The Fox of Glencoe - Hamish MacInnes Review

© Scottish Mountaineering Press

In recent years the Scottish Mountaineering Press has upped its game, and in 2021 alone the company - who also publish SMC guidebooks - has brought out not one, but two eye-catching medium format books. First was the revamped Munros, the best - and best-looking - guide to Scotland's 3000-foot hills yet made. Then came The Fox of Glencoe.  

The Fox of Glencoe  © Scottish Mountaineering Press

Unless perhaps you're very young, or spent the last few decades living under a rock, Hamish MacInnes will be a name so familiar for so long that it may seem an innate part of the fabric of British climbing and hill-going, an institution almost as enduring as the hills themselves.

His death in 2020, at the age of 90, closed a career that got underway in earnest soon after World War II when, just 18 years old, he hitch-hiked to Switzerland and soloed The Matterhorn. Notable winter first ascents, from Crowberry Gully with a young Chris Bonington, to the first winter traverse of the Cuillin with (among others) Tom Patey, ensured his place in Scottish climbing history. Exploits further afield ranged from the Alps, the Caucasus, and New Zealand, to the 'lost world' of Roraima in the bug-infested jungles of South America.

Dubbed the Fox of Glencoe for his astute problem solving under pressure, and MacPiton for his penchant for pegging - sign, perhaps, of his tendency to play by his own rules - Hamish MacInnes was respected in the close-knit postwar climbing community, and lauded far beyond it in a series of gongs and awards (an OBE and honorary doctorates among them).

A giant of the mid 20th Century of similar stature to Brown and Bonington, though arguably with a legacy more wide-reaching and diverse than either, Hamish MacInnes was a polymath who's practical inventiveness heavily influenced the development of the modern technical ice axe, and gave the rescue world the lightweight, folding MacInnes Stretcher, iterations of which are still in production.

For many years the head of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, he is credited with kick-starting a modern rescue service in Scotland, and with setting up the Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA). An interest in avalanches, then poorly understood in the UK, led to his involvement in establishing what's now known as the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. Anyone who's either worked in mountain rescue, or needed their services, clearly owes something to MacInnes.

But there's more. A prolific author of walking and climbing guidebooks, and rescue handbooks, MacInnes even turned his hand to fiction. Working in the film industry, meanwhile, he oversaw safety on the shoot for Clint Eastwood's Eiger Sanction, his recollection of which is an eye-opener (no CGI trickery back then, of course). Closer to home, he had a hand in the famous Cioch sword fighting sequence of the movie Highlander (by far the best bit of that particular film). On the set of Monty Pythion's Holy Grail, he struck up a lasting friendship with Michael Palin - who along with Chris Bonington has written a moving foreword to this book.

The canon of mountain literature is not exactly short of words either by or about Hamish MacInnnes. But this memoir offers something a bit different. 

A collection of disparate writings spanning a lifetime, The Fox of Glencoe is presented more or less chronologically, as a series of discrete stories. Some are brief snapshots, others more involved and developed, a motley assortment that reflects the many aspects and interests of the man himself.

"Few people cram as much into a lifetime as Hamish did" writes Editor Deziree Wilson "and trying to distil that into something digestible has not been easy."

In selecting just one volume's worth of writing from what must have been a mountain of potential material, and I suspect applying quite a firm editorial hand to the stories she did pick, she has done a tremendous job. Whether you dip in at random, or read it through cover to cover, this eclectic compendium hangs together as a logical whole.

At its best MacInnes' own writing is as gripping as the adventures he recounts, handled with a spare wit and matter-of-factness characteristic of his understated era. However he is no lyricist, and some bits do get plodding and repetitive. There's some heavy name dropping too, though coming from a man who genuinely did rub shoulders with a lot of famous and fascinating people, that's hardly a surprise. Contributions from other pens help put MacInnes in his wider context, and add colour - particularly, for me, Tom Patey's account of the Cuillin Ridge in Winter, a good example of mid-Century mountain humour.

This wealth of written material is complemented by notably high production values, with a clean layout aesthetic and a great many photos, both in colour and period black and white. Matt pages and a textured hardback cover add to the pleasing retro feel of this chunky tome. The publisher clearly subscribes to the opinion - which I'd share - that in the online age, old fashioned print books need to be desirable objects in order to stand out. My one gripe is with the binding, which is beginning to fall apart on my review copy.

Taken in themselves, the pictures alone are a rich archive, capturing the gritty action, the varied cast of characters, the well known names among whom MacInnes moved, and the look and feel of a bygone age.

Hamish MacInnes was very much a man of his times - in some senses he defined those times - and it is hard to imagine such a renaissance figure thriving in our rather tamer and more conformist age. This attractive book is a fitting tribute to a climbing polymath the like of whom we will probably never see again, and to a life lived to the full. It's a work that should interest anyone with a passion for Scottish hills, winter climbing, mountain rescue, or the history of mountaineering, and would make a great Christmas present for the mountain enthusiast on your life.

For more information Scottish Mountaineering Press

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9 Nov, 2021

Great review of what appears to be a worthy homage (can't have been easy!) to an incredibly important figure in the climbing world. Thank you.


9 Nov, 2021

hear, hear Dan.

11 Nov, 2021

Loved the book but the spine on my copy is also on its way out. I'd also quibble about the quality or reproduction of some of the photographs. Very poor in some instances and I would have preferred if they had been left out if they weren't going to be quality, That said it's a great reminder of a fantastic character from almost another age.

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