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I AM A HILLWALKER
By David McVey

 

 

I climbed my first Munro in 1976 but I didn’t know, then, that it was a Munro.

Every year, in September, there used to be a mass sponsored walk from Rowardennan, on the east bank of Loch Lomond, to the 3194ft summit of Ben Lomond. The event took place in aid of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (now Sightsavers). Ben Lomond dominates the loch and is Scotland’s southernmost 3000ft peak (and, I learned subsequently, Scottish hills that rise above the 3000ft level are known as ‘Munros’, after Sir Hugh Munro, the man who first classified them). On a dry June evening, a jaded Glasgow executive can drive to Rowardennan after work, climb the hill, and return home before midnight.

The RCSB climb was heavily pushed in our school, so Danny and I signed up. We were given a duplicated (no, not photocopied, duplicated, on a Banda machine) leaflet telling us what to wear and what not to wear. Wear boots, for example, don’t wear trainers. I didn’t have boots, so I wore trainers and, reader, I survived.

On a clear, bright, late summer Sunday morning it was odd to walk the long, familiar three-quarters of a mile to school with nearly no traffic on the roads, no converging lines of teenagers heading to our school and no pupils from the Roman Catholic secondary heading in the opposite direction. The mercury reached about 65˚F, comfortably warm but not oppressive (though the warm clothing and waterproofs the duplicated leaflets had urged us towards were entirely redundant) and the day had the clarity of a sharp day of winter frost.

Rowardennan, then as now, was really just a youth hostel, a car park, a hotel and some cottages, but when we piled out of the minibus we found it had been turned into something like Everest Base Camp with tents, marquees, portakabins and several people working processing walkers while seated at desks in the open air, like John Cleese announcing ‘And now for something completely different...’ on Monty Python. We queued up at one of the tables and were duly processed, administered, stamped and approved and then made our way to the start of the popular tourist path.

We gained height steadily, and the pattern of green islands on the southern half of Loch Lomond emerged; the loch itself gleamed like blue stained glass and the bracken-furred forms of the Luss Hills soared on the other bank, with the rocky prongs of The Cobbler beyond. There were hundreds of other charity walkers on the route. We stopped often, though, to enjoy the grandeur of the hills and lochs and to examine the many pretty girls our own age passing by on RCSB business. Sadly, and it was a recurring theme at the time, they took little notice of us. But we did look at the scenery and stuff, honest, and I remember being particularly struck by how fine the Luss Hills looked as a group. I suppose not many would focus on them but I did and have grown to know them well and appreciate them in the decades since. They have no Munros.

Shepherding us was Mr Davie, nice-guy chemistry and guidance teacher and well-known SNP activist, accompanied by the dreaded Mr Robertson, our Depute Rector. Stern in appearance, austere in manner, astringent in speech, Mr Robertson was said to have served with honour in the war, and his stiff gait was rumoured to be a consequence of a war wound that required the insertion of permanent support in his back. His asperity of manner made him a disliked figure, as did his deftness with the tawse, the leather strap wielded as the Scottish version of corporal punishment. He exemplified an unemotional, muscular sort of Christianity, what would become known as ‘tough love’; actually, the kind of figure I would now admire greatly, but he wasn’t, perhaps, suited to being in charge of 1000 West of Scotland teenagers.

Or so I thought before the Ben Lomond climb. Here he was, a keen walker despite his disability, in his element, smiling, pointing out wildlife and arctic plants, naming the lochs and hills and rivers we could see, offering helpful advice for dealing with incipient blisters. By now he was approaching retirement, and in some discomfort from his wound and he expressed doubts about whether he’d make it to the top.

His nickname in school was ‘Skinner’, from his adeptness with the tawse. We cherished the memory of the day he’d visited our English class and our teacher, who evidently knew about the nickname, accidentally addressed him as ‘Mr Skinner’. But he was no Skinner on the Ben Lomond climb and seemed a different character entirely; or, more likely, we were, for the first time, seeing new aspects of a personality that was more complex than we’d imagined. Like Danny, he’d given up his morning church service to be on the RCSB walk.

On the last few hundred feet, the path zig-zagged up the steepening slope and then angled easily and directly towards the top, steering inexperienced walkers away from the scary bits of the Ben’s surprisingly narrow summit ridge. At this point the second element of the RCSB climb became evident; the hill race, which began in early afternoon. From the high slopes we looked down and saw tiny figures in brightly-coloured running gear; they stormed straight up the final steep slopes, ignoring the zigs and zags and finally caught up with us and hurtled past, red-faced, gasping, trailing fountains of sweat. I actually asked the first one who came past us, ‘Are you in the hill race?’ to which he responded with a weary nod. It must go down as the daftest question I’ve ever asked. Or that anyone has ever asked.

Mere minutes later, the leaders were on their way back from the summit, hurling themselves down dizzy, bouldery slopes like lemmings. It really isn’t an approach to hillgoing that has ever appealed to me. Just a few weeks ago in the Lake District I was making good time, I thought, on my way to the summit of Wansfell Pike on the steep made path from Ambleside. A fell runner positively shot past me on the way up. And he shot past me on the way down before I’d reached the top as well. Och, I thought, I’m enjoying myself more than you are…

Soon Danny and I made it to the summit, a flat-topped dome of gravel and grass that day transformed into a Glasgow park with dozens of picnicking walkers, and flopped down to chomp away at our own sandwiches. The view seemed to take in half of Scotland. Loch Lomond’s 24-mile length could be seen in its entirety, and to the south were the distant hills of Galloway and of Arran. Mr Robertson had made it to the top and pointed out a distant grey dome to the north; ‘That is Ben Nevis,’ he said. Within a year, Danny and I would scale that peak, but that really is another, very sweaty story.

It was a wrench to leave the summit, but we turned and began to pick our way down carefully; still the sponsored walking hordes were heading up the hill, though only the sad, weary stragglers of the hill race were left. There were a couple of drinks stations positioned at springs just off the path but after the long, hot summer of 1976 the stewards could only coax a brown, peaty, unappealing liquid from the ground. This was slopped into white plastic cups and fortified with diluting orange to make it more palatable. Our own supplies had run out, so we paused at the lower station for this less-than-bracing cocktail.

On the lower slopes Danny and I broke away from our main party and mended our pace to mirror that of a couple of attractive girls we’d seen ahead of us. We did our best but they took little notice of us. It was the day’s only disappointment. And if we didn’t manage to find girlfriends, back at base camp we were handed huge hot dog rolls with fried onions and tomato sauce, which was pretty good compensation.

It’s curious to review the stages by which you succumb to the addiction of the hills. Had it been bucketing down, had I managed to click with a young lady on the descent, had Skinner proved to be as caustic at weekends as on schooldays, would I have put mountains behind me and never had to confess, I am a hillwalker?

It’s impossible to say, but it happened the way it happened and I am a hillwalker, still.

 

 

 

author

David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching TV, and supporting his home-town football (ie, soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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