Interview - Caleb's List

We've all heard of the Munros, the list of Scottish peaks over 3000 feet in height, but what about the Arthurs? In this interview Alex Roddie (username Only a Hill) talks to Edinburgh author Kellan MacInnes about his rediscovery of an alternative ticklist dating back to 1899. How many of the 20 Arthurs have you done?

Please introduce yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

I'm writer and hillwalker Kellan MacInnes. I live in Scotland on one of the streets at the foot of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh's 'mountain in the city.' On 1st December 2012 my first book Caleb's List, Climbing the Scottish Mountains Visible from Arthur's Seat was published by Luath Press. Caleb's List is a mountaineering book with a difference. As well as being a writer I work as a befriender and fundraiser for a charity called Waverley Care.

Kellan MacInnes on Arthur's Seat  © Kellan MacInnes
Kellan MacInnes on Arthur's Seat
© Kellan MacInnes

Caleb's List is partly about your own journey and partly about Caleb George Cash. Tell us a bit about him and why his story first attracted your attention.

I was browsing in my local library when I came across a list of Scottish mountains visible from Arthur's Seat compiled by the little known Victorian mountaineer Caleb George Cash and originally published in 1899 in the Cairngorm Club Journal. Sir Hugh Munro had published his list of Scottish mountains over 3000 feet (The Munros) eight years earlier. During the twentieth century Munro's list became famous while Caleb and his list of hills were all but forgotten.

Caleb George Cash was one of the early Scottish mountaineers who pioneered hillwalking in The Cairngorms in the 1890s. He was also instrumental in saving Timothy Pont's 15th century maps of Scotland for future generations as well as being a pioneer of nature conservation who was involved in the first human attempts to protect the osprey in Strathspey.

Caleb's List tells the story behind this little known hill list which includes Ben Lomond, Schiehallion and Lochnagar. Complete with descriptions of routes, history and wildlife, it's is a book for people keen to take on a new hillwalking adventure - climbing and ticking off The Arthurs, the hills on Caleb's List.

Originally I intended Caleb's List to be solely about climbing The Arthurs - as I came to call the Scottish mountains visible from Arthur's Seat. I planned to include some brief autobiographical details about the man behind the list, but after preliminary research revealed just what an interesting character Caleb was I felt I wanted to tell his story too.


In your opinion, which is the best hill on the list?

There are only 20 Arthurs compared to 282 Munros, but they're all great hills and include classic southern Highland Munros, a couple of popular Corbetts and two of the best Grahams [yet another hill list - is there no end to them? Ed.]. As Jim Crumley once said there's no such thing as a dull hill, only dull people.

Caleb George Cash started walking and mountaineering in an era long before modern equipment, techniques and transport. Take us through some of the unique challenges he faced.

In 1891 when Caleb first visited Strathspey the Highlands were little known from a mountaineering point of view. Nobody even knew how many mountains there were.

The Cairngorms where Caleb pioneered hillwalking were a remoter range of mountains than today and little explored by mountaineers before 1886. No ski road existed to transport hillwalkers effortlessly halfway up Cairngorm. It was literally a long walk in. Caleb covered huge distances on the hill often walking 50 miles / 80 kilometres in two days. Equipment too was very limited ... no GPS, survival bags or Gore-Tex. Caleb mentions wearing knickerbockers (loose fitting knee length trousers) on the hill and probably wore a tweed jacket on his top half, much heavier than fleece or Gore-Tex and difficult to dry when wet. He carried a knapsack and used a walking stick like today's hillwalkers with their walking poles and he also carried a thermos flask.

As I describe in my book Caleb used map and compass to navigate but encountered problems with the maps available to him in the 1890s - some had no contour lines which must have made for traumatic navigation. When hillwalking in the two decades before 1914 Caleb had to be completely self-reliant, on his own in the mountains in a world without mobile phones or rescue helicopters.

Tell us about your personal journey depicted in Caleb's List.

My life changed forever when I was diagnosed with AIDS related cancer at the age of 33 and had to have six months of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy and an on-going cocktail of anti retro viral drugs. Despite a bleak prognosis as the years passed and treatments improved it became clear I wasn't going to die of AIDS. I'd weathered the storm but was left in a kind of limbo ... I wanted to get on with my life and began to look for new challenges. I started work with Waverley Care and around that time I stumbled across Caleb's list of Scottish hills in my local library.

Beinn a' Ghlo from Ben Vrackie  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Beinn a' Ghlo from Ben Vrackie
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Jan 2011

Describe your most memorable or enjoyable hill day.

A couple of summers back four of us were on holiday in Inverie on the remote Knoydart peninsula in the north west highlands of Scotland. The crooked triangle that is Sgurr na Ciche (1040m) dominated the view from the house where we were staying. It was too far to walk in so we hired an inflatable rib to get to the foot of the mountain. As the boatman steered the rib out between the yachts anchored in Inverie Bay I thought "this thing's going quite fast." When clear of the moorings he opened the throttle and we took off along Loch Nevis at 45 knots with the dog's ears flying back in the breeze and me hanging onto her collar. We rowed ashore near Sourlies and walked into Coire na Ciche then climbed a narrow boulder filled gully to reach the summit. When we reached the top and the mist cleared we could just make out in the distance the white painted house at Inverie that was home.

To my knowledge, at least one other person has completed Caleb's list since the publication of your book. Do you think the list deserves to become more popular, or should it remain a relatively esoteric challenge for connoisseurs?

Ticking off some or all of the hills on Caleb's list offers a challenge to people of every age and level of hillwalking experience; from the family with young children climbing East Lomond, to the experienced hill walker making the long approach to remote Beinn Dearg in winter or climbing all the Arthurs in one expedition. I think climbing the Arthurs would be a great way to raise money for charity – 20 hills in 20 days anyone? To date the list of 'compleat' Arthurists includes me, Edinburgh based hillwalker Chris Highcock and the well known mountaineer and writer Robin Howie. If you've climbed the Arthurs let us know. There's a list of 'compleaters' on my website. Could you become Arthurist number four?

Are you working on a new book?

Yes I'm currently researching a new climbing book. Without giving too much away I'll be retracing the journey of a mid twentieth century poet and mountaineer who spent six months in the northwest highlands of Scotland in 1946.

Caleb's List is available on Amazon in both hardcover (£18.99) Kindle (£7.99) formats. Kellan will be appearing at the Leafing Through Natural Scotland book festival at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh on Saturday 15th June.



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