A Lancastrian’s North West Legacy

viewpointCameron McNeish remembers Richard Gilbert, author and mountaineer

I’M at the age, unfortunately, when I attend more funerals than weddings and conversations with contemporaries commonly start with “Have you heard about…”

Sometime the news of the death of someone you didn’t actually know can have an effect on you and that was certainly the case when I read of the passing of Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.

I immediately thought of the late Chris Brasher who had been one of Bannister’s pacemakers in that epic race in 1953 and the effect he had on my life. Amongst many other things Chris gave me the title of my latest book, but that’s another story…

When I was a youngster the name of Roger Bannister was synonymous with pioneering, as were Ed Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing, the first men to climb the highest mountain in the world. Bannister couldn’t be described as the greatest athlete of his generation, just as Hillary and Tenzing weren’t the greatest mountaineers, but the fact they all achieved ‘firsts’ assured them of lasting fame.

The hillwalking world tends not to produce individuals of such iconic status but nevertheless there are those enthusiastic individuals who, from time to time, create a legacy that sets them apart. Richard Gilbert was one such person.

Richard backed by Suilven, in his beloved Northwest Highlands

Richard was an ex-President of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, and a member of the Alpine Club and the Climbers Climb. Born in Lancaster, for much of his working life he taught chemistry at a private school, Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, where he founded a mountaineering and climbing club. In 1977 he was made a Winston Churchill Fellow for leading the first-ever school expedition to the Himalaya.

In many ways Richard’s background couldn’t have been more different from my own. I came from working-glass Glasgow and had bummed around several jobs before I settled on an outdoors career. And yet when I first met Richard Gilbert in the early eighties we both realised we had something in common – we were both passionate about Scottish hills and mountains.

In my early years as an outdoors writer I would meet Richard at various industry functions and because neither of us were terribly keen on the more commercial side of such events we would inevitably take ourselves off to a quiet corner with a beer and chat amiably about the hills, especially those wild areas of the North-West Highlands.

I mention that area of Scotland specifically, for that is the part of Scotland that I most associate with Richard Gilbert. Shortly after becoming Munroist No. 101 in 1971 he bought a house just outside Ullapool from where he roamed and explored Wester Ross, Assynt and Sutherland whenever the opportunity arose over the next forty or so years. In many ways his writings ‘opened up’ these northern wonderlands to the hill-going public, especially when he published a neat little volume called Exploring the Far North West of Scotland, (Cordee).

This little book was subtitled, ‘A walker’s guide to the hills, glens and coastline of Wester Ross and Sutherland’ and was published in 1994, at a time when only the climbing oriented Scottish Mountaineering Trust truly served the needs of the growing hillwalking public. Richard’s book opened new doors to this area, stimulated and inspired people to travel beyond Ullapool, and cast a glowing light on a region that was relatively unknown other than to the odd stravaiging gangrel.

In the preface to this book Richard wrote: “I have covered all the principle mountains in this area irrespective of height for, in the North West Highlands, the status of Munro or Corbett is not an important criterion. Such gems as Ben Stack, Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Ben More Coigach, Beinn Ghoblach and Bean a’Chearcaill do not make either list yet can be guaranteed to provide memorable days for the connoisseur.

“I have climbed old favourites such as An Teallach well over a dozen times and the pleasure never fades. Even the less fashionable Corbetts, several of which I climbed only recently for the purpose of including them in this book, gave me wonderful mountain days with visits to hitherto unknown corries, gorges and glens and unusual prospects of better-known peaks. For the record, ascents of all thirty-five Munros and thirty-nine Corbetts within the area are described.”

While I will always be hugely appreciative of Richard’s knowledge of the North-West I think it’s fair to say he will be remembered for the three glossy, image-heavy tomes he edited in collaboration with the late, and great, Ken Wilson.

Following on the huge success of Classic Climbs, Ken wanted to use the same design structure for a book on hillwalking so he enlisted the help of Richard Gilbert and together they produced the first of what would be a trio of wonderful books – Big Walks. That was published in 1980. Classic Walks was published in 1982 and Wild Walks saw the light of day in 1988.

Each book was a fabulous compendium of walking routes from a list of authors who would have made up a who’s-who of the outdoors world at the time. Together Richard and Ken sourced and selected some truly evocative photographs for the books and for me that combination of well-written personal accounts of walks, combined with images by some of the finest of our mountain photographers helped create a trio of books that have never, ever, been matched for sheer visual and informative quality.

Treasured copy of ‘The Big Walks’ at Walkhighlands HQ.

The collaboration between Richard Gilbert and Ken Wilson was a massively successful one, although Richard did once confess to me that working with Ken Wilson had made his hair turn prematurely white! Ken was certainly known as a perfectionist and his many books, under the Diadem and Baton-Wicks imprints, made a literary contribution to mountaineering and hillgoing that has never been matched.

Sadly Richard suffered from a genetic kidney problem and had daily dialysis from a comparatively young age. Even in ill-health, when constant to-and froing to hospital would have cast lesser men into the depths of depression, Richard made full use of every free hour to get outdoors, either at his North Yorkshire home, or on his regular visits to the north-west.

He was a dedicated and passionate enthusiast for the North West highlands, and in his own way, was one of the great pioneers of the Scottish hills. He sadly died in hospital in York in January, aged 80.

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