The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001
At risk of repetition... Cameron McNeish and his unoriginal Corbett book
TAC's editor finds himself vexed by Cameron McNeish and his unoriginal Corbett book
NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME, TAC50 (p2) raised the curious issue of Cameron McNeish and his Corbetts, a long-running saga that ought by now to have had a simple, straightforward dénouement but which continues to meander on intriguingly. The basic plot is this. The man styled as "Scotland's foremost hillwalking author" (The Munros, 1996), "Britain's best known mountain author" (100 Best Walks in Scotland, 1999) and "the celebrity climber" (Moray Firth Radio, 17/7/01) produced a 1994 guidebook entitled The Corbett Almanac (TCA). This remains widely available, has sold well (15000+ copies according to industry figures) and is in its second edition.
TCA was written - as opposed to edited - by McNeish, credits no co-authors and offers no acknowledgements. As the basis of any guidebook is the author's sharing of personal experience and expertise with the reading public, it follows that McNeish must have plodded up every hill in his book at least once prior to publication.
At first glance there seems nothing to suggest any problem. A phrase in the book's introduction (p7 of the second edition) specifically comments on the validity of the route descriptions. "[They] are not meant to offer a step by step account of how to climb each mountain," McNeish writes, "but only to give a rough outline of what I have found to be the best line of ascent and descent." That's clear, with even a hint of modesty and an awareness that the routes preferred by the climbing celeb might not always prove ideal for the humble hill-tramper. Fair enough.
The first cloud of doubt also appears at this point, however, as the "best lines" claim seems a tad overcooked, implying that McNeish knows each Corbett well enough to have built up a level of on-the-ground knowledge great enough for route A to be recommended over routes B and C. If not, then each route is the "best" of a sample of one - and the author reveals himself to be either arrogant or lucky in his choices.
Let's not get hung up on this one ambivalent sentence, though. Let's be generous and assume a mere slip of the syntax. McNeish has, after all, never quite got the hang of the singular versus plural thing. The opening page of TCA includes an amusingly illiterate assertion: "In the hillgoing world there weren't many kudos to be gained from being a 'Munroist'. Kudos are still in short supply...". So let's assume we are indeed talking about just the one Corbett round, with maybe a goodly number of repeat ascents thrown in. (Note however that in The Munro Almanac (TMA), McNeish included an almost identical "best line" phrase despite a letter to the SMC - now lodged with the National Library of Scotland - showing that he completed his first Munro round on 16/8/91, some months after TMA appeared. We'll let that pass for now, though.)
So, on the basis that "best lines" is a clumsy formulaic phrase, a careless cut-and-paste job from an earlier manuscript, let's move on to have a proper look at how well McNeish knows his Corbetts.
AS IMPLIED in the "kudos" comment, Corbett completion will never be as common as that for the Munros. McNeish, however, lives in the Highlands and his media career has long centred on the hills - two factors which ought to have aided his steady ticking-off of Corbetts and thus helped to dispel any doubts as to his credibility and integrity.
There is doubt, however. In June of this year, at a book launch, McNeish was approached by a TAC reader named Alan Macdonald who claims (and has since reaffirmed) that the author of TCA admitted to having not climbed all the Corbetts. Once this anecdotal encounter was lined up to be reported in TAC50, McNeish was contacted with the standard courtesy of right-to-reply space in TAC51. Should he wish to rebut Macdonald's claim - or simply pass comment - then the magazine would be happy to oblige. After all, the allegation potentially undermined the trust that any guidebook user needs to have with the writer on whose observations their enjoyment - and safety - to an extent depend.
A brief email exchange ensued, with McNeish making statements about his Corbett career and his thoughts on TAC in general. Sadly these can't be reported here, as the crucial mail included an embargo on its contents appearing in TAC. Note however that a separate letter, from McNeish in his official TGO capacity, was not embargoed and is reprinted on p19 for entertainment purposes and because of the clue it gives to the tone of the whole exchange.
So, in the absence of any definitive statement from the man himself (although the offer of space remains), we must piece things together from McNeish's published comments on his Corbetteering. Is there enough to dispel scepticism, to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that he has climbed the hills over which he is guiding the population at large? Or, conversely, do his writings give the impression of a man around whom the whiff of charlatanism (even the pong of plagiarism) can be detected?
It's time to leave the shelter of the introductory low ground and head off into the complex terrain of textual analysis...
McNEISH APPEARS shy, even coy, about his Corbett career. His two Munro completions (the second coinciding with the launch of his 1996 Munros book) were planted firmly in the public domain, and his failure to publicly mention any Corbett completion - even in TCA's blurb - is oddly out of character. Celebrities are not known, after all, for hiding their trumpets under bushels.
What is also odd is McNeish's flimsy grasp of the concept of a Corbett. His TGO editorial from May 1994 appeared just before TCA was published (so shortly before that the magazine included a pre-print of the book's introduction, including the "kudos" quote). What he wrote therefore came at a time when Corbetts were at the forefront of his mind, when his round must surely have been wrapped up. Yet in TGO we read: "More recently I've been concentrating more on the Corbetts, and I would now unhesitatingly put two or three Corbetts into my own Top Ten of favourite hills. Hills like Quinag, Foinaven, Suilven and the Cobbler surely grace anybody's list of favourites. But then again, there's a marvellous hill near my home [in Newtonmore] called Creag Dubh [sic] and its [sic] only just over 2000 feet...".
Now McNeish isn't the first person to have mistaken Suilven for a Corbett (it's a 731m Graham), but he's the first self-proclaimed Corbett expert to have done so. And while Creag Dhubh is indeed below Corbett height, rather than being "only just over 2000 feet" it's actually 756m or 2480ft, markedly higher than Suilven. It might seem pedantic to query slips which got through the sub-editing process, but even the most ardent critic of hill lists would accept that authors ought to get facts right - and McNeish, on this occasion, does not sound like a man in control of his Corbetts.
On to TCA - where the obvious starting point is to compare it with the other texts in the field. There are three: Craig Caldwell's Climb Every Mountain - a ghost-written account of a monumental 1985/6 round of Munros and Corbetts; Hamish Brown's Climbing the Corbetts - a complex, layered work, part memoir, part guidebook; and the only other formal Corbetts guidebook, the SMC's 1990 effort The Corbetts and other Scottish hills. It quickly becomes apparent that the SMC guidebook is extremely relevant when assessing TCA. Indeed, it takes only a brief initial browse to be struck by the astonishing similarities between the two works.
The ways in which TCA and the SMC book ought to be compared fall into two interrelated parts. First comes the question of how similarly/differently the books arrange their hills and routes. Then there is the choice of words used to describe these routes: do TCA's write-ups look original, or do they look like cribs?
The arrangements first. While any guidebook inevitably caters for (some might say panders to) the easiest-route desires of the hill-tramping public, and while most hills have a "usual" route if not a tourist path, in the course of 200-plus descriptions there ought to be at least some innovation. Indeed, with the SMC book already established, there is a requirement for any subsequent author to provide a decent percentage of alternative approaches - otherwise old ground is gone over and the original book's integrity is compromised. It's difficult to assess what proportion of substantially different routes is required, but 33% seems a fair bottom line. As will be shown, the figure for TCA is considerably lower than that.
OF COURSE in many instances a Corbett will inevitably be described in isolation, there being no neighbour with which it could sensibly be linked. A thousand guidebooks would all treat Mount Battock as a one-Corbett outing, and there is nothing untoward in both the SMC book and TCA choosing to deal with it in this way. (TCA called it Mount Battack in its first edition, mind you.) There are numerous "inevitably isolated" hills - Cairnsmore of Carsphairn, Beinn an Oir, Beinn Damh etc - and it is more revealing to study how a book "clumps" those Corbetts which do allow multi-topped days. There are obvious pairings - Farragon / Tairneachan, Fuar Bheinn / Creach Bheinn, the Innses - but other possibilities can be concocted as fitness and inclination allow, and this is where an author's imagination and experience come into play.
The first edition of TCA echoed the SMC book in providing routes up 221 Corbetts, each book having been published when Beinn Talaidh was considered high enough and when the Corrieyairack/Gairbeinn pair tended to be seen as two distinct ticks. The main aspect of TCA's 1999 "revision" was a reduction to 220 hills, with Talaidh rightly dropped and the Gairbeinn pair replaced by the Buidhe Bheinn / Sgurr a'Bhac Chaolais duo. (McNeish gives no indication that he understands these twin summit situations.)
The SMC book divides things into 172 write-ups: 133 single-Corbett expeditions, 31 pairs, seven threes and one five (the Auch cluster). Not all multiples are treated as circular walks, however. Of the 31 pairs, 22 are genuine loops, while five are bolted-together half-days which start from much the same place (eg Beinn Dearg / Cam Chreag). The remaining write-ups are mixed descriptions combining individual ascents and full-day traverses: Meall an t-Seallaidh / Creag MacRanaich, Stob an Aonaich Mhoir / Beinn Mholach, Beinn Tharsuinn / Sgurr na Feartaig and Cul Beag / Cul Mor.
Of the seven SMC threesomes, only two (Quinag and the Rois-Bheinn group) are presented as definitive do-'em-all traverses. Arran's three non-Goatfell Corbetts are linked, but with individual excursions also suggested. Druim Tarsuinn / Sgurr Ghiubhsachain plus Sgorr Craobh a'Chaorainn is treated as a 2:1 split, while Creag Uchdag, Creagan na Beinne and Auchnafree Hill are described separately under the one heading. The same applies to the trio of Corbetts at the head of Loch Arkaig, (which can't often be climbed in one go, even by watershed walkers), while Foinaven / Arkle / Meall Horn are interlocking walks using the same path system.
So that's how the SMC arrange their Corbetts. And McNeish...? Well, prepare for a dose of what he once called "deja vous". His 220 hills appear as 174 write-ups: 136 singles, 32 pairs, five threes and one five (Auch again). But it's even closer than that, as two of his "doubles" combine half-day pairings which the SMC keep separate (Ben Donich / the Brack, Beinn nan Oighreag / Meall nam Maigheach): a difference of layout, not description. The same applies to Meall a'Phubuill / Beinn Bhan, which TCA separates while retaining the SMC routes. Likewise for the Tay and Shiel clusters, where TCA carves off Auchnafree Hill and Sgorr Craobh a'Chaorainn without offering anything new in terms of route suggestion.
Indeed, TCA's routes are hardly ever anything other than those given by the SMC. Again and again the club's combination/circuit is adopted, including the same minor variations, while TCA often switches the direction of an SMC loop in what looks suspiciously like a short-cut to originality. The paucity of McNeish's "creation" is evident even before his actual choice of words is studied.
In all these descriptions, only twice does McNeish offer completely different options from the SMC. The first comes with the Cobbler, where the SMC "leads" with the concrete staircase from the head of Loch Long while adding possibilities from Ardgartan and Glen Croe. McNeish prefers the old torpedo station approach and mentions no other route. "Return the same way", he says.
The other place is when approaching Ben Ledi and Benvane from Brig o'Turk - a route not mentioned by the SMC, which tackles these Corbetts separately. (Their book does refer to the high link between the hills, but comes from the east and north.) Beyond that, route differences are extremely thin on the page. Mount Battock comes nearest to a "new" route, with TCA expanding the SMC's quick-dash option from Millden Lodge, but all other variations appear as secondary add-ons after a copycat main route. Hence both books tackle Broad Law from the Megget Stone, but TCA suggests an alternative descent to the Crook Inn "if transport can be arranged". Creag MacRanaich also acquires partial variations, while there are a few very minor tweakings on Meall an Fhudair, Stob a'Choin, the Fara and the An Dun pair. It's minimal stuff, though: tinkerings rather than wholesale alternatives. Surely TCA should have tried something new in Corbett hotspots such as Etive or Ardgour, or offered an inventive link such as Vrackie with Vuirich? Or how about combining Carn Dearg Mor with Meallach Mhor rather than with Leathad an Taobhain? The reason seems clear: CDM/LaT is an SMC pairing, and TCA dutifully reproduces these even when the other possibilities exist. The SMC divides the Elchaig Three into two expeditions, with the western pair (Sguman Choinntich and Faochaig) linked and Aonach Buidhe done singularly. This gives TCA scope for a neat reversal: combine the eastern pair (which share a high col and a stalker's path) and cite Sguman Choinntich as the singleton. Does it do this? Or does it tackle all three in a day, as is often done by Corbett-baggers? Of course not. It mimics the SMC route, step for step.
This route-cribbing is never clearer than in the Stob an Aonaich Mhoir / Beinn Mholach link, a huge day across rough, remote country. Nothing wrong with that of course, but is it really just coincidence that both books give the kind of straggling, stravaiging route so obviously bearing Hamish Brown's signature that there's no real need to check for authorship in the SMC book? McNeish is no Brown, that's for sure, and he does himself no favours by trying to steal the great man's boots.
SO WE HAVE two books which near-as-damnit offer the same set of routes and rounds. Someone already possessing the SMC book would gain next to nothing, ideas-wise, from TCA. Perhaps, however, great originality lurks in the write-ups? Hmm... It's time to juxtapose a couple of typical examples.
Let's start with the first Corbett listed by McNeish: Merrick. The SMC piece, written by acknowledged Galloway expert Ken Andrew (who sadly died recently - see page 2), gives some preamble and offers a couple of ways through the Glen Trool forest. It then continues: "Both routes meet at Culsharg bothy (415821). A path leads NW from there through the forest, then N to a wall running to the top of Benyellary (719m). Continue along the wall in a N then NE direction to a col. When the slope broadens out leave the wall and ascend the grassy hillside by the path. The upper slopes leading to the summit of Merrick are studded with granite boulders left by the Ice Ages."
McNeish dispenses with lower alternative, but goes exactly the same way (and later suggests a return via the Rig of Loch Enoch, as does Andrew). The comparative passage reads as follows: "At Culsharg bothy a path runs through the forest in a NW direction, then N to a wall which leads to the top of Benyellary. Follow this wall over Benyellary in a N direction before bearing NE to a high col. Climb the rock studded upper slopes to the summit."
Now turn to SMC p64 and a Peter Hodgkiss description of Creach Bheinn: "Start from the A828 road just N of Druimavuic House near the head of Loch Creran where a metal gate at (007451) leads to a path through the trees. Initially this path skirts the stone wall bounding the policies of the house, but it soon reaches a second gate in open ground and continues E up the N side of the Allt Buidhe, though faint and intermittent in its upper reaches, to the bealach (560m) between Creach Bheinn and Beinn Sgulaird. From the bealach a well-defined ridge leads SW over Creag na Cathaig for 1km, before rising steeply due W to the NE top of Creach Bheinn (803m). From there a short descent and reascent lead SW for 1km to the large cairn on the main summit."
And TCA, p45: "Leave the road N of Druimavuic House where a gate gives access to a path through some woodland. Once clear of the house this path follows the N bank of the Allt Buidhe to the bealach between the Munro Beinn Sgulaird and Creach Bheinn. From the bealach follow the well defined NE ridge of Creach Bheinn over Creag na Cathaig then steeply due W to the NE top of Creach Bheinn. A short descent to the SW and a short climb lead to the large cairn."
Now there are only so many ways to skin a cat, and it could be argued that a hill route can only be described in a very narrow form of words. Well, maybe - although Messrs Storer and Butterfield have managed perfectly well, to name just two other writers. The similarities here are so remarkable however that the sleuth software now available to academia would surely whistle and flash like fury if applied. Generally, TCA's descriptions come in at 100-150 words against the SMC's 300, and if you strip out the SMC intros and adjectival colour you end up with something like McNeish's TCA texts. There is a profound feeling of the shallow TCA versions having been siphoned from the deeper SMC pool.
There are even tell-tale clues where McNeish appears to have forgotten to snip a distinctive word or phrase - "studded" in the Merrick description, "well defined" for the Appin hill - such that it becomes hard to dispel the image of a burglar who has accidentally left a glove at the scene of his crime.
The main evidence, however, is sheer weight of similarity. It's hard to find any TCA descriptions which don't read uncannily like their SMC forebears, and this cumulative effect nails TCA for what it is. Both books, for example, speak of Stob Coire nan Cearc, the bump south-west of Streap, as having "a rocky undulating ridge"; both say that Cruach Innse has a "flat stony summit". Etc, etc. This could all be a remarkable instance of great minds thinking alike, but the likelihood of coincidence diminishes page by page as the similarities mount like stones in the cairns McNeish so hates.
McNeish's pillaging of SMC prose is so systematic it can even be categorised. There is adjective-switching: "notable moraine bumps" (SMC, Creagan na Beinne) become "bumpy moraines" in TCA; "the ridge, which then narrows and becomes rockier" (SMC, Fraochaidh) turns up as "the ridge now becomes narrower and rockier" in TCA. There is a heap of this, alongside a heap of crude word-substitution whereby "a well-built wall" (SMC, Braigh nan Uamhachan) appears as "a substantial wall" in TCA, or "the broad, mossy summit plateau" (SMC, Glas Bheinn, Assynt) becomes "the broad, green summit plateau".
This becomes more than just tiresome: it becomes distasteful. The image is of the celeb sitting at his desk, chewing on his pencil as he ponders how best to rejig the SMC volume that lies open in front of him. It goes massively beyond chance or coincidence: you could deposit a busload of monkeys in a factory of typewriters with the aim of abridging the SMC book, and none would do anything like as good a job as McNeish has done with TCA.
AS PUBLISHERS HAVE KNOWN since Caxton, the way to nail a copy-copier is via mistakes and idiosyncrasies, and the occasional error or oddity can prove handy when a suspiciously similar volume rolls off the presses at some later date. The SMC book is relatively error-free, and not all its slips are recycled by TCA: the latter, for instance, doesn't give Landranger 46 for Carn na Drochaide. There is however a misnaming of the start-point for Carn a'Chuillin, which the SMC gives as the A862 whereas its sketch map correctly says the B862. TCA, predictably, goes for the A862.
That could be mere carelessness. More revealing is the curious case of Stob a'Choin. This is an "inevitably isolated" Corbett, and there is nothing untoward in both books opting for a route from the Loch Voil road-end. The SMC's Neil Bielby, however, refers to the "Inverlochlarig Tourist Information Centre" - an idiosyncratic way to describe a car park and a noticeboard. Now you would think that a hillgoer as experienced as McNeish would be familiar with this major, Munro-flanked glen, but he too suggests approaching from the "Inverlochlarig Tourist Information Centre". Oops.
The bulk of TCA's errors come where McNeish appears to have made a concerted effort to rejig/disguise the SMC text, but where he makes what in Corbett circles tends to be known as a Meall na h-Aisre of things. Take Stob Dubh, the notoriously steep Etive hill. Hodgkiss in the SMC book uses the phrase "the angle eases" to describe the final part of the SW ridge. In TCA this becomes a facile truism: "As the summit is reached the angle of gradient eases off." Well yes, it would do. Also, "The descent can be made SE down steep, rough ground for a few hundred metres, then bear S" (SMC) becomes, in TCA, "Descend in a SE direction over steep and rough ground. After several hundred feet [TAC's italics] bear S". This is a dangerous misdirection on a hill serious enough to have claimed the life of Matthew Moulton, one of Scotland's most accomplished hill men.
Similarly hopeless is the southern Glas Bheinn, where the SMC offers a fiddly route utilising the paths and tracks east of Kinlochleven. This includes the instruction: "[take] another path going E around the end of [Loch Eilde Mor] to the dam at its outlet". TCA turns this into: "[take] another path which goes round the E end of the loch to a dam". The difference - as anyone bothering to look at the map would see - is that the SMC skirts the loch's west end, whereas TCA takes the walker 3km out of their way.
So wholesale is McNeish's hijacking of existing work that it becomes hard to trust TCA's provenance even when it does stray from the SMC book. Take the Auch Corbetts. Here TCA mimics the SMC perfectly - including a failure to point out that the "electric fence" is an ankle-high tripwire. TCA then adds a jaunty non-SMC phrase: "The 883m marked on the map [on Beinn a'Chaisteil] is a spot height, and the cairn is situated 100m N of the actual summit, just to confuse you after a long day!" Alarm bells are now ringing so constantly that one grabs Climbing the Corbetts, and finds: "The 883m height is a spot height and not really the summit. The cairn, too, is 100m north west of the highest point - all very confusing." Once again, Hamish Brown's cellar has been ransacked.
MUCH MORE could be written about the oddities. Why do both books give the same five-peak circuit on Rum's two-Corbett ridges? And the same hefty day on Arran? Why does McNeish seem so blase about scrambling - scarcely hinting at the seriousness of the routes he mimics in Applecross? ("Tight" is his curious substitute word for narrow/exposed - but then this is the man whose Munro book speaks of "walking the likes of the Cuillin Ridge".) The A'Chioch route on Beinn Bhan merits a grade 4 (of 5) in Andrew Dempster's Classic Mountain Scrambles in Scotland.
Why is such a mess made of simple Conachcraig? McNeish often seems clueless with regard to navigation, muddling left with right, east with west; could it be that in his rush to rehash the SMC texts he simply makes a hash of things? It's extraordinary that he could churn out absurdities such as "ascend due S up the NE ridge" (the Dorback Geal Charn), or his useless - and again potentially dangerous - tips on how to tackle the Munro Sgurr na Sgine (TCA, p107). And why, when no two Gaelic experts appear able to agree on anything, does TCA reproduce the SMC hill-name translations almost exactly? Of the 204 names the club translates, only four are different (Ben Loyal, Breabag, Goatfell and Caisteal Abhail). Weirdest minor variant comes with Quinag, where the SMC's "water stoup" switches to "water spout" in TCA.
Here's a basic rule: if the SMC book mentions a block of trees, an awkward river-crossing or a particular on-hill feature, then TCA mentions it too, with the words slightly twiddled. If the SMC doesn't mention it, then you can bet good money that TCA will have missed it as well. Hence when the SMC overlook the excellent path above Glensulaig bothy en route to Meall a'Phubuill, expect a blank from TCA. When the SMC (in typical understate-the-difficulties mode) omit to mention that the top of Bidein a'Chabair is one of the more scrambly bits of Corbett work, so does TCA. (Curiously, however, McNeish did suddenly know about this in his Sunday Herald walk-of-the-week on 5/8/01; perhaps he's been there in recent years, or has read a few more guidebooks.)
Faced with all this, and more, it's hardly surprising to hear one correspondent comment that he spent some time believing TCA to be a sanctioned, pocket-sized edition of the SMC book. Which prompts the obvious question: why hasn't the SMC sued? The club is a proud club, and it has surely lost substantial revenue due to would-be Corbetteers buying the McNeish book as opposed to their own.
Well, the answer is quite simple: the SMC did seriously discuss suing - to the extent of retaining lawyers to study the case - before deciding to back off. When one SMC source was asked whether this was due to lack of proof, he laughed and commented that the lawyers felt there was absolutely no shortage of evidence. The reason for not proceeding was an unwillingness to become embroiled in something messy which might damage the reputation of the SMC. But as TCA sales continue to rack up, it's not hard to find SMCers who feel that a sterner line should have been taken. After all, McNeish's Munro books also bear marked similarities to their SMC counterparts, and there is no sign of the series of "coincidences" coming to an end.
OF COURSE NONE of this deals with the answer Mr Macdonald claims Mr McNeish gave about his actual Corbett round. We're not really any the wiser with regard to that, and it will be said - not without good reason - that all this analysis looks suspiciously like the work of the Completion Police: an attempt to "out" a Corbetteer who has every right to keep his hill deeds to himself. That would be a fair observation were the person concerned just some ordinary footsoldier, quietly pursuing enjoyment away from the public eye. But that isn't the case here, in at least three respects.
Whilst any list of completionists quite possibly includes one or two fake claims, and while completions are - and must continue to be - taken on trust, there is a problem where active counter-evidence crops up. The only previous case has been that of A E Robertson, the first Munroist, whose diaries state that he didn't make it up Ben Wyvis. (For more on this see Peter Drummond's defence of AER in TAC44, pp12-13.) With McNeish there is no formal written statement that he hasn't climbed one or more of the Corbetts, nor anything which indicates that a Corbett was only climbed after TCA appeared. But there is a huge indication of lack of knowledge of these hills, via casual copying, careless mistakes and the near-complete absence of the personal input that must surely flow from on-the-ground knowledge. It's telling, in an exception-that-proves-the-rule way, that McNeish's Cobbler and Ledi/Benvane write-ups are clearly those of someone who has been on the hills in question - as this inevitably begs the question of why his fingerprints do not appear on the other pieces. Paradoxically, McNeish's defence (at least of his purported Corbetteer status) might have been stronger had every TCA piece been an obvious crib. As it is, the presence of two undoubted by-him chunks casts a shadow over the provenance of all the rest: he could do it there, so why not everywhere?
Then there is the question of profile. Again, it wouldn't matter were McNeish just some humble plod of the hills, but he's not: he's a public figure, the high-profile editor of TGO, el presidento of the Scottish Ramblers and in many ways now the most well-known of Scottish hill writers. For the majority of occasional walkers, or present-buying relatives of walkers, McNeish's name is the one they know and (perhaps) trust. When a hassled TV or radio researcher is looking for a soundbite on some hill-or access-related matter, McNeish is the name that springs to mind and so he gets the gig. He is where he wants to be in the Scottish hill world: a kind of Mr Big, at least in terms of the less-experienced end of the market. He's welcome to such a role if he really wants it (although many hillgoers see blatant self-projection as anathema to the spirit of the hills). But he has to be there on merit, has to be transparent in his claimed status, and there is very little within TCA that engenders such credibility or trust.
Finally, lurking behind everything, is the question of money. Ask around, and you quickly learn that McNeish has a fondness for the folding stuff - and while such stories might simply be rumour, malicious or otherwise, they are so widespread that it would be surprising were there not at least a small campfire beneath all the smoke. Again, he is entitled to as much cash - advances, royalties, sponsorship deals - as he can stuff into his rucksack if he has genuinely earned it; but not if he is cashing in on the work of others. McNeish has made considerable spondulicks from Beinn Spionnaidh and the like, but every TCA sale has decreased the amount that ought, by rights, to have gone into the SMC coffers (and thence to the various hill-related organisations that the club's trust supports by way of sales).
It could be argued that McNeish is a victim of his own success: the initial publication of TCA preceded his sudden status as a TV presenter on Wilderness Walks, and without this the book would have shifted far fewer units. Maybe; but a boost in media profile doesn't provide a serious defence for the cribbing of existing work, and certainly not for the continued availability (and 1999 revision) of a book which has actively cashed in on McNeish the minor TV celeb.
It's possible that we'll never get straight answers to all these questions, as it would be a surprise were TAC's offer of reply space taken up. There's nothing in McNeish's career to date to suggest that he'll come out of the woodwork on this one, given that he habitually declines to respond to even mildly critical letters from readers at TGO.
But with a full-blown revision of the SMC's Corbetts book now not far away (it would have been published already save for delays due to foot and mouth), it might be thought that TCA's publisher should quietly withdraw McNeish's "version" from the shelves while having a quiet word with the author with regard to his future creative integrity. We live in a cold commercial world however, and that is no more likely to happen than is McNeish suddenly admitting that his book owes a massive debt to the SMC. What might prove worthwhile however is for some genuine been-there-done-that hill folk to follow Macdonald's lead and raise the matter with McNeish at his talks and media presentations, in hope of obtaining a clearer picture of what has gone on. Certainly, as things stand, it's very hard to open TCA and read this bold statement - "The moral right of the author has been asserted" - without raising a rhetorical eyebrow and asking: "Really?"
The Corbett Almanac, NWP, 1994, 1999, ISBN 1 897784 72 4, £7.99
The Corbetts and other Scottish Hills, SMC, 1990, 1996, ISBN 0 907 521 51 7, £16.95