My Mountains: Muriel Gray

© Muriel Gray

For our series of conversations with well known hill folk, Fiona Russell talks fake fur jackets, filming up mountains and not completing all the Munros, with TV presenter and author Muriel Gray.

Muriel Gray is a well-known Scottish author and broadcaster. Many people will remember her from the hit eighties Channel 4 music programme, The Tube, and for the ground-breaking programme, The Munro Show, about walking Scotland's tallest mountains. Through the programme, and an accompanying book, The First Fifty – Munro Bagging Without A Beard, Muriel inspired many to take up Munro bagging.

Muriel Gray, proving that you don't need feet to be into hill walking  © Muriel Gray
Muriel Gray, proving that you don't need feet to be into hill walking
© Muriel Gray

On Munro bagging, Muriel says: "It is not a fast sport. Everyone can do it. You can go slowly and just put one foot in front of the other."

Muriel is also a writer of horror fiction and acclaimed as being the only woman to have been Rector of the University of Edinburgh. She is the first female chair of the board of governors at Glasgow School of Art. In 2005, she became a patron of the Scottish charity Trees for Life, which works to restore the Caledonian Forest.

Muriel, who was born in East Kilbride and lives in Glasgow, is married to TV producer, Hamish Barbour. They have three children.

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

My first memories are of driving through the mountains, rather than walking, and I think it was Assynt and the north-west of Scotland. For some reason, my parents seemed to think the hills weren't for them.

However, I did get out to the hills when I was quite young because both my brothers were keen climbers. We would all head out together.

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

I think it was a boy I dated when I was about 16. I was still at school and he was a bit older and at art college. I wanted to impress him and so I said I'd like to climb The Cobbler with him. I never stopped after that.

When I went to Glasgow Art School I would go out walking most weekends with pals. We would be clubbing on the Friday or Saturday night and then get up and go to the Arrochar Alps or somewhere like that the next morning. There was no getting out of it because you had a hangover or because of the weather. It's just what we did. We had such energy back then.

Back in The Munro Show days
© Muriel Gray

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

I don't think I have ever had this thought. I have just always liked walking. I was given a copy – or more than one copy actually – of the Scottish Mountaineering Club's Munros guidebook when it came out in the mid-1980s. Everyone who walked then seemed to have a copy. I don't think I even knew what a Munro was until I saw the book and then I realised I had walked loads of them.

But I am not a ticker of lists. I have not walked all the Munros, even though people think that I have because of The Munro Show. I have no intention of finishing them all because I'd rather walk a Munro that I know is a fantastic hike than walk a dull one just to tick off a list.

I have walked four times the number of Munros but I do the same ones over and over again.

Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

I like Scottish coasts and kayaking but when it comes to walking I am definitely a mountain person. I really love Torridon and Assynt because you can be on a mountain but with the sea in the view. I also really like the Harris hills and St Kilda for the same reasons. The combination of hills and coast is fantastic.

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

Oh, it's an obvious answer for this one. I am Scottish so I am an any weather walker.

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

I really like the Liathach ridge in Torridon Glen. I have walked this so many times I can't recall how many. I have walked both the bypass route – or what's known as the goat's path – around the pinnacles and gone over the top. The scenery in Torridon is fabulous.

An Teallach in Dundonnell is another favourite. Do you think I am just a ridge walking person? Well, I do love the ridges and arêtes. I am not scared by heights and I like the views from the ridge.

My third choice is quite different though. It's Ben Luskentyre on the isle of Harris. It's a small hill and easy to walk but the views are beautiful looking down on the white sandy beaches and the sea. It's a place I love to visit.

In the Vanoise National Park  © Muriel Gray
In the Vanoise National Park
© Muriel Gray

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

If I am walking at night it is usually by mistake and because I am late off the hill. It is not my choice to walk at night and I much prefer the daytime.

Although, saying that, I remember a romantic night-time walk one Hogmanay. We walked to the summit of Dumgoyne, a hill just north of Glasgow in the Campsie Fells and at midnight Hamish played the bagpipes. That is the only time I have deliberately set out to climb at night.

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

Oh, absolutely. I have been lucky to survive on several occasions. I do believe what people say about experience being a series of near misses. I have to confess I have also done some of the stupidest things ever.

For example, filming for one of the Munro shows we were on the Aonach Eagach ridge. There, that's another ridge! The sunset was so beautiful and I said to the crew let's stay up for the full sunset. Of course, the mountain descended into darkness soon afterwards and we were left to come off the steep slopes in the pitch black and the cold. It was such a stupid thing to do but I just didn't think about it in the heat of the moment.

I have also found myself in very difficult situations without an ice axe or crampons. Thankfully my prior experience in the mountains got me home safely but it was madness not to have the right kit with me. I learned my lesson.

And there was another time that was really very funny although rather embarrassing when I was caught by Donald Watt, who was the former head of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. I was out walking and hadn't really thought about what I was wearing. I'd set out for the walk wearing a fun fur jacket and short wellies. It was winter and there I was dressed in this ridiculous outfit and I bumped into Donald. He just looked at me as if I was mad.

Mostly, though, I have the knowledge and experience to know how to cope in the mountains and I also know when to turn back if things are not right. I have had a lot of experience but all of us end up in a stupid situation at some time and we learn a lot from this.

Muriel and husband Hamish, high spirited in Glen Coe
© Muriel Gray

When presenting the Munro Show, what were the challenges, if any?

The whole programme was a challenge. It was the first time that anything like that show had been filmed in such a way with the filming being down in real-time. We had a crew to carry all the stuff and it was very heavy back then.

We usually had to walk the same hill twice for filming purposes and then I would go back another time with a helicopter to do a spoken part to camera. Some people would spot me with the helicopter and say: "Oh, so that is how you do the programme." But they were wrong. I walked all the mountains at least twice over. It was very hard work.

Then there was also the weather. Scotland's changeable weather presented many challenges because we needed it to be a fair weather day for filming.

Who is your perfect walking partner?

My husband Hamish although I do like walking on my own, too. I like going at my own pace and stopping when I want but I have to say I enjoy walking with Hamish a lot.

Walking boots or trail shoes? And why?

Always walking boots although I am never sure if they are my boots. We seem to have so many at home and I just pick up a pair, check they fit and I am off.

In the Vanoise National Park  © Muriel Gray
In the Vanoise National Park
© Muriel Gray

How do you navigate?

I like to use a map and compass – and also my eyes. I look around at where I am.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

A compass, a foil survival bag and some kind of squashed old food that has been there for several months! I always find I have some kind of uneaten food in my rucksack and once it was a boiled egg that had gone well past being putrefied. That was horrendous.

Does anything go in your pack as a guilty secret?!

No. I am such a shambles and I am never very organised so I just hope I have the right kit in my bag.

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

My fun fur jacket! Er, no, it has to be a waterproof jacket because we live in Scotland.

Your favourite walking food/s?

Boiled eggs. I love a boiled egg when walking and I often eat it before we are half an hour into a walk. And I like a Twix as a snack.

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

Assynt or Torridon. They are both my absolute favourite area of Scotland.

What is your ultimate walking dream?

I have loads of places I would like to walk. I am madly in love with the Alps. And then there's the Dolomites. And Patagonia… So many places.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

If I am alive, I do hope so. I don't sit down much.

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15 Feb, 2018
I loved the Munro Show and Muriel Gray's Book.....and Muriel! I would love to see her do some more programmes for TV. Met "Ross the man with the beard" out on the hill a few times too nice guy. Great memories!!


15 Feb, 2018

Yes, I'd second that. I don't think we got all the episodes of the Munro Show down south but I loved it. The late 80's was about the time when I started my round seriously. But I have to disagree with Murial about Assynt and Torridon. It has to be Knoydart or the Fisherfield Hills for me!

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