The Angry Corrie 54: Jul-Aug 2002
It's not much good if you just don't like it
"It is customary, and frequently proper, to disparage the better known and generally praised aspects of famous beauty, to profess a sense of disappointment when confronted at last by the Taj Mahal, the Victoria Falls, the Golden Horn. Indeed it may be that too much renown vitiates the final experience..." Thus wrote the celebrated journalist (and unlisted Munroist) James Cameron, in his autobiographical 1968 memoir, Point of Departure, and there is truth in what he says. Times have changed however, and the modern trend is for coffee-table books and picture-driven magazines to praise unquestioningly (and often in amusingly overblown prose) the standard totems of landscape. Hills, lochs, cragginess, wildness: these are all deemed unquestionably good and wholesome, and anyone confessing to even mild disappointment at any part of nature's bounty is a philistine and a spoilsport. This looks simplistic however - if nothing else it assumes that objective attractiveness invariably outweighs subjective preference. So here are three assessments - by Val Hamilton, by the editor and by Ronald Turnbull - of habitually praise-sung places which fail to fill them with glowing enthusiasm.
Rum: pier pressure
I WAS LOOKING FORWARD to landing on Rum for a number of reasons. It had long been a desired destination with its combination of dramatic scenery, spectacular wildlife and the out-of-place extravagance of Kinloch Castle. We had got close once before on a CalMac day trip round the Small Isles on a horizonless day when the waves were breaking higher than the cloudbase. To be above decks was to risk exposure (this was of course June), whereas down below the stench of diesel fumes tested the hardiest stomach. Most passengers were therefore crammed into a tiny corridor, half in / half out of the cabin.
There was no chance of going ashore as, in an episode straight from Compton Mackenzie, the skipper of the local "ferry" could not be wakened from his drunken slumber. We spent a long time rocking and rolling in the bay until, in the end, one of the estate wardens commandeered the wee boat and brought out to the ferry numerous crates of velvet crabs and a few drenched passengers.
That would have been in the mid-1980s. This time, in 2001, Rum was to provide my first footfall on dry land after over 24 hours on Shantooti, the yacht in which we were sailing round the Western Isles. I am not a sailor, just as I am no cyclist (but when necessary a walker on a bike). The boat was a means to an end, not a pleasure in itself.
The first impression as we arrived was not good: noisy construction work for the new pier dominated the entrance. Because the cloud was down (of course) there was no jaggy backdrop to distract from this. Going ashore, we were greeted by notices galore, among them foot and mouth warnings. A dozen or so tents huddled against the midges by the shore. We wandered under the arches of vegetation - which seemed dank and oppressive rather than lush - to the seedy castle.
This initial disappointment did not matter too much as the attraction of Rum was its untamed environment - the pay-off for the many years of restricted access. But disillusion deepened. The track heading inland was of the worst kind: recently wrought angular boulders. We stumbled up it in our lightweight boots, passed by a stream of Land Rovers, their drivers barely acknowledging our forays into the orchids to get out of the way. After a couple of miles, we came on another digger, hammering away at the rock. At this point we abandoned our plan to walk to the Kilmory beach and instead headed on a softer (euphemism for boggy) path to a lochan which should have had divers but didn't. At least I learnt that the difference between round-leaved and oval-leaved sundew is not just round/oval leaves. We chose another bog-flog to avoid the track back, wet feet being better than lacerated ones, and returned to Kinloch through a gate adorned with a No Entry foot and mouth sign. The shop was open, but its only postcards were of St Kilda. The folk drinking beer outside ignored us.
Maybe it was just another example of the expectation equation (as expounded in TAC16). It worked the other way the following day on Canna - an island of which I had no particular preconceptions and which was also in the cloud but which was a real treat, buzzing with an upbeat atmosphere.
The Rum do did have one positive aspect, however: I was glad to get back on board Shantooti.
Schiehallion: conic section
THERE IS NO DOUBT that a considerable number of people retain considerable fondness for Schiehallion, so I should start by offering apologies to Stewart Logan, who completed his tenth Munro round with the big Strathtummel hill on the last day of 1999; to Andrew Fraser, who marked his birthday in both 1996 and 2001 by completing his fourth and fifth Munro rounds here; to Irvine Butterfield, who sang many a paean of praise to Schiehallion during the John Muir Trust's fund-raising to buy the hill. And perhaps most of all to Jimmy Keddie, a Glenrothes pensioner who has, down the years, named each of four successive houses you-know-what.
I can never understand the fuss about Schiehallion however - and, to be honest, it's my least favourite big Scottish hill. The distaste is partly topographical, partly circumstantial. For all the famed near-perfect cone when seen from east or west (one of the great calendar clichés), Schiehallion has always seemed dull, even prosaic on the ground (and I've climbed it six times). There's the problem inherent with all visually-dominant peaks - that to stand on it is to remove it from the view - but Sgurr na Ciche, Morven and Tinto come into that category and I get on fine with them. Anyway, there are plenty of other pyramidal hills, eg the eastern Ben Vorlich looks sharper than Schiehallion when seen from near Braco. No, Schiehallion always seems a peculiarly lumpen, bovine thing, shapeless apart from the brutal symmetry that prompts the over-enthusiastic stuff about faeries and physics. (The most famous description of Schiehallion is surely Neil Munro's elegant line about it rising "like a skerry of the sea" when seen across Rannoch Moor. By contrast, Hamish Brown in his Mountain Walk quotes Thomas Gray's description of Schiehallion as "that monstrous creature". I'm more a Gray man than a Munroist, myself.)
Generally, I'm fond of clean-cut hills - Beinn a'Ghlo of the smooth lines and big bold shapes is my favourite Scottish massif. But Schiehallion is just too stripped down, too bare. It's a hill version of one of those under-cooked pieces of modern art where the abiding impression is: "Yes, yes, nice idea, but doesn't it need a bit more work?" Even though the Cnoc nan Aighean spur provides a pleasant variation to the standard Braes of Foss route and gets you away from the peat-scars and the path-repair for a while (as does a diversion via the neighbouring mini-peak of Dun Coillich), in the end there's no real escape from the long slog and the big ridge.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to personal anecdote and incident. In the early 1980s I spent a very long day hitching from Aberdeen to Tummel Bridge en route to Schiehallion, only to wake next morning with tent poles buckling under the weight of overnight snow. Then some years later I rang the keeper to enquire about autumn access by the old path from the west only to be patronised with: "So what path would that be?"
In such moments do hills lose their appeal, and Schiehallion lost it further when a dog snatched my lunch on the summit, unchastised by its owner who appeared to believe I ought to be grateful for being so honoured. (The dog met a mysterious end on descent - my party passed its party searching forlornly at half-height. We joined the search for a few minutes but it was hard to feel sympathetic. A case of chienfreude, perhaps.)
Even my attempts to write about Schiehallion haven't worked out well, as when sub-editorial mangling saw the opening sentence of a Scotsman piece hit the news-stands thus: "To be honest, Hogmanay wwas no a great day to climb Schiehallion" (sic). The office party must have started early that new year.
I'm as much wary as weary of the place, a mood due almost entirely to an incident on my first ascent (13 November 1984, it says here). This was a gloomy trudge in the company of three university colleagues with whom I hardly ever went out again. Andrew Hay became a medic, David Torrance maintained the family tradition for theology, and Jim Fairley inherited his father's building business and married a redhead who every straight male student (and at least half the lesbians) in Aberdeen fancied like mad. I was new to the hills at the time (although Schiehallion was already my 77th Munro) and can remember thinking that the curious canvas-wrapped object sticking out of Jim's rucksack was either a photographic tripod, a collapsible fishing rod, or some kind of foldaway axe (not that there was any snow). It was only as we neared the summit that I twigged how this object linked with Jim's habit of slinking off the side of the path and creeping about in various unappealing bits of heather. He was looking for a grouse for the pot, and his parcel contained a bloody enormous shotgun.
The grouse were lucky - or canny - that day, and we arrived on top with Jim in a slight sulk due to lack of action. He had evidently anticipated this however, as he now produced a large tin can which he balanced on the trig. He then took a few steps back, unwrapped his armament, waved the rest of us behind him like a fly-half telling his three-quarters to stay onside, and let the can and the trig have both barrels.
I had never heard a gun fired at close quarters before, and the noise both deafened and echoed. As Jim reloaded and reblasted I feared that every keeper in Perthshire would come argocatting uphill in righteous anger to apprehend us. After a few minutes and a fair few cartridges Jim carefully wrapped the gun and shoved it back in his sack, along with the seriously-pitted can. Smoke hung in the air and the apprentice surgeon and aspiring Church of Scotland moderator were to be heard laughing with the thrill of it all. I just felt nervous and uneasy - shell-shocked, in a way - and couldn't get back down to civilisation (well, to Braes of Foss) quickly enough.
Now, almost two decades on, this one ultimately harmless incident continues to colour my perception of Schiehallion more than any other. Whenever someone persuades me against my better judgement to climb the hill again, I relapse into a nervy habit of glancing over my shoulder through fear of being apprehended for crimes against solitude and silence.
Gable: lateral thinking
WHEN MEMBERS of the Fell and Rock trooped up to the summit of Great Gable in 1922, they got a horrid shock. All their lives since reaching the age of irresponsibility they'd been leaving hankies on Napes Needle, scraping the moss off Engineer's Slabs, and coming down from Kern Knotts with that wonderful Wasdale view for the man on the stretcher. They'd been looking at Gable from Wasdale Head - and from that direction, and from that direction only, it gives the illusion of being a proper pointed mountain. But when they finally walked up the thing to see where they'd put their new War Memorial plaque thingie, they must have thought: what a ghastly mistake. But the cement had set and it was too late to shift it to Lingmell.
There are nice places all round Gable: places to fall off and break your pelvis, places with astonishing views along Wasdale, small caves, interesting paths not heading upwards to the summit. But Gable itself is by no means Great.
The summit is a stony plateau. As Gable is rather high, you don't get a view from this flat place of anywhere (except for another flat stony place that is the summit of Scafell Pike). It's surfaced with stones, orange peel, and the gritty cremated remains of hillwalkers who still in death subscribe to the collective illusion that Gable is somehow a Good Hill. (Perfectly sensible people found Princess Diana madly sexy, and listen to the music of Jan Garbarek. Billions believe in a personal Godhead.)
The sides of Gable, on the other hand, are steep. Now the bowler-hat outline is perfectly appropriate for a bowler hat: a moderately amusing item, whether what's underneath is an unpleasant Irishman, a Bolivian lady, or an eccentrically old-fashioned English businessman. But it's a damned silly shape for a mountain.
The best hills have no boring route up at all - I'm thinking of Snowdon, I'm thinking of Sgurr nan Gillean. An otherwise good hill can have one boring route and be forgiven - I'm thinking of Mont Blanc, Ben Nevis and Everest. Great Gable, with its flat top and steep sides, has no fewer than five bad ways up. There are three from Wasdale alone. You can go by Beckhead for a steep stony path followed by scree followed by slightly entertaining boulderfield. You can go by the so-called Breast Path which has nothing sexy about it at all. You can go by Aaron Slack, and get steep scree before (well, well) a bouldery bit. There are also a couple of obscure and elitist dull routes out of Ennerdale. There is also Little Hell Gate, so horrible it verges on being fun.
You can, if you're very careful indeed, have a thoroughly satisfactory day on Gable. The trick is to go round and round it but never up. But the top itself is boring and the ways to get there are tiresome. My ashes are going elsewhere.