A couple of years ago, when the finishing touches were being put on my book*, the publisher asked if I had any thoughts over who should do the introduction. I know Dave Hewitt, so he could perhaps be approached. There was Cameron McNeish, but I didn't know him and I doubted he was interested. "What about Hamish Brown?" asked my publisher. I nearly fell off my chair. Hamish Brown! Imagine a hard rock band's management asking them if they would like Lemmy out of Motörhead to sing on one of their songs on a new album. Hamish was one of my walking heroes, his books read at just the right impressionable age ('Give me a girl,' wrote Muriel Spark, 'at an impressionable age and she is mine for life'), spinning my imagination off in wonderful directions and filling it full of avarice for the outdoors. I've recently been reading the new edition of Hamish's Groats End Walk. Hamish is full of interest for everything, from wildlife to history to the characters he meets, but it has always been the smart turns of phrase that I admired most. On crossing the Cheviot he notes 'the clouds bannered the sky, argent on azure' neatly tying in, through the use of heraldic terms, the bloody days of chivalry on this border with its landscape. Or try this: 'the evening view off Latrigg... would make a poet out of a pig'. These are just two random quotes a couple of pages apart in the Groats End Walk.
I thought I would take the opportunity to do a wee list of my favourite Scottish outdoors books. Perhaps there will be ones you haven't heard of that will enrich your life. Perhaps there are ones you know of that aren't on this list, that will enrich mine? If so, please tell me!
Undiscovered Scotland / Mountaineering in Scotland - W.H. Murray
Prose doesn't get much purpler than WH Murray at times, but for inspiration he cannot be beaten. Mountaineering in Scotland was written in a WWII PoW camp in Germany on toilet paper - having to be started again from scratch when the first edit was discovered - so it is no wonder that the hills and the freedom they give are idolised and raised to such heights.
Enjoying Scotland - Campbell Steven
A quirky volume - with exploits like skating across the frozen lochs of Rannoch Moor from Ba Bridge to Rannoch, then repeating as a canoe trip in summer - this book is full of fun. Steven sets out to enjoy the place, and that is what happens. Will inspire mad ideas of your own...
Hamish's Mountain Walk - Hamish Brown
Probably the most influential text of my early hillwalking career. Hamish was the first person to walk all the Munros in one continuous expedition, and this is what you get, along with diversions on history, wildlife, campcraft, the Ordnance Survey, weather and dogs.
Blazing Paddles - Brian Wilson
Brian paddles the coast of mainland Scotland, from the Solway to the Tweed, with a diversion around the Western Isles, each headland seemingly more terrifying than the last. Will he get through the Pentland Firth in one piece? A surprisingly beautiful, lyrical work for a watersports book with a jokey title.
Tales of Rannoch - A.D. Cunningham
The Rannoch area, the roughest part of Highland Perthshire, either has the best folk tales and ghost stories in the country, or A.D. Cunningham is simply a wonderful story teller and collector of interesting tales. Perhaps a bit of both.
The Relative Hills of Britain - Alan Dawson
My bagging bible, this is a dry list of every hill in Britain with a drop all round of 500ft, no matter the height. There are around 1550 of them. Has given me walking targets everywhere from Orkney to Kent.
The Western Highlands - Arthur Gardner
Published in 1924, this is one of the earliest books of West Highland mountain photography. Given the limitations of technology and knowledge at the time of publication, it is possibly the best book too. There are viewpoints here I have never seen in a Colin Baxter or Prior book.
Mountain Days and Bothy Nights - Ian R. Mitchell and Dave Brown
The ultimate account of walking in the 'old' days, with an unforgettable cast of (supposedly) true characters. Post-walk stories of bothy shenanigans have always interested me more than dry accounts of ascents or route descriptions.
Always a Little Further - Alastair Borthwick
Did I say that Mountain Days and Bothy Nights was the ultimate account of the old days? Perhaps it is Always a Little Further, with its even earlier days and the Hunger March. I can't decide.
Argonauts of the Western Isles - Robin Lloyd Jones
Starting with his early days canoeing, practicing rolls off Helensburgh and paddling out to Bass Rock, Robin graduates to bigger journeys, including one very humbling one where he learns a lesson in mortality and competence. He paddles into seacaves, lands on beaches on deserted islands, and basically makes you want to get a canoe.
Munro's Fables - Grant Hutchison, Chris Tyler
A slim, insubstantial, fun volume, detailing the adventures of Lachlan McLachlan (more than a hint of the tales of Murdo about him), interspersed with descriptions of hillgoing stereotypes. Doomed Boyfriend - the young man with a girlfriend fitter than himself - was a particular favourite.
Scottish Journey - Edwin Muir
A depressing book, but a classic. Edwin Muir travelled Scotland during the great depression and was not impressed by what he saw. Around 1990 (when the Proclaimers were singing 'What will you do, when minority means you?') Andrew Eames did a follow up book, Four Scottish Journeys, at a time when Scottish industry and identity again seemed under attack. Both worth a read to get a feel of the character of the country under duress, even though not strictly outdoor books.
In Search of Scotland - H.V. Morton
Repeating the success of In Search of England - Morton's stone cold classic - another book from the 1920s that is as charming today as when it was first written, an age when an Englishman was a gentleman and the world, though quieter and less frantic than today, was still recognisably modern with its cars, telephones and American tourists.
The High Mountains - Irvine Butterfield
This is the only guidebook on my list. Guidebooks tend to sell well and be very boring. This is the exception to the rule. Irvine Butterfield's guide to all the 3000ft peaks in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland is a major reference work, full of stunning self-taken photographs and idiosyncratic descriptions of the hills - only scorn is reserved for rounded, modest hills lacking dramatic ridges or corries.
Turn Right at Lands End - John Merril
John was the first person to complete the pedestrian circumnavigation of Britain, and every day of this walk is logged in his spare, undramatic diary. To read one day, one week even is to be underwhelmed, with perhaps just one particular detail noted every day or so. But the daily rythmns and observations build into something much bigger and more powerful than the individual entries, and you end the book overwhelmed and uplifted.
There's also the work of Tom Weir and Muriel Grey, but their best was mainly on TV, (Weir's Way and The Munro Show) and of course Jimmie MacGregor's programme on the West Highland Way that also came out at just the right impressionable age for me (a friend told me that, age 16, he wasn't allowed to do the WHW: when his parents went on holiday to the Costas for a week, he set off and did it anyway. It was his first big walk, and after the testing section along Loch Lomondside he came across one of the WHW markers, on which someone had scrawled 'Fuck Jimmie MacGregor').
I've restricted this to Scottish outdoor books, otherwise the list would be unmanageable. But it is impossible not to recommend my favourite new read from the last year:
A Voyage for Madmen - Peter Nicols
This is a heartstopping account of the first non-stop round the world yacht race. It reads like a masterfully created novel, the tension building all the time (especially if, like me, you don't know in advance the fate of each of the entrants to the race). Yet it is a true story. If you like adventure stories, true or otherwise, you must read this life-enriching book of human endeavour.
* I was not to know that the time between writing my book and it coming out was to be a pivotal one in my life, which changed from one of weekends away up the hills to ones with my now wife. I would not, as I had assumed, be going to Glencoe every other weekend and buttonholing walkers about my new book, although I did print flyers with a quote from a nice review in TGO magazine and leave them about occasionally. Perhaps one of them resulted in an extra sale.
Church Ferry RIP
2 days ago