The Angry Corrie 2: Jul-Aug 1991
opinions... wonders if what you see is what you get when it comes to photographs of hills
Here's something to do in a wet bothy on a dark night. On the reasonable assumption that everybody there will have considerable experience of the hills, be it in the form of Munrobagging, bothymongering, or whatever, ask each in turn to name what is for them the "best" of Scottish hills. Chances are that the following will come up again and again: Liathach, An Teallach, Sgurr nan Gillean and Suilven, with perhaps Quinag, Stac Pollaidh, Blaven and Bidean making up a second wave. Now switch the emphasis and enquire as to people's "most typically Scottish" hill. Even allowing for 3 or 4 choices per person, this is likely to prove a much more contentious and convoluted issue, probably ending up like one of those ridiculous cycle races where the first 78 finishers are all given the same time. This, though, is fair enough, because there is, when you get down to it, no such thing as a single, typical, Scottish hill. Sure, you can start classifying into categories such as Torridon, Assynt/Coigach, Kintail, Cairngorms, Borders etc, but even if you get to the point where the whole country is patchworked in this way, there would still be a need to further subdivide, almost until you got right back down to the individual hills themselves.
If there is any point to this whole exercise, it is surely to show that whilst Scotland's great photographic / picture-postcard / touristy-type fame is derived from a fairly limited set of admittedly spectacular views and angles, its great hillwalking strength - that which makes it the damp end of paradise for outdoor enthusiasts - conversely arises, in large part, from endless variation in landscape, light and weather.
Yet there nowadays seems to be a danger of these two differing strands becoming unnecessarily intertwined, with the "cor-look-at-that", view-centred immediacy of the more spectacular areas perhaps holding slightly too much sway within the hillwalking fraternity. More and more walkers seem to be turning into little more than tourists with legs - wandering round in sheeplike fashion, never straying far from the familiar and "safe" routes, with telephoto zooms dangling ominously from necks just in case they miss something.
On the contrary, by doing this, it's not just something that they miss, but really rather a lot. Read any hillbook written more than twenty years ago, and what is immediately striking is the eclecticism of Scottish hillgoers. Of course there was then, as now, an abiding love of clear skies, far-reaching views and spectacular craggy surrounds, but there also used to be, often as not, an awareness and understanding, however basic, of topics as diverse as ornithology, geology, and the interaction and cohesion of the hills with their surrounding human communities. Pick up a book nowadays, even with green issues to the fore, and you will most likely be faced with a much simplified picture: that of the highlands as playground rather than classroom.
To an extent, this became largely inevitable given the huge demographic changes of recent years, together with the opening-up of the road network and the gradual drift towards a situation in which the Highlands perceives itself as host to a primarily tourist-based economy. But the whole thing is in danger of becoming a crass mockery of itself, with the north of Scotland being seen as a kind of homogenous, easy-to-pigeonhole, whole. Heaven forbid that we should ever look upon Scotland as a kind of mini-Switzerland - mountainous in the extreme but so uniformly glaciated and jaggy as to almost be one-dimensional in marketing terms. Yet we seem to be heading that way, particularly - and most depressingly - in the manner in which our country is being marketed within the walking / climbing press.
If there is any valid cross-national correlation, surely it should be with the States, where, whilst people gasp at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, they accept these as integral to a wider, more varied whole which includes such diverse mismatches as the mid-West, the deep South, Hawaii and Alaska. Scotland is a bit like that on a much, much smaller scale, with industrial conurbations rubbing shoulders with lochs and hills, whilst in the less populated areas there is constant variation in the roughness and ruggedness of the terrain.
The Alpine view of the Scottish Highlands is also wrong in its sense of scale, with much of the unique pleasure of the game over here being that nothing is ultimately too inaccessible. There never have been any really great wilderness areas, just as there are no hills which cannot, on a long summer's day, be climbed in a oner. The old footballing cliche that "win lose or draw you get home to your bed just the same" holds true for the hills as well. Longer, more ambitious expeditions are of course there to be had if desired, but come as optional extras rather than fitted as standard.
The modern change in perception also exists in more subtle ways. For instance, there is the currently prevalent notion of the "complete hillman" (sic) - often to be seen bandied about in print nowadays. This appears to refer to those who can back up basic fitness and hillcraft with a high degree of technical climbing ability, both in summer and winter. Fair enough - these skills are certainly necessary for "completeness". But curiously absent from the equation are the more subtle and low-key skills mentioned above, together with that most essential of imponderables, a sense of contentment and self-ease with that which the walker or climber is doing. (This is particularly relevant to the lone hillgoer, for whom the choice to retreat or to rejig the entire plan towards a more "tame" area requires a degree of know-how and self-monitoring that is liable to be regarded as a lack rather than a strength in the current macho hiliclimbing climate.)
Indeed, it is perhaps here that the crux of this complex matter lies. With walking - in the visible, up-front sense at least - having remained male-dominated whilst much of society has progressed, so it has come to be marketed as a "sport" for the achievers and go-getters amongst us, rather than a pastime for those whose real pleasure is simply revelling in the chance to wander about with fresh air in their lungs. The highlands may well serve as some vast adventure playground for those who perceive hillclimbing as a form of hard-eamed escapism - i.e. those who love to see themselves as working hard and playing hard. Yet this is, for many, an alien notion, just as a need to feel regarded as a complete mountaineer is as absurd and laughable in the smallscale Scottish context as would be a desire to suddenly go off for the weekend and climb K2.
So what is to be done? Precious little, it would seem, since we are here dealing with trends rather than isolated, easy-to-manipulate events. Certainly there is a crying need to encourage diversity in all its forms and in this respect, as has been previously argued in these pages, any move away from the curent Munro-bagging-mania must be a good thing. Also, it would help were authors and publishers to be a little more adventurous in their portrayal of the hills in print. Yet for as long as market forces hold sway there is unlikely to be any significant move away from prose being regarded as little more than a footnote to photography. This creates an almost intractable problem, since despite the best efforts of the Colin Baxters and Fay Godwins of this world, pictures are never going to proffer anything other than half-truths as to what a day on the hill actually entails. For whilst written narratives can cope with - indeed often thrive on - accounts of battles through poor conditions, the same clearly cannot be said for photography. Imagine walking into Waterstones one day, picking a book off the shelves, and being confronted with page after page of impossible-to-focus cloud scenes. Not buying that, you would think, may as well staple together a few sheets of greaseproof paper and stick them on the coffeetable.
Ultimately, perhaps, there are no simple truths in these kind of issues. Just as they have come about by way of trends, so they will only depart us by way of trends, with the gradual onset of fresh ideas and previously unheard-of attitudes. The real need is to ensure that the issues are aired both verbally and in print - and that enough of the real, regular hill-lovers are given time and space to express their opinions. All of which brings us neatly back to our wet bothy and our dark night. Come on you lot, stop muttering into your Beanfeasts. Speak out, say what you think; after all, there are only another nine hours to go until first light...