IF you spend enough time traipsing around the Scottish mountains you will meet two species of irritants. The first is the midge, which, save donning a beekeeper’s suit, you’re stuck with. The second, and more beastly, is the Munro bagger. In Walking the Song, his new collection of old work, Hamish Brown describes meeting one.
In the 1960s, he was sitting on top of Liathach in Torridon with two of his students when a “condescending” man approached and started quizzing the travellers on how many Munros they had conquered. Finding out that Brown’s dog had scaled more than he had, “the man looked around, visibly shaken”, then scarpered. That’s one way of dealing with them.
Loading article content
The best Munro bagger repellent invented is Muriel Gray’s The First Fifty. Gray laughs to the top of every mountain, mainly at the expense of her fellow walkers. Brown could be mistaken for a “bagger” himself, but he’s no hobbyist. His life has been dedicated to the hills and he’s always “mindful of the Arab saying, ‘Hurry is the devil’.”
Even illiterate walkers own a copy of Hamish’s Mountain Walk (1971), an account of an uninterrupted complete circuit of all the Munros.
It’s considered a classic, but Walking the Song won’t fall into that exalted category. It is a potpourri of articles and reflections that move from earliest childhood to the last few years. By the end it seems akin to a broken kind of memoir. Like life, it is pellucid and exhilarating at times but also full of annoying trivia.
Brown’s essays on, for example, his camper vans or his Shetland collies should have been left in that dark drawer labelled “maybe” that exists in every writer’s room. Even the stories and experiences that are genuinely interesting are ruined by a prose style that lacks sharpness or consistency. Many of the paragraphs read like quick write-ups from Brown’s “logbook” and are in need of an editor. We do not get much sense of what Scottish mountains look like or what it feels like to be in the midst of them. Mostly we get names of routes and peaks, and bland descriptions of when he stopped for tea and what he ate.
It comes as a surprise when an essay like A Day of Glory Given crops up. This smooth account of a Christmas Day hike through the “vast lightness” of the Hebrides makes you understand why Brown is so entranced by the hills. He writes of being “possessed by landscape” and describes looking up at a sky “the delicate blue of a blackbird egg”. At one point he is enveloped in the rare “ineffable” silence only the wild can gift to us.
Brown experienced this kind of silence once when travelling through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco; one of the better essays traces the similarities between Highland and North African life. Although he has lived in Fife for many years, he has not just stuck to his local patch.
His “first consciousness of hills was sitting on a windowsill looking at Fuji Yama in Japan” when he was seven. He was trying to see his parents, who had gone off climbing without him. The family ended up as refugees in South Africa and the “very scent of the landscape” is still with him now, 70-odd years later. The young Brown soon moved to the Ochils in Scotland. His parents allowed him the freedom of the countryside: “I slept out on the hills. I learned their intricacies as a shepherd does. I roamed them at night with a Tilley lamp …”
One day he met WK Holmes, author of Tramping Scottish Hills, and Brown was soon reading the books of JHB Bell and WH Murray. Holmes became a good friend and instilled in Brown an “enthusiasm for everything out there, up there, whether investigating supposed ancient copper mines, watching the weird roding woodcock above the glen…or dreaming of adventures further afield”.
Like Holmes, Brown passed on his enthusiasm for tramping the highways and byways.
In the 1960s, he worked at Braehead School in Fife and ran a pioneering course in what would now be called outdoor education.
He took young people into the wilds to help foster their curiosity about the natural world.
Brown’s writing might not evince much wonder, but he does deserve due praise for introducing a whole generation to the beauty of the Scottish landscape. And along the way, he didn’t forget to teach them that “there is a lot more to the mountains than reaching the top”.
Walking the Song by Hamish Brown is published by Sandstone, priced £8.99