The Angry Corrie 12: Apr-May 1993
Great Misnomers No. 2: The Arrochar Alps
Question: What do a very very nice man, a very very drunk man and the first really sizeable range of Scottish westcoast hills have in common? Answer: an abbreviation - as the Automobile Association, Alcoholics Anonymous and Arrochar Alps can all, on occasion, be identified by the letters AA. Can, but should? No-one doubts that the armies of uniform fetishists scuttering around in dinky yellow vans or the old-soak bank managers and selfconfessed MPs will ever change their collective names. But whereas virtually every guidebook upon which hands can be laid suggests the group of high hills lying between Arrochar and its alphabetical sidekick Ardlui ought to be known as the Arrochar Alps, just how many climbers and walkers actually exercise this terminology in everyday usage? Gey few, an' they're a' deid.
Arrochar itself, final resting place of all Loch Long's plutonium-infested shellfish, suffers immediately from being among the most difficult of all Highland placenames for the Albion-based tourist to pronounce. Something to do with the juxtaposition of the boobytrap guttural "ch" with an oddly - to the English ear at least - weighted collection of syllables. Amusing evidence of this came when your editor once drove a visitor from The Plain to said village for a wee scenic jaunt. A week later the person phoned to offer thanks for "the afternoon out in Our Car", whereupon several minutes of confusion reigned before it was realised the erstwhile tourist wasn't staking a claim over someone else's vehicle, merely making a complete hash of his pronunciation.
But this article isn't here to cast doubt over the existence of Arrochar itself - that is more the domain of the longlost Dr McSharkie. Rather, there have to be questions asked of the appropriateness or otherwise of the generic name given to the clustered hills north of the village. Firstly comes the issue of the general Alpiness of these hills - their Alpininty. We are of course adrift in a sea of misnomers here, for any selfrespecting schoolgirl knows that whilst "Alp" strictly refers to a grassy mountain meadow inhabited by Suchard-producing cows and yodelling, flugelhom-blowing peasants, the word has long come to mean the jaggy snowwhite peaks themselves, domicile of Jean-Claude Killy, Jean-Baptiste Lafonde and David Vine.
Presumably the Scottish illusion / delusion refers to this latter usage, to the notion that the knobbly, roughsided peaks are worthy of an overblown, overromanticised name. No matter that no-one speaks of the Kintail Karakoram, the Perthshire Pyrenees or the Reay Rockies (although someone once met claimed to have climbed "Ben Lyon and The Crianlarich Alps"). No matter that there isn't a railwaystation window halfway up The Cobbler, somewhere near the Narnain Boulders, or that no Grindelwald - type voyeurs encamp on the back lawn of The Moorings, absinth in hand, to ogle through telescopes at the neardeath experiences of John Harlin and Clint Eastwood. These are minor details. We have been brought up to believe there are Tyrolean Alps, French Alps, Jura Alps (although what the hell they are doing on an island begs other questions) - and Arrochar Alps.
Now don't get the wrong end of the alpenstock here. These hills are, for your editor, up there in the Sherpa van of Scottish summits, second to none. Easy accessibility, impressive hillslopes, enchanting Highland / Lowland views and good winter conditions are all mixed with the odd sensation of instant solitude which comes only on hills containing both busy tourist tracks and totally unknown neuks and corners. Your editor loves them, hopes to roam among them until his legs fall off. Which is precisely why he's bothered by their inappropriate nomenclature. He feels he has an investment here.
The problem is, in part at least - and as hinted at above - one of over-romanticisation. The Victorian gentry - for it was they - came up here on their nice new choo-choo and promptly set about being elitist and superior and spiritually-correct by doing the obvious Wagnerian thing and ascending to the heights. The AA appellation was then only a matter of time. And in time it became quaintly outdated, a curio - and, when the same choo-choo started to bring the thirdclass Clydeside fitters and Lanarkshire miners, a curio destined not to be used in commonspeak. Very soon, if the intention was to have a day on these hills, the potential ascendee wouldn't leave home saying: "Hopefully one will return in time for tiffin, Beatrice, one is away to bestride the doughty Alps of Arropia"; rather: " See youse later hen, Ah'm aff tae hiv a pure excellent time on they hills o'er the back o' the Cobbler, by the way but".
This was okay, and for many years - from well before the end of the Chatterley Ban until well after the Beatles' first LP - no-one bothered much. The term gently accelerated down the linguistic snowslope towards the lexicographical boulderfield of oblivion. But then came popularisation of the hills, with pots of money being made via heavily-caffeinated guidebooks and dayglo equipment, and the beginnings of the almighty hoo-ha about access, overcrowding and the like. Suddenly the AA term dug its iceaxe in the snow, clambered to its feet and climbed back into the light of day. But its revival saw a subtle change of meaning, with the label becoming very Munrocentric - basically used to cover the cluster of west Lomondside hills, Beinns Narnain and Ime, Bens Vorlich and Vane, plus the "honourary Munro" of The Cobbler. The latter is one of those few hills tiresomely invoked every time the "there's more to Scottish hills than Munros" argument is trotted out by hillwriters looking to absolve themselves from overly Munroist writings. But as most regular walkers will have climbed famous showpeaks such as The Cobbler, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh anyway, the real test of whether someone is speaking other than out of their anus horribilis comes when they start undermining Munroism by mentioning less obvious good hills: Beinn Leoid, Saddle Yoke, Sgurr Innse, etc etc. This non-list is, literally, endless, and the climbing of these a far truer test of hill-eclecticism than Cobblerian namedropping.
But to return to the matter in hand. The way most modern walkers choose to identify, group and name their hills is by proximity to roadsystems. Hence the main "Arrochar hills" (as opposed to the AA) are, in colloquial usage, those either side of the Rest and Be Thankful road from the moment it circuits the head of Loch Long until sealevel is regained at Cairndow's nice little inn. And hence the superb run of Corbetts to the west side of the pass itself - The Brack, Ben Donich, Beinn an Lochain - plus the grossly underrated Stob Coire Creagach - are as much part of the group as are Ime, its acolyte-satellite peaks Beinns Luibhean and Chorranach, and The Cobbler to the east.
Nobody would dream of calling the Aggy Ridge a Glen Coe hill while banishing The Buachaille to the tourist brochure hinterland of Glen Etive - even though the latter is, in terms of drainage, totally in Etive. Similarly, although only the north side of the Glen Shiel road is Kintail, everyone nowadays treats the glen itself as a coherent entity. Yet it is only those peaks east of the Rest which apparently merit the AA label. The others are, at least in the terminology of SMC guidebooks and their clones, exiled to the relative obscurity of the Cowal Peninsula - even though a glance at the map reveals the first three Corbetts just listed to be no more part of a peninsula than is the heir to the throne a tubular device women employ when the painters are in.
This topographical apartheid seems even more anachronistic when it is realised that the AA do however include the weelkent Arrocharian skyline peak of Ben Vorlich. This is a piece of semantic nonsense: not only is the Lomondside Vorlich tucked away two whole ridges to the northeast, but its summit stands substantially further away from the Pit Stop Diner than does that of Ben Lomond. And no-one ever regards The Ben as one of the AA.
It's time, therefore, for guidebuccaneers to cut the etymological crap and stop making their bucks using a phrase which hardly anyone ever speaks in practice. Either that or redefine so as to be inclusive of patently Arrocharian hills such as The Brack - and by so doing invest the term with a new lease of life. This is, after all, the late twentieth century: a babyboomer has just organised a gig on the White House steps, Last Tango in Paris has been on the TV, and women have even been admitted, however tokenistically, into the Steatopygous Men's Club.
And finally, while we're on the subject, there is of course the smaller-scale misnomer within the "Alps" themselves: the old chestnut of The Cobbler merely being a nickname for something called "Ben Arthur". Despite nice Mr Ordnance Survey having recently corrected the precedence which the two names were accorded on his maps, this is still the stuff of true Arthurian Legend. If the number of people who speak of the Arrochar Alps is equivalent to the turnout for Queen's Park v Stranraer in a very empty Hampden, then those who ever say "Ben Arthur" are like the away supporters at a Barmulloch Baptists v Brora Boys' Brigade 3rd XI fixture which has been postponed twenty minutes before kickoff. Arthur is the name of a cat, a TV conman, a notable union leader, a recently-dead Glasgow criminal and a crap movie starring Dudley Moore. It is not the name of a hill - apart from in Embra, where they do strange things anyway. Yet the misapprehension lives on, Elvislike. In Glasgow's Kingsway there stands a row of four towerblocks quaintly named after hills. Or at least three of them are: Lawers, Ledi and Arkle. The fourth is called Arthur.