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

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