The Great Tradition

Friday, 8 August 2014


These things build slowly. There’s no immediate recognition that this particular fragment of your life is forming itself so perfectly. You just start out acknowledging the weather is good, that you feel strong and happy and that the day’s challenge matches something inside you that feels important. Things grow from there into something unexpected and welcome, like a ptarmigan scuttling around underfoot or an unexpected breeze as you sweat uphill.
Hours later, you realise that you’re in the middle of something exceptional, something unexpected. I had this feeling a couple of weeks ago, trotting along the crest of Corrag Bhuidhe towards Lord Berkeley’s Seat. Fifteen hundred feet below my feet, the water of Loch Toll an Lochain sucked light into its dull green depths. An Teallach is one of the great mountain days. Rough, blood-orange sandstone, the slab of quartz icing on Sail Liath and Glas Mheall Mor, the Outer Hebrides hazed in blue.
‘What do you think?’ I ask my partner.
‘Yeah. Good,’ she says. I hold the short rope between us more firmly.
‘You’re not worried?’
‘No, it’s fun.’ Most things are fun when you’re seven. Anxiety is a more adult emotion. And I’m only anxious for my daughter, who moves well, is fluid and natural, but who can’t discriminate between solid and loose handholds, can’t yet know where to trust and where to be cautious. She’s not a serious child, so the next question is surprising.
‘Daddy, what does it feel like to be dead?’
Most parents will acknowledge the skipped heartbeat this question brings. I’m sketching out a response, half-wondering if the scale of the landscape around me has turned her mind to the unknowable, when she qualifies her curiosity.
‘I mean, if I fall off, then, it’s no problem, is it?’
‘That’s right, you’re perfectly safe. Promise.’
‘But if you fall off – well, we’re both toast.’ She’s borrowing my euphemism, and I laugh, partly in relief. A few steps later, another question.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Five o’clock.’
‘And what time does the chip shop close?’
That’s my girl.
ON TOP OF Lord Berkeley’s Seat my thoughts seem to accelerate away. What’s going on with her, I think, watching Rosa’s grey eyes roaming back and forth along the ridge, and south across Strath na Sealga, and the vast tract of wilderness beyond. What is her mind making of this? Human beings are not blank slates, even when they’re born. We are built to learn and I can’t pretend that these experiences of hers in the mountains at such a young age won’t affect her, perhaps in a major, life-changing way. Character and experience are percolating loudly. Her unblinking eyes scan the landscape, drawing it in. She’s smiling gently and is genuinely content, giving me a hug. I have to remember she’s writing her own story. I can only show her the ropes.
For myself, I am happy, happy enough to take the feeling to bits: endorphins from the long climb sluicing my brain, a view of water as well of mountains, warm sun on my face, the proximity of family – close enough to smell them – birdsong, heather, the consolation of nature. The landscape too contributes. It is difficult to go anywhere in England where centuries of development, of millions of other people’s stories, are not impressed on the land. Here, on An Teallach, the hand of man seems to fall more lightly and this generates that sense of freedom that rises in your chest and leaks out as easy laughter. More than ever, that freedom seems to me to be almost – almost – the most precious thing in the world.
It was certainly important to Bill Murray, whose autobiography has just been published by Bâton Wicks six years after his death. I would guess that many young climbers don’t even know who W.H. Murray was and fewer still will have read his classic mountaineering books Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland. Older generations know his value; the defeated presidential candidate Al Gore, a mountain lover himself, quoted Murray in his ecological thesis Earth in the Balance. Now, with this new book’s publication, I hope Murray’s other work will be rediscovered by new generations of mountaineers.
The story of how the first of these classic books came to be written is the stuff of legend. Murray had been called up in 1940 and was serving in North Africa as the Afrika Korps manoeuvred to take El Alamein and Egypt from the Eighth Army. Sent out on a hopeless mission by his brigadier – ‘Murray, by tonight you’ll be either dead meat or a prisoner’ – he was captured, rather improbably, by a mountaineering tank commander.
The young panzer officer had approached Murray out of the desert night and asked: ‘Are you not feeling the cold?’ Murray replied: ‘It’s as cold as a mountain top.’ In that moment of recognition and with Rommel’s command that his troops neither mistreat nor loot from prisoners in his mind, the German officer put away his pistol and found Murray a coat and food to eat.
Later, locked away in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, Murray found escape from his situation was most easily accomplished by writing a memoir of his days in the Scottish hills before the war, in an age of what seemed like innocence.
He felt little compulsion to escape for real. Other mountaineers, like Alistair Cram whom Murray met in prison, saw it as their duty to tie up Italian and German troops by escaping as often as they could, risking execution and torture by the Gestapo, the latter becoming Cram’s fate towards the end of the war.
Murray had different ideas. He had taken part in a futile, misjudged action ordered by the then commander of the Eighth Army, General Sir Neil Ritchie at Bir Hacheim. It was not the British Army’s finest hour. Murray and his platoon, under heavy fire from German artillery, attempted to carry out their order to advance:
‘The air became loudly alive with the rush of solid shot, the whine of shrapnel and zip of bullets. I felt no fear – the nervous system had either been screwed up not to register or else shocked out of action. I half turned to see how my platoon was faring, and to speak to my runner, who came hard on my heels. His body stood on its legs a yard away – but only the legs, still joined at the smoking waist. The trunk and head had vanished.’
Murray was writing at the end of his life but this image from more than fifty years before has a fresh horror that clearly stayed in his mind for the rest of his life. Murray and his men had been told by the generals that the only good German was a dead one and that they should take no prisoners, an order he chose to ignore and an attitude he found ludicrous after being treated so well by the Afrika Korps.
The years in prison gave him plenty of time to recreate the freedom of the hills. His first manuscript, written on scraps of Italian toilet paper, was almost complete when the Gestapo confiscated it as Murray and his fellow inmates were evacuated from Italy ahead of the Allied advance. Undaunted, he began again and on his release in the summer of 1945 had finished a second manuscript. (This was packed in his bag ready for transportation when he was told that luggage would be freighted home in a separate aircraft. He immediately recovered the manuscript and inevitably never saw his suitcase again.)
Given these circumstances, the joy and excitement of Mountaineering in Scotland have an extra depth, a more fully realised sense of freedom, because Murray knew precisely what he had lost. (The other example of this that springs to mind is Felice Benuzzi’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya, which describes Benuzzi’s escape from a British internment camp, not to join the Axis war effort but to climb a mountain. It’s a brilliant book with a simple idea at its core. What is freedom for? For what do we choose to fight?)
Of course, Murray was a great climber too. Before the war, in the company of men like Bill Mackenzie, Archie MacAlpine and Kenneth Dunn, Murray helped reshape Scottish climbing after the horrors of the Great War, during which Murray’s own father had died, fighting in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 when his son was just two.
Murray is sometimes perceived as a toff, as part of the Scottish climbing establishment, but this new book shows how much he and his friends struggled to overcome the stagnation and hostility they found in the Scottish Mountaineering Club. One of Murray’s great achievements is to bring characters like J.H.B. Bell alive on the page. ‘As a practical chemist,’ Murray wrote, ‘he was imbued with the truth that a meal was a fuel intake, therefore its separation into courses was an auld wife’s nicety.’ Murray sometimes seems overly serious, too thoughtful a man, looking behind the surface for meaning too often rather than dwelling on the moment’s value. But the pleasure he takes describing Bell and others is infectious. ‘It was a golden age,’ he says, ‘and it felt like it at the time.’
Murray’s career was far from ended by the war. His books inspired a new generation of climbers delighted to be doing something other than fight and Murray himself joined the upswell of Himalayan exploration, helping Eric Shipton find the route in to the Western Cwm that led to success for Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. That expedition is now famous, but others from the early 1950s are not. In 1950, after a brief spell in a monastery, he joined Douglas Scott, Tom Weir and Tom MacKinnon for a four-month trip to the Garwhal region of the Indian Himalaya, very much in the style of Shipton and Bill Tilman’s exploits of the 1930s. (This expedition was the subject of one of Murray’s twenty books but it apparently sold poorly. Bâton Wicks have skilfully compressed its most valuable sections into Murray’s autobiography.) Later, while John Hunt and his expedition were capturing the headlines in 1953, he went on another enviable trip with John Tyson, exploring the Api massif west of the Seti River in the western Nepal, still a remote and rarely visited region, even less so since its approach became the heartland of the Maoist insurgency.
For me, climbing and exploration were not Murray’s greatest contribution, but rather his conservation work. Sitting on top of An Teallach with my children I felt more strongly than ever before how important it was that such landscapes are defended; it’s a lot easier to focus on these things when the first of future generations is sitting next to you on a summit. Mountaineering has included a great number of inspirational conservationists; John Muir is perhaps the most famous, but also James Bryce, the Liberal politician and ambassador to the United States, William O. Douglas, Associate Justice in the US Supreme Court who fought to preserver the Olympic National Park, the environmentalist David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth – all of them were climbers of one sort or another.
Murray deserves his place in their company. In the 1950s and 1960s the landscape of Scotland, now such a huge generator of tourism income and recognised around the world as a place of astonishing beauty and natural appeal, was under real threat of devastation. The chief culprits were the Forestry Commission which was coating much of Britain’s wild landscape with sitka spruce and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, which had, by the time Murray got involved, impaired the glens of Affric, Cannich and Strathfarrar. The National Trust for Scotland, alarmed at the accelerating pace of development and the prospect of similar plans for Glen Nevis, asked Murray to draw up a survey of the Highlands as a tool to defend their natural heritage. ‘The dams,’ Murray wrote, ‘with their new roads had dispelled the natural atmosphere of these remote mountain passes; eroded the unusual beauty of their ancient woodlands and rivers, and so too the spiritual quality that wild land conveys to the walkers – a refreshment beyond the physical.’ Murray, recognising the privilege as well as the challenge, spent four months with his wife Anne camping in the wild, ‘looking and learning’.
‘In my report’s final paragraph,’ Murray wrote, ‘I pointed out that ugliness had crept into many of our towns by slow degrees through lack of overall control, foresight and direction. I then noted that the same situation was arising in the Highland scene, one of Scotland’s great natural assets, whose outstanding beauty had likewise been haphazardly expended and no account kept.’
Murray was also involved in the creation of the Countryside Commission for Scotland and quickly understood how government agencies could be manipulated for short-term political gain. At a meeting in London with the secretary of the National Parks Commission: ‘In the commission’s term of reference, put conservation first and foremost. There is never a lack of developers and their plans. But if you want to keep the best of your landscape, you’ll have to fight for it: if you don’t, no one else will.’
These last words are a cold reminder of where we stand now. Conservation bodies in Scotland in particular and Britain as a whole are manipulated by local politicians under the pretext of defending local employment when all the evidence shows that in the long term protecting landscapes is the best hope of employment there is. (Murray recounts how one board member at the Countryside Commission for Scotland had argued vociferously for an inappropriate development on Staffa as being in the interests of local employment. Murray coolly pointed out that the island wasn’t and never had been inhabited.)
That is why the construction of the Cairngorm Funicular was such a watershed, because it showed that the system Murray helped bring about, and which he knew was flawed, had finally broken down. The recent recommendation from the Scottish Executive that the Cairngorm National Park not have independent planning controls and halve its proposed area carries the same stale odour of political expediency.
Most recently, concealed within the Trojan horse of environmental integrity, proposals for wind farms on Britain’s limited wild uplands have gained significant support from the current Labour government. (Had global warming been proved in the 1950s, would the campaign against Scottish hydro-electric schemes have proved successful?) The contribution these schemes will make in reducing Britain’s emission of greenhouse gases is not worth it, and the economics of small wind farms are fatally flawed. ‘Beware the exploiters!’ Murray warned, and he included the businessmen of the outdoors within their number. He took a dim view of Munro-bagging, was enraged by the National Trust for Scotland turning its back on Percy Unna’s thoughtful and decent suggestions for coping with increases in tourist numbers, and was happy to support the John Muir Trust as a founder member and trustee.
Nostalgia is a murky business, most usually invoked for profit, and there are plenty of campaigners fighting now to carry Murray’s work forward. But purely as a matter of circumstance, the numbers of people in Britain with Murray’s range of experience is a dwindling breed. This book allows us to learn about the battles of the last century for the coming struggles of this one. ‘The human privilege,’ Murray wrote, ‘is to take decisions for more than our own good; our reward, that it turns out to be best for us too.’
• The Evidence of Things Not Seen: A Mountaineer’s Tale, by W. H. Murray, with an introduction by Hamish MacInnes, is published by Bâton Wicks, £20. Murray’s two Scottish mountaineering books, Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland are published together, also by Bâton Wicks.


Posted by Ed Douglas at 3.00 PM