Film Feature: Scotland's Mountains with Murray Wilkie

Murray Wilkie may have a day job in sales, but come the weekend he transforms, superhero-like, into a mountain film maker. While you won't see him on the credits of any big professional productions Murray has quietly built a substantial body of work, releasing films under the name Steaming Boots via his Youtube channel Scotland's Mountains, and on Facebook. This is amateur film making at the upper end of the scale, full of dramatic lighting and suffused with an obvious love for the hills. Since we've featured several of his films on UKH in the past we thought it was high time to track him down for a chat.​

UKH: Can you tell us about this recent Beinn Alligin film?

Murray: I hadn't even contemplated wild camping on its summit until the day before. I wanted a photo of the Horns of Alligin from the summit of Sgurr Mor so with the high pressure and weather looking great I headed for Torridon. It was warm and I really struggled with the camping gear and all the camera equipment. Before I even reached Coire nan Laogh I questioned my fitness and ability to go much further. However after a food stop I felt good and was soon standing on the summit of a spectacular Tom na Gruagaich. The views were stupendous! However care was needed on the descent as the bag wasn't only heavy but very bulky and I was glad that I had decided against a traverse over the Horns. I eventually reached the summit of Sgurr Mor and pitched up just in time to get some sunset footage. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about this as a summit camp location before, the views in all directions were stunning.

After sunset (and dinner) I went back to the tent for a snooze as I waited for the orange glow to leave the horizon so I could go and take some pictures of the stars. What I experienced when I went outside will live with me forever. I'd nearly slept through the Aurora. Instead I was up til the early hours watching it strengthen and weaken, but at times it was dancing above north west Scotland! Although a summit camp on top of Beinn Alligin hadn't been on the bucket list, watching an Aurora from a summit certainly was. Not sure I'll be lucky enough to see this again in such good conditions.

So how long have you been hillwalking and climbing?

My first trip to the mountains was a sponsored hike through the Lairig Ghru as a teenager with some friends who were involved with the Duke of Edinburgh. Then my first Munro was a few years after that when I headed up Lochnagar with friends on a glorious May day. This was followed soon after by a trip to Beinn a' Bhuird in similar conditions; suppose I was then hooked and the weekend trips escalated, dragging my old man and brother up the Munros for many days away. As the years have continued to pass I've taken an interest in the Corbetts and in the last five or so years have started climbing and mountaineering thanks to my friend Gerry, the other half of [tongue in cheek production 'company'] Steaming Boots.

What do the hills mean to you?

I love the hills and being amongst them. A day out means a number of different things and no two days (even up the same hill) are the same. I love the solitude when out by myself - sometimes not meeting a soul on the hill and immersing yourself in the adventure can be rewarding. On a completely contrary level I also love the companionship when out and about with friends; whether the weather be bright sunshine or howling rain and gales, its always good to recall these memories with friends. Either way they provide a grand way to enjoy the outdoors and forget the stresses of normal day to day.

Did you do much still photography before you started making films?

I always took lots of photos on every trip away and when digital cameras arrived it really helped as the number of stills you took didn't really matter and you could start to find what looked good and what didn't. I love looking back at photographs from trips away, and now I can watch the films too.

What got you into film making, and how long have you been at it now?

As with the climbing and mountaineering, the film making addiction is down to my friend Gerry. When we started going out he made films of our adventures and I always looked forward to watching the film a few days later. I then started experimenting myself and my first set of films (read 30 or so) were pretty rubbish - you can see them on the channel as I didn't delete them, however you'll probably switch off after a minute or so as they ain't very good! As with the stills it's just a case of seeing what you think is good and what not so good and trying to remember that the next time the camera comes out. My first effort was in 2011, a rather jumpy account of a route up the Buachaille (not to be watched if you suffer motion sickness).

What are the rewards of filming in the mountains?

I must admit to being a bit of a nerd and enjoy reliving the footage when editing the movie a few days afterwards. By the time I'm done editing I don't tend to watch them for a few months as I've seen the footage so many times over the edit! However on weekend evenings after a few drams I do enjoy watching and reliving a few of the adventures. I suppose when my knee finally gives up and I am an old man, I can prove to any potential grandchildren that I was once relatively active.

Do you feel you've become a better film maker since 2011?

I suppose that depends on what people think if they have followed the channel over the years. The number of views has increased but that doesn't mean the movies have progressed. The whole idea of the videos is really a memento from the day's adventure and the name Steaming Boots was really a bit of a micky take although it seems to have stuck.

Drone footage - is that something you've been into for a while, and is it a steep learning curve?

I damaged my knee climbing about a year ago and didn't get surgery until towards the end of the year, so apart from cycling my time in the outdoors was limited. It was frustrating and to help pass the time I decided to get a drone and learn how to use it. I had been looking at them for a few years but simply couldn't afford one, then the prices dropped a little last year and I splashed out. I think it's been worth it.

Your Youtube channel includes some very well produced stuff: how much work tends to go into a film in terms of editing and production?

Thank you. It really all depends on how much footage I've taken when out and how much time I have when I come home for editing. Having two kids and balancing work, film editing and family time can be difficult! All I can say is I have a very understanding wife.

Do you tend to pre-plan each shoot with a specific aim and location in mind?

Not that much. Recently I did a few short films when I was looking to take a photograph of a specific landscape and that was certainly planned and revolved around getting a nice shot. However in general the films are just accounts of my fun in the hills. I do have a bucket list (Sgurr na Stri wild camp was one of these) and I tend to leave these for good weather days. Some people ask how I manage to get such good weather all the time, but I usually don't film when the conditions are bad as I don't want to ruin my equipment.

Are you normally out filming on your own?

I must admit that when it comes to filming I prefer to be on my own. The reason is that you have to be VERY patient if out with me and I want to take a movie (as well as walking twice the distance due to going back for the camera etc). Fiddling with the camera settings, setting the drone up, tripods, batteries, setting the shot etc tends to take time, and days when I film are not fast moving days.

Does it ever get challenging or feel like hard work?

Not really, I enjoy the final outcome and hope that others get a taste of how the day's adventure has gone.

What sort of camera kit do you tend to carry with you on shooting days? Heavy bag?

Heavy bag? Yes indeed, especially if I decide to take the drone (it's the spare batteries that weigh it down). I don't yet own a DSLR camera (maybe I need to buy one) but I now use a Sony NEX7 (my only interchangeable lens camera), a GoPro 3 and a Sony HX9V. I have the base level Phantom 3 drone but don't take it on every trip. I don't really like using it if I think I'll be on a busy route, but tend to keep it for quieter days.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences while filming?

A solo winter mountaineering traverse of Beinn Dearg in stunning conditions:

Another stunning winters day on the CMD Arete. What was amazing about this trip is that I started so early I hardly met a soul all the way round until descending. Solitude on The Ben - a rare experience:

My last two films - as of March 2016 - were also very memorable. Topping out on [Ben Lui's] Central Gully to a spectacular cloud inversion was awesome!

And watching the Aurora dance on top of a Torridonian summit was pretty special too...

Is it enough just to make your films and get them out there on Youtube, or would you ever want to forge some kind of a profession out of them?

Currently I really enjoy my job and YouTube is enough. Actually I'd not thought about this until this question, so never say never!!


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