For our series of conversations with well-known hill folk, Fiona Russell meets veteran author, walker and traveller Hamish Brown, first person to walk all the Munros in a single journey
Hamish Brown MBE is a legendary climber, walker, traveller and author. He is the writer and editor of many books, including his latest, Walking the Song, published by Sandstone Press. He has completed multiple rounds of the Munros and in 1974 became the first person to walk all the Munros in a single trip with only ferries and a bicycle as means of transport between the mountains.
Hamish was born in Sri Lanka on August 13, 1934, and lived in Japan and Singapore as a child before it fell to the Japanese. He then lived in South Africa for two years as a war-time refugee before returning to live in Scotland. His family lived in Dollar and Hamish spent his teenage years exploring the nearby Ochil Hills.
In 2015 Hamish Brown was awarded an OWPG Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to outdoor writing/photography. Earlier this year, he was named as the 10th recipient of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture.
What is your first memory of walking?
As was a wartime refugee in the 1940s in South Africa I can clearly remember being able to freely roam the hills. It was in a beautiful area known as the Valley of a Thousand Hills.
In fact, I have a scar on my wrist as a reminder. I had a friend who was the son of a Zulu chief and we would go exploring and get into all sorts of scrapes. I think the scar was from a rusty tin or something.
Another memory as a child is my tears when my parents went off to climb Mount Fuji in Japan. This was when I was too young to go with them yet I desperately wanted to.
Then, when we moved to Dollar in Scotland, the Ochil Hills became my playground.
Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?
My parents were outdoors enthusiasts and they encouraged me to enjoy exploring on foot, on a bike or however I wanted. There was so much freedom to disappear into the countryside as a youngster back then and I took full advantage. It is very different these days.
When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?
As a child I love being outdoors and as I grew up I became a fanatic of all activities, including climbing, walking, swimming, cycling and nature. In the 1960s I was the first person to be an outdoor educator of a British state school, it was at a school in Fife that is now closed. I relished showing the kids how to enjoy being in the wilds and I think I knew then that the outdoors would always be central to my life and career.
After the school closed I took up a job as an advisor for the council but I didn't enjoy that and I decided I would have to find a way to make a living from being outdoors more. During this time I spent a lot of time climbing in the Alps and I fell in love with with the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I have spent a huge amount of time in the Atlas Mountains and it is a place I know very well to this day.
Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges? (or all of them!)
I do not have a favourite place to walk, rather the many terrains and coastal aspects are all part and parcel of the rich tapestry of the landscape. It is like looking at a weave of cloth and choosing a favourite thread. It's impossible to do so, because it's the overall effect that I enjoy.
Are you a fair weather or "any weather" walker?
When I was a professional working outdoors I had to get out in all types of weather. Now I can pick and choose I prefer to be a fair-weather walker and climber.
What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?
I don't think I am going to tell you the answer to this. Let's just say that more recently I have enjoyed exploring the far northwest of Scotland and the many Hebridean islands. I like the contrast of the sea next to the land and the overall impact of this view.
Is the night time a good time to go walking?
Oh yes, I have enjoyed some great walks and camps at night. Sometimes when I was younger I wouldn't bother with a tent, and simply slept out in fine weather beneath the stars. There was always the promise and ultimate joy of a beautiful sunrise.
Have you ever been lucky to escape a difficult situation in the great outdoors?
There is nothing I can look back on and think that I was silly and that something happened because of my own silliness. I have been in situations where nature has threatened me but I have been lucky to fall foul of this. There was one time when I was standing looking at a waterfall in Morocco and I took a step forward. Seconds later a large rock fell on to the very spot where I had been standing. I would have died if I had not stepped forward. That was the closest shave I can recall.
When faced with danger, how do you react?
Calmly, one hopes. I say there are no rules in the mountains because you can't be prepared for every dangerous situation. Instead, whatever you are faced with you should think, think, think. Whether something is good or bad you should think carefully about your actions.
Who is your perfect walking partner?
Myself and my dogs. My dogs, both Shetland collies, called Kitchy and Storm, became quite famous because they did a lot of walking with me. I inherited Kitchy after my father died. They both did all the Munros. Storm, in particular, was the best companion. He was always enthusiastic, uncomplaining, tireless and good-tempered. I wish all my friends were like him. I wish I was!
Are you happy to go solo?
Yes, very much so. When you work as a professional guide, walking solo is like having a holiday.
How do you navigate?
I am against gadgets because they have short-comings. I like to use a map and compass. I think too many people are slaves to gadgets.
What three items are always in your rucksack?
Waterproofs, of course, food and a camera.
What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!
I do not have any things I pack guiltily.
What do you not leave home without?
A good book. I always have reading matter with me.
What are your favourite walking food/s?
I like good quality food. Even when I am camping I like to have good food. A tip I have is to take small amounts of spices wrapped in little screwed up pieces of paper. The spices can turn even the most ordinary meal into something more interesting and tasty.
If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?
If I had only one do you think I'd tell?
What is your ultimate walking dream?
I have no regrets but there are two places I have not been to that I would like to see. One is New Zealand, especially the highest peak of Mount Cook. It just looks so incredible and I would have liked to climb it. The other place is Mount Kenya. I was in Kenya when I was in the RAF but I didn't get the chance to climb it. I would like to return there.
Will you be walking until you are 103?
Ha! That only gives me another 20 years! When people ask me how long I will be walking for I say: "Inshallah." I mean, for as long as I can, God willing.
Walking the Song
Hamish Brown has been an outdoorsman for more than sixty years. The first person to complete an uninterrupted round of Scotland's Munros, his account of the feat in Hamish's Mountain Walk is a classic of Scottish mountain literature. Throughout those years he has contributed articles and essays to many journals and, in this selection, he presents not an autobiography or some overview of life, but a very personal record of his many journeys and interests from his 'dancing days of spring' to his present, very active, later life.
For more info see sandstonepress.com
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