As Cameron McNeish publishes his autobiography this week, he looks back over 40 years of writing about hills as a way of making a living.
IF someone had told me four decades ago, as I took my first tentative steps on this rather curious career of mine, that one day I would write an autobiography I simply wouldn’t have believed them.
In fact, if that person had suggested that such a career could last for over 40 years then I’d had thought them to be truly off their trolley.
Four decades ago you were considered to be pretty nuts to give up a formal career to go and climb mountains for a living. There were very few professional, full-time mountain bums but amongst those who were happy to go against the accepted thinking of the day were WH Murray, Tom Weir and Hamish Brown, three outstanding individuals who were each to play an important role in my own mountain career.
After leaving school I considered a number of jobs. Top of the list was training to be a PE teacher but I hadn’t enjoyed my school years and the thought of another three years in further education absolutely appalled me. Instead I spent a few years bumming around in various jobs, ranging from a police officer to selling life insurance. I even slaved in a pub for a while but ended up working for the Ford Motor Credit Company, an experience that didn’t particularly stimulate me either.
I had to wear a suit and a collar and tie and my boss complained because I’d grown a beard. I had become increasingly frustrated by city and corporate life and I badly wanted to break out.
When I eventually handed in my notice my boss asked me what I really wanted to do with my life? When I told him I wanted to try and earn a living from climbing mountains he just laughed and shook his head. It soon became the office joke.
In truth I had absolutely no idea how I was going to make a living from climbing hills, but I knew that if it was something I wanted to do desperately enough, I would get there. And I had a very good role model…
In years to come Tom Weir was to become a close friend and mentor and there have been very few who have managed to showcase this wee country of ours in the way that Tommy did through his hugely popular STV Weir’s Way television shows. During the sixties I think I was the only teenager in Scotland who bought the Scots Magazine every month – solely for Tom Weir’s column, a monthly epistle he penned for no less than 46 years.
A few years ago I had the honour of jointly unveiling his statue at Balmaha, on the shores of his beloved Loch Lomond, along with Jimmie Macgregor. It was a very poignant moment for me.
Tom and I had similar backgrounds – he came from Springburn in Glasgow and I come from Govan, so in a sense we both escaped from the working class streets of the city to the hills and glens of Scotland.
I should point out that neither of us came from a deprived background – that wasn’t the motivation for leaving Glasgow behind. We both led pretty busy and fulfilled lives as teenagers and young men. Tommy played the drums in a skiffle group and, believe it or not, was a champion wrestler. I was a Scottish Junior long jump champion and a Scottish international at the age of 18.
I think we were both aware our chosen sports wouldn’t last a lifetime, and perhaps we were both searching for a career that would see us into our dotage. Tom certainly knew he wanted to be a writer – he asked his sister Molly Weir to teach him to touch-type. She agreed, at the cost of two and six a lesson!
My long-term vision wasn’t as clear-cut as Tommy’s. I fell into full-time writing after spending some years as a youth hostel warden and as an outdoor instructor, but managed to sell my first article about climbing hills when I was 26.
For the next decade I mixed outdoor instructing and writing and in every spare moment I could find I wandered the hills of Scotland. I became a qualified Nordic Ski Instructor and ran a ski school in Aviemore each winter alongside Alpine instructor Ian Baxter, father of Alain Baxter, who went on to become a very successful international downhill racer.
In those days I was motivated by the challenge the hills offered. Rock climbing, winter climbing, hard ski-ing, backpacking long multi-day routes over the mountains and all the time writing about it, eventually making radio programmes, editing magazines, writing books and later breaking into television.
And in the course of that exploration of the highlands and islands of Scotland I began to truly appreciate what a wonderful country this was. In time I stopped thinking of Scotland’s hills as a racetrack or as an arena for self-achievement, but as places rich in social history, folklore, culture and spirituality.
In the nineties I began a period of regular travelling, exploring the mountains and wilderness areas of the Himalayas, Morocco, Jordan, the Alpine countries, Iceland, Scandinavia and the US.
My wife Gina and I hiked the John Muir Trail twice and I climbed some fascinating mountains like Elbrus, Ararat in Turkey, Kilimanjaro and the most beautiful of them all, the Matterhorn.
Increasingly, on my return home, I became more and more aware of just how special Scotland was – this wee country on the edge of Europe wasn’t inferior in any way. Soon I began to take an interest in other aspects of Scotland – our culture, our history, our traditional music and eventually, our politics.
During those years I also learned something else. I became aware that this ‘wilderness’ that inspired me wasn’t a wilderness at all. I regularly came across signs of man’s former habitations in the glens – the gable walls still standing, the ruckle of stones that were the remains of shielings, the holy wells and the ancient tracings of tracks that today go nowhere. Faced with these emptied glens I always sensed a sadness in my soul.
Many areas of the Highlands and Islands still cry out in their emptiness, in their man-made emptiness, and over the years I’ve become aware that those folk who were evicted took their ‘connection to the land’ with them; they took much of their local history with them; they took much of their culture with them and I realised the spiritual depth of bonding between people and place had been cruelly violated by what we now know as the clearances.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling I have when I come across these places today, but the Gaelic has a word for it – cianalas (key-ann-a-lass.) I have my friend, the ecologist and author Alastair McIntosh to thank for giving me that word. It defines a kind of sad wearisomeness.
So, like my old mentor Tommy Weir, this life-long journey of mine has taken me from a young and hugely enthusiastic mountain climber to someone who has broadened his reach and understanding of the country he lives in, a country that continues to inspire and stimulate me to this day.
I’m extremely blessed that as I creak into old age I still have so much of my own country to discover, and still manage to make a living in doing so.
There’s Always the Hills, is published by Sandstone Press on 15th February. It is available to order here.