My Mountains: Cameron McNeish

© Cameron McNeish collection

For our series of conversations with well known hill folk, Fiona Russell discusses politics, TV and smartphones in the hills with broadcaster and outdoor writer Cameron McNeish.

Cameron McNeish is an award-winning writer and TV presenter whose fields of interest include mountaineering, hill-walking, backpacking, cycle touring, mountain biking and Scots and Irish traditional music. He is also an enthusiastic campervan man! For 20 years he was editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, and before that, editor of Climber Magazine. Cameron's TV and radio credits include The Edge: 100 Years of Scottish Mountaineering; two series of Wilderness Walks; and The Adventure Show. He is President of the Backpackers Club, Vice President of Ramblers Scotland and Patron of Scottish Orienteering and Mountain Aid.

Cameron on Suilven at the start of the Sutherland Trail  © Cameron McNeish collection
Cameron on Suilven at the start of the Sutherland Trail
© Cameron McNeish collection

He has written 19 books on outdoor subjects and is recognised as one of the UK's leading commentators on outdoor affairs. His 20th book, There's Always the Hills, an autobiography, is due to be published by Sandstone Press in March 2018.

In 2010, Cameron was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by PPA (Periodical Publishers Association) Scotland for his services to magazine publishing and in 2015 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Adventure Awards. In 2016, he was presented with the Oliver Brown Award by the Scots Independent newspaper for his work in showcasing Scotland. He is an honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and lives in the Scottish Highlands in the shadow of the Cairngorms with his wife Gina. They have two sons and two granddaughters.

  • Cameron's Roads Less Travelled airs on BBC Scotland's The Adventure Show over the Christmas period:

How did you get into the media world and what do you aim to get across about walking and the outdoors?

I was initially a track and field athlete and a Scottish Junior Long Jump champion in 1968. I represented Scotland in two international events. When I realised I wasn't going to make it into the higher echelons of the sport I decided that going to the hills would be my main priority in life.

I had climbed hills since my early teens and gradually hillwalking became more important to me. During my twenties I had a number of different jobs ranging from working in a pub, selling weighing machines and life insurance to being a police officer, but I really wanted something that was connected with the outdoors.

Eventually Gina and I became Youth Hostel wardens in Aviemore and I did a lot of outdoor instruction. At the same time I began writing various articles about the hills for outdoor magazines and newspapers and gradually the writing and photography took over from the instruction side, although for many years I did both.

I started my own outdoors magazine, Footloose, in 1979 and I then became deputy editor to the late Walt Unsworth on Climber & Rambler Magazine in 1985. I became editor the following year. I went on to be editor of The Great Outdoors magazine in 1990 and edited it for 20 years.

Essentially, I want to tell people about the wonderful and varied landscapes that we have in Scotland, but I'm also interested in Scottish culture and keeping alive some of the traditional tales and stories that populate the hills and wild areas.

A young and hairy Cameron
© Cameron McNeish collection

At Muir Camp, Mount Rainier
© Cameron McNeish collection

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

As a youngster I was overwhelmed by the grandeur and the mystery behind some of the wonderful paintings that hung in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. I would spend hours gazing at the Victorian landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. These paintings are filled with the mystery and enigma of that period, known as the Celtic Twilight, and the exaggerated splendour, misty with promise of another world, was far removed from the city in which I was growing up.

Being in Glasgow as a teenager I was fortunate to have the Campsie fells on my doorstep. As a 14 year old, I would disappear with various pals, taking the bus to Blanefield and sleeping out at night. My parents thought I was camping with the Scouts but in essence we were exploring and sowing the seeds of future adventures.

We got into scrapes and were often lost but we learned how to assess risk and how to manage it, which is one of the most invaluable lessons a young person can learn.

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

No-one really. I had an uncle who emigrated to Canada and loved to explore the wilderness area by canoe and I had another uncle who was a keen cycle tourist but my parents weren't walkers or outdoor folk. Those paintings in the museum sowed the initial seeds and I think I was naturally attracted to wild places. I didn't like the city as a youngster and I still dislike cities.

Later on, once I had spent a few years walking and climbing I discovered the works of people like WH Murray and Tom Weir. Tom became a great friend and inspiration to me in later years.

Amusingly I once had a long conversation with Bill Murray about writing about the hills. He was critical of the glossy magazines and suggested the hills had become too busy because of them – "there are too many folk on the hill these days," he told me. Later in the conversation he asked me what had inspired me to take up climbing and hillwalking and I innocently replied, "Your books."

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?

It was on a day trip to the hills of Arran with some guys from the City of Glasgow Police Mountaineering Club, run by a lovely man called Arnott Faichney. I was about 20 or 21. Arnie and I had gone further than the rest and realised the only way we would catch the return ferry from Brodick was to run off the hill.

I clearly recall striding over the granite slabs and down into the glen thinking that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Somehow I would make a living from wandering the hills and wild places.

With WH Murray  © Cameron McNeish collection
With WH Murray
© Cameron McNeish collection

With former First Minister Alex Salmond
© Cameron McNeish collection

Are there outdoors issues that are important to you?

I served two spells as President of Ramblers Scotland, working alongside the noted conservationist Dave Morris and that gave me the opportunity to speak out publicly about a number of issues. I was speaking on behalf of the Ramblers Scotland membership and that membership had elected me to speak on their behalf.

I learned a lot about conservation politics from Dave and an old friend, the late Dick Balharry, and working with various organisations like the Ramblers gave me the chance to reach the higher levels of Scottish politics to try to influence policy.

For example, I had several long conservations with Alex Salmond when he was First Minister, conversations that led to the banning of any development (including wild farms) within National Scenic Areas in Scotland and a change in planning conditions that makes it very difficult to have developments, particularly windfarm development, in any of Scotland's Wild Land Map areas.

I'm not naturally a political animal but I passionately believe we need more people to stand up for our wild places at all levels of government. Far too many hillwalkers like to complain when things go wrong but are not prepared to do anything about it. Organisations like the Ramblers and Mountaineering Scotland need much, much more support from hillwalkers and climbers because I greatly fear we are losing the "wild land conservation" battle.

Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

I love coastal walking but most of all I love the mix of sea and mountain that you find in places like Sutherland, Wester Ross, Arran, Skye or the Outer Isles.

I like islands and this summer I visited Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland. This is like a sharp Alpine mountain top that rises out of the sea and there are 6th century beehive shelters close to the summit, immaculately preserved. It's an incredible place where you literally trip over puffins. I'd never seen anything quite like it.

Moorlands don't quite do it for me, largely because the heather moors of Scotland are managed on a mono-culture basis for grouse shooting, to the detriment of everything else. They really are heather-covered deserts and badly need some trees to break up the monotony.

Are you a fair weather or "any weather" walker?

I used to go out in all weathers on the basis that the conditions always looked worse from inside the house or from a car, but now that I'm old and a bit fussy I tend to check the weather forecast more often and choose my days. It's taken me a long time to realise the hills will be there for another day. Having said that, it's difficult to avoid the rain and wind in a country that boasts of having nine months of winter and three months of bad weather.

In the Mamores  © Cameron McNeish collection
In the Mamores
© Cameron McNeish collection

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

That seems like a very straightforward question but it really isn't. I think I've had most satisfaction from long, overseas backpacking expeditions such as the John Muir Trail in California, which I've hiked twice, and from a two-week traverse of the GR20 in Corsica, which I did in 2005 with my old pal Chris Townsend.

I've also thoroughly enjoyed a number of long trails with my wife Gina in places like Jordan, the Alps, Morocco and Nepal. Years ago, and long before there was a walking route, we traversed the Sierra de Tramuntana in Majorca. We once hiked north from Fort William to Cape Wrath before anyone called it the Cape Wrath Trail.

I still greatly enjoy a day wander to Ben Macdui. I love the hills of the north-west and we recently had a wonderful day on Quinag, the Sutherland hill.

The Buachaille Etive Mor will always be one of my favourite mountains because of its sheer symmetry and character and because I have so many fond memories of bumming about on it as a young climber.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking?

I'm not sure as I haven't done enough of it but I do like walking on into the dark in winter. I love that period as daylight eases into darkness. To the ancient Celts, this was the time when we became most exposed to the supernatural. I still sense that.

Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

Yes. I think everyone who spends a lifetime in the mountains experiences a close call at some time. I've been avalanched a couple of times, once badly, and about 20 years ago I tripped up while fell running and fell down a couple of crags. I broke my wrist and my ankle and had to have 40 stitches inserted in head wounds.

To this day I don't know how long I was unconscious but I came to my senses climbing over a wall at the foot of the hills thinking to myself that it had been a much harder run than usual. Fortunately, a friend passed in his car, saw me covered in blood, phoned for an ambulance and whisked me home.

You have presented many successful TV programmes about walking. What were the challenges, if any?

Television is a comparatively shallow medium, so I find it frustrating to have to cut stories to their bare minimum. It's difficult to treat a subject in depth, as you can in a book or magazine article.

However, television has given me the opportunity to walk with some really interesting people, such as the late Chris Brasher, Nick Crane, Ray Jardine, Hamish Brown and Lesley Riddoch.

I am currently making a film with Sam Heughan and Jamie Fraser on the hugely popular Outlander series. Sam has also kindly written the foreword to my new book, which comes out next March.

In recent years, I've worked with my good friends and neighbours from Newtonmore, Richard and Meg Else. They make The Adventure Show for BBC Scotland. A few years ago Richard, Meg and myself were filming on GoatFell on Arran. Our safety officer was another close friend, the climber Paul Tattersall. We had asked Paul to nip down the hill before us and arrange some transport so Richard, Meg and I made our way slowly down the hill. We were all in our early sixties and I was suffering from a torn medial ligament in my knee and Richard had been taking steroids because of a bad knee problem. Meg was burdened with the camera, tripod etc.

As we descended slowly and painfully we met three young lads on their way up the hill. On noticing the tripod across Meg's shoulders they asked if we were making a television programme. We said we were. "And what's it called?" they asked. "The Adventure Show," Richard replied, without a trace of irony.

With Gina below Everest  © Cameron McNeish collection
With Gina below Everest
© Cameron McNeish collection

Who is your perfect walking partner?

I walked with my dogs for many years but I think there are far too many uncontrolled dogs on the hill these days. I recently watched a pair of terriers chase ptarmigan chicks. When I told the owners, two obviously well-equipped hill walkers, they gave me a mouthful of abuse.

My favourite walking partner is my wife. We don't have to walk side by side, we rarely do, and we can go for long spells without conversing and she understands instinctively when I need quiet or space. It's that understanding that comes from a relationship that has lasted almost half a century.

She's my best pal, my confidante and a soulmate. I know that will sound a bit naff to some people but I don't apologise. It just happens to be true.

Are you happy to go solo?

Yes, and 90% of the time I wander the hills on my own. I'm my perfect walking partner. No-one to please, no-one to consider – a luxury that is rare in today's world.

Walking boots or trail shoes? And why?

Trail shoes in summer and boots in winter. I vary shoes and boots a lot as I suffer from osteo-athritis in my toes and have suffered long-term called plantar fasciitis. I'll stop there because I'm beginning to sound like an old age pensioner.

How do you navigate?

I usually carry the appropriate map and a compass but for the past number of years I've tended to use my iPhone with OS maps downloaded on to it. The GPS always tells me where I am. I recently confided this to a leader of a well-known Mountain Rescue Team and he agreed with me. He said he hadn't used a map for at least a decade.

So, to be politically correct, I use an iPhone but I always have the appropriate map as a backup, which I can confidently use with a compass.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

Waterproofs, map/compass and woolly hat.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?

On backpacking trips, a hipflask of malt whisky. No guilty secrets for my day pack although I invariably find a couple of very old and mashed up Mars Bars in a side pocket.

What one piece of walking clothing do you trust/favour above all others?

Mmm, that's difficult. I'm not really into gear and I only regard it as stuff that may or may not make me more comfortable in bad weather. I think most gear is far too expensive and most of the people I see on the hills are over-equipped. How some folk can afford all the expensive gear they wear is mindblowing, especially in these so-called times of austerity.

I recently climbed the Cobbler in genuine 1930s gear, including a pair of nailed boots, for a TV programme, and found it all surprisingly comfortable and functional. The nailed boots were a bit tricky as I "threaded the needle" on the summit block but other than that I was impressed with the functionality of what I wore.

Your favourite walking foods?

Ham sandwiches, with mustard, and a flask of black, sweet tea.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

My hills of home, the Cairngorms.

What is your ultimate walking dream?

Over the years I've climbed some wonderful mountains – the Matterhorn, Mount Rainier, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Ararat. I would have loved to tackle Aconcagua and Denali and also hike in Alaska but I suspect I'm too old now. I think I'm happy to spend what years I have left on Scotland's hills. I've climbed the Munros three times and the Corbetts, too, but these days I'm just happy to spend time on the hill. I don't worry about patting the summit cairn any more…

Will you be walking until you are 103?

That would be nice but realistically I suspect I won't. A few years ago I had some serious foot problems and I thought my walking days were over so I took up cycling. These days, I probably cycle as much as I walk and in recent years I've biked from Land's End to John o' Groats; the length of France from the Med to Montpellier; and the length of Ireland from Mizen Head to Malin Head. I do a fair bit of bikepacking too.

I like to go off in my campervan with a bike on the rack, a packraft in the boot and my hiking gear in the cupboard and do whatever fancy suggests.

So if anyone spots a grey-bearded auld geezer by the side of the road, unable to decide whether to ride his bike, paddle his packraft or go for a walk, give him a shout. He might be just as happy to brew you a cup of tea in the van and have a blether about Scottish politics. He might even give you a tune on his Irish bouzouki if you ask him nicely…

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