The Angry Corrie 56: Jan-Mar 2003

Bagging with a bag: The Book of the Bivvy, by Ronald Turnbull

Cicerone Press, 2001, 144pp, ISBN 1 85284 342 X, 9

Review: Val Hamilton

IF BIVVYING has never appealed, this book is unlikely to change your proclivities. My only bivvy was one night in an orange plastic bag less than a mile from the sanctuary of a North York Moors scout hut. I remember nothing of the experience, though I have never wished to repeat it. Prompted by reading The Book of the Bivvy, I suspect I was warm but damp rather than cold but dry that night. Lesson no.1: if you are warm you will be wet. Your choices are shiver or drip, frostbite or trenchfoot.

This book would make warts-and-all portraiture seem sycophantic. Bivvying for Turnbull is not about using a bag rather than a tent: it is a minimalist philosophy. No stove, no extra gear, no reading matter (unless you choose a fertiliser sack for your bag). There is no attempt to dissemble. The pleasure is not gained from the time in the bag: it is in the extended time outside the bag made possible because you are travelling so light that you can go further, faster, for longer.

Perhaps because there is a limit to what you can say about a practice which is at best intrinsically uncomfortable and often masochistically unpleasant, The Book of the Bivvy deals with much more than bivvying. There are sections on Corbettbagging, photography, food and night walking, along with numerous tales of bivvy trips undertaken, with varying amounts of route detail. These aspects are loosely intertwined and it is hard from the chapter headings to re-find Turnbull's bag-buy recommendations or his guide to the moon's phases. The index is glitchy: they are clearly very "Special Forces" which can appear on pages "117 687 73" of a 144-page book.

The section on bivvy bag history is selective and could have been developed, particularly for example on the distinction between a traditional Scottish doss and a bivvy. Strangely, there is no discussion of the origins of the exotic word "bivouac". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is not Inuit as I would have guessed but a French/German concoction dating from the Thirty Years War. ("Bivvy" appears in Jonathon Green's wonderful Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, given as a mid-late 19th century word for "alcohol, especially beer [var. on bevvy]". This neatly recycles the occasional Scottish conversion of "bivouacking" into "bevvy-walking" - Ed.)

There are times when Turnbull's discursive approach verges on hasty cut-and-paste. An anecdote about Alpine hut breakfasts and toilets starts and then stops within four-and-a-half lines. On page 69 he comments: "Gaiters are very useful and necessary items, ornamental too in a heavy-legged sort of way. It is just that I've never had occasion to own a pair." But on page 94, avoiding a deer fence on Beinn Liath Mhor a'Ghuibhais Li [sic]: "We go round, and rise up the moor at least as steadily as the peat slop rises up our gaiters." (Strange how people bad-mouth gaiters. They keep your feet dry, your socks clean and bits of heather out of your boots. Why should anyone dislike them?)

Of a day on Beinn Ime and Beinn Luibhean, Turnbull writes: "No path joins Corbett to Munro, and nor does any guidebook." But in their entries for Luibhean, the SMC's The Corbetts, the McNeish guide, and the SMC Southern Highlands guide all suggest combining these hills, and for good measure Hamish Brown in Climbing the Corbetts links Luibhean with Ime, Narnain and the Cobbler in a "satisfying round".

Yet there are gems among the jottings such as the description of how many different things Rothiemurchus can do with just three types of trees. The lapses distract only slightly from an entertaining and thought-provoking book and maybe the lack of structure can be excused in a paean to the amorphous bivvy bag.

If you are a hardened or wrinkled bivvyer, you will relish sharing the misery. If you are contemplating bivvying as a means to an end, there is valuable practical information scattered throughout. If, like me, you prefer to sacrifice distance and summits for the comfort of a leisurely evening with a brew and a book in a midge-free tent, this is the perfect reading matter. It only weighs 170g, and knowing how others are suffering will compensate for any aching shoulders.

...and the man himself responds to the editorial disrepecting of Schiehallion in TAC54, pp8-9

TAC 56 Index