The Angry Corrie 45: Apr-May 2000

TAC 45 Index

Eye eye, caption: The Magic of the Munros reviewed

by Irvine Butterfield (David & Charles, 1999, 192pp, ISBN 0 7153 0850 5, #25)

Review: Peter Drummond

This was one of the publishing successes of late 1999, selling thousands in the run-up to Christmas. Doubtless many were purchased as presents by significant others for their hillwalking partners, or by the latter to spoil themselves in the darkening days of winter. The well-publicised fact that royalties would go to the John Muir Trust gave the buyers an added feelgood reason to ply the plastic. It is a spectacular book, very much in the coffee-table mould, with landscape pages (in both senses), measuring 36cm wide x 24cm high. The pictures are by and large stunning, the cream of work by Butterfield's "team" of amateur and professional photographers and also featuring watercolours by artist Paul Craven.

But there are coffee-table books and coffee-table books. Size-wise, and quality-of-photo-wise, this reminded me firstly of The High Mountains of the Alps (Dumler and Burkhardt, Diadem 1994). That is a translation of a European book: a comparison closer to home could be with the 1980s Diadem series Big Walks, Classic Walks and Wild Walks. The quality of pictures in The Magic is probably better than in the 1980s books, because reprographic techniques at the printers' command have advanced and the quality of cameras carried by even ordinary punters like you and me has similarly upped. However, the big difference between the new book and my chosen comparators is the text, or lack of it. There's a lot of good reading in the Walks and Alps books - their pictures illustrate their narrative - whereas Butterfield's text is little more than an extended set of photo captions, with two or three sentences being the norm.

The main theme of most of the text is mountain names. I will confess to a wry smile on reading the first few pages of the book, because the text bears a striking resemblance to the explanations and style of my own Scottish Hill and Mountain Names (SMT, 1992), a pattern especially evident in the sections of northern and western hills, although unacknowledged. Butterfield's explanations of the names of Beinn Narnain, Beinn Bhuidhe, Ben Vorlich - both - and Ben Lomond, or Seana Bhraigh, Bens Klibreck and Hope, Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh, Luinne Bheinn, Conival and A'Mhaighdean, to name some, appear to be sourced from my book. Not unnaturally in the circumstances, I accord with most of the suggested meanings of names in The Magic !

Perhaps the second edition might contain a biblio-graphy for those readers who wish to find a little more on the topic of hill names. The bibliography might also include two other books apparently used as sources whose authors' names - but not their books' titles - are mentioned in the acknowledgements: Ian Mitchell's Scotland's Mountains before the Mountaineers (Luath 1999) and Adam Watson's The Place-names of Upper Deeside (with Elizabeth Allan, AUP 1984).

Butterfield does however have some information or suggestions for names that are, to my knowledge, new. I didn't know that Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was originally, in jest, Pic Mhic Choinnich, that Tolmount is from nearby (Glen) Doll, or that a 1920s keeper at Lochivraoin had an explanation for A'Chailleach based on its appearance. Butterfield is also correct in tracing Sgurr Fhuaran (Glen Shiel) back to Odhran, a follower of Columba - I only got beyond the mis-leading fhuaran (wells) to the original Sgurr Urain. The references to Gaelic puzzled me sometimes: he says that Spidean (a'Choire Leith) should be spiodan, that Sheasgaich (in Bidein a'Choire) is pronounced cheesecake, and that gaor (as in Gaor Bheinn) means thrill. Not in my Gaelic dictionaries (Dwelly and MacLennan), they don't!

There is also a curious coyness about the Devil's Point, the only name in the book not to have its meaning in the heading up beside the given name. It means of course the devil's penis, from the original Gaelic name Bod an Deamhain (used on Harveys maps) and as The Magic says it was clothed in discreet English euphemism. So why not be upfront in the book, and have "Bod an Deamhain - devil's penis" as the caption heading?

There are also a number of names where I just think Butterfield has got it wrong - his meanings for Ben Chonzie, Sgurr na Banachdich (where he reverses my preference), Gulvain (which I am sure is a Guilbheinn, one of several in Scotland and Ireland, based on the ancient legend of Diarmaid), to name a few - but toponymics is not an exact science and a little speculation can be fruitful as long as it's rooted in the local linguistic or landscape context.

A final thought. Pictures of Scottish mountains have moved in recent years from the status of being illustrations for books to almost icon status, feted for themselves as images of beauty. Spearheaded by photographers such as Colin Baxter and painters such as Tom Mackenzie, outdoor shops, tourist shops and even art galleries abound with stunning views, painted or snapped, of mountains in the media of postcards, calendars, posters and framed paintings. There is no harm in books joining in this process - this reviewer is no iconomachist - as long as we are clear that, unlike those media, books traditionally use pictures to illustrate text, not text to caption pictures.

TAC 45 Index