Outdoor Pioneers: Tom Weir

Pic credit: Lairich Rig / Tom Weir statue: detail, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Weir was a world-class climber and mountaineer who was among the first to explore the previously forbidden ranges of Nepal in the post-war years. But he also had as much enthusiasm for Scotland and his long-running STV series Weir’s Way introduced millions to the beautiful scenery, wonderful stories and amazing walks to be enjoyed just beyond their doorsteps.

It is the latter that I have most admiration for, the ability to stay grounded about everything in the natural environment and not become aloof because you have climbed arduous routes that had been thought inaccessible. Tom Weir’s contribution to the outdoors in the second half of the 20th century cannot be underestimated, and is why he is an obvious choice for this series on Scottish pioneers of the outdoors.

Weir was born in Springburn, Glasgow, in 1914 – the son of a locomotive fitter. Like many of his generation he was among the first working-class climbers and walkers to escape the industrialisation of home for the glens and mountains to the north. At first this would be in the Campsies and the Trossachs but catching a night train to the Highlands would also be on the young man’s itinerary.

One formative destination would be the Craigallion fire, a gathering place for climbers and walkers below the Campsies. This was somewhere to sit around a fire and talk all things outdoors – like-minded folk learning from each other about where to best experience the outdoors.

Weir served with the Royal Artillery during World War Two and later became a surveyor with the Ordnance Survey. But it was mountains that really held his interest and before long his ability was noticed and in 1950 he was part of the first post-war Himalayan expedition. Climbing would also take him to Greenland, Norway, and Kurdistan, among many other countries.

To supplement his income he wrote many books and in 1976 began recording Weir’s Way for STV. It ran until 1987 and won him a Scottish Television Personality of the Year Award. When I moved to Scotland in 1998 the programmes were shown on repeat and even 20 years after being made were a great introduction to the history, landscapes, mountains, glens and coast of Scotland, as well as the people who live here. I was not alone in enjoying them and feel that without his enthusiasm and knowledge many may never have discovered the hidden gems which are all over this country.

He also wrote a column for The Scots Magazine for many years, championing the environment and Scotland’s landscapes, cementing his place as one of the most authoritative voices on the outdoors.

Weir died aged 91 in 2006 near the shores of Loch Lomond, where he lived for many years, and a statue now stands in his memory at Balmaha. Many may have thought of him as “that man with the bobble hat on telly” but he was much more than his personality – he was a driving force for public recognition of Scotland’s natural environment. Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd, Hamish MacInnes and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!

Outdoor Pioneers: Nan Shepherd

I’m rather late coming to Nan Shepherd – I’ve only just finishing reading her most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain (six years after she appeared on an RBS banknote, when I should really have noticed). But then everyone, including Nan Shepherd herself, has been quite late coming to Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain (about the whole Cairngorm plateau, rather than just Cairn Gorm) was written in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s.

Extraordinary to think what’s now hailed as one of Britain’s finest works of nature writing lay abandoned in a drawer for 30-odd years. But then Shepherd’s life was a bit of a paradox. Born in 1893, she lived just outside Aberdeen her whole life and worked for 41 years in the same job (as a lecturer in English at an Aberdeen college). She loved the Cairngorms (she saw the whole plateau as “a single mountain with individual tops”), spent as much time as possible there and knew it probably far better than the back of her hand. 

Her background would make you think that her book would be narrow and nerdy but it’s just the opposite. It’s a love letter to the area, a beautiful piece of writing with descriptions that are spot-on yet make you look, think and see again the simplest thing, from the rocks under your feet to the air above your head.

For those who love the Cairngorms, it’s great geographically to follow her – and she really does get in some places. For me, I love the fact that she doesn’t feel it important to charge up to summits – one of my bugbears – and instead just to enjoy the journey itself. But she is wise enough to have patience with those who do. She also loves the purple glow on birch trees in late winter, one of my best-loved sights, but she’s even made me consider my favourite tree again – apparently it smells like brandy when wet.  Why have I never smelt trees more closely before?! Now when I’m out I’m using another sense – I’ve already discovered larch trees smell of honeyed plums.

The rhythm of life is in her feet as she walks in all seasons and all weathers, eating cloudberries, striding barefoot over the heather, swimming in lochans, chatting to ancient crofters, waking under the stars and watching stags fight.  

Sometimes I feel, however sensitive I try to be to the landscapes that I love and walk through, that I’m just a tourist in nature, tramping along, wildlife fleeing at the sound of my coming, each sweep of my manmade boots helping to erode away the earth, treating the outdoors as a playground. Nan Shepherd was one of those extraordinary human beings who tried to ascend that, to understand and immerse herself in the landscape so much she almost became part of it. Reading The Living Mountain has made me determined to tread with a metaphorically lighter step in future. And I might even try barefoot!

Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Hamish MacInnes and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!

Outdoor Pioneers: Hamish MacInnes

John Muir, the ecologist and national parks trailblazer, was my first piece in a series on Scottish pioneers of the outdoors last week (see here for the article). Muir was a giant in outdoors terms but he is also very much in the past (he died in 1914). The subject of my second piece is much more personal and rather more up-to-date.

I have marvelled at the exploits of Hamish MacInnes, climber, mountain rescue visionary and film-maker, ever since I was a boy and I “borrowed” (still have them) books about mountain rescues from my dad. In more recent times I was lucky enough to meet and interview Hamish at his home in Glencoe – he even wrote a letter of praise for an article I wrote in the Scots Magazine which is about as high an award as I could wish for! It’s on the wall on my office even now.

Hamish sadly died last year but his legacy will live on for as long as people seek adventure in the mountains.

It was 60 years ago that he established the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team after realising the band of brave shepherds, fishermen, landlords and climbers who helped save lives on the high summits needed better equipment than Wellington boots and storm lanterns.

It was these rescues, and tragedies, which led MacInnes to develop cutting edge equipment used by mountaineers and rescuers across the world. It began after he invented the first all-metal ice axe in the late 1940s. He developed this until a version was created in the 1960s using aluminium alloy shafts. After finding a drop forger in Manchester they went into production and their use was to revolutionise the climbing world, not only improving safety but providing lighter equipment.

He is equally as famed for the invention and manufacture of stretchers suitable for use on difficult terrain such as mountains. He designed the first stretcher which came apart and had wooden skis attached. Further modifications were made and the first folding stretcher was invented – quicker to carry out to an injured climber as well as being easier to lift back, meaning there was a better chance of saving lives. Since those early days the MacInnes Stretcher has been used for rescues across the world as well as in conflict zones such as Afghanistan.

Despite the inventions, MacInnes always said they didn’t make him a rich man. Rather, his major income came from the world of film where his expertise was used in productions ranging from The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons to the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Sean Connery.

Work on the Eiger Sanction in 1975 is credited as some of the most dangerous location shooting ever done. MacInnes enabled a camera crew to work on the north face of the Eiger and he developed a mutual respect with the director and star, Clint Eastwood.

With typical enthusiasm for anyone who enjoyed being in the mountains – whether a film star or day-tripper from Glasgow – Hamish told me: “Clint was a great bloke. He did all his stunts, he wasn’t a climber but he was very fit and had no fear whatsoever.”

I am sure Mr Eastwood would return that compliment.

I’d love to hear of any suggestions for Scottish outdoor pioneers so please let me know.

You can also read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!

Outdoor Pioneers: John Muir

So tomorrow (April 21) is John Muir Day – the birthday of ecologist, naturalist and writer John Muir who was born in 1838.

And it got me thinking. His influence is everywhere – the John Muir Way runs near my house, the John Muir Trust helps protect some of my favourite Scottish landscapes and both myself and my children have completed John Muir Awards, given for work with nature.

We’ve got a lot to be grateful to him for so I thought I’d write this wee piece about him to mark the day but also make it the first in a series looking at Scotland’s outdoor pioneers, those folk we owe a debt of gratitude to for paving the way for us today. 

Scotland has had John Muir Day since 2013 but all this recognition has been relatively recent – for years Muir was somewhat forgotten here as his pioneering work was done in the US.

Born in Dunbar in East Lothian, the third of eight children, Muir grew up loving the countryside around his home, hunting for birds’ nests and going on walks with his grandfather. He moved with his family to the US when he was 11 but Scotland was always with him, not least in the form of a book of Robert Burns’ poetry which he carried with him on his mountain travels.

This extraordinary man studied, explored, wrote about and fought for the wilderness that he loved. His influential writings helped create the first national park in the US, Yosemite. He took the US president Theodore Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite wilderness in 1903 and convinced him that the country’s wild places needed more protection from man’s intrusion. He was an inventor, botanist, geologist, glaciologist and activist whose influence is almost impossible to quantify. And that influence bounced back to Scotland in the form of an increased interest in protecting our wild places, even if it was nearly 100 years before we got our first National Park.

Muir lived before the days of sound bites but because he understood the beauty and power of language every bit as much as that of nature, I find his quotes far from meaningless platitudes. Instead they have a deep resonance and often come to me as I’m out on the hills. His most famous quotes are probably: “The mountains are calling and I must go,” and “Wildness is a

necessity”, which you can fit on a T-shirt but which seem to have layers of meaning. My favourite is: “All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” A quote I try to keep with me to remember wherever I am, so long as I’m in nature, I’m in the best place in the world! 

Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd and Hamish MacInnes – more to follow in the coming weeks!

RE-THINK AND UNDERSTAND THE ENVIRONMENT

The Victorians liked to knock about in the mountains and glens of Scotland. However, to be made welcome you really had to be looking after huge numbers of sheep or shooting some of the wildlife. Early climbers, for example, were often banned from what are now popular routes unless they were from the right part of society; and that right part of society wasn’t the part that worked in mills or even on a farm below the rock faces.

By the early part of 20th century access was still restricted, and not just by landowners, many early pioneers in the Arrochar Alps cycled from the shipyards of Glasgow to get to the high hills.

After the Second World War the advantages of outdoor education were becoming more of a “thing” and places such as Glenmore Lodge were established – in 1947 the Scottish Section of the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Scottish Tourist Board used the Aviemore Hotel as a base for a course involving snow and ice climbing, hillwalking and skiing.

Field sports were still the king but wildlife and the appreciation of being active in the landscape was appreciated more

Now we are in a much better place in terms of looking after and having access to the environment but maybe not so good in our urbanised life at understanding nature (there’s a difference in appreciating it).

But still arguments rage about how we treat the outdoors – a lot is viewed as black and white but even then things become muddled. Take grouse shooting and the heather moors where it takes place. If, as many call for, natural tree cover was increased on the moors the numbers of grouse would fall. Then, some of the people who wanted rid of grouse shooting would lament the decline of the birds. Those with an interest in such things could be forgiven for thinking that is an absurd way of looking at an issue but if we want to change the way we in Scotland, all of us, look at nature, it has to include everyone, not just the experts.

My children are going through the Scottish education system and have been given talks about farming – by someone from Tesco, not a farmer. They’ve also learned about climate change and the need to act, but it is taught on a global level, on a local level they learn about turning lights off or walking to school but not about land use. Imagine if primary school children in the leafy Glasgow suburb of Hyndland were being taught about a need to cull rabbits – there would be outrage. But it is that balance in how the countryside is treated which will see improvements, rather than a blinkered view that things are right or wrong. I am not particularly keen on deer stalking as a “sport” but if other people are doing it and keeping numbers down then that will have a benefit, as long as other land uses are taken into consideration.  

It is that balance in the countryside between nature, farming, and a whole host of other activity from rock climbing to deer stalking which also keeps local communities going. If one sector went too far – a gamekeeper allowing deer numbers to get too high, or someone bulldozing sub-arctic tundra to build a railway we, as a society, would be better informed to keep them in check, rather than the current attitude which seems to be “ we don’t like that, so ban it completely”. Over to you education secretary – time for a re-think in the way we are educated.

Good news at last!

Good news at last! At the last minute the Scottish government has stepped in with a support package to help outdoor education centres which have been at the risk of closure.

They found £2million to mitigate the financial challenges facing the residential outdoor education sector as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The government said the package “will include funding to help centres provide safe, impactful outdoor learning experiences to support young people’s education and wellbeing through this challenging period”.

Congratulations must go to all behind the #SaveYourOutdoorCentres campaign – this is great news because there is no doubt that the issue is about more than children getting a kick out of abseiling or kayaking. Outdoor centres have a two-fold benefit, one outward-looking, one inward-looking. The outward looking benefit is that young people learn to appreciate the outdoors – see my previous blog on why the Government needed to act here. After a summer of littering, vandalism and outdoor toileting gone wrong it’s rather important for the future of our outdoor heritage. But it also has an inward-looking benefit, a benefit to the individual. Risk-taking, teamwork and going beyond the comfort zone. Yes, you can learn some of those things in the classroom but nothing you can do sat behind a desk compares to the feeling of achievement of having abseiled down a rockface after standing wobbly-kneed at the top for ten minutes.

A couple of years ago my daughter went on P7 school camp to an outdoor centre down in Dumfries-shire and she loved it. Probably the best bit of her whole time at primary school – and that’s saying something as she loved the school. And she already knew a fair bit about the outdoors having been dragged around the countryside with her dad. But even I, an outdoor enthusiast who has spent their whole life banging on about the power of nature, was surprised by the transformative effect on the whole class.

Sadly, last year the P7s at her old school missed out on their week’s residential because of Covid. Like so much in 2020, it was cancelled and the knock-on effect means this year’s P7s might also be left without the chance to enjoy and learn on a residential trip. Hopefully, the government funding will go some way to help centres provide some of them with at least day courses.

For me introducing the joy of the outdoors to just one person who would otherwise have thought that sort of thing wasn’t for them is priceless. If you don’t believe me, watch this video made with Ardroy Outdoor Education Centre.