Lochnagar, looking anything but Dark

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ENJOYED a lovely afternoon on Conachraig, Lochnagar’s little neighbour, a couple of days ago. 

While Lochnagar is a fine mountain in its own right you get the best views of it from Conachraig, as is so often the case with the smaller hills. And there wasn’t a drop of snow on the Corbett…

This is the view from close to Conachraig’s summit.

 

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Mind music for the turbo-trainer…

Aside

WHILE the south of England has seen temperatures approaching 20C here in Badenoch winter still retains a wet and windy hand.

It’s not been a bad winter in terms of snowfall and cold. The temperature has rarely dropped below zero and although there has been record levels of snow on the hills the climbers and skiers have had some difficulty in enjoying it because of the winds and avalanche threat.

I had a superb day on Cruach Ardrain, near Crianlarich, last month, filming for an Adventure Show walk, and it’s a long time since I experienced as much snow on these hills. But since then the wind and the rain and unseasonably high temperatures have stripped away much of that snow and although there is still a huge amount of snow on the tops it is considerably less than it was a month ago.

But it’s as a cyclist that I’ve affected more recently. For much of the winter I’ve managed to get the miles in, although on some days I’ve been wrapped up like a Michelin Man, but generally it’s been OK. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I had a few runs wearing shorts, although I’ve had to dig the bib-tights out again in recent days. But it’s the wind that has been the big factor once again.

After a few days of purgatory, trying to make any kind of progress into the breeze, I had a couple of good sessions on the mountain bike through Glenmore and Rothiemurchus forests where I was largely protected from the wind by the trees.

But this week the wind and rain have made road biking, and even mountain biking, a pretty miserablye experience, so bad that I’ve hauled the dreaded turbo-trainer from it’s little hole in the garage where I try and hide it from sight.

I really don’t enjoy working out on a turbo-trainer, but sometimes needs must. I very rarely last more than an hour on it and more usually pack in a session of about 45-50 minutes. That includes various interval sessions like 10x 10secs flat out with 10 sec recovery. I do two or tree of these with 5 mins between each set, or more usually 8×30 secs flat out with 30 sec recovery. The rest of the time I do a kind of ‘fartlek’ routine, speed and rhythm dependent on the music track that I play, and this is crucial.

I’ve found that music helps a lot in keeping my brain from simply clouding over, not into any useful “zone” type way but in sheer and utter boredom. The beat and pace of the music helps a lot too and I have two or three albums that I’ve been playing a lot of recently, albums that really seem to help.

Now my choice of music won’t appeal to everyone. Essentially I’m a folkie, and there is a lot of good, driving instrumental sets that would be ideal for turbo-training but I’ve stuck with two Oysterband albums. The wonderful Ragged Kingdom album which features the singing of June Tabor and the recently released Diamonds on the Water album. Both these albums are brilliant – a good driving bass and drum and brilliant vocals and lyrics to keep my mind working.

Yesterday I had a turbo session to the music of Mike Oldfield and his superb new album Man on the Rocks which features the voice of a young man called Luke Spiller, a tremendously gifted vocalist who sounds remarkably like a young version of the late and great Freddie Mercury.

So these are the three albums that are keeping me sane this fag-end of the winter, and I really hope we are approaching the end of miserable March. I have a real longing for the balmy days of summer, with the hum of tyres on a dry road surface, wearing shorts and cycling jersey and the feel of the sun on the back of my head.

But will I get that in Ireland when Hamish and I cycle between Mizen Head and Malin Head in May? Probably not – Ireland is better known for its prodigious amounts of rain but at least we’ll have the Guinness and the craik to look forward to in the evenings, the daily rewards for whatever we have to put up with during the day. But on the other hand, the Celtic weather gods might just smile kindly on us…

The Hebridean Trail – Barra to the Butt of Lewis

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From the lonely shieling of the misty island,

Mountains divide us, and the wastes of seas,

Yet the blood is still strong, the heart is highland,

And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides

IN all the years I’ve been hillwalking I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by a mountain top view. Beyond the flowing skirts of the hill there appeared to be more water than land and trying to count all the lochs and lochans was an impossible task. I gave up after several dozen. And as though to emphasise the watery theme, there, beyond the ribbed coastline, lay the sea – the Atlantic Ocean on on one side and the Minch on the other. It was all quite extraordinary.

The land, not that there was much of it, was no more than a ragged framework holding each lochan in place. And that realisation in itself was extraordinary. The evening before, in Lochmaddy’s Taigh Chearsabhagh art centre I had examined the superbly crafted framework of a suspended Canadian canoe. Beautifully woven from heather, willow and salmon skins, it was explained that the framework was a kind of open vessel for ideas and sensations that represented the material landscape (or waterscape) of North Uist.

Now I was beginning to understand. That canoe framework was a metaphor for the framework of the land that held all this water in place. But it was also the framework of a vessel that carried Andy Mackinnon, curator of Taigh Chearsabhagh and my companion on Eaval, the hill we stood on, on a two-day journey by Canadian canoe across the island with the respected land-artist Chris Drury – a vessel for ideas and revelations that were to be inspired by the journey.

The result of that very physical canoe journey was the Taigh Chearsabhagh exhibition, an art display that focussed on a fascinating collage of photographs and words that remind us that this is an inhabited and named landscape going back to Neolithic times. Naming it, and the language used, embeds it within the culture of the area. Every single loch, island and landscape feature has a name, and using digital technology Andy and Chris Drury recreated an image of the landscape as a lacework of words in Gaelic, Norse and English, naming all the lochs, islands and hills seen from the summit of Eaval.

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Eaval, North Uist

Andy Mackinnon lives under the shadow of this hill, which he describes as the “Fuji of the Hebrides”. Although comparatively diminutive Eaval (347m) has a character that’s out of all proportion to its height. Viewed from the east the hill appears, appropriately, as a giant wave about to break over the watery landscape of North Uist. A loch-dodging walk and preamble took us on to heathery slopes before a steeper rock scrambling route took us directly to the summit and the surprising panorama that ranges from the hills of Harris, over the loch-infested waters of North Uist and across Grimsay and Benbecula to the big hills of South Uist and beyond them to Eriskay and Barra. Behind us the hills of Skye and Wester Ross were perfectly clear. It was one of the best hill days I’d had for years.

Not only was it a great walk with an astonishing view but I experienced a deep sense that those revelations on Eaval had given me a greater appreciation of the historic land use of the Outer Hebrides. This curved chain of islands, lying on the very edge of Europe, couldn’t really be described as unduly wild or remote. People have lived and worked here for thousands of years, and they still do. It’s rare to view a scene without a house in it. Only in the hills of North Harris could you come anywhere approaching wilderness.

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The view north from Eaval

A number of years ago my wife and I attempted to walk the length of the Outer Isles but gave up after a few days, frustrated by bad weather and too much road walking. But there was something else. Bubbling below the obvious excuses was a sense of disappointment, a gnawing awareness, that the Hebridean landscape was not what I had expected – it didn’t seem wild enough.

Since that abortive journey I’ve learned a number of things. How a mountain bike can made short shrift of road sections; how a glimpse of sunshine is capable of transforming the Western Isles into the most glorious kaleidoscope of colours and rich landscape textures you’ll find anywhere; and how ‘wildness’ can be discovered in the most unexpected places. It was enough to make me want to return, but this time I wanted to link the hillwalking with visits to some historical sites and, at the same time, I was keen to try and discover something of the way of life of the modern Hebridean.

On that earlier journey Gina and I began with a traverse of the little hill range that forms the spine of Barra. That turned out to be the best day of the trip. This time, with a BBC film crew following, I trudged up the main road out of Castlebay to where the south-east ridge of Sheabhal climbs to the highest point on the island at 383 metres. This ridge offered the simplest route to the summit, and we climbed past a statue of the Madonna and Child, a reminder that these southern islands of the Hebrides, somehow, managed to escape the anti-Cathlic curbs of the Reformation.

Beyond the statue we could barely stand upright in the south-east wind, so we tried to tuck ourselves behind the ridge and approach the summit from the south-west. This certainly helped avoid the worst of the gales and gave us a bit of a breather – it was good to take a break and gaze down on the village, its wide bay and the castle that dominates it.

 “Bravely against wind and tide,

They have brought us to ‘neath Kisimul’s walls

Kisimul castle of ancient glory”

Kisimul Castle was the ancient seat of the MacNeils of Barra, and the song refers to the MacNeil’s galley, or birlinn, from which the clan dominated these Hebridean seas.

We reached the summit of the hill in just over an hour from the road and could just discern the tail-end of the Hebridean chain drifting off to the south – Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray, names that songs are made of. Another island, to the north of us, has its own song too. We followed the broad ridge north before descending to the ferry to the island of the love lilt –bonnie Eriskay.

The idea behind this journey through the Outer Hebrides, and the television programme that was to be made of it, was to try and link up all the good hillwalking areas in a continuous journey by foot and on mountain bike. That sounds fine in theory but sometimes, just sometimes, the Hebridean weather has other ideas. It’s commonly accepted that the wind is a constant companion on the Outer Hebrides. It also rains now and again, and that’s what put the kybosh on my plans to climb Bheinn Mhor and Hecla, the big hills of South Uist. The weather was just too grey and miserable for filming.  But all wasn’t lost – we discovered an interesting alternative. We crossed the causeway between Eriskay and South and the film crew took my bike while I set out to hike the length of the superb Machair Way, a new 20-mile route that runs up the west coast between Smeircleit and Aird a’Mhachair through the delightful machairs of South Uist.

This was a great opportunity to walk through one of the most beautiful landscape features that exists in Scotland and in high summer the machair boasts one of the greatest wildflower displays to be found anywhere in the British Isles. The flowers change as the season progresses starting with the yellow tints of Buttercups, Marsh Marigolds, Yellow Rattle, and Kidney Vetch then progressing through pinks and purples as the season moves into August. The plants flourish in the machair because the soil is rich in lime and if you’re lucky you’ll find relatively rare species too, like Irish Lady’s Tresses, Orchids, and Yellow Rattle. The adjoining meadows are also rich in the likes of Red Clover and Scottish Bluebells.

But what is machair, and what makes it such a distinctive landscape feature? The word is Gaelic, meaning an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. It’s also become a recognised scientific term for a specific coastal feature, defined by some as a type of dune pasture (often calcareous) that is subject to local cultivation, and has developed in wet and windy conditions. This coastal strip generally runs from the beach to where the sand encroaches on to peat further inland. It’s one of the rarest habitats in Europe, found only in the north and west of Britain and Ireland. Almost half of the Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides, with the best and most extensive here in the Uists.

It was invigorating to walk north with the stormy seas to my left and the south-westerly wind blowing me up the entire length of the Machair Way. Another causeway took me over to Benbecula where I took to the bike once more, making my way across the island to North Uist and and my mind-stretching appointment with little Eaval.

After Eaval it was on the bike again and over the causeway to Berneray then onto the ferry for South Harris. Some of the best cycling of the trip then took me past the magnificent shell beaches of Sgarasta and Luskentyre to the start of another long walking trail – the 26-mile long Frith-Rathad an Hearadh, or the Harris Walkway. I’d officially opened this route back in 2003 and I was looking forward to its variety; the climb over the spine of the island by an old coffin route to the east coast where the land is so rocky that people used to have to carry their dead to the more fertile soils of the west coast for burial. A combination of quiet roads and old tracks then took me through the area known as The Bays up to Tarbert and the start of what was once described as the finest footpath in Britain – the trail to Rhenigidale

In 1962 Herbert Gatliff, a wealthy benefactor and a founder member of the Youth Hostels Association, bought an old house in Rhenigidale and opened it as a hostel, the first of the five Gatliff Trust hostels that still exist in the Western Isles. You could only reach it by narrow footpath or boat and the facilities were basic. Despite that almost a hundred people stayed there in the first year, and many more were to follow. Today there is a road that runs to the village, robbing it of its unique claim to fame as the UK’s most remote settlements, but it’s still worth a visit.

As I crossed over the high pass between Trolamul and Beinn Tarsuinn the Shiant Islands appeared below us, like great shark fins rising from the waters of the Minch. The path descended to the head of Loch Trolamalaig in a series of a dozen tight hairpin bends to where a wooden bridge crosses the stream at the head of the loch before the path climbs again, out of the narrow glen and above the sea loch to the cleared village of Gary-altoteger.

I was tempted to linger here for a while, to try and imagine what life must have been like in such a place – indeed, to try and imagine what it must have like to be evicted from such a place! But time was against me. I briefly visited Rhenigidale, well aware I had a 3-mile tarmac trudge up the glen to Loch Maraig and my next hill climb, to An Clisham, at 799m the highest hill in the Outer Hebrides. And what a marvellous little hill this is. View it if you can from the south, ands gaze up into the impressively rocky Coire Dubh and its three summits of Mulla bho Dheas, An t-Isean and An Clisham itself. Most folk climb up its south ridge from the old Whaling Station at Bunavoneadair, on the Hushinish road and the advantage of starting from this point is that you can traverse the three tops in a fine horseshoe route, descending via the broad Tarsaval ridge. I still wanted to traverse the three tops that rise above Coire Dubh but I wouldn’t be returning to the starting point again.. My plan was to hike on north from the summit of Mulla bho Dheas into the wilds of North Harris. This was the wild backpacking section of my journey, wandering through the magnificently remote hills of North Harris, camping for the night near Kinlochresort with only a herd of deer for company and realising why this area should become Scotland’s next National Park. The estate is now owned by the local community and the North Harris Trust has lost no time in making it clear to the Scottish Government that they would like to see National Park status for their area.  At the moment they have to convince the windfarm-infatuated Western Isles Council that it’s a good idea and that won’t be so easy, but the people of Harris have sent out a very clear signal that they want new life and prosperity for one of Scotland’s most fragile island communities. National Park status could go a long way to achieving that.

I caught up with the film crew next morning, on the B8011 road from where I cycled to the standing stones at Callanish then up the west coast of Lewis to the northern tip of the island, and journey’s end, at the rocky, gull-infested Butt of Lewis. It had been a magnificent journey and as I paused below the lighthouse at the northern point of the Outer Hebrides I reflected on the diversity of the landscapes I had passed through, the wealth of the historic and archeological sites I had visited, the cultures of the islands that are so different from anything to be found on the mainland, and the excellence of the hill walking to be found here. I was also very aware that I had missed much, that there were still some great areas to visit, and I was glad of it. That means I have to return and I’m already looking forward to it.

The Hebridean Trail was broadcast on BBC Scotland on 27th December 2010. The DVD of the programme is now available from http://www.mountain-media.co.uk

Journey’s end at the Butt of Lewis

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Navigating the hills with a Smartphone

I’VE been rather bemused by an ongoing debate that suggests it is irresponsible to use smartphones for mountain navigation purposes.  

Oops – I’ve been navigating, almost solely, by downloaded maps on my iPhone for at least three years.

Having said that I also carry the appropriate paper Ordnance Survey amp and a compass as a back-up, but I honestly can’t remember when I last used a traditional map and compass to navigate. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the weather.

I download maps from a developer called RoadTour and they interface with the GPS facility on my iPhone (currently using an iPhone5), so I can tell, at a glance, where I am at any given time. Now obviously this requires some map-reading skills to correlate where I am on the map with where I am in real time but with 35 plus years of hill navigation experience that’s not a problem.

There’s a tremendous peace of mind when you can look at a map on a smartphone and see exactly where you are.

One of the issues with using a smartphone is battery power and you have to be very careful the battery is topped up. This isn’t ideal if you are on a multi-day backpacking trip but I’ve never had my battery die on me yet on day walks. And using a solitary paper map is not without it’s hazards either. Over the years I’ve lost several maps when the wind has clutched them out my hands and blew them away.

RoadTour splits Scotland, England and Wales into 13 different regions and the Ordnance Survey map to each region costs just over £11. You can use the maps at either 1:50,000 or 1:25,000, and they are ideal for walkers or cyclists. 

Would I consider going on the hill armed only with a Smartphone? To be perfectly honest I have done it, frequently, but having the back-up of a traditional paper map and a compass makes common sense, provided you have the skills to use them.

And even with a Smartphone, an inbuilt GPS locator and the appropriate digital map you still need skills to use them. There’s no short-cut I’m afraid, and the best, most useful way to learn, is with traditional map and compass.

Scotland’s finest mountain writer – WH Murray

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WH Murray, Scotland’s finest mountain writer

IT was an unlikely setting for a revelation that was to dramatically change the way I viewed mountains and wild places. A teenage infatuation with climbing mountains had me scouring the library shelves of Paisley Public Library for anything to do with hills and how to climb them and it was during one such search that I came across two books that were, in their approach to mountaineering, quite different from anything I’d read before.

Mountaineering in Scotland, and Undiscovered Scotland, by WH Murray were as I recall, rather old-fashioned and almost Gothic in style – more Frank Smythe than Chris Bonington, but there was an emotional depth to the writing that was new to me. Even in my inexperience I was already aware that there was much more to climbing mountains than just successfully completing a rock climb or reaching a summit cairn. Those two books touched me deeply and helped form the genesis of what became a lifelong journey of discovery, a search for the Holy Grail of the outdoors, the desire to ‘connect’ with wild land.

I had already glimpsed something of this awareness on a visit to the Isle of Skye. As a relatively inexperienced youth I had sweated up the Great Stone Chute from Coire Lagan in the Cuillin. I reached the narrow stance between Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and Sgurr Alastair and then scrambled up to Alastair’s summit, trembling with the exertion and excitement. I had no idea Scottish mountains could be as precipitously rugged as this and with the scree struggle and the steep scrambling behind me I felt I had undergone a rite of passage, an experience that had earned a form of kinship with this remarkable mountain range.

I clearly remember the emotion I felt. It was something more fundamental than ownership, more vibrant that any sense of achievement. I felt I had been accepted as part of the fabric of the mountain, part of that biotic community that is made up from rock and light and air… I had connected with the mountain and in doing so, transcended my own being.

Many years later, I made a television programme with the American outdoorsman Ray Jardine in which we hiked through the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon State, discussing various aspects of wild land and how we react to it. Sometime later, in a letter, Ray told me that he sensed the tensions I had been carrying on that backpacking tripthe concerns and anxieties that go cheek-in-jowl with making a television programme.

“I was aware of a great eagle walking along behind me,” he told me, ”An eagle whose wings were tied and who so desperately wanted to cut loose and soar.”

Ray suggested why  ‘connection’ with the land was so important. “We might remember that despite our almost overwhelming technology, we are still flesh and bone,” he wrote. “Our bodies are an integral part of Mother Earth. The air we breathe is her breath, rippling the grasses in the meadow. The water we drink is her life-blood, tumbling from the snowy heights. Every molecule in us is not our own, but a part of Mother Earth. We are borrowing that molecule from her, and will have to give it back when we leave.

“This is one problem with city life, where we tend to hide from all that. But in fact the more richly we connect with Mother Earth, the higher and farther we can walk our Paths. With this in mind, each footstep blesses the earth and the journey itself becomes sacred. I think everyone experiences this.”

That may read as rather fanciful, a typical West Coast American response to experiencing the natural world, but I was attracted to Ray’s concept of sacredness, reminding me of Bill Murray’s descriptions of his relationship with mountains, which often appeared as hallowed experiences, as though a divine intervention had separated him from his former self into something new, refreshed and re-created!

Without any doubt, Bill Murray’s writings had made me look at mountains in a different light, as though there was something more to be gained from the experience, an intangible that was almost always just out of reach…

It was also Bill Murray who, indirectly, got me involved in television. I was climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia, the highest mountain in Europe, and at the same time a small film crew from the UK was accompanying mountaineer Chris Bonington on his attempt to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.

Once we’d climbed the peak we all got together for a few beers and the director of the film crew, Richard Else, asked me if I knew anything of the Scottish mountain writer WH Murray? He hoped to make a film about Murray’s life and he was keen that the BBC should broadcast it. We chatted for some time about Murray’s influence in the lives of many Scottish mountaineers and it was some weeks later that Richard telephoned me to say that the BBC were interested in a film about Murray, but as part of a bigger six-part series that documented the last century of Scottish mountaineering. He then asked me if I would like to present the series.

Needless to say I had little hesitation in accepting the role and so began a hectic few months of researching, recruiting climbers and television crew and filming the climbs, much of it in the depth of winter, from Ben Nevis to the Skye Cuillin. The resultant series, The Edge – 100 Years of Scottish Mountaineering, was a huge success with viewing figures of about three million. The episode about Bill Murray was later awarded a Scottish BAFTA.

For me, the most memorable day in those hectic few months was when I spent a day with Bill Murray at his home at Lochwood on the shores of Loch Goil. Bill and his wife Anne couldn’t have been more hospitable, even when we had to completely re-arrange their small living room so we could erect lights and sort out camera positions.

The couple put up with all our demands with good humour before we settled down and I interviewed Bill about the writing of what is probably his most successful book, Mountaineering in Scotland.

This is an account of climbing in the highlands in the years preceding World War 2 and the first draft of the book was written in prisoner-of-war camps after Bill was captured in the Western Desert. Just as he had completed that first draft Gestapo officials who believed it might be some kind of coded message to Czech patriots took it from him. He was interrogated at length and the manuscript was destroyed.

Most of us would probably have given up at that point, the thought of starting all over again in such horrific circumstances being too much of a psychological barrier, but the tenacity that had made Murray such a fine mountaineer turned what was a major setback into a positive benefit.

During our television interview, Bill described what happened next: “In Czechoslovakia I did get good paper. This time I knew what I had to say so I was able to write faster and was actually able to improve greatly on the first version. I still kept the manuscript in my battledress tunic because we had numerous searches and it was a frightening time.

“Towards the end of the war we were all expecting the SS to come in and machine-gun the lot of us – we had heard they were doing that in Eastern Europe, but we had found ways of taking our minds off that thought and for me it was living in the mountains in my imagination. Although we were on a starvation diet of 800 calories a day – rotten turnips and potato peelings – one kept going mainly in the hope that the unexpected would happen and we would be released.”

Released they were, and Murray returned to the UK and his book was published by Dent of London. His editor wanted him to remove some of the content, which he felt was too ‘spiritual’ but Murray refused, insisting that such chapters were integral to the book, the circumstances of its writing and its subject matter.

Many commentators have since suggested that it was this spirituality, the sacredness of Murray’s relationship to wild nature and mountains in particular, that allowed many to gain a full measure of what mountains and wild land mean to us.  It’s an aspect of wildness that gave our aboriginal forefathers a meaning in life, a purpose, a belief system that supported them and gave them a reverence for the land. It’s exactly this reverence for wild land that set William Hutchison Murray apart as a mountaineering writer and created an agenda for his later work as a landscape conservationist.

In the years leading up to his death in 2006 I met Bill a number of times. He always struck me as mild-mannered, extremely polite and unassuming. To others, he seemed distant and pre-occupied, a very private man. I knew that he had once considered entering the monastic life but after spending some time in a Benedictine monastery in Devon he decided the life of a monk wasn’t for him. Instead he would become a full time writer.

His autobiography, Evidence of Things Not Seen, published in 2002, six years after his death, sheds a little more light on the spiritual side of his character. Having said that the autobiography was a curious book in many ways and felt incomplete. Indeed, Bill had passed away before finishing the book and the final chapters were apparently only draft versions, chapters that appeared strangely out of character with Bill’s tolerant and forgiving nature. It wasn’t until I read The Sunlit Summit, an exceptionally good biography of Murray by Robin Lloyd-Jones, published earlier this year, that I began to fully realise the depth and nature of Murray’s own spiritual search, a pursuit of meaning that was bound inextricably with his devotion to wild places.

The Sunlit Summit is a masterly biography – in terms of mountaineering books I would put it on an equal footing with Jim Perrin’s wonderful biography of Menlove Edwards, and in the book I discovered much more about Murray’s search for a spiritual life. It was in a prisoner-of war camp that he met a young Indian Army officer called called Herbert Buck, who explained to him the concepts of something called Perennial Philosophy, which Wikipedia describes as: “a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.”

Perennial Philosophy was the subject of a successful book by Aldous Huxley and had earlier been made popular by transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the US, but it would appear that Murray had little knowledge of the subject until he met Buck in Oflag V111 F at Mahrisch Trubau in Czechoslovakia. That meeting changed his life, indeed in a letter to his old friend and climbing companion Douglas Scott he said the prisoner-of-war years were “the most profitable of my life.” He wasn’t only referring to the writing of Mountainerering in Scotland, but also to his spiritual development.

In The Sunlit Summit, biographer Lloyd-Jones asserts: “From the point of meeting Herbert Buck onwards, the quest to find self fulfillment through union with the Divine Essence, with Absolute Beauty and Truth, was the most central and important thing in his life. To try and understand him on any other terms than this is to misunderstand him.”

So what was it Murray discovered and what was this mystical philosophy that was to become the driving force in his life? I suppose many people today would equate Perennial Philosophy with New-Age thinking, and they probably wouldn’t be far wrong. In populist terms Murray was closer to George Harrison than Cliff Richard, choosing a pick-and-mix type of religion that embraced Hinduism and Budhism, transcendental meditation, a hint of pantheism and a good dose of traditional Presbyterianism. ‘Denial of self’ was an essential condition for reaching his spiritual ‘sunlit summit.’

In many ways Bill Murray trod a similar path to John Muir, who once suggested his “mountainanity and Christianity came from the same source.” But Muir’s religion was much more directly related to Christian doctrine – his father had been a fundamentalist lay preacher and evangelist and Muir rarely travelled anywhere without his copy of the New Testament. Murray’s spiritual studies tended to have more of an Eastern flavour, and led him into a life of service in terms of his conservation work and his enthusiasm for encouraging others.

Murray’s own conservation ethic was an interesting one. He often commented that the hills were becoming too busy and what we required was a more measured and sustainable management of our mountain environment in a way that not only recognised the needs and aspirations of the human communities who live there, but the conservation of the landscape and wildlife that also lived there. The fundamental question that many people were asking in the sixties and seventies was “what are our mountains for?”

Not long before he died, Bill Murray answered that very question in a little booklet called Scotland’s Mountains: An Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is what he wrote.

“Walking and mountaineering can certainly teach how vital wild land is to our physical and spiritual health. It teaches values, gives purpose and enjoyment. But wild land is not there simply to minister to our needs of recreation. Beware the exploiters who blindly assert that ‘mountains exist for public enjoyment’ and then proceed, for expedient motives or money, to destroy the very qualities that most make the mountains worth knowing – their natural beauty and quiet. Land and wildlife have their own being in their own right. Our recreation is an incidental gain, not an end in itself to be profitably pursued by exploiting land where that means degrading it. The human privilege is to take decisions for more than our own good; our reward, that it turns out to be best for us too.”

Bill Murray’s spiritual thinking was one of reverence for and celebration of wild places, not in the normal anthropocentric view of man being dominant, or even as man having stewardship of the earth, but offering instead an ecocentric perspective that suggests the earth does not belong to man, but conversely, man belongs to the earth.

Bill realized that wild places should not merely be regarded as an arena neither for attempting to conquer nature, nor as a racetrack, or as a playground in which people can try and sharpen their personal spirit of achievement, but as a place of worship. Through the spirit of wildness the achievements we gain are measured more in terms of fulfillment and depth-of-being rather than how many mountains we can climb over a long weekend.

Mountains and wild landscapes helped Bill Murray to discover realms of his own life that he was previously unaware of, realms that enabled him to transcend the limits of his own human-centred thinking. He clearly had no desire to even attempt to separate the mountains from the mystic, to take the sacred out of wildness. He wanted to experience more, much more, than the cold relics of the earth’s bare bones.

“Wisdom standeth at the top of high places. From our promontory we look up to the cloud of unknowing that wraps the last height, and from its radiance we know the summit is in sunlight.” (Mountaineering in Scotland)

The Sunlit Summit, by Robin Lloyd-Jones, Sandstone Press

First published in the Scots Magazine

Mizen Head to Malin Head taking shape

IN between bike rides my old mate Hamish Telfer and I formed some plans the other day for our upcoming bike ride through Ireland in a couple of month’s time.

A few glasses of wine saw us trying to work out distances on a road map of Ireland and we were beginning to depress ourselves with the distances involved when we realised all the routes were in kilometres!

Biggest difficulty of a route like this is working out how to get to the start and how to get home from the end, and in the big end-to-end rides we’ve tackled so far (LEJOG, then La Manche to the Med) this has been the most awkward.

We’ve managed to get to the start in a complicated kind of a way. I’ll pick up a hired van and we’ll take it to Holyhead before dumping it. Then it’s a ferry to Dublin, a night in a hotel then the train, with bikes, next morning to Cork.

From Cork we’ll spend a day and a half cycling out to Mizen Head, the actual start point of the trip.

At the other end, Malin Head, we’ll cycle to the Magilligin Point ferry and then cycle down the Causeway Coast back to Larne where we hope to pick up a coach that bring us back to Scotland, as far as Glasgow. We’ll part company there – Hamish to return by train to Kendal and Sedbergh and me to get the train north to Badenoch.

We’ve worked out a total distance of about 570 miles, shorter than both LEJOG and La Manche to the Med but we suspect the riding will be harder than either of the other trips. Hope to be well fuelled with Guinness though…

If anyone has any other ideas about the start and finish I’d love to hear their views, and indeed about any other aspect of the route. We’ve worked out the journey as follows;

Mizen Head to Kenmare

Kenmare to Kilrush

Kilrush to Doleen and Aran Islands

Aran Islands ro Rossaveel then Westport

Westport to Sligo

Sligo to Donegal

Donegal to Buncrana

Buncrana to Malin Head

Malin Head to Greencastle ferry

Magilligan Point to Cushendall

Cushendall to Larne 

Any comments/criticism gratefully received. We’re keen to stay west as much as possible and keen to visit the Arans and also have a night in Matt Molloy’s pub in Westport. Indeed, we’re keen to pack in as much music as we can en route.

Once that’s all taken car of we plan another good ride later in the year – Newtonmore to Oban, Oban to Barra, up the length of the Hebrides to Butt of Lewis then back to Stornoway. Ferry to Ullapool and cycle back to Newtonmore. I’m going to be seeing spinning wheels in my sleep…

Wild camping – the joys and the challenges

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Cycle camping in France

MY afternoon on the high, rolling plateau had been a delight. The soft drizzle of the morning had evaporated and was replaced by a wind torn sky that gave the sun an opportunity to cast its spotlight over distant hills, the cloud shadows moving over the landscape, filling every scoop and hollow in a chequerwork of black and gold. Far and wide, under the infinity of this domed sky the land stretched away, ruffled and tumbled, ridge over ridge, horizon over horizon, rolling moors and shadow-stained glen, clear-cut land and glistening lochans.

Greatly enjoying the theatre of it all I walked into the early evening, into the upper reaches of a wild and beautiful mountain corrie where I camped on a little patch of clumpy grass, sheltered by a low moraine. At times like this I go onto automatic pilot – the well practiced procedures of setting up camp and arranging everything for the night have become so ingrained that I could probably do it with my eyes shut. Which is as well, for so often I find myself at this point of the day tired and thirsty and there have been times when that well-oiled routine has meant the difference between a comfortable night and a grim one – especially in bad weather.

This evening was easy. The pack came off and I pulled the tent from its stuff sack, leaving everything else I’d need for the night in the pack so I didn’t lose anything. When choosing a campsite I usually check the ground to see if there is a slope and if there is a slight one I tend to sleep with my feet at the higher end. The tent poles and pegs live in the same stuff sack as the tent so I pulled them out and connected the pole ends together. I then staked out one end of the tent so it didn’t blow away if a gust of wind should catch it. The poles then went through the sleeves, I pulled the tent panels out firmly to avoid any creases in the groundsheet, then staked out the corners and the guy lines.

Once the tent was erected it was time to pull out the sleep-mat, inflate it, and lay it inside the tent. Next came the sleeping bag. I pulled it out of its waterproof stuff sack, gave it a shake or two to allow the air to fluff up the down and inflate it a bit then I laid it on the sleep mat. Next job, before I finally crawled inside the tent, was to take my two water bladders and fill them. On this occasion there was stream of fresh water close by away so I filled the bladders using my mug to take the water from the shallow stream.

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Wild camping in Kintail

I then took out my stove, pots, knife and spoon and the rest of the things I might need for the night – a bag of food, a book, tomorrow’s map and a headtorch. By this time I was ready to lie down. After a day’s backpacking and all the bending down involved in putting up the tent I find my back tends to stiffen up, so it’s great to lie down inside the tent for a few moments and just stretch it, a moment of bliss.

Next came the best moment of any wild camping experience. Lighting the stove, putting on a pot of water and anticipating the first brew. After that the evening passed like so many of them do, in a fuzz of eating and drinking, between long periods of simply gazing out of the open tent door. I always carry a book, and in more recent times a Kindle, but I’m always amazed at how little reading I actually do. After the last brew I snuggle down in the sleeping bag, re-arrange my pillow and drift off to the sound of the breeze and the musical tinkle of the stream, into the deep sleep that only a hard day’s exercise in the fresh air can provide.

From my earliest days as a hillwalker I’ve always enjoyed camping in wild places. My first wild camping experiences were in the Campsies, just north of Glasgow. A school friend and I would take the bus from Glasgow city centre to Blanefield and then, burdened by poorly designed rucksacks and far too much heavy equipment we would toil uphill, find a little nook by a stream, and put up our old canvas tent, borrowed from school. We didn’t have proper sleeping bags but old tartan rugs and we cooked on pots pinched from our mothers’ kitchen. The blackened, soot encrusted pots that were later returned got me into a lot of trouble, but we didn’t have camping stoves and an open fire seemed more in keeping with our romantic notions of wild camping.

Many of the romantic notions came from books like Alistair Borthwick’s wonderful ‘Always a Little Further’ or WH Murray’s ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’ and ‘Undiscovered Scotland’. The late Bill Murray, Scotland’s finest ever mountain writer, was an enthusiastic advocate of the use of a tent when exploring remote quarters of the world.

“To come suddenly on to a mountain plateau and there to see its lonely splash of fawn between silver snow and blue sky was in itself enough to lift a man’s heart,” he wrote. That “splash of fawn” may have lifted Bill’s heart, but his tent would have made modern backpackers grimace at the thought of carrying it.

“The tent was made of reinforced cambric, fawn coloured, with a sewn-in groundsheet, and at each end a circular sleeve-door and ventilator,” Bill wrote. “A ventilator in use could either hang outside like a small wind-sock or be drawn inside – a point that proved of great importance. The poles were bamboo and the tent-pegs aluminium, broad bladed for snow. Around the outside ran a broad canvas skirt, on which snow or boulders could be piled up and the tent anchored independently of pegs. The guys were of stout rope. The tent’s weight was ten pounds, and the size four feet high by seven feet long by four and a half feet broad. It was testified that the tent had withstood hurricanes of a hundred miles per hour in the Himalayas. The price was six pounds ten shillings.”

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My wife relaxing above the Falls of Glomach on the Cape Wrath Trail

Nowadays a modern backpacking tent, for two people, weighs about a third of Bill’s tent, although it costs considerably more. But while good, reliable gear is important, I think I’ve realised over the years that the really vital point of wild camping is that there can be intense joy in simplicity. We live in a wonderfully complex world but occasionally that very complexity can create certain stresses and we long for a simpler existence, even if just for a short time. It’s then, tent up, ensconced in a sleeping bag and a mug of tea at hand the tensions of life can begin to evaporate.

Someone once told me that to really know a mountain you had to sleep on it, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Backpacking, especially for several days at a time, offers an opportunity to escape the strictures of modern society, removed from the artificial constraints of twenty-first century living, and allows you to come close to the natural world once more, to ‘connect’ with it, to remember that we are part and parcel of that world and not a stranger dropped in from outer space.

For many of us, urban living has broken the tie we once had with the natural world. When was the last time you crumbled raw earth in your fingertips? When was the last time you washed your face in the dew? When did you last skinny-dip in a crystal clear highland burn? Even many of our farmers, those you would think are still deeply embedded in the ways of the earth, are invariably at odds with the land because of their modern force feeding, agro-chemical practicies, because of the demands put on them by politicians to qualify for subsidies, because of the large scale factory farming that many of them have adopted. I suspect very few of them would agree with the words of Henry David Thoreau that: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

I’ve often wakened in the morning to see deer grazing within a few feet of my tent and I’ve often sat outside the tent in the evening, binoculars at the eye, watching golden eagle in remote mountain corries. The song of the skylark and the warble of curlews provide familiar background sounds to wild camping and my tent has been visited on occasions by hedgehogs, mice, and on one memorable occasion, a red fox!

The fox was obviously used to campers and I was wakened during the night by the sound of something in the bell-end of the tent. By the time I found my headtorch and switched it on the fox had hauled my bag of food out of the tent and was dragging it across the ground. Fortunately it dropped the bag as I gave chase, dressed only in my underpants!

Experiences like these add colour and vibrancy to wild camps and the outdoor experience, some of which have been hugely memorable for different reasons – camped in a wild frozen landscape on Baffin Island in Canada in temperatures that were touching minus 35 degrees. We were curiously cosy in our little tents as we gazed out on an Arctic sky blazoned with the light show that is the Aurora Borealis.

On another occasion we camped in the crater of an extinct volcano in Guatemala. The only problem was that the neighbouring volcano wasn’t extinct, and every half hour or so we were wakened by a bang and loud roar as the thing erupted and I’ll never forget the night I camped high on Mount Ararat, the mountain of Noah’s Ark, and woke to see the shadow on the mountain cast over the flat plains of the Turkey/Iranian border by the rising sun. All the romance, mythology, and biblical resonances of that fabled mountain seemed to be heightened by the simple beauty of what lay before me.  At that moment of sublimity, if all the animals of the world were to have marched by me, two by two, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

In more recent times, as the old knees and ankles begin to creak a bit, I’ve taken to cycle camping, carrying all my camping gear in panniers and camping wild. Last month an old friend and I cycled from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, some 850 miles, camping along the way and I’ll often load up my old mountain bike and take to the byways of the Cairngorms National Park for a couple of days or so.

Byways. I love that word with its suggestion of peeping over horizons and its resonances of things half forgotten. Offer me the choice between a highway and a byway and I’ll plump for the latter any day – straying from the beaten track has always appealed to me whether I’m walking between two geographical points or more metaphorically, refusing to go with the flow, avoiding the main trod, or simply, going my own way.

The great Scots author Robert Louis Stevenson shared a similar philosophy. He too recognised the value and joy of being in such close contact with the natural world – to hear the call of an owl in the trees overhead, or waken to find a roe deer browsing quietly outside your tent.

At such times the wild camper experiences an intense gratitude for such simple gifts and this appreciation was beautifully articulated by Stevenson after spending a night under some pine trees in the hills of the Cevennes in southern France.

“I had been most hospitably received and punctually served in my green caravanserai. The room was airy, the water excellent, and the dawn had called me to a moment. I say nothing of the tapestries or the inimitable ceiling, nor yet of the view which I commanded from the windows: but I felt I was in someone’s debt for all this liberal entertainment. And so it pleased me, in a half laughing way, to leave pieces of money on the turf as I went along, until I has left enough for my night’s lodgings.”

Evening view from a wild Wester Ross campsite

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