increased capability of various bits of surveying kit was such that the level of confidence in amateur findings was higher than in the mid-1990s, when it was basically a poles-and-theodolite job, not suitable for assessing small differences over long distances.

So now, thanks to the diligence and enthusiasm of Barnard and his team, changes and adjustments are coming at a steady pace with no end in sight. (There have been various “no change” results as well as the actual promotions and relegations.) From an outsider-ish point of view, this is probably a good thing, although (a) there are concerns about over-confidence re accuracy, particularly in relation to col heights, and (b) there’s a whiff of tinkering for tinkering’s sake — or, to put it another way, there are suspicions in some quarters that acceptance of this kind of surveying is at least in part a consequence of realising that the OS’s lack of curiosity would lead to a period of years, possibly even decades, when heights and thus lists stagnated. Some see this as a good thing; others like a bit of action and movement in the lists.

All in all, the situation in which the hill-height scene now finds itself is oddly similar to that of 80 years ago, in the period around the first couple of revisions to the list of Munros. Various SMC worthies would trog up contentious summits carrying what was then the state-of-the-art piece of kit, the aneroid barometer (these days it’s the differential GPS); James Parker, the third Munroist, and James Gall Inglis, the unlisted sixth Munroist and a cartographer to trade, were among those keen on this. The readings obtained were duly published, prompting a surprising amount of squabbling within the pages of the SMC journal. Hills such as Garbh Mheall between upper Glen Lyon and Rannoch, Beinn nan Oighreag to the north of the Tarmachan ridge and Carn Gorm-loch northeast of Am Faochagach were the battleground in those days; all are now accepted as solidly sub-3000ft, at 912m, 909m and 909m respectively.

Messrs Barnard, Jackson and Phillips are, ultimately, amateur surveyors, albeit extremely competent and conscientious ones, to judge by the amount of time and careful effort they have put into their surveys. There’s no doubt that they’re doing due diligence — and, as such, they’re following in the post-Edwardian footsteps of Parker, Gall Inglis and the like. What goes around, comes around.

Where this will take us, in terms of future list-changes, remains to be seen. It’s an interesting time in an arcane field of study. All that can be hoped for is that Barnard and co continue to look at hills that could be nudged out just as much as those that could be ushered in — and in the process pay no heed to any naysayers who fail to grasp (or don’t want to accept) that promotions and deletions are, of necessity, two sides of the same observational coin.

One final thought for now about Marilyns. For all that the name and the concept has clearly caught on remarkably since its introduction in 1992 (the 3000-copy print run of the RHB book has recently sold out), the numbers of people actively working on the list remain much smaller than with lists such as the Munros and Wainwrights. To date, just over 200 people feature in the Hall of Fame, for which the requirement is the climbing of 600 Marilyns. That’s a considerable number of people, but new Munroists are still arriving at upwards of 200 per year.

The relative popularity (and, arguably, merit) of various lists came up in a discussion on uk.rec.walking in late April. This concerned continuing access problems on the Islay hill (and Marilyn) Beinn Tart a’Mhill, but touched on more general issues, too. After the person who pops up on various walking discussion groups under the web-name “Jhimmy” observed that awkward-access Marilyns such as Swinside (near Keswick) and Myarth (in the Brecon Beacons) were “important hills”, Paul Saunders disagreed: “Recreational walking is a very popular activity in the UK. Hill walking is a subset of that, but still very popular. Peak bagging is a subset of hill walking (many hill walkers couldn’t care less about list ticking). And Marilyn bagging is a subset of peak bagging, an even smaller group of people. Even then, not every Marilyn bagger wants to bag every one, because there are so many. Many may restrict themselves to bagging only those in a particular area or over a particular height.”

This is an interesting and astute analysis of the hill-list scene, with Marilynbagging viewed as “high end” stuff that appeals to only a relatively few people (and actively deters many others, including a high percentage of women, for whom it’s very boys-and-numbers-ish).

There’s also the extent to which Marilyns are simply misunderstood, even by those who proudly and loudly claim to know about them. An amusing example of this was encountered on Ben Cleuch (Marilyn, Graham, Donald, New Donald, Yeaman, Hump, Council Top and probably a few other things besides) on 25 March. The Ed was attending to his sardines at the cairn when a threesome arrived, comprising two men (one Scottish, one very northern English) and a Scottish woman. They strolled over to the summit viewfinder (built 1930, currently not in great nick) and discussed the hill’s height. The Ed (built 1961, hardly ever in great nick) continued to mind his own business, but cocked an ear. “So this is a Graham and a Marilyn?”, asked the woman, to which the Scotsman replied: “It’s a Graham, but Marilyns are between 1500 and 2000ft.”

Elsewhere on the hill-list scene, Jim Bloomer and Roddy Urquhart have published, online, a new take on the height/drop thing at www.prominentpeaks.org.uk/ “Hills over 500m with a prominence of at least 100m,” they say, “are prioritised in a new topographic hierarchy. Peak Data for the British mainland is then ordered on the basis of a tree with branches following ‘Britain’s Mountain Watershed’ from the Pentland Firth to the Bristol Channel. Downloadable data gives easy access to photos, maps, aerial photography and Wikipedia entries.” It covers 1564 peaks, and the website is rather swish — although the home page has overlay problems on the steam-driven computer system in use at TAC Towers.

Whether the classification catches on beyond the usual suspects on the hardcore hill-list scene remains to be seen; Bloomer (who completed a round of Munros as long ago as 1986, and who also has 800+ Marilyns to his credit) and Urquhart are aware of the wider context and make bold claims for their work. “There is a fine history of hillwalking lists in the UK,” they write. “Following any list will have its merits and involve good exercise and good views. However, many historic lists have deficiencies. There is a real need for a new generation of lists with the following characteristics: metric based height and prominence criteria to match modern maps; demanding and differentiated prominence criteria; a consistent set of relevant criteria applied uniformly to all ranges in the UK. The UK Prominent Peaks database, along with hill lists based on it, aims to address this need.”

Thus far, a few months after the launch, the reaction from the cognoscenti appears to be interest rather than out-and-out enthusiasm. The complex structuring seems to be a factor, and two very experienced and list-literate hillgoers have been heard to make almost identical comments along the lines of “Looks interesting, but it’s a bit complicated.”

The was plenty of discussion of the Prominent Peaks database when TAC’s Ed and proofreader met Jim Bloomer for an uphill wander on Easter Monday, but the day was most notable for a fine example of on-the-ground muddlement. The route was Harrison Stickle, Thunacar Knott and Pavey Ark from the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, the weather was glorious, and the paths were thronged. Just 50m below the top of Harrison Stickle, the Ed and Mr Bloomer (who were nattering in boys-and-numbers mode) were approached by a couple of blokes who asked, in the traditional not-quite-sure way, “We are on Bowfell, aren’t we?”

This was impressive: a brisk Naismithean march from Harrison Stickle to Bowfell, via the Stake Pass and Rossett Pike, would take a couple of hours, if not more. Asked how they had got to “Bowfell”, the men said “up the Band”. The NDG to Bowfell via the Band requires a flat walk of a mile or more, followed by a steady climb up a very definite ridge; the NDG to Harrison Stickle requires pretty much the opposite: an immediate steep climb up a gully.

The Ed was reminded of a similar occasion in July 2001 when — again accompanied by Dr Proofreader — a man was met near the high reservoir west of Creag Gharbh, on the south side of Loch Tay. The man hadn’t been on the 637m Graham (itself a fairly unfrequented hill), but on one of the Graham Tops that overlook Glen Beich, an obscure bit of country. As in the “Bowfell” incident, the man asked for confirmation of where he had been… and he thought he had just come down from Ben Vorlich. That the summit he had reached was 350m lower, not pointy, and had a 10km-long, 50m-deep body of water known as Loch Earn separating it from Ben Vorlich didn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Almost everyone has done something along these lines at some stage — if not involving quite such drastic misplacement. The Ed’s own best effort came in June 1984, when — admittedly in thick mist — he and a friend “navigated” off the summit of Ben Macdui heading for the Carn a’Mhaim col some 500m below. After a certain amount of time (which included a two-second half-clearance that contrived to give a false impression — it would have been better had the clouds stayed closed in), the col was deemed to have been overshot to the side and some reascent was needed to reach it. Around 45 minutes of strenuous, stony and increasingly puzzling effort later the ground duly flattened. It didn’t look quite right, however (both parties had been on both Ben Macdui and Carn a’Mhaim before), so when figures loomed out of the murk the “Where are we?” question was asked — and the ruinous Sappers’ Bothy, on Macdui’s summit, was pointed out. The best part of two hours, and a considerable amount of effort, had been devoted to getting precisely nowhere.

The key moment in all these incidents is when one summons the nerve to ask for location-confirmation. This is always a hard thing to do, akin to switching on a sign above one’s head that flashes out “INCOMPETENCE” in big neon letters. But not to do this risks wandering even more waywardly, possibly to the point of benightment.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of people being on completely the wrong hill, however, is this: had they not asked (or for that matter not met) another walker, would they have gone home (eventually) and said to their friends, at work on the Monday morning, “I was up Bowfell / Ben Vorlich / whatever” at the weekend? And would a tick have appeared in their list of Wainwrights / Munros / Marilyns, even though they hadn’t been near the hill in question?

Finally on hill lists for now, this past spring saw the online list of Corbetteers move to a new location. The list was originally a merging of separate pieces of work by the Ed and by James Lamb, and is now maintained by the Ed with technical assistance from Perkin Warbeck. Thanks are due to the aforementioned Alan Dawson who hosted the list for several years; he has now stood aside, and the site is at www.corbetteers.110mb.com/, where the total number of known Corbetteers has just passed the 400 mark.

Munroists appear to outnumber Corbetteers roughly ten-to-one, and only 11 people are known to have been round all the Corbetts twice (most recently the quadruple-Munroist Lindsay Boyd, who completed his second round on Sgurr Ghiubhsachain on 21 June), whereas over 210 people are known to have been round the Munros twice.

One idea with the new site is to include photographs of Corbetteers, and over time it should be possible to construct quite a gallery. If you have been round all the Corbetts and would like to see a picture of yourself on the site, please get in touch. Ideally the picture should not have been taken on the completion hill, but sometime earlier during the round, although there are no hard-and-fast rules.

(A notable recent Corbett round was that by Manny Gorman, who rattled — the term is used advisedly — round them all, self-propelled, in 70 days, only the second such Corbetts-only continuous round. corbettrun.blogspot.com/ )

A few other bits and bobs by way of follow-up. In TAC67 the Swan reviewed the wood-and-wire structure that adorns the Stoneymollan roundabout at the foot of Loch Lomond, designed to welcome visitors to the national park. “What can I say,” wrote the Swan. “I like it. Mighty larch-beams jag into the night sky buoying up a passing skein of sheet-steel geese.” Local opinion is less favourable, however. Val Hamilton, who lives in those parts, has forwarded the directions provided for July’s Lomond Folk Festival: “From Glasgow, travel North on the A82 to the Stoneymollan Roundabout. (Easily recognised by a large wooden crown supporting a skein of flying geese — locally known as the ‘rack of lamb’.)”

Yet another hill-relevant car-registration has been spotted within a few miles of TAC Towers: MBA 1, possibly a foreign plate, on some kind of Volvo estate. As for the Mountain Bothies Association itself, it continues to lurch from one furore to another (think Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour; think the Hundred Years’ War). The loft spaces at Lairig Leacach (beneath the Grey Corries) and Ruigh Aiteachain (Glen Feshie) have been closed off, seemingly in accordance with the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005, which requires sleeping areas to have emergency exits. Other bothies are believed to have suffered the same indignity, and this is giving rise to dissent in the ranks. The normally mild-mannered hill writer Andrew Dempster, for instance, vented some spleen in the Ruigh Aiteachain bothy book in May, writing of “Health and Safety wankers”. The MBA, meanwhile, has prompted further agitation among its more secretive operatives by publishing an interactive online bothy map: www.mountainbothies.org.uk/locationmap.asp

Most startling bothy alteration of late is the Lochivraon revamp: the old outhouse behind the main building (which has itself been done up as some kind of bright-white shooting lodge) now has a flushing toilet, a sink with running water, and a broad and very solid-looking staircase leading to an as-yet unhindered upper sleeping area.

Congratulations to Jethro Lennox (TAC75 pp10–12), who finished a mightily impressive 27th in his first road marathon, London, on 26 April. He clocked 2h 24m 11s, having gone through halfway in 1h 10m 49s. Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya won the thing in an absurd 2h 5m 10s. Lennox needs to run sub-2:19 to get into the Scottish commonwealth team for Delhi 2010: “I’m deciding whether to have a serious attempt at that or go back to the hill running,” he writes. “Sub-2:20 is definitely within my reach.” Blimey.

And so to chess. TAC75 p16 gave a list of 14 Munroists known to have a formal chess grading, and a fifteenth is Catherine Moorhead of Guildford. “Count me in,” she writes. “I completed my Munros on 27/7/96 — a party for 37 on top of Meall na Teanga with a dinner in the Station Restaurant, Spean Bridge, afterwards — and I play to a level of about 1300-plus. My highest rating has been 1407.”

One of the Munroists mentioned in TAC75, Alison Coull, wonders about links between climbing and chess: “I think there was some research that showed that heartbeat / adrenalin rushes followed the same pattern.” If any non-chess player wonders how adrenalin rushes feature in a sedentary game, they should stroll round a tournament hall just before one of the time controls, when players know that their hard work in establishing a strong position will be wasted if they lose through not having made enough moves in time — but of course moving quickly risks wrecking the position anyway. The “sewing-machine leg” known to afflict climbers standing on ledges below crux moves is often in evidence at chess congresses, too. (In August, Greek player Nikolaos Karapanos died of a heart attack during a time scramble at the Acropolis Open.)

Coull’s observation prompts a question: who is the best climber to have also been a strong chess player? It’s impossible to be sure, but a good candidate would be someone first suggested to TAC by Ken Crocket: the late Brian Pinder Kellet (1914–44). Kellet merits two-and-a-half pages in Colin Wells’ Who’s Who in British Climbing (see p2 for review), and was a notable and controversial character. Come the war, conscientious objection saw him first jailed and then, in 1943, conscripted to the Forestry Commission in Torlundy. Already a very useful climber, he started putting up desperate new routes on the north face of the Ben. Wells writes of him “often climbing alone, and often escaping disaster by the skin of his teeth. He appeared to be driven by some inner desire to compete with himself (for there was hardly anyone else climbing on the mountain in the war years) and in some ways there are parallels with Menlove Edwards, both in his enigmatic personality, pacifism, and obsession with a specific cliff.”

By the end of 1943 Kellet had made 17 first ascents on the Ben, 14 of them soloed. He was, however, “prone to major errors of judgement” and had several falls, including down the full length of Glover’s Chimney from Tower Gap. He sometimes climbed with Nancy Forsyth, which led J H B Bell of SMC fame to warn her about the risks of climbing with Kellet. Summer 1944 saw 15 more first ascents, including Left Edge Route on the Minus Face, “by universal acclamation one of the best VSs on the Ben” (Wells).

He died on or around 1 September 1944, “while roped on easy ground”. Quite what happened will never be known, but his body, along with that of Forsyth, was found at the foot of Cousin’s Buttress on Carn Dearg four days later by a search party that included Bell. According to Wells, “in just two years [Kellet] had advanced climbing on the Ben more than the previous two decades and his hardest routes would not be surpassed for a decade.”

So Kellet was a very strong climber, but how good a chess player was he? Crocket (who, along with Simon Richardson, recently published a revised edition of Ben Nevis — Britain’s Highest Mountain), suggested that Kellet had been a county champion at chess. TAC contacted Alan Smith, the very helpful archivist with the Manchester Chess Federation, who wrote to say that “Brian Kellett [his name seems to have been spelt with a double-t in chess circles] was active in the Liverpool area, rather than Manchester. I think he probably won the club championship circa 1939, and he played top board in the Manchester–Liverpool match in 1940. His record in the Lancashire Championship is a fine one. In the 1936–37 event he met the defending champion H G Rhodes in the final and lost narrowly (+1 =2 -2). I don’t know how he got on in 1937–38, but […] in 1938–39 Kellett defeated Rhodes in the semi-final, going on to defeat J E West of Ashton chess club 1½–½ in the final.”

Smith offers some context as a guide to Kellet’s chess strength, pointing out that Reginald Broadbent and William Fairhurst both won the Lancashire Championships at a similar age, and both went on to win the British Championship. Fairhurst, an engineer who designed the Tay road bridge, was to become a near-legendary character on the Scottish chess scene. “The Lancashire Championships of the late 1930s,” Smith writes, “were not as strong as previous years,” but there were still some very strong players and to win the tournament “was no mean achievement”.

This was long before Professor Elo devised formal grading calculations, but Broadbent and Fairhurst were both International Master standard (the next title down from Grandmaster), and Kellet might well have been close to that level. In grading terms, the IM title roughly equates to 2400, so a minimum of 2300 for Kellet seems reasonable.

Alan Smith has kindly dug out the score of one of Kellet’s games from his 1939 semi-final win against Rhodes. It’s a Queen’s Gambit Accepted in which White miscalculates, gives up two pieces for a nonexistent mate (or perpetual), and gets prettily mated in turn. It was first published in the Manchester Evening News, 27 March 1939.

H G Rhodes–B P Kellett

Lancashire Championship 1939

1 d4 d5  2 c4 dxc4  3 Nf3 a6  4 e3 Nf6  5 Bxc4 e6  6 0-0 c5  7 Qe2 b5  8 Bb3 Bb7  9 a4 Nbd7  10 Rd1 Qb6  11 axb5 axb5  12 Rxa8+ Bxa8  13 Nc3 c4  14 Bc2 b4  15 Na4 Qc6  16 Nc5 Bxc5  17 dxc5 Qxc5  18 e4 0-0  19 Be3 Qc7  20 Rd4 Rc8  21 Nd2 Nb6  22 f4 h6  23 e5 Nfd5  24 Ne4 Nxe3  25 Qxe3 Bxe4  26 Qxe4 g6  27 Rd6 Qc5+  28 Kf1 Nd5  29 Ke2 b3 (diagram)  30 Rxe6 bxc2  31 Rxg6+ fxg6  32 Qxg6+ Kf8  33 Qxh6+ Ke8  34 Qg6+ Kd8  35 Kd2 Qf2+  36 Kc1 Qe1+  37 Kxc2 Nb4 mate

 

“Bowfell”, buoyant geese and a bad bishop

 

The Angry Inbox

Dear Editor,

Your epic traverse of the derelict Keppel Cove dam in the Helvellyn range (TAC74 p14) demands some historical background.

At 1:30am on Saturday 29 October 1927, after a period of exceptional rainfall, the earthen wall of the original dam burst, causing a great wall of water to cascade on Glenridding far below. The deluge left a gap in the dam 80ft wide by 60ft deep.

The torrent roared down Glenridding Beck carrying away Rattle Beck bridge, flooding houses alongside the beck and Eagle Farm to a depth of five to six feet. Debris, including dead sheep and a tea hut, was deposited on the other side of Ullswater near Side Farm.

Basement bedrooms of the Glenridding Hotel were flooded and four sleeping girls floated up to the ceiling on their mattresses. One girl was swept through a window, but was saved by a local man.

The peninsula at Glenridding, now the site of the steamer pier, was formed as a result of this flood, which also brought down a mass of rocks. The rocks were used to build up this strip of land which is now a popular recreation area for Lakeland visitors.

The earth dam was replaced by the rough concrete one. As related, this also burst, but less spectacularly, in 1931. When I was last there, the second dam still had a large hole in the base.

My information is taken from The English Lakes: The Hills, The People, Their History, by David Ramshaw and Chris Adams, a walking guide published at Carlisle in 1993.

Yours, Tom Waghorn, Manchester

 

Dear TAC,

Just a few comments on Andy Beaton’s contribution to the hill wind factory debate in TAC75 (p15).

Concern about this is not the preserve of “wildernistas” — whatever they are — nor of perfidious Weegies treating the Highlands like “some kind of large theme park”. There are hills everywhere in Scotland, and the Borders hills, Galloway hills and Lowland hills are all, just like the Highland hills, threatened by planned wind factories or already blighted by them.

I can see one of Europe’s largest wind factories from my window, and there’s a single turbine 200 yards from my home, in the grounds of the primary school. I don’t object to either of these developments, which are in already urban or semi-urban locations (so I’m no Nimby). In a windy country like Scotland, turbines don’t have to be on wild summits to generate power. I do, however, regret the vast turbines at Earlsburn on my local Campsie Fells.

Even in the Highlands there are many already-blighted places where wind factories could be located without scenic loss: the north shore of the Cromarty Firth, for example, or Dounreay. The frightful Longman and Retail Park sectors of Inverness could surely only be improved by an influx of turbines.

Scotland’s hill scenery — Lowland, Border or Highland — is an asset that, once it’s gone, is gone. Tourist income from hillgoers is enormous and consistently undervalued by VisitScotland. Who will want to climb hills covered by wind factories with trial bikers zipping noisily along access roads? Who will marvel at them from the roadside?

I take Andy’s point about being unemployed in Gairloch; but there are far more unemployed people in Clydebank or Bathgate, and I’d suggest it’s a lot tougher for them. In any case, wherever you live in Scotland, you are massively unlikely to get a job making, managing or maintaining turbines. Pop along to Tomatin and see if you can find anyone whose livelihood depends on the 30-turbine factory that looms above on the Monadhliath. Urbanising hilltops gains us little, but loses us a lot.

Wind factories, as is often emphasised, cannot replace conventional power stations unless there is a means of storing the energy they produce. Somewhat reluctantly, I accept the need for more hydro schemes, with associated pumped-storage schemes that have the capability of “banking” wind and hydro power.

The hydro power boom in the Highlands was kicked off by the wartime secretary of state for Scotland, Tom Johnston, a Lowlander from Kirkintilloch (just like me). I hope Andy is grateful to Johnston; by contrast, have a read at the classic Isolation Shepherd by Ian R Thomson, a “native Highlander” who regretted that the landscape of the Highlands had been altered for hydro schemes!

It’s all a lot more complicated than prickly “native Highlanders” like Andy would have us believe.

Yours, David McVey, Milton of Campsie

 

Dear TAC,

Re the continuing debate on windfarms, your correspondents appear to be falling into the same trap as the rest of the country, which is that wind power equals windfarms. Because everyone knows that wind power is renewable and therefore “good”, we must accept the visual intrusion caused by clusters of turbines dotted around our hills. However, there is no reason why individual turbines, or pairs or even trios, should not be acceptable in an urban setting, close to the locations where the power they generate is to be used, if the turbines are appropriately sited and sized. Reduce the height of the turbines to little more than the surrounding built environment, and visual intrusion — and therefore public disquiet — will be minimised.

Generate the power where it is needed, and the infrastructure required to transfer the power from the hills to urban centres is avoided, as are the significant losses in transmission when power is sent over the grid for considerable distances. Thus we can increase renewable power generation, not forgetting solar, tidal and wave generation, without substantial degradation of our upland wildernesses.

Yours, Paul Grigson, Swindon

 

Dear TAC,

Late last year I arrived on the summit of Ben Wyvis and made a rather gruesome find. Spotting a discarded tea bag, I decided to do my good deed for the day and walked around the cairn looking for any other litter. Pleased to note nothing else, I was horrified to notice a layer of distinctive grey granules, human ashes scattered far too close to the top for my comfort. Whoever was responsible may have had good intentions, but it soured what had otherwise been a fantastic day.

Apart from the possible distress to other walkers, the environmental damage caused by adding such nutrients to fragile mountain summits was publicised some years ago by the MCofS. Understandably, many hillgoers would like to make their final outing to one particular beloved hill, and over the years I have taken part in a number of scatterings. I would urge all readers, if this responsibility falls on you, to exercise a bit of consideration and commonsense. There are plenty of beautiful places lower down, discreetly away from well-trodden routes, where it would be a pleasure to spend the rest of eternity.

On a more cheerful note, I can thoroughly recommend the traverse over the remote Munro Top of Glas Leathad Beag from Wyvis Lodge. As to my alarming encounter with a rather fierce-looking boar on the cycle up, that is another issue. How effective would a walking pole have been had the beast not chosen to turn tail and trot off?

Yours, Dave Broadhead, Muir of Ord

 

Dear TAC,

Picture the scene, a cool, sunny morning in Glen Roy. Myself (a 77-year-old pensioner) and a younger companion starting up the steep grassy slopes of Bohuntine Hill above Glen Roy.

All of a sudden, I knew it was going to be one of those extraordinary days. My energy, body rhythm and mind all came together, and instead of being in the wake of my experienced companion, I was forging ahead at a cracking pace. “Wow”, I thought, “I’ve still got it”.

At the top of the steep slope I saw the summit cairn off to the right and I knew that, unusually, I would be the first there. The sheer exuberance of being on my own for a while was overwhelming.

I crossed the boggy plateau quickly, longing to sit down at the cairn and savour the solitude and sight of all the magnificent, far higher surrounding peaks before the arrival of my friend, who was still out of sight.

However, all these feelings suddenly disappeared, for on reaching the cairn I spied a host of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze.

The magic of the day was gone. Were they a memorial? If so, will this set a new trend for inappropriate flowers to be planted on Scottish peaks? Are they an experiment to see if they will survive? Will decking follow?

I was left with a profound sense of disappointment, and anger too. Is it just me, what do others think?

Yours, Denise Clark, Leicester

Ed. — Twice last year I arrived on top of Dumyat — a popular Sunday-stroll type of hill — to find ashes scattered exactly where people often sit to have their lunch.

Re flowers, a few years ago I was up Ben A’an in the Trossachs and someone had “planted” plastic flowers at the summit. Such things could be memorial-related — post-Diana and all that.

 

Dear TAC,

Further to your report on rat-catching (not) on St Kilda (TAC73 p16), you might like to know that in 1971, as part of a joint Brathay Exploration Group / Atlantic College expedition to St Kilda, members of the group overnighted on all the outlying islands in the interests of science — botanising, puffin-counting, petrel-ringing, and sheep-catching on Boreray. If anyone at the BBC is interested, there were bonxies nesting on Hirta even then.

Despite our best efforts using live traps, we failed to catch any of the giant (well — a bit bigger than mainland) St Kilda fieldmice. Sadly I missed the opportunity to summit Boreray, due to being delayed by the need to retrieve said live traps from Soay on the day everyone else, including some army personnel, went to catch sheep on Boreray (Scottish blackfaces abandoned when the islands were evacuated — five were duly delivered to Roslyn for genetic research — maybe it’s their descendents who are harassing hillwalkers throughout Scotland).

On the final day it was a toss-up between walking up Boreray or attempting Stac an Armin. Three of us chose the latter (an easy scramble) — is anyone known to have been there since? Of course, I realise now that with four of the six St Kilda Marilyns bagged, I could soon head the Marilynbaggers table, perhaps forever — only about 1450 to go — nae bother!

Finally, a random thought. In the Lakes, many of what you Scots call corries are called coves — have look at the eastern fells in particular. I rather like the sound of The Angry Cove — I’m at that sort of age!

All the best, Philip Storey, Carnforth

Ed. — A friend mentioned that his dentist (in Inverness) had climbed both Kilda Marilyn stacks in his youth. They probably weren’t his first Marilyns, but they were early in proceedings. He’s latterly been working at a round of Munros, almost completed, so that will be another 200 or so; if the people at the head of the Marilyn leaderboard continue to faff about and not climb the stacks, someone such as this could indeed come up the blindside in a few years’ time — that would be amusing. (See p14, however…)

 

Dear TAC,

A March walk was unfortunately enlivened by an altercation with an irate farmer. We were walking from Buchlyvie, trying to find an off-road route to Balfron, and headed up the small lane past Easter Culbowie and on up the track to Wester Culbowie farm. There we were challenged by the farmer as to where we were going. “Through to Balfron,” we said. “There’s no way through,” said he. "Oh, there’s a track marked on the map.” “You can’t go there — health and safety.” “What health and safety’s that, then?” Up to here, all had been civil, if a little tense, but now he exploded, and screamed at us that this was a fucking working farm, that’s what the health and safety was, and we’d better get off it. We said we would, but we’d report the incident, and turned back down the track. He then leapt into his little all-terrain vehicle, chased after us down the drive at high revs and speed, screaming and shaking his fist: “This is my fucking farm, and I can do what I like with it. Bugger off.”

So we went round his farm through the fields. Not a good route.

Yours, Paul Prescott, Kilmahog

 

The Angry Inbox

 

Late Munro news: As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, the Munro Society’s “re-heighting” surveys of Ben Vane, Beinn Teallach, Sgurr nan Ceannaichean and Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe have taken place over the summer. John Barnard, one of the surveyors involved, said publicly, on 20 August (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rhb/message/16051), that “I cannot give a clue to the results but all I will say is that the Munro list will not be the same.” TAC has it on good authority that the height of just one of the four hills is reckoned to have crossed the 3000ft threshold and will thus, assuming SMC ratification, change status.

Which of the four it is remains to be seen. Historically, people have tended to moan less about promotions than demotions, but it’s not easy to say whether many waves might be made by the promotion of Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe. There would be some wittering about wilderness-disruption, and some muttering about it being awkward to get at, but a Meall Buidhe–Luinne Bheinn–Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe loop from Barrisdale might become almost fashionable.

Beinn Teallach or Sgurr nan Ceannaichean being Corbettised might not be too contentious in terms of grumbling from the masses, as both hills only became Munros within the past 30 years. They’re journeyman hills, without much of a fanbase beyond the Munrobagging community; they don’t crop up on calendars or in common palance. Neither does Ben Vane, but it’s more accessible for a larger proportion of the population, and hence is more often climbed. Also, it has been a Munro since 1891. A change in its status could cause ructions.

Regardless of which hill comes or goes, where does this leave the comment from the Munro Society in 2007 that “professional surveyors must be present to operate the equipment”? This doesn’t seem to have happened with Ben Vane etc, whereas the resurveys of Foinaven and Beinn Dearg were done by professionals in the form of CMCR. And finally, why is the SMC so low in the mix? The Munros is an SMC list, but they seem to be in danger of ceding control of it.

Late lost bird news: Should anyone encounter a lost-looking prairie falcon wearing leather anklets and with a bell under its tail, it’ll be a four-month-old bird named Heckler that escaped from its handler at Blair Drummond on 12 Aug. It turned up on the Ochils next day but hasn’t been seen since. If spotted, phone 01786 842422 and ask for Ross Bibby.

 

Weston-super-Mare meets the Western Cwm

Paths of Glory, by Jeffrey Archer. Macmillan, 2009, xii+404pp. ISBN 978 0 230 53143 7, £18.99

Review: Gordon Smith

 

YOU HAVE BEEN INVITED to a Christmas party in a luxury penthouse suite overlooking the Thames. The festivities are in full swing, and beneath the twinkling lights the assembled guests are enjoying Krug champagne and shepherd’s pie provided by your genial host, Jeffrey, the Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare. You recognise various celebrities who are enjoying their old friend’s lavish hospitality: isn’t that Sir Donald over there talking to Billy, and look, there’s Dame Edna…

There’s an elephant in this well-appointed room, however: a significant fact about the host’s past that must not be mentioned, nor alluded to. Guests are even careful to pronounce the champagne’s name in the French manner rather than the German crook. In order to keep the conversation light, and to stroke your host’s not inconsiderable ego, one well-dressed and distinguished aristocrat enquires about his forthcoming novel.

“Actually, it’s the story of a handsome and athletic Oxbridge man who woos and wins a fragrant beauty,” Lord Archer begins. His listeners smile in recognition: Jeffrey was once again to be the hero of his own fiction. “Despite enjoying an almost perfect family life, he is drawn again and again away from her, to the cold, unloving embrace of The Other Woman. Alas, he takes one chance too many with this exciting but dangerous hussy, resulting in the tragic downfall of this truly great Englishman.”

The guests fall silent: highly polished toecaps are examined, drinks stared into. The elephant, it appears, has just taken a dump on the elegant glass-topped table.

“I speak, of course, of George Leigh Mallory, the first conqueror…” Jeffrey winks conspiratorially, “…of Everest.” The guests smile in relief, although one or two of the more sensitive harbour doubts about the tastefulness of the implied comparison.

It wasn’t the first time Jeffrey had attempted to justify himself in his art, of course: he had what his fellow ex-cons called previous. Hadn’t he appeared on stage in his own play The Accused, submitting himself nightly to the judgement of the audience, at the very same time as he was standing trial for perjury and perverting the course of justice? Well, that’s Jeffrey for you…

                                                *  *  *

Paths of Glory is Jeffrey Archer’s latest book, a highly fictionalised account of the life of George Mallory from adventurous childhood to his premature death on Everest’s North-East Ridge in 1924. As I have hinted in my own stab at “faction” writing above, Archer draws parallels between his own story and Mallory’s, a comparison that is frankly odious. If unintended and unconscious, then it is the most remarkable example of embarrassing self-revelation since the Macbeths’ dinner party. If the comparison is intended (and the similar photographs of Mallory and Archer on the dust wrapper would suggest so), then it is a disgraceful hijacking of a reputation in order to provide cover for the author’s own moral deficiencies.

Why else would the author repeatedly choose the image of a woman (usually with overtones of loose morality or prostitution) to represent mountains to be conquered? This theme is consistent, from the strapline — He Loved Two Women… And One Of Them Killed Him — through “Madame Matterhorn” and the “other ladies” who Mallory intends should fall under his spell, to his wife’s request that, “…once you have seduced your goddess, you will return to me, and never court her again.” Just in case we don’t get the point, Mallory’s mentor, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, has a habit of leaving money on the summit of each conquered mountain as if it were payment for services rendered.

The theme of prostitution features more than might be expected in a mountaineering tale. On a trip to Paris, the schoolboy Mallory is approached by a short-skirted lady of the night (Monique, peut-être?); he then conspires to blackmail his teacher after having spotted him consorting with a hostess in the Moulin Rouge. This incident is another problem I have with the book, which Archer disingenuously describes as “inspired by a true story”: the teacher in question is named as the noted mountaineer and author R L G Irving, a real person (he died in 1969) who may well have living relatives who might reasonably be offended by such an allegation. There is absolutely no evidence that Graham Irving (unlike Jeffrey Archer) ever had any dealings with prostitutes; but since you can’t libel the dead, Irving (unlike Archer) will have no recourse to the courts in response to such an accusation.

There are other casualties of fictionalisation. Scottish Mountaineering Club members may well be upset at the characterisation of Harold Raeburn, who interviews Mallory for the 1922 expedition, “puffing away on a cigar, and look[ing] as if his idea of a challenging climb would be the steps of his club.” According to our author, “only those with good memories could recall his climbing days.” Archer seems to be ignorant not only of the fact that Raeburn had actually been climbing leader of the 1921 Everest reconnaisance expedition; he appears even to be unaware that there was a 1921 expedition, and indeed that Mallory himself had been part of it.

Doubtless to make up for ignoring events that indubitably happened, Archer invents incidents that didn’t: Mallory attempts to climb the Eiffel Tower; he climbs a campanile in Venice to impress his wife-to-be Ruth; he climbs out of a skyscraper window in New York to avoid the unwanted attentions of a sexually voracious (quelle surprise) socialite. Mallory’s true story is clearly insufficiently dramatic for Archer.

On the back cover of this book, Archer is described as “probably the greatest storyteller of our age,” a judgement with which the unfortunate Monica Coghlan would doubtless have concurred; but in Paths of Glory he has not so much written a novel, as created a whole new genre: the fantasy autobiography.

 

 

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