Munro with cancer #124 to #127 – the high Laggans

10:00 – Carn Dearg (M098), 3392ft, 1034m

11:40 – Geal-Charn (M026), 3714ft, 1132m

12:15 – Aonach Beag (M037), 3661ft, 1116m

13:15 – Beinn Eibhinn (M048), 3615ft, 1102m

There is vigorous discussion among mountain people about which peaks are the most remote. There are many fine candidates, and I have visited a good few of them. Always in combination with an expedition of one or several nights out. In my youth I was never interested in getting to summits unless there was definitely going to be a view. I was more interested in traversing the land by means of its secret mountain passes and ancient drove roads. This experience of being out in the mountains for several days at a time is integral to my enjoyment. Even now, I much prefer to bag Munro’s from my tent, to live through the turning of the planet for as many days as is necessary.

Although the access to this little cluster is within easy driving distance from major centres of population, it would be a very long day’s walking to bag all four in one day. Many people use a bike and leave it at the no longer in use Culra Bothy before the eight or nine hour round trip along the ridge, and back over the bealach between it and the mighty Ben Alder. After which a drive home along the A9. This might cut three hours from the total time, but it would still make for a very long day. So no excuse not to go on an expedition.


These hills have been on my radar for a very long time. During the last few months I have been climbing the peaks to the west and north and I have seen them from many directions. On my first expedition out into the hills after my return from The Netherlands, I saw them from the plateau of Ben Alder as I marveled at what I could achieve in spite of the disease. I know too from previous journeys through here in my youth that there is plenty campground along the banks of the river Pattack. I took along a friend who has recently moved to Scotland from down south. He is ex military, a former outward bounds instructor, self contained, self disciplined and hardcore.


We walked away from Dalwhinnie at seven thirty in the evening in a cloud of midges and decided to make camp about a mile short of Culra about three hours later because it was getting difficult to see. But we found a comfortable grassy place on the river bank and pitched our tents in a sudden wind that blew away the midges.


In the morning we awoke at six and were ready to leave at eight, fully breakfasted and packed up for the long day ahead. We walked past the bothy and up the slope behind a locked estate equipment store under a small dormant wind turbine. We reached the summit of Carn Dearg in less than two hours.


The mountains had not yet decided what to do with the air swirling among them. Mists formed in the glens, cloud blew past, skimming the top of Lancet Edge, partially obscuring the plateau of Geal-Charn. The sun continued to shine strong through gaps in the cloud. The wind was cold and penetrating. The traverse is straightforward but high and exposed. As we emerged onto the plateau of Geal-Charn the mists dispersed and the cloud base rose, revealing the enormity of the panorama. We arrived at the summit just after eleven thirty.


The traverse to the next two peaks is easy, dropping gently only two hundred meters or so between each. But the wind was burning cold. We sat awhile just after one o’clock in the lee of the summit of Beinn Eibhinn, eating lunch and chatting with others enjoying the remoteness of this ridge. In the distance the vastness of this land, visible here from its very heart, in every direction.


Remoteness in its common sense is relative, meaning a great distance from anywhere else. But there is a more absolute sense of remoteness here at the centre of the central highlands. The Cairngorms are a distant blip on the horizon. Creag Meaghaid is an insignificant lump. The crags, screes and pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach, The Mamores, The Nevis Ranges, Etive, Orchy, Bradalbane, Glen Shiel, Affric, Knoydart, all minor serrations. No sign of any sea. Only springs gushing clear pure water into rivers, gathering in glistening lochs surrounded by forests and moors.


We descended the west ridge into the glen under Ben Alder and ploughtered about for a bit, crossing peat hags and burns before climbing through the heather to the ancient path round the mountain and back over the bealach towards Culra and the tents.


A marvelous walk under a blue sky dappled with clouds, surrounded by majestic crags and buttresses, affording splendid views back over Loch Ossian to the ridges of Glen Coe, tiny on the horizon.


We stopped on the way for rest and reflection at a burn by the path, where a gentle wind kept off the midges. This is my favourite moment on any expedition. On the way back down, sitting by water meditating upon the day and whatever challenges it has presented, while gazing in awe at landscapes, sharing the silent benevolence of the land.



When we returned to our tents at about six, we decided that the grass a little further up the river was flatter and more suitable for camping, so we moved and prepared for the night. We awoke again at six and left, leaving no trace, at about eight, as a group of geldings came over to investigate our presence.

We were back at the car by eleven, taking the total walking time to about sixteen hours. Much better to have spread this over two days than crammed it all into one.

Many thanks to Chris for sharing this excellent expedition and for lots of very interesting conversation.



Munro with cancer #122 and #123

14:00 – Meall a Bhùiridh (M045), 3635ft, 1108m

15:00 – Creise (M050), 3609ft, 1100m

16:00 – Meall a Bhùiridh (again)

I should have known from recent visits to Glen Coe that 12:30 in the afternoon of the busiest Sunday in August would not be the best time to find somewhere to park before climbing Buachaille Etive Beag. Apart from numerous already parked mountain people’s vehicles, there are as many hordes of gormless tourists consuming the scenery and striking poses with selfie sticks as midges trying to suck their blood, vehicles of all shapes and sizes come and go with no regard for anything but finding an immediate place to pull in, parking is random and chaotic, traffic is dangerous, lives are put at risk, humanity’s more antisocial, rapacious and cynical traits are displayed for full public scrutiny. Or at least, so it appeared.


I was planning a walk with my better half on the way home from our holiday on Barra and the Uists in her fantastic camper van. There is a nice gentle walk in to a relatively easy ascent, after which she could either attempt the climb or more probably walk on up the glen a bit and meet me again on the way back down. I thought it would be a nice way of finishing off our holiday. But it was not to be.

The previous morning we awoke at Skeabost Bridge on Skye after arriving on the last ferry from Lochmaddy. On the Outer Isles, midges are a minor irritation that is attenuated by sea air and wind. Not on Skye. So we decided to get moving as quickly as possible. We had not reckoned though on the true extent of the massive influx of visitors the island endures at this time of year. I cannot remember ever seeing so much vehicular stupidity within such a short period – an extreme contrast to the courtesy and care on display on the Outer Isles. And the strain placed on the island’s infrastructure is palpable. We stopped for breakfast in Broadford and heard horror stories of people sleeping in bus shelters, blocked public toilets, piles of litter and human excrement, and of shops and garages running out of supplies. Back on the mainland, the chaos seemed only to intensify. We had great difficulty finding somewhere for the night among the huge flocks of other travelers searching for a roost in Lochaber, but eventually took advantage of the last available pitch at a very nice, albeit pricey, campsite in Glen Coe village.

I might have hoped that this experience would have prepared me for the traffic in Glen Coe. As I drove into the potholed overcrowded mess of vehicles in search of a space, I could feel my hackles rising. After somebody nipped in before me to a space I was aiming for, I simply could not deal with the behaviour of the other drivers any more, nor could my better half trust that her van would remain safe in our absence, so we decided on the spur of the moment that I climb the hills behind the Glen Coe Ski Centre and she take a stroll along the West Highland Way and back. As I attempted to rejoin the road, a car parked directly in front of me and its occupants got out to take photos and offer their blood to the midges, without the least regard for my indicated intentions. I experienced a brief moment of real rage, winding down the window and telling them in no uncertain terms to move their vehicle now, or else. Happily, the car park at the Ski Centre is huge and is used on the whole by mountain people parking their vehicles sensibly, rather than for tourists to stop briefly to gaup at themselves with the big shepherd in the background.


It is a short sharp slog underneath ski lifts up to the big corrie basin where the skiing happens and another up the crag behind it. I reached the summit of Meall a Bhùiridh in less than an hour and a half, in spite of being caught in a very nasty squall on the way up, sheltering a while behind one of the ski buildings and contemplating a return to the van for a cup of tea. But I persevered. At the summit, the clouds had passed and the views were spectacular.


I met some people who had experienced the squall at the top of Creise. They were not happy. I looked over at the high exposed plateau and felt their not happiness. I imagined why being caught up there in a squall at any time of year would be challenging. It is long and flat with absolutely nothing protruding. At least at the top of pointy mountains, there are crags and rocky outcrops that afford a degree of shelter, whatever the wind direction.


The traverse to Creise appears large and imposing, with a bit of a scramble at the end, and for a moment I thought about saving it for another day. Only for a moment though. As I approached the summit I met a large party of no longer quite in the first flush of youth Bearsden and Milngavie Ramblers. I suggested that this was a notch above rambling, not that I have anything against rambling of course, in response to which I was regaled with tales of a previous outing to Stob a’Choin at Balquhidder, in comparison to which this was a doddle. It was a pleasure to make their acquaintance, although I did decide on the way back to Meall a Bhùiridh to take lunch out of earshot of their weegie banter. Later on the arête I overtook them, and then some caught up with me again at the summit. They had been here during the squall and were happy to linger as I took the leisurely route back to the van. The midges kicked in again on the final steep descent, after which I yomped down much faster than is good for me and arrived sweating for a very nice cup of tea that was waiting for me. But the midges were hellish.


The peace, tranquility and sheer unadulterated beauty of the Outer Isles is special. They operate at a different pace from the rest of the country. Their weather is more extreme and intense, the people more resilient, mindful and gentle. The colours of the planet are staggeringly beautiful here. And there are fewer midges. Perhaps the price of passage on Calmac’s splendid services, even with generous state subsidy, is too much for travelers already forking out a small fortune. Perhaps the facilities are too basic, the centres of population too sparse, the roads too narrow. Whatever it is that prevents the chaos of mainland tourism from infecting the Outer Isles, long may it continue.

The frustrations of returning from this holiday paradise to the realities of the mainland disappeared on the top of the mountain, as I realised that everything had turned out for the best. In spite of coming off the last ferry at Uig late at night, we found a nice secluded spot to park up. In spite of much toing and froing in Lochaber, we found a well appointed campsite. In spite of chaos in Glen Coe that made it impossible to park where we planned, we were able quickly to make a new plan to park at the ski centre. My better half enjoyed a lovely walk along a bit of the West Highland Way and had a chance to reflect on her own journey. I got to climb another two of the top fifty, to escape the tourists, to meet with some lovely mountain people and to learn a little more about my reactions: everything turned out for the best after all, there was no need for any of that irritation, rage or annoyance.


Except that this is not only a personal matter. Of course, it is my responsibility to conduct myself with good sense and decorum and to be aware of how my emotional reactions might be inappropriate, unnecessary or insensitive. But these feelings have causes. They arise in specific real life situations, they are visceral, not inventions of my mind.


Great efforts are being made to encourage people to visit this country. Visit Scotland has a website where the usual gaudy display of shortbread tin Scottishness is wrapped up in anodyne stories about Scottish history, ecology, society and culture, devoid of political context, that omit all mention of the violence, struggle and hardship experienced to this day still by many hundreds of thousands of Scots. There is not a lot about midges either. It is little more than an advertising hoarding for Scotland PLC and its many subsidiaries, employing the scenery of the land to purvey everything a wealthy visitor might require. A cursory examination is enough to conclude that tourists are expected to consume good food, stay in exclusive accommodation, to enjoy the sunshine on unspoiled beaches, to gaze in wonder at the marvels of nature, to be actively engaged in some outdoor activity that requires (the hiring of) special equipment, and to visit castles, beauty spots and museums. After investigating this website for a while, I had to stop because I thought I was going to be sick.

The relative value of Sterling against the Euro makes it cheaper for Continentals to come here and for Brits to stay at home. I have heard rumours also that Auntie Beeb has been promoting the country, or at least, displaying it favourably, with documentaries and travelogues. The popularity of a certain historical drama series no doubt also contributes to the increasing numbers of visitors. The suspicion arises that only the purveyors of tourist services are profiting from this overcrowding of public space; no conspicuous effort is being made either specifically to improve the toilet facilities on Skye or the car parking spaces in Glen Coe, or more generally to ensure that infrastructures are fit for purpose, able to cope with the large numbers of people who come here to spend their money.


Predominant ideologies of neoliberalism would have us believe that business is good for everybody, that wealth trickles down, that there is no need for complex social planning, or long-term, joined-up thinking, and that the operations of the market – ie, the pursuit of personal profit – will ensure a stable and happy society. This makes about as much sense as expecting a dog willingly to share food with other dogs, or allowing the motivations of the most venal, rapacious and self-interested individuals in society to ensure the welfare of everybody, or thinking that midges will stop sucking blood.





Sometimes people tell me that they would be frightened, alone in the mountains, particularly when camping out. My usual response is that there is nothing to fear except axe wielding maniacs. Sometimes I also have to ask when the last time was that they heard of an axe wielding maniac running amok in the Scottish Highlands.

There are of course often very good reasons for fear in the mountains. Circumstances do arise when a body is pumped up suddenly with the rush of adrenaline, when its heart beats faster, its breathing becomes more insistent, and its muscles tense, poised for immediate action. When a foothold becomes suddenly less stable than first seemed, when clouds billow up from nowhere to obscure all sight and confuse navigation, when a route turns out to be much more precipitous and scrambly than anticipated, rocks and grass can be slippery, many minor events can result in the natural reflex called fear. And all of these are overcome in subsequent moments, as circumstances change and the body in question moves on. Fear is at this level a very natural and useful mechanism.

It is not however the same as the many fears that fester in an imagination and that have nothing to do with immediate circumstances or with any actual danger. These are the most complex and difficult emotions to understand and overcome. For they are built up over many years, from the first moments of experience, using resources available in the body politic – ideas, stories, rituals, habits of conduct, morals, images, language and so forth. Of course the physiologic responses and bodily changes are much the same, but these are triggered not by immediate conditions, but by an idea or a memory or some other notion of the mind.

At the beginning of the year I met a man and his dog on the way up Ben Dorian. We have become occasional mountain companions and friends. Not long ago, as we climbed the Munros on the Bidean nam Bian massif, he suggested that one day he guide me along the Aonach Eagach on the other side of the glen, which he had done several times before and wanted to do again. This ridge has a reputation that precedes it. It is regarded by some as the trickiest exposed ridge scramble on the Scottish mainland, although it is said by others to be quite straightforward in comparison to one or two Welsh and English ridges. When viewed from below, from within the cavernous basin of Glen Coe, traversing the Aonach Eagach appears to involve negotiating a mess of crags and narrow ridges, with sheer descents into dark clefts between protruding pinnacles and columns with no obvious route down from the top, if it ever became necessary to find one. Guidebooks warn of exposed scrambling and one or two technically difficult sections that need to be taken seriously. Mention is made of ropes.

Anybody who is engaged in this obsessive project to bag the Munros is always several steps ahead in the planning, and I have been aware of this ridge for some time, knowing that if I bottled out traversing it, I could always bag the two Munros it connects together independently from different starting points. More recently, I had been steeling myself, beginning to think that maybe I should give it a go – in spite of my occasional vertigo. So when I got a message from my companion suggesting a trip to the Aonach Eagach the following week, I did not immediately reject the idea, and knew, in fact, from the moment that I thought about doing it, seriously, without giving any influence to fears that might arise on the basis of its reputation, without being scared off by my imagination, that I would be there. And having clambered together up the Lost Valley to Bealach Dearg and then along the high ridges of Bidean before descending into the corrie in front of Stob Coire nan Lochan, I felt confident that my companion could be trusted when he told me that I would be fine. He also said he would bring a rope.

After an evening reading walk reports and watching YouTube videos of Aonach Eagach traverses, I decided I should stop because it was terrifying me. For the days before the trip, I was niggled by a fear of terrible accidents, but confident that there would be nothing to worry about, that my companion was right. After all, in spite of a few fatalities, many thousands of others have made the traverse without incident or mishap.

It was a glorious day to be in the mountains. Which meant that it was busy. As we walked up the path from the car park towards Am Bodach, others could be seen up ahead. At the summit I could see what I was about to experience. From this distance the ridges to the two Munro summits appear as sharp edged and smooth with very visible paths perched along the crests. The first difficulty is a steep descent of about 30 meters over stable rock with lots of foot and hand holds onto a narrow path on a sharp grassy ridge. My companion told me that he believed this to be the most technically difficult section. He went on before me to make sure my feet were well placed. At the first real ascent, up an enclosed gully, he told me to go on ahead. At the top he gave me some advice: climb first with your head, then your legs and then your arms; always know where your hand or foot is going to land before you move it; never have more than one hand or foot on the move at any one time.


After that it was just practice. The route is very easy to follow, over shiny rocks, scarred with crampons and, where there is earth, along deep rutted paths. On the way there is a Munro with excellent views of the Mamores and Nevis ranges on one side and the enormous bulk of Bidean on the other, and at the end, another with views over Ballachullish to Sunart, Knoydart and Mull. There were a couple of moments along the way where I was briefly consumed by the screaming habdabs – particularly atop a section known as The Crazy Pinnacles, but I found that as long as I kept moving and remained mindful at every moment of where my limbs were clinging to the rocks, there was no fear at all. Eventually it was just like any other day out in the hills in good company. We chatted about stuff, admired the views – which are absolutely spectacular in all directions – and passed the time of day with the many others we met. And then, just as I thought it was all over, a brief wobble during the final descent into a dark narrow cleft where there was a queue of folks clinging to a ledge, waiting to stand on a narrow column projecting out of the void between two massive pinnacles, from which the route ascended again, up a steep gully out onto the ridge. But again, all fear dispersed as I scrambled up and out into safety.



Looking back along the ridge, now having traversed its pinnacles I could see its serrations more clearly, that it is not smooth at all, and I understood why it is considered to be such a tough challenge. It is a sustained and intense scramble that requires commitment, attention and care at every step, it involves sometimes walking along a crest of rocks less than a meter wide with a sheer drop on either side and sometimes climbing up and down rock faces with a lot of air beneath. But the rock is stable, the route is obvious and it is nowhere near as scary being up there negotiating the pinnacles as sitting at home dreaming up disasters, anticipating accidents and imagining the worst.


Quite near the start of the route, before the summit of Meall Dearg, there is a projecting spur known as The Chancellor, to which there is a path down from the main ridge. Just looking at that path was enough to make me silently weep in terror. And yet looking back along the ridge at the end of the route I was aware that actually walking along the top of the crazy pinnacles with thousands of feet of nothing on either side and climbing up and down precipitous rock faces did not at the time fill me with terror at all. Only now, reflecting back and remembering, can I discern any remnant of the fear I once experienced in anticipation of this journey.


I have always known that fear is largely imaginary, but I have not always been very good at not giving in to it, at preventing fear from motivating my conduct, colouring my judgement and obscuring the reality of what lies before me. Walking the Aonach Eagach left me with a sense of achievement, a great feeling of satisfaction that enables me more easily to contemplate Liathach or even The Skye Munros. And with this, an unfamiliar sense of disappointment, that if this is the toughest Munro scramble on the mainland, then I have nothing to achieve here now. Which would be to take far too narrow a view of achievement. For every journey into the mountains offers lessons. Walking the Aonach Eagach has relieved me of a burden, shown me how easy it is to be terrified by absolutely nothing. I am in touch now with a kind of clarity, more able to disconnect fear from all thoughts or emotions about what lies ahead, be it in the next moment or the unknown void faced by us all, more willing to trust that whatever lies along the path, no matter how dangerous it appears from a distance, no matter how exposed, it is well trodden and there is no need to be afraid.



The first victim

The first victim of cancer is the future.

It is now almost five years since I was diagnosed with stage three locally advanced prostate cancer and told that I would likely live no more than a year if did not take the medication and only three even if I did.

I had a life in The Netherlands. I was the owner of this bicycle shop and joint owner of this bicycle messenger company. I spoke fluent Dutch, I did my own tax-returns, I participated in hard core cycling events, I traveled the world, and I rose to the challenges life presented. But I could feel that there was something not right inside, so I sought medical advice.

Then everything changed. I was confronted simultaneously by the power of medical determinism and my own mortality.

Before you know you have a terminal illness, you do not really think about your own mortality. You just blunder along with life, trying as best you can to make sense of it all and keep your head above water. You are of course always aware that one day you will die, if not when, and that you will in the meantime be able to make long term plans. You assume you have a future that you can fill with hopes, dreams and aspirations, as well as plans and projects, but you actually have no idea whatsoever what this thing is. This future into which you are moving seems to be as natural and taken for granted as being alive.

After you know you have a terminal illness, you think quite a lot about your life coming to an end. But you still blunder along, trying to make sense of it all as best you can and keeping your head above water. Your awareness of your mortality is sharpened, but you still do not know when you are going to die. You are suddenly forced to confront this thing called the future in a new way, to examine it very carefully and to fill it only with stuff that is really important, because you know it is limited.

For a moment you understand exactly what the future is in a way you never really thought about before your were diagnosed with a terminal disease, and then it disappears. It becomes easier, less stressful, to live entirely in the present.

According to the logic of the medics who first told me how short my future was going to be, every moment of my new existence would be another step towards the inevitable. There is a well documented progression and lots of data from which to draw conclusions. It does not matter what efforts I make, the disease will kill me. My diet and lifestyle are irrelevant. My rigorous mental discipline is futile. All the clever arguments I can muster in criticism of either the knowledge and methods of medical science are pure sophistry.

I look back sometimes now at the efforts I made all those years ago to prove the medics wrong, and to kick against their determinism, with a kind of fatherly admiration, but with a wince of embarrassment at my naivety. For obviously this was just another way of trying to deny the reality of my condition, and during the intervening years I have had this determinism confirmed.

When I left The Netherlands, I was taking a drug based on a female hormone analogue designed to slot into testosterone receptors in prostate cells and switch them off, and which fooled my body into believing it was an adolescent girl going through puberty. The experience of breast development allowed me to form bonds with my female friends that had hitherto not been possible. When I arrived in Scotland this drug stopped working, and I was given another one which works deep inside the brain to switch off the processes of hormone production, thereby starving prostate cells of the testosterone they need to function and convincing my body that it was a fifty something woman going through the menopause. The experience of hot flushes, crippling inexplicable mood swings, depression and fatigue, not to mention destruction of libido, sexuality and motivation more generally has enabled me to understand more sympathetically the suffering faced silently every day by many women of my generation. While on this medication I was also given a course of high dose radiotherapy which left me doubly incontinent for about a week and in need of always being in close proximity to a lavatory for about two months. After a couple of years of taking the medication for six months and letting my body cleanse itself for six, this medication stopped working too.

So they were right. My disease is indeed following the expected path – perhaps a little more slowly than expected, but nonetheless inexorably following its predicted course. The future that I do not have is becoming even more precious and terrifying. And yet, living now beyond the edge – so to speak – in a place beyond the expected trajectory, I can look back at the last five years and see that throughout, there was always before me a future. For here I am, self evidently here and now, still alive, having lived through a period of time to get here, having experienced the deterministic logic of medical science from the inside at the same time as always believing there is more in this world than allowed for by its Cartesian metaphysics. So I must be doing something. Maybe I do have a future. Dare I even think this?


There is now another place in the mountains where I will henceforth always be able to return. The bealach to the west of Sgur na Lapaich will always be where I go to find the strength to carry on in the present. After last week, I will always be able to return to the place where I saw for the first time in nearly five years that I have a future. It lies at the meeting of two burns: one coming down the glen between Chno Dearg and Beinn na Lap, the other coming out of the southern corrie of Chno Dearg.




I sat here eating lunch, reflecting on the journey and had a moment of revelation that I do not yet know how to describe, but which infuses me with a vitality it is difficult to contain. There, I was able to think for the first time about the future and to make decisions that will bring about favourable events, rather than to sit around waiting for the inevitable to work out its course. As I sat I felt a definite shift and could see that it was a sensible decision that connected with many other matters of importance in my life.

I feel truly blessed to be alive, not because I believe that the grace of God is shining down upon me – although it may well be, but because at this place I see just how extraordinary any of this is, that this precarious existence humanity thinks it has secured for itself on the surface of this planet is a most unlikely, marginal happenstance within an infinite creation, beyond every power of comprehension. The mountains before me smile in the summer sun. Tall grasses swoosh in the wind and water gurgles over rocks.

I come upon myself thinking this and of the fact of thinking this and I am pulled into a reflexive spiral from which I am able to escape only by believing either that all these thoughts have been put in my mind by forces beyond my understanding, or that I have just made it all up inside the echo-chamber of a wandering consciousness. At which point I grasp that either alternative is as miraculous and bewildering as the other and I am left again to focus on the present, on smiling mountains, strangely inoffensive midges, the enormous variety of grasses scattered with delicate flowers and decorating every nook and cranny between the rocks.

There is nothing here. The waters of the burn move on again and I am overcome by an emotion I do not understand, but which sounds a bit like this. It is on the radio as I am driving home, in a transcription for electric guitar recorded in Anstruther during the East Neuk Festival.

Later, I sought out a recording of the original, scored for nine pipers – its layering of sounds, note-bending and joyous dissonances, and the transitions, first to piobaireachd, and then to jig perfectly mirror the cascades of emotions and ideas I experienced here. Nothing like a bit of avant garde piping to hit the spot.

Love and peace.


It’s (not) shite being Scottish

It has come to my attention that not everybody knows that the title of this blog and the text quoted in the header are taken from the first novel written by one of Scotland’s greatest living writers and intellectuals.

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting follows the adventures of a group of friends from Edinburgh as they negotiate the squalor and depravity of heroin addiction, poverty and urban deterioration. It is a groundbreaking book at many levels: it addresses issues faced by working class youth abandoned by authority and the state; it is predominately written in phonetic transcription rather than correct English, faithfully representing the actual language people use with extensive use of words that only a few decades earlier were considered so shocking they broke the law; the grammar and punctuation are idiosyncratic; there is no strict narrative but rather a series of tableaux or fragments which combine together to tell the stories of the characters; and, perhaps most importantly, and in spite of the fact that the subject matter is often shocking and distressing, it is absolutely hilarious.

Arguably this book also inaugurated a shift in Scottish Culture away from a kind of elitism to something more accessible, and it certainly stands as a testament to the troubled times these islands suffered during the transition from the 1980s into the 1990s. It is a book about progression, renewal and hope in the context of a world careering towards the millennium without any clear sense of purpose.

Famously, Trainspotting was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Danny Boyle, which manages adequately to convey the spirit and humour of Welsh’s writing without becoming trite or sensationalist. In the film, the scene in which the text of the header appears is filmed at a very familiar spot for mountain people, just to the west of Corrour Station on the path to Leum Uillem – a hill which fails only by a few feet to rise to the magic 3000 feet for its inclusion in Munro’s tables, but which is a favourite of Corbett baggers. At this point in the story, Tommy is not yet using heroin (he will later go on to die horribly from toxoplasmosis because addiction has compromised his immune system) and he is keen for the moment to get his friends clean. He has persuaded three or them – Spud, Renton and Sick Boy – to take a train out of the city to investigate the great outdoors. As he turns from marching purposefully towards the hill to see that his companions are less than enthusiastically still hanging around on a flat wooden bridge, nursing hungovers and taking a hair of the dog, Tommy remonstrates with them for their lethargy and asks: “does it not make you proud to be Scottish?” At which point Renton holds forth with the above tirade. Tommy then gives up and walks back away from the mountain. Here is a link to the film version.

It is a short, slightly absurd, scene that perfectly illustrates Welsh’s dark sense of humour and dense irony. The reader/viewer is suddenly transported to the middle of nowhere, without any context or preamble and in complete contrast to everything else that is going on in the story. The great outdoors is presented as something alien and irrelevant to the lives of characters who are suddenly thrown into it inadequately prepared. Commonplace notions about the benefits to health of being outside, of the challenges of both extreme sport and traditional Scottish recreation are rejected summarily. Representations of Scotland based on this empty land and its beauty are suddenly held in suspension. Any ideas we might hold about national identity that are based on this landscape, or on our ability to eke out an existence from its soil, or to climb to the summits its many spectacular peaks are dashed against the reality of Scottish consciousness. We are riven by sectarian conflict that is not of our making but which we allow to continue because it has become normal. We find ourselves at the rough end of an imperialist relation which encourages us to be servile and pathetic. But it does not matter because we can still get hammered or wasted and we will still be mates. And here is the irony. Welsh does not write this scene in order to celebrate this attitude, he does not support this position, he does not believe the words that Renton speaks. He writes in order to display, to document and to reveal. So we are left wondering as readers or viewers why we see only this very short glimpse of the mountains, why Welsh took his characters to this place only to have them walk away, why he put in this scene at all if not to expose more of the hypocrisies that intersect our consciousness.

Recently at another bit of the interwebs, within a discussion about anomalies in Munro’s classification, I linked a post from this blog about anomalies in Munro’s classification. This is a common practice on the interwebs. I did not feel that by linking my blog in the discussion at this point it would disturb cyber ethics or offend anybody. One person’s reaction though illustrated perfectly why it really is shite being Scottish. For the first time ever somebody reacted only to the header, describing it as “nationalistic tripe” and demanding that I remove the link, since this was a site about mountain climbing rather than politics, emphasising that if I wanted to talk politics I should go to a political site. It was pointed out by myself and others that this person had missed the irony, that it is a quotation from Trainspotting and that, if anything the sentiment expressed in the tirade is profoundly anti-nationalistic. And I tried pointing out that this imputation of the sense of “political” as opposed to “apolitical” was itself was a political move, but this was rejected as sophistry. As far as this person was concerned I was introducing politics into matters that are properly apolitical and I was thereby sewing division.

This is exactly why it is shite being Scottish and this is exactly the point of Renton’s tirade. It is also the mark of Irvine Welsh’s genius.

It is possible for a person to pick up a mere snippet of any text or film, to denude it of its context, rip out its irony and take it to mean whatever purpose it can fulfill in some battle against an imaginary evil enemy. We have come to accept this as normal. It has perforce become necessary, from time to time, to engage with accusations based on absolute fantasy, dreamed up in the imagination of British patriotism, and sometimes apparently fueled by events orchestrated deliberately to separate and divide – even if those standing on either side of division are unaware of what they are doing. Reason and logic are irrelevant to discussion. Discourse takes place for other reasons. Welsh himself always says that he writes in order to find out about his characters, to see what makes them tick and to understand why they believe what they do. I cannot think of a more honest, civilised and humane approach to writing fiction, nor a more compassionate attitude to the multiplicity of consciousness to which human being can become subject.

Renton’s rant is as honest an expression of the Scottish condition as I know, which is why it is at the header of my blog. But it has to be seen in context. It is spoken in the middle of nowhere, but it is not, because even from reading the book we know that it is near Corrour Station. The great outdoors is an empty irrelevance, except it is not, for even if we only see it briefly represented in a book/film that is otherwise replete with urban degeneration and moral decay, we know it comprises vast swathes of the country where we live. In spite of the fact that the land is owned by wealthy private capitalists, it is there for everybody – under certain conditions that have less to do with draconian law than civic responsibility and common sense. And in spite of the opinion of a washed out junkie with a hangover, actually it is fucking awesome being Scottish!

The irony is that not everybody who sees us realises that we understand the irony of our own condition, that when we climb mountains we should really know that we are only able to do so because they are denatured and open, removed of their natural covering of forest to make way for sporting estates to which we are granted only restricted access. The irony is that not everybody sees this condition as the direct consequence of political decisions made by those who in the past called themselves master, and those in the present who have taken on the responsibility of government and authority.

I make no secret of my support for Scottish autonomy nor for radical land reform. But I am a civilised human being, I do not engage in sectarian argument and when confronted by accusations from people who should know better, I try to explain their errors and persuade using reason and argumentation. Which is precisely why it is shite being Scottish, for as Irvine Welsh so powerfully observed, people do not on the whole respond to reason, but are trapped inside sectarian conflicts not of their own making and without realising that this is the case. Renton’s tirade expresses this condition perfectly, while its setting in the “great outdoors” points to the fact that there are vast tracts of empty land out there, available to all, waiting for anybody with a mind to do so to discover that, on the contrary, it is not at all shite being Scottish.