Desert Island Peaks: John Burns

© Dan Bailey

If you were marooned alone, with only a few hills for company, which would you choose? To help pass the time while we all sit it out in isolation, we've posed this question to some UKHillwalking regulars. With apologies to Radio 4.


On my desert island I would sit with my back against a coconut tree and close my eyes. I'd feel the warmth of the sun on my face and hear the waves beating on the endless shore. I'd listen to the bird song and feel the sand between my toes – and I would hate all of it. In my mind I would travel back to the hills that made me. I'd be cold, wet and exhausted but I'd be amongst the memories that make me happy.

Beinn Eighe

Love at first sight

It was July. The day was hot. We dripped sweat all the way down the glen as we walked alongside the flank of Bienn Eighe. We were three lads from Merseyside on our first trip to the Highlands. We had hair in those days, lots of it. Our trousers were flared, our waists were slim and our hopes were high. This was a long time ago.

Pause for reflection in Coire Mhic Fhearchair  © Dan Bailey
Pause for reflection in Coire Mhic Fhearchair
© Dan Bailey

That day we followed the path as it climbed around the base of the mountain to suddenly find ourselves in the vast amphitheatre of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Its size and grandeur astounded us. We had never seen anywhere that could compare. The view inspired us with awe. At last we could satisfy our thirst in the clear waters at the foot of the enormous cliffs. That day we climbed past the cliffs and up the loose gully onto the ridge of Beinn Eighe. We surmounted its pinnacles in thick mist and completed the great traverse.

The memory of walking into that coire has remained with me for forty years. The spectacle is hidden for most of the walk and reveals itself in an unforgettable moment of drama. I have returned to that magical place many times and seen it in all its moods, from ice wreathed fury to dreamlike mists. Yet still that view echoes in my mind as fresh as it was when I first stepped into the coire.

Ben Nevis

Meeting the monster

I was in my twenties and a novice winter climber when I pushed open the door of the mountaineering hut high on Ben Nevis and stared for the first time at the north face of legend. The cliffs seemed to climb for ever up into the mists where their summits were lost, perhaps topped with hidden horrors.

CIC Hut and the misty crags of Ben Nevis - here be dragons  © Dan Bailey
CIC Hut and the misty crags of Ben Nevis - here be dragons
© Dan Bailey

Looking up at that forbidding place my mind struggled with a storm of conflicting emotions. I was excited and terrified at the same time. I had dreamed of coming to this place yet now I was here, confronted by the depths of its savagery, I struggled to contain the fear. I had been standing for a few minutes when someone spoke behind me.

"This place fair makes your arsehole tighten up don't it." Charlie, a climber I barely knew, was leaning against the stone wall of the hut, an acrid hand rolled cigarette dangling from his lips.

He sensed my apprehension and turned to look down the mountain. "See that path up from the glen. Remember this. Hundreds of climber walk up it every year… but they don't all walk down."

Over the years I came to know the north face well. I had adventures on its cliffs, lost my fear of the place and learned to love its austere beauty. In this forbidding arena I spent some of the best days of my life.

The Cairngorms

Searching for a wild heart

It's the sheer scale of the Cairngorms that fascinates me. There is nowhere in the British Isles that can compete with their vast open spaces. The Cairngorm National Park is half the size of Yellowstone. It is the largest area of high ground in the UK yet such statistics tell you nothing of what it feels like to wander alone through a Cairngorm blizzard with only the snow devils for company and miles between you and the nearest road.

The Lairig Ghru from Lurcher's Crag  © Dan Bailey
The Lairig Ghru from Lurcher's Crag
© Dan Bailey

In my years in the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team I learned to respect the place. Experienced the kind of weather that can kill you if you don't know how to survive. Oddly for me that savagery, the very brutality of the place, drew me to it. In these mountains you need to be prepared and self-reliant because any help can be a long way off. For me there is something of the essence of why we go to the hills in a landscape that is as uncompromising as the Cairngorms. These hills have been changed dramatically by the hand of man, but they have not been tamed. I hope that one day they will return to the wilderness area they should be. That the hills will be bathed in forest and perhaps one still night, the howl of a wolf will echo out across these vast spaces and these mountains will breathe again.

Bothy nights

Dreams in firelight

If mountain going was a rational pursuit nobody would do it. It is romance that draws us into the hills; some odd belief that we will find something there we cannot find elsewhere. The chance to leave behind the cares and the pressures that life brings with it. I think that's why I love bothies so much. The reality of bothies is that they are dirty places, often stinking of the sweaty bodies of the last visitors. They are always dark, often cold and frequently damp. There's no electricity and the toilet facilities haven't changed since the fifteenth century.

Reminiscing by a bothy fire  © John Burns
Reminiscing by a bothy fire
© John Burns

But I love them. I love that moment in a bothy, any bothy, when the fire light shrinks the world to a small flickering circle and only the glow of candles pushes back the darkness. It is then that I forget that I'm sitting in a derelict slum and my mind drifts into a primeval existence. I am warm, dry, and well fed and that is all that matters. Life's endless strife, the demands of publishers and the lies of blond haired, feckless politicians have no relevance here.

In a bothy I feel close to the earth, the stone walls shelter me and nature is just outside the door. It's the place where I feel closest to home and to being myself. We are all just visitors to tarmac and concrete, we were born far from such places. It is only when you go home, to the world of darkness and forests, that you realise how lost you have been.

  • John Burn's new book Wild Winter is out soon - see here



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