The Angry Corrie 42: Jul-Aug 1999

TAC 42 Index

E, lad (Einstein in the Ochils)

The respected Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison died at the start of the year, and at first it appeared as if one of the great Scottish hill mysteries had died with her. TAC's editor wasn't willing to let the matter rest however, and this is what he discovered...

It just goes to show that you never know it all. My life might be a clearing house for outdoors-related information, I might live in Alva and walk the Ochils every week, I might like to regard myself as reasonably well-read. And yet, when Naomi Mitchison died aged 100 earlier this year, several of her obituary notices included a snippet that left me in amused incomprehension. Take this example, from The Scotsman for 12th January 1999: "Mitchison used to tell about the time she rescued Albert Einstein from the Ochil Hills."

Whaaaat?! How could I have missed that? A leading Scottish writer rescues the millennium's greatest mind from my local central Scotland upland. There should be a Visitor Centre in commemoration, an audio-visual display bringing schoolchildren up to speed, a little blue plaque embossed in a neat cairn to mark the actual spot where Einstein returned to safety. But there is nothing, and nobody seems to know what happened here, or even when.

So I started searching. No mention in the Mitchison biographies by Jill Benton or Jenni Calder, although the latter does place her family home at Cloan on the north side of the Ochils. (Mitchison was a Haldane, kin of A R B Haldane who wrote the fine The Drove Roads of Scotland. Nothing in either Albrecht Fölsing or Denis Brian's biographies of old Albert, nor in Mitchison's own memoir, You May Well Ask. TAC's own Perkin Warbeck is a physicist to trade and fond of cycling to work in an Einstein T-shirt, but he knew nothing. Neither did Val Hamilton the normally well-versed librarian, nor Glasgow-based architect Frank Boyle, a man with such close facial resemblance to Einstein as to be occasionally stopped in the street by autograph-seeking physics students.

But when I started to study a few maps, clues began to appear. What's the shortest village name in Scotland? Anyone who still remembers as far back as TAC1, page 17, will know that the answer to this is something that sounds like a noise you make at the dentist's: Ae, which lurks in the Forest of Ae, down Nithsdale way. Ostensibly a "Forestry Commission Village", it's actually an arboreal new town, more Lumbernauld than Cumbernauld. Rows of timber cabins instead of concrete semis, a simple place knocked together with sitka and sinew. Or so the history books say.

It's not true. It's a forest of lies. Ae was conceived as a tribute village to Albert Einstein on the occasion of his Grand Unified Tour of Scotland. "Albert's GUTS", as it was marketed, started as a high profile media-friendly event but was hushed up when rescue team after rescue team was called out to haul him off Slioch, Scolty, Criffel, Clisham. The Ochils team would have seen action too, had it not been for Mitchison's local knowledge and quick thinking.

Einstein's ineptitude turned his Tour into an academic joke and a political embarrassment. With a General Election looming, ministers became fearful of adverse public reaction if they stuck with their plan to unveil Albert Einstein Village. Each passing rescue made the thing harder to keep quiet. Worldwide acclaim and Nobel Prize notwithstanding, Einstein was decaying into a figure of fun for Scots, a touchstone for incompetence and fecklessness. Folk songs began to appear, ridiculing his inability to descend even the simplest hill (see, for instance, Norman Buchan's "Tak a quantum leap frae Tinto"). Such was the farce of the big-faced scientist's wanderings that the government opted for a little early spin-doctoring - or spin-professoring in this case. The settlement north-west of Lochmaben was quietly converted from Albert Einstein Village to AE Village, which was in turn swiftly downcased to Ae.

Nor is that all. Ae might be the shortest village name, but there's an even shorter river name. The River E. Look it up: it flows into Loch Mhor, near Foyers, just to the south of the Great Glen near the top of Landranger 34. Socio-topographical scholars argue that the name E dates from the early days of rave culture, when woolly-hatted whistle-blowing youngsters from Manchester were observed shooting its rapids. But this is spurious. They weren't drugged-up dancers at all, merely venture scouts from Rawtenstall, and I can reveal that the River E pre-dates the Happy Mondays by quite some time. By around half a century in fact.

You want proof? Go to a library, take out a very large-scale map, and see the hand of Einstein there before you. The River E is fed by three tributaries: the River Equals, the River M, and the splendidly- named River C-Squared.

QED, as they say at Princeton.

TAC 42 Index