Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Notes: Tramping the Scottish Hills by W. Kersley Holmes

The local author Maurice Fleming (one-time editor of The Scots Magazine), had a clear-out of old books from his enormous collection. I am aware of this only because his son who occasionally comments on this bog under an elusive pseudonym, arranged for one of them to come my way. I am delighted that it did so too, as it is a thoroughly charming volume.

W. Kersley Holmes was a Scottish hillwalker, who recorded many of his mountain exploits in the 1940s. A fastidiously polite and somewhat whimsical hill-diarist, his memoirs are fascinating reading for the contemporary Highlandphile.

What fascinated me most as I read Holmes' meanderings was how much has changed since the 1940s. Obviously mountains are never a number of 'metres' high; and maps are always 'inches to the mile', and many spellings of Scottish peaks have subsequently altered, or been standardised by the OS. Below those obvious surface differences, many more significance divergences emerge, lurking in the author's occasional asides. Clearly in the 1940s the ancient tradition of Highland Hospitality was still (presumably enhanced by wartime camaraderie) in operation. Holmes on one occasion speaks with confidence about making for a remote hamlet before nightfall to find a home willing to let him stay.

I was also struck by the author's lack of faith in the OS maps he had available in the post-war years, revealing his frustration at the errors of cartographers, particularly in regard to paths apparent on the map - yet absent on the hill! I have only one OS map on which I am sure there is a significant mistake, and this I suspect is a printing rather than surveying problem. The hills were also frequented by far fewer people in those days - and while Highland estates allowed Holmes and his companions to drive along many Glens now long since closed to public vehicles; today we at least have reliable waterproofs to protect us on the elongated "walk-in". Holmes often reports that his kit failed and he walked for hours, absolutely soaked through to the skin.

Yet for all these differences, some things remain the same. For a start, the hills themselves are little altered. Granted - some of Holmes' descriptions of Glens have changed in terms of forestry use; but the ridges, tops, scrambles and views are just as they were in his day. The path behind Benmore Farm up Cranlarich's Ben More, maybe more eroded and harder to lose in fog than it was in 1947 - but it is still as unrelentingly steep, and rewards the walker with an equally stunning vista. Likewise Beinn Eighe might not be as exotically unvisited as it was in austerity Britain, with campsites, youth hostels and new tarmac roads now adjacent - but the silvery quartz and little pinnacled ridge is still just as Holmes describes.

The other thing that remains, is the effect that the hills have on those who climb them. Holmes must have spent every weekend on some peak or other, from the Pentlands to Wester Ross, and he clearly adored the visual impact of the scenery as much as the exhilaration of pitting himself against it in strenuous long-distance escapades. He eulogises his mountains, speaks of them as he would of friends, fondly remembering rain-sodden peat hags as well as soaring sun-lit ridge scrambles. As anyone who has been in the hills within the last year or two will know - The Highlands' ability to kindle such emotions has lost none of its potency since Holmes' explorations over sixty years ago.

1 comment:

Grendel said...

Nice review. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop and found it a great read. It's very interesting comparing how things have changed in sixty odd years- no railway under Ben Ledi now!