.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


Cameron McNeish in his blog


Ed Douglas in the Guardian


Kevin Howett of the MCofS


Nigel Hawkins of the John Muir Trust


John Burdin of the Munro Society


Chris Townsend in his blog


and TAC’s editor on grough


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 Ł12.

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