Hamish’s Mountain Walk

I’m still working my way through some old books, and just finished is the recent reprint of Hamish Brown’s Hamish’s Mountain Walk from Sandstone Press. It’s the story of the first continual round of the Munro’s, back in ’74.

First is good, it doesn’t matter how fast or fancy someone does it after that, they’re a day late and a dollar short. It took Hamish a couple of hundred pages to properly admit that real desire to be first, and I really warmed to him after that, it was both a revelation from the writer and a break from the Scottish tradition of belittling success and decrying ambition.
I’d put the book down for a couple of weeks after struggling with it a little after being sucked right in at the start. I think I felt the constant religious references loom larger than they actually were and that started to grate, a personal issue for me and exacerbated by my mood at the time no doubt. But I flew through the last half when I picked it back up, and was sorry when I turned the last page.
It’s written in a personal style, only the briefest descriptions of the terrain, but just enough to place you with him if you know where he is or tickle your interest if the slopes are unvisited. maybe the best kind of guide book then? “This place is wonderful, come and find your own way to it”.
Hamish’s love of the country is deep and well expressed, and there’s enough little bits of history and random facts in there to add an extra dimension without feeling incongruous. The passage of time from then to now is an enjoyable aspect, the food and equipment, to the changing attitudes to access, and the no-no’s of today, like burning bog-wood.
I know folk will say what he did was an enormous achievement because of the scale, the physical endurance, but I see it differently, lots of folk work hard very day. The possibilities of what people can do are endless, we are a wonderful species who squander our potential, what Hamish did was actually make the decison to do it and see it through: plan; arrange; go; succeed. That’s what has my respect, and even if he’d failed it would have been a win for me.

It’s a wonderful story, the style and the man himself are as you find them, but as proof that Scotland is awfy big for such a wee country, look no further.

Highland Days, Tom Weir

Just finished Tom Weir’s Highland Days, another new reprint from Steve Savage Publishers. Just as it was after reading Weir’s Way, it’s got my mind bubbling over.

It’s the story of Tom Weir’s discovery of the mountains as a teenager in the late ’20s to being a more accomplished climber in the ’30s and finally the mad dashes north when he was home on leave during the war.
It’s a compelling read, and some of it is so far removed from what we know about the Highlands today that it seems like another world. The ruined houses we find in remote glens were occupied in Tom’s early days, although he talks about the young folk leaving and the Highlands slowly emptying. He talks about locking horns with keepers and I realise just how far we’ve come in 70 years regarding access. To put any problems we have now into context, this is worth a read.

The use of public transport, of a bike, of distance being no object, of being soaked to the skin and looking for food and shelter, but it all being part of the game really puts into perspective our currently easy outdoor life.
His early adventures with a chancer called Richie, stealing eggs and sneaking into barns as they walk the glens remind me of family tales of relatives during the depression, getting out of the city and making the best of it outside in the countryside. It’s a world which is gone, thankfully for a lot of it, but sadly too. The Highlands aren’t meant to be a theme park, but for 150 years until WW2 that’s exactly what they were being moulded into, the clearances were still active, just in more subtle ways. So, we may decry the hydro schemes and the vast conifer plantations, but as Tom points out it kept people in the Highlands, made jobs and strengthened existing or built new communities. Perhaps without these events, north of Ft Bill would be one vast shooting estate. A sacrifice worth making then?

Tom’s change from enthusiastic youngster, to focused and selfish climber and then standing back a little on his journey to the older and wiser Tom Weir that we’re more familiar with is hearteningly human.
I can identify with some of his little revelations, observations and lessons learned. I think it’s because trips to the mountains stand as little landmarks in time and you can track changes back though them.
I felt that the writing style changed through the book, I think as he wrote he found his rhythm and by the end I could hear the familiar voice narrating the chapters to me.

Historical, inspirational and a joy once again.

Just stuck my bookmark inside the cover of Hamish’s Mountain Walk. New version with colour photies and everything.

Weir’s Way Reprint

I can count the outdoor writers that I’ve enjoyed reading on my fingers. I’m not counting guide books in that, which are always worth a flick through when my mind draws a blank. I have stuff going back to the 50’s and they’re all an absolute joy.
I’ve enjoyed Ralph Storer, Ernest Shackleton, Ian Mitchell’s Scotland’s Mountains Before Mountaineers, Hamish Brown (re-prints also coming soon) and Tom Weir. Hmm, maybe that’s the fingers of one hand then?

Tom Weir’s books are being reprinted by Steve Savage Publishers and I’ve just read the new Weir’s Way (below). It’s hard to know where to start talking about this book as it chimes so many notes for me.
What has a huge personal resonanace is his love of Scotland, and his love of his local area, just a few miles from me. He had an appreciation for what is around him, which I often think is missing from modern works which concentrate on drama and glory chasing. Even when Tom was hanging off of an ice route in poor weather and a woolly bunnet, he remains matter-of-fact and would rather tell tales about his climbing partner and the wildlife he saw on the day.
I think this is a common trait from the old school, they did it all first and had different motives for being in the hills than most of us these days, and it was other people who awarded them the status of explorers and heroes.
These days folk have to break their legs or roll down Everest on a log or whatever to find something new to write about and attract attention or sponsorship.
Tom’s words are those of a man at one with his lot, but there is still passion in there, when he sees that sunset, the golden eagle, Ben Lomond on a beautiful morning he slips into a different style as he tries to convey the moment as his senses perceive it, I can feel the warmth of such memories in myself. But when he speaks of sights as yet unseen to me, it lights a little flame in the back of my mind which creates a desire to go out and make that memory for myself.

There’s a vision of a Scotland throughout that’s vivid in my mind, but somehow now just out of reach. The “chapters” follow some of the TV series, but rather than just double-up on content, the book is full of connections to people or places featured in the programme or side-stories, so the links are sometimes tenuous, but always fascinating. It’s made the content in many ways historical, talking of the possibility of national parks, the new West Highland Way, the lives of people and places in the Highlands, and of course many of the names featured in the book are now gone.

In some ways this book, with it’s short chapters, disjointed narrative and Tom’s personal unnassuming tone, is like the best blog you’ve ever read. It’s like your pal down the road, there’s no distance between the reader and the writer, there’s wisdom, experience and confidence but not a hint of superiority. There’s a lot of humanity in there in his attitudes to other people and their points of view, an understanding and accepting of differences. We could do with more of that these days.

I realise that much of the content appeals to me because of where I am and all the references that link into my own timeline. But it goes far beyond that, it’s page after page of  pure joy brought from a love of the outdoors and all that it means, not just the tops of mountains.
There’s so much to take from this book, and I can’t recommed reading it enough.