Great mountain writing doesn't have to involve great mountains. Indeed, when it comes to simple hillwalking, we could say that exactly the opposite is true. Hamish Brown's all-the-Munros backpack of 1974 (with 1970s gear!) is one of the finest walks ever walked on these islands. It succeeded due to planning, and not getting tired, and not getting bored. And for me at least it doesn't make for a totally thrilling read.
Climbing is a useless activity. Except that, every ten years or so, it throws out an utterly charming account of itself, written by someone nobody's ever heard of
Forty years earlier, four youths had set out from the Skye ferry at Broadford, heading for Glenbrittle hostel, in one of the worst bits of walking ever. Well, the bus had failed to meet the ferry, and the old man in the shop told them they could make it overland nae bother.
Their 40lb loads – ready for a fortnight on rainy Skye – included a tent but only half a groundsheet; one small rug but no sleeping bags; primus stoves and fuel but no food apart from eight sandwiches and a bar of chocolate. They counted on breakfast at Camasunary (Camasunary isn't a village but a deserted bothy), and nobody'd told them about the Bad Step on the way in to Loch Coiruisk. The 25-mile walk took two and a half days, and forms Chapter 2 of one of the nicest books you'll ever find about the Highlands.
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You dirty-bearded, blocking up the way?
We are the pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further ...
It documents that interesting period when the posh sport of mountaineering was being taken over by the working classes
Continuing the theme of not involving any major mountaineering, 'Always a Little Further' covers some easy climbs on the Cobbler, Window Buttress (Diff) in the Cuillin), a truly nasty winter day in the Upper Couloir of Stob Ghabhar (Grade 2), a walk across Rannoch Moor, hitchhiking to Ben Nevis in a lorryload of dead sheep, and a bivvybag trip through the Lairig Ghru. Along the way it documents that interesting period when the posh sport of mountaineering was being taken over by the working classes of Glasgow. One of the most intriguing chapters is on the howff or cave hole on the lower slopes of Beinn Narnain, and the folk who used to spend the night there – or in one case, half the night, before a policemen arrived out of the darkness to arrest him for an unspecified crime.
I didn't know anything about Alastair Borthwick apart from his book – my Dad passed on his copy of the 1969 edition, priced 20/-. When I look him up I find a small time journalist, crossword compiler for the Glasgow Herald. Later he worked for the BBC, and conducted an outside broadcast from half way up Agag's Groove (V Diff) on Rannoch Wall of the Buachaille.
Borthwick served with distinction in the lower ranks in World War Two. After D-day he raided behind enemy lines with a bad map – according to his obituary, the Germans woke up to find the Seaforths dug in behind them. Which gives the impression that his early mountain experiences may have been good for something after all.
But as we all know, climbing is a completely useless activity. Except that, every ten years or so, it does throw out an utterly charming account of itself, written by someone nobody's ever heard of.
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