The Angry Corrie 22: Mar-Apr 1995


Bens, bothies and bealachs: Notes on the myths and rituals of the Scottish mountain tribes

As part of our Dutch Special, we are more than happy to include a learned article from one of our Euro-colleagues at Platvoets... Univ. Prof. DDr. Alois Kukubauer of Vienna University (1)

Dionysischer Normalzustand

This study is a result of the project Der "Dark Isle Skullsplitter" - ein obergäriges schottisches Bier aus nahrungswissenschaftlicher Sicht. One day, when we the concept of dionysischer Normalzustand discussed, suggested our colleague Dr Jock Strap that we could make a participating observation with a tribe who "Monroe begging" go. In this ritual, people wander in the wilderness so that they wet, cold and muddy get. They must in this state one or more mountain tops reach where no restaurant or hut is. Then they go again home. This is more the dionysische Normalzustand of a Scotsperson than the drinking because of the limited drinking possibilities and the unlimited possibilities wet, cold and muddy to get.

Monroe begging was in orgin a Balz or mating ritual. By the climbing of the symbolically rounded mountains or "bens" (2), the Scottish male - in a skirt dressed - was asking the mountain gods for a female partner. The Industrial Revolution brought demythologization and nowadays it is more effective a Porsche to buy. Also women went begging as the demythologization progress made. Some women have great interest expressed in the "harness thingy ... that straps round [the male mountaineer's] thighs and crotch" (3). This of course a virility symbol is. So is the mating aspect preserved while the woman can effectively a Porsche buy. But the quest for das ewig Weibliche survives idealtypisch in the mythical figure of Murdo Munro who in a dress is always begging on the mountains. This is bound with the myth of the Flying Dutchman who the seas must sail so long until he a woman finds. The infertility of the unsuccessful quest is in this case expressed by Murdo Munro being "a bugger" called.

Joking relationship

The hill tribe which we joined was in a transitional stage to modern industrial society, as their dress was showing. The economy is on sheep based, but tweed - a woollen material which loden resembles - has for synthetic materials been exchanged. In fact, an ironically used term is "tweedy gent". This is a good example of the among anthropologists well-known concept of "joking relationship" in which the tensions caused by unequal power relations in the society are being defused. The expression "tweedy gent" proves therefore that power in the Scottish Highlands is not so evenly divided as in the Alps, where everybody is a loden gent and only people from faraway tribes think it is funny.

Some traditions from before the Industrial Revolution exist still in spite of synthetic materials. The journey to Western Scotland was interrupted for a demonstration of "leaves on the rails"; this has in the Alps not been witnessed since 1853, and will the subject of a separate monograph be. An ode in praise of the heroism of mountaineers was sung by the tribe while the train to Fort William was pushed. The text, ascribed to an ancient bard, is as usual with old incantations now difficult to understand:

"With frequent deployment of manual assistance,
Boldly bestride the convex contours of the colossus
Until you eventually complete your rigours
By attaining the reigning peak." (4)

Calvinism

The mountain chosen for the ritual was Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan called. The name is on purpose very complex made so that it can not exactly be outspoken. So is the mystery of the mountain god preserved (5). We were soon on the top, for it was only 1151 metres high - not quite so high as Hotel Scheikl in Veitsch. But on the top was only rain and no restaurant or hut; it does not give these, as we already mentioned. When the role of Erdäpfelgulasch and Glühwein on Austrian mountain tops was explained, the hillwalkers showed no signs of comprehension. This comes naturally from a remoteness of culinary civilization but it is rationalized as a commandment of the mountain god (among these tribes always a Calvinist): "Thou shalt not build an inn on my pinn".

The begging was lasting all weekend and it was not allowed to a hotel to go as an appropriate deprivation level maintained must be. So stayed we in Maol-bhuidhe. This is a "bothy", from Ger. Bude - shack. (According to one mountaineering myth, here is in winter also a "brass monkey club" (6). The members are monkeys called because of indiscriminate toilet habits which by the bothy construction are encouraged (7) - see below. The club plays a game with frozen balls.) In honour to the former quest character of the Monroe begging, the bothies are very primitive. The bothies have no beds, toilets, Kachelofen, Schweinsbraten mit Knödel or Schnaps. The bringing of tiled stoves and pork roasts with dumplings is anyway too difficult, the latter because only sheep are given. But the rule is often broken in the case of Schnaps, particularly when the Hogmanay is celebrated.

In interviews it was indicated that the Hogmanay is an important ritual. It is the celebration of the passing of the midwinter solstice, and seemingly of very pagan (hogman = pig person) and probably Norse (ay = Norw. öy, island) origin. The people take a whisky bottle and navigate in a temporary "doubling" of the dionysische Normalzustand a more and more complex zigzag course from bothy to bothy, whereby every bothy is symbolizing an island. So are the Scottish people reminded of the time when the Vikings south sailed the sun to seek (here by the warming whisky represented).

Bollocks

While the tribe further in the mountains went, made the scientific team the home journey because of Schweinsbraten withdrawal symptoms. The way led us past two lakes without summerhouses: Loch Cruoshie and Loch Calavie (from Ger. Loch = hole; in this case a hole in the ground with water filled) and over Bealach Bhearnais. Bealach means the pass and is a polite form of bollocks; the word is denoting scorn for the low part of a mountain, but the mountain god must not offended be.

In conclusion came we to Achnashellach. Here was the "leaves on the rails" ritual under hysterical laughter by the passengers repeated for the cyclical nature of history to confirm (8). By Achnasheen Hotel were copious refreshments bought; then were songs by the pushers sung which the subject of a separate monograph will be.


  1. The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance to this research project provided by The Anthropological Council, Glasgow.
  2. "Ben" comes first in most mountain names. It symbolizes the later male domination of the orginally to the Earth Goddess devoted mountains. This is the source of Cartesian dualism in Scottish culture.
  3. M. Gray - The First Fifty - Munro-Bagging (sic) Without A Beard, Edinburgh 1991, p40.
  4. From the ms. known as The Hills To The East Of Aberdeen, ascribed to W.A.Plunger; archives of The Anthropological Council, Glasgow, no. 93/11/4-5.
  5. Cf. Lao Tzu - Tao Te Ching, ch.1: "The name that can be named is not the eternal name".
  6. See H. Brown - Hamish's Mountain Walk, London 1978, p267.
  7. Adaptive-regressive behaviour by the hillwalkers is discussed in the Journal of The Anthropological Council, no. 8/1992, p16.
  8. "Hegel says somewhere that, on the stage of universal history, all great events and personalities reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot that, on the first occasion, they appear as tragedy; on the second, as farce." K. Marx - The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, p1.

TAC 22 Index