Singing the music of the hills

A number of years ago an old friend of mine, Dennis Gray, a former secretary of the British Mountaineering Council and a bit of a folky,  produced a CD of four climbing songs.

The Legend of Joe Brown, The Last of the Grand Old Masters, (both written by the late Tom Patey, one of Scotland’s finest climbers), The Climbing Clemantine by Showell Styles of Wales and The Climbers’ Rap, the original version of which was written by Rosie Smith and Dennis for the 1988 BMC Annual Conference.

At the time of the CD’s release Dennis told me he had over a hundred such songs in his collection but could only afford to produce a small CD at that moment in time. Hopefully he’ll record some more in the future but his little collection made me wonder how many such songs exist, songs that have been inspired by climbing mountains, or by the great outdoors in general. We certainly appear to have a bit of a tradition in the UK for writing outdoor-type songs – Ewan McCall’s Manchester Rambler and Joy of Living are great examples, as are many of RunRig’s songs.

The other night I sat in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and listened to some great music at the opening night of the Celtic Connections festival. On stage was fiddler Duncan Chisholm, who appeared on one of my Pilgrims’ Trail television shows at Christmas. Duncan had been telling me how the wild places of Scotland had inspired him and had been such a creative source for his music writing. As I listened to him play a slow air the other night I could see the lochs and feel the breeze coming off the water – I could almost smell the sharp tang of the hills…

It has long struck me that the whole canon of such music can be broken down into various strands – there are those traditional outdoor songs like The Tangle o’ the Isles, or The Hiking Song or I Love to Go A’Wandering, or the Uist Tramping Song, many of which came from the great hiking boom of the thirties. Then there are those gems that came from the folk music tradition, like Ewan MacColl’s timeless Manchester Rambler, or his atmospheric Joy of Living or some of the traditional classics like Wild Mountain Thyme or Tramps and Beggars and, as I’ve been discovering, there is even a powerful strand of contemporary song-writing that is apparently inspired by “escaping from the city to the great outdoors.”

Someone told me a while ago about a band from Manchester called the Desolation Angels. Apparently band members love walking and “they regularly escape to Edale in the Peak District whenever they feel stressed or needs their outdoor fix.” They wrote a song called Mam Tor after the famous Derbyshire peak. Another contemporary band called The Doves, a young band from Manchester, recorded a song recently called Snowdon that, apparently, did quite well in the charts.

I’m also well aware that if we want to hear great modern music with an outdoor appeal in the lyrics we need look no further than our own RunRig.

When I did a television walk a few years ago with Donnie Munro, the band’s former lead singer, he told me that much of RunRig’s music, written by Calum and Rory MacDonald, was inspired by the mountains and landscape of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  Indeed, one of the band’s most recent albums includes a song called the Summer Walkers, a marvellous sing-along that could well become a classic of the genre, a song about the travelling folk:

“Summer comes to Sutherland

And you bend the hazel bow

You harness up the ponies

And you head out on the road

By Kilbreck and Altnaharra

You journey to your rest

With the guiding might of Suilven

For the campsites of the West


“And it’s up by the Shin

And up by the Naver

And the long winding shores

Of Loch Maree

By Ben Hope and Ben Loyal

By Stack and by Arkle

The road reaches far

Now the summer is here”

Even the late folk/rock/blues singer John Martyn recorded a song that celebrates the outdoor life – Spencer the Rover.

“These words were composed by Spencer the Rover

Who had travelled Great Britain and most parts of Wales

He had been so reduced which caused great confusion

And that was the reason he went on the roam.”

The other great possible strand would come from the classical tradition. I’m not sure if you could create a Top Ten of outdoor-themed music or song without including Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Fingal’s Cave.

Much of this interest comes from discussions with students from the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and there appears to be enthusiasm for creating an archive of such songs and music. If any reader knows of other such songs I’d love to hear from you.

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