Always a little further

viewpointIT’S something I learned from Hamish Brown. Never pass a second-hand bookshop.

Hamish, of course, has interest in a huge variety of subjects, from the hills and mountains of this glorious country to poetry and literature and even ancient graveyards. To his eyes, a second-hand bookshop is a treasure trove to be reveled in.

My own interests are possibly less widespread than Hamish’s but nevertheless I’ve spent many a sweet hour leisurely bumbling through rows of musty smelling books in search of one of those rare classics that make up the literature of our hill-going activities.

I’ve found a few in my time and it was in a dark little grotto of a bookshop many years ago that I discovered one of the great gems of Scottish hill walking lore, Alastair Borthwick’s Always a Little Further.

That book gave me hours of intense enjoyment – the author’s reminiscences from the 1930’s when life was less complex than it is today but nevertheless a time when the shadow of fascism was casting its gloom across Europe – perhaps not so different from today? I was in the early throes of my own hill career when I discovered this book and Borthwick’s yarns and tales of derring-do captured my imagination in a way that no other book did.

There was something fresh and innocent about it, a book about a young man discovering something new and vitally important at a time when areas of Scotland were wilder and less well known than they are now.

Sadly, I lost that book when I lent it to a friend and never got it back, but my good pal Graham Forbes, author of the excellent Rock and Roll Mountains kindly sent me another copy at Christmas, a copy that’s even signed by the author!

It’s been a delight to lose myself in it again, a book I first read over forty years ago. In those four decades my own perceptions about the hills and mountains of Scotland have changed considerably but it was fascinating to see that many things probably never change. Do you recognise this scenario?

“The tendency for walkers and climbers to admire the view is always most marked in the early hours of the day. There are base creatures who insinuate that the object of such halts is not the view at all, but the desire for a rest; and in fairness to this theory it must be admitted that stops become infrequent after the party has warmed to its task or sees the end in sight, whereas early in the morning its members are collectively and individually struck by the beauty of the landscape and are forced to admire or photograph at intervals of ten minutes. If a day ever comes when all hikers and mountaineers are fighting fit, the manufacturers of film will feel the draught.”

I guess digital cameras have created that particular draught rather than the fitness of climbers.

Of course digital photography is only part of the technological revolution that is changing our society but even in the thirties there was obviously a sense of modern life being something to escape from.

“But to my mind it (climbing) finds its chief justification as an antidote for modern city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. (On the crag) one cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it; its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primeval fathers did before him the climbers’ worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it.”

It’s fascinating to look back and realize that even in the thirties busloads of people would escape from the cities every weekend in search of fresh air and freedom. Not only climbers and hillwalkers, but general tourists too. Perhaps the board members of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park should read the introductory chapter of ‘Always a Little Further.’ The members might then recognize that these full-on assaults on the Loch Lomond area on holiday weekends are not new.

“… Arrochar, for all its air of cheap bustle, could not conceal the fact that it existed on the fringe of tripper-land, that it was an outpost among the resorts dotted about the Firth of Clyde to cater for the week-ends and summer holidays of Glasgow. The bustle was confined to a narrow strip along the shores of loch Long… where a mile of tents cluttered up the roadside.”

I guess some things never change but Alastair Borthwick, from the mists of time past, suggests that we have failed to learn lessons from the past. Eighty-three years ago he was writing about the same issues that Park managers are complaining of today. In that time no-one has provided the solution to the problem that Borthwick pointed out;

“we wondered if anywhere in the district there was a campsite beyond earshot of bagpipes and squalling infants.”

There wasn’t. Later there were two campsites and a hostel on the loch shores at nearby Ardgartan, but all three are now closed, replaced by a hotel and luxury self-catering – and that is the cause of many of the problems that currently exist in our first National Park.

Arrochar today

So many campsites are given over to holiday chalets and most campsites are only open between May and September. The vast majority of them are over priced and out of reach of those who just want to put down a backpacking tent for a night or two. The ludicrous creation of a camp-site at Loch Chon (where, you might ask?) will no nothing to ease the problem and the Forestry Commission, who in 2014 paid over £7M for part of Rothiemurchus Estate, in a secret purchase of an area already protected by National Park status, is now reluctant to donate any of their land holdings for campsite use. You sometimes feel that land reform in Scotland has barely moved on…

Despite that, Always a Little Further reminds us why we climb hills. Take away the conservation issues, the expensive gear, the media attention given to accidents and all the problems our wild areas face and remember the glorious vistas, the magical sunsets, the sounds of silence and the companionship of like-minded friends. Thank you Graham, your Christmas gift has revitalised a spirit jaded by modern times.

Always a Little Further, by Alastair Borthwick, first published by Faber & Faber in 1939

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