Walkhighlands regular contributor David Lintern has written the first complete guide to mainland Britain’s big hill running Rounds – part guidebook, part social history. Here, he focuses on the man and the story behind the Scottish Round.
Charlie Ramsay is irrepressible. A devoted grandad, he talks as enthusiastically about his family as he does about hill running – that’s hill running, you understand – none of that fell running in Scotland, please and thankyou. He may be quietly proud of his own achievements in the hills, but he’s thoroughly modest about how the Round came about… and he delights in what others have since achieved. He still regularly makes the journey from his home in Edinburgh to Glen Nevis to support many challengers at their start and finish of their runs, and sometimes shows up near Corrour with his wife Mary, and cake! I have never met anyone quite like him – his energy and enthusiasm seem utterly boundless. He’s an inspiration and a national treasure.
In July 1978, Charlie made a record breaking run across the mountains of Lochaber, a 24 hour round that was the natural successor to the much more famous Bob Graham Round in the Lake District, and slightly predates the Welsh Classical Round, developed by Paddy Buckley (first run by Wendy Dodds in 1982).
Beginning from the Glen Nevis YHA, he ran across the Mamores, down to Loch Treig, over the Munros west of Loch Ossian, over the Easians near Fersit, across the Grey Corries, before traversing the Aonachs and Ben Nevis. He made it back to the youth hostel with 2 minutes to spare in a time of 23hr, 58mins. His Round is (more or less) 28879ft (8803m) of ascent over 57.6 miles (92.83km), 23 Munros and 1 subsidiary top.
Here’s a film by climber and Lochaber local Dave Macleod, which features Charlie and gives a flavour of what’s involved.
My own journey with the Ramsay Round started in 2013. I’d not long returned from a big walk across the Pyrenees, was new to Scotland and looking for more challenging routes that might emulate that immersion in wild country that I’d fallen in love with in Europe. I run a little now but then I was a backpacker only, but the Ramsay immediately grabbed my attention. By pure luck, I met Charlie soon after, and his Round remains my personal favourite of the ‘Big Three’. I’ve since visited all of the tops several times, but I’ve still not run the route and certainly won’t be trying to keep up with the current record holder. Es Tresidder recently stole 81 seconds from Jasmin Paris’ record with a time of 16:13:53! To recap, that’s about 58 miles with an Everest’s worth of climb, in a bit over 16 hours…
But regardless of whether you walk or run, the real joy and challenge of these routes is in making a complete traverse… especially if you’ve tackled individual hills or in groups before. Ever stood on a summit, and realised with a jolt that you recognise somewhere on the horizon you visited years before, but from a completely new perspective? These routes help you make those kinds of connections, tenfold. Macro and Micro, it’s all about the line, and relationships – not just the tops themselves, but the quieter, less visited places inbetween. As for the Big Rounds as a group, together they illustrate the differences in our regional mountain cultures, as well as the rich social and historical links between them.
Charlie started out as a time trials cyclist, but sold his bikes when he moved to London for work. Back in Edinburgh and working as a swimming recreation officer for Edinburgh Council, he began running up Arthur’s Seat in his lunch hour, as a break from the chlorinated atmosphere of the Royal Commonwealth Pool.
“I ran the odd road race unattached to any club before my first Ben Nevis race in 1974. A year later, I joined Lochaber Athletic Club. Going up and down the hills, I thought it was great. There were not many runners doing that sort of thing in those days. But I wasn’t that focused on the racing as a priority. On the bike, I enjoyed time trials much more than road racing… For me, that love of racing against the clock carried on into the hills.
“Everyone at Lochaber Athletic Club was talking about something called Tranter’s Walk, but it was impossible to find out anything about it.” From his work office, Charlie called Tom Weir, who filled in the details. “He was a mine of information. I have to be thankful to Tom Weir. In a roundabout way, he had a part to play in the history of the Round.”
Tranter’s Walk was devised by Philip Tranter, a civil engineer and the son of Nigel Tranter, the historical novelist, who in turn was based just down the road from Charlie, in Gullane on the Lothian coast. In June 1964, Tranter and his friend Blythe Wright walked right around Glen Nevis, over the Mamores, the Grey Corries, the Aonachs and Ben Nevis. Charlie completed his first Tranter’s in 1977, in a time of “about 18 hours”.
Back in the city, he met up for lunchtime runs with a Kendal stone mason who was working on the building opposite the pool. Charlie met up again with Boyd Millen while he and his family were on holiday in the Lake District, and Boyd invited him for a jog up Skiddaw.
“When I arrived, there was Chris Brasher, Paddy Buckley and George Rhodes, all trying for the Round. There was another guy there – one of the original pacers for Bob Graham himself – Phil Davidson, plus a few other stalwarts, Joss Naylor for one. I had no idea what I was doing there!”
Charlie was now implicated in Brasher’s first attempt (of three) at the Bob Graham Round.
There’s a hell of a lot more to this story – as he tells in the book – but to cut to the chase, everyone but Charlie dropped out and quite by accident the Edinburgh lad stole the show, becoming Bob Graham Club member no.82.
That evening he was invited out to dinner by Chris and his team. “The whole family went. We thought it was great; we’d been eating beans and fish fingers and living in a tent all week… Chris asked me if there was an equivalent to the Bob Graham Round in Scotland, and if not, would I like to set one up? I felt like I had a sense of the model now. All I did was to extend Tranter’s round, because I knew the area well by then. Over winter, I looked at the map and by adding in the 5 Treig Munros, I could see that it would bring it up to around the same mileage as the Bob Graham.”
Charlie is perhaps being overly modest here, and I’ve quizzed him about it further; “I think the Philip Tranter Round is phenomenal, and how I extended it makes it tougher. To be honest, the valley section is probably the boring and difficult bit, but taken as a whole, it adds to the quality of the challenge.”
It’s true that the ‘valley section’, which runs along Glen Nevis from the end of the Mamores to Beinn na Lap, is consistently one of the parts of the Round that bedevils runners. Even for walkers, it’s a long way and incredibly easy to underestimate, overheat or just run out of steam. It’s certainly caught me out more than once.
Charlie and fellow contender Paddy Buckley became friends after Brasher’s Bob Graham attempt, and the fellowship between the men clearly sowed the seed for a Welsh Round too. It shows how the history of the Ramsay is bound together with the other Rounds. For me, this is where and how our natural and cultural heritage meet. It’s outdoor culture in the making. These Big Rounds are made as much of people as they are of mountains.