Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Notes: Hillwalkers Bookshelf

There are two kinds of walking books. There are firstly the 'how-to' genre of route guides and technical manuals describing either the best routes up far-flung hills, how to use a map and compass to find your way off them, or how to survive if you get stuck on one of them. On the other hand there are plenty of mountain memoirs, three of which I have read.

If mountain books come in two genres, hillwalkers do too. The first type of hillwalkers are those who drive sensible cars, park at the bottom of nice hills in sensible weather and and sensibly clad in gore-tex, carry sensible equipment, up and down mountains. You will see us, suitably thus bedecked, on any summer weekend on Ben Lomond, or Schiehallion.

On the other hand there are the nutters, the hard core, death-or-glory hillwalking fraternity, whose exploits, deprivations and achievements startle us lesser mortals. There can be no doubt however, that they, have far better stories to tell. Many of the hillwalking books which have really loopy tales date from the early days of hillwalking either side of the war. "Of Big Hills and Wee Men" by Peter Kemp, for example describes the workers in the Govan shipyards hitching to Northwards for weekends of awesome hill adventures. In fact, the early part of the book, which describes such times was fascinating - but I got the feeling that he had exhausted his best stories in the first half of the book and the last section somewhat limped home. Then I realised that the difference was that he had changed! No longer was he engaged in mad-cap adventures, with dangerous characters in snow-covered bothies - but was by the 1990s, driving sensibly to do sensible walks. Great fun to do - less amusing to read.

Ralph Storer's "Joy of Hillwalking" is a fun book as well. His obvious delight in the hills, and slightly odd personality shine from every page.

His loathing of the pre-occupation with Munro-bagging is such that he declined to climb one of them on principle, so that he could never be accused of being a munro-bagger! He admits to feeling a little deflated when the one he had chosen to avoid was declassified in the revision of the tables, leaving him by default, a member of the despised!

"Mountain Days and Bothy Nights" is a hilarious read, nicely written and engaging with a bothy-culture about which I know little. It contains legends, hill tales, great exploits and accounts of adventures in tumbling bothies, and hidden howffs in all corners of the Scottish hills.

I was especially amused with the story of the 'haunted howff' in the Arrochar Alps, and also the occasion in which the Queen met some hillwalkers wearing YCWA badges, somewhere high in the East Grampians. "Oh the YMCA" she smiled - "NO, we're the Young Communist Walkers Association" came the reply!

These are great reading for foul weather when sensible people are not dragging their wretched bodies through peat hags, but are drinking coffee and opening books. They do create a wistful longing for the hills though...

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