Book Review: Walking in Sotland With Kew, Townsend, and McNeish Sunday June 17, 2012

I spent two brilliant weeks in Scotland just recently, when we were having the May/June heat wave. Temperatures of 25, 26 and 27 degrees were occurring daily and my impression was North West Scotland was having it best which is not usually the case. I spoke to a local one day who said Dartford, in Kent, had suffered rain flooding.

I had four books with me which I think make an interesting comparison. So this is like a group review referring to differences, advantages, and disadvantages according to your mood or needs. The first two books were most important: Walking the Munros in the south and the north of Scotland by Steve Kew. I’ve used these books extensively and carry them in my pocket when I walk. In good weather conditions, I find books an excellent and wholly sufficient guide. Start here, cross the stream, reach the bealach, climb to the cairn then take the east path down and so on, I find more coherent than squiggles on a map. It takes some getting used to but as a general tip you find such books – even for the Pyrenees – are pared down to the most simple basics. If they say go here, and do not mention there, it means you should ignore there and wait until you see here – or possibly retreat until you reach that point again and proceed accordingly. In other words, both the land and the map will give you far more detail than the book and the trick is learning to understand this and trust what the writer says. There is however some danger of ambiguity whereby a less than perfect phrase could mean something else; this happened to me last year in the Pyrenees and led to a downhill diversion costing me an hour’s loss of time and energy. Then what you have to do is consult your map and work out more precisely where you are, where you need to be, which may or may not tie in with the perceived instructions – but in such circumstances the books is less important.

I either bought or had with me the maps for my walks which were Ben Arthur, Buachaille Etive Mor, the Pap of Glencoe, Ben Starav, Ben Alligin, Slioch, Ben Eighe, but not for An Teallach. The latter was a calculated decision that in such fine settled conditions the Kew book was sufficient; which was and is generally the case. The problem was, the local shop had a 1:25 map which didn’t fit my 1:50 collection. But I hadn’t needed a map or even consulted one for most of the previous days so I took the slight risk. It was fine. If I’d had a map, I wouldn’t have used it. This is not my general recommendation, which is that you should usually carry a map even if you use GPS which I don’t. Rather, it highlights the great value of a book which I rarely see mentioned. It’s always map, compass, and possibly GPS; but rarely if ever a good book.

The Cicerone Kew books are designed to be carried; they have resilient plastic covers and are a suitable size for pockets. They’re a little heavy, but I don’t mind that for a day walk when you’re not carrying much. You could also photocopy relevant pages although eventually you would have a bulky collection of them which doesn’t make sense, or print walking guides from the internet: there are plenty of resources for this. The other two books I had were for enjoying in the evening, or on a lazy morning at a camp site, namely the Chris Townsend Cicerone guide simply called ‘Scotland’ and the Cameron Mcneish guide to the Munros. The latter I own, the former was a library book I wanted to survey before I considered buying it. I won’t buy it, for the following reasons.

Unlike the Kew volumes it’s not a walk guide as such. The author makes reference to routes, but describes the volume himself as serving another purpose. I liked the idea of some kind of reflective, descriptive, background reading to help me saturate myself in the hills while I was staying in Scotland. I’d scanned the entire book in an hour or two while lying on my bed at home, a week or so previously. Now I was in Glencoe, and Torridon, and Dundonnel, I thought I’d attempt a page by page read. But it wasn’t for me. Apparently it took Chris six years to complete and there’s a great deal of research gone into it. In that respect, for what it does, it’s singularly impressive. Not only did he visit, recall, or revisit all of Scotland as described in the book he also wrote about its geology, flora, fauna, and historic background. If you like that kind of thing, it’s an excellent read. I felt, after reading about twenty five pages of it, I’d had enough.

Specifically – it’s not a casual remark – I felt it bore little relation to my daily walking and the actual experience of the hills. With historic facts for example, if a clan conflict had taken place a hundred and fifty years ago – it was from an ignorant time when families fought and feuded instead of co-operated and negotiated. They were head bangers in kilts, fighters with swords, primitive people – shall we say – with bagpipes. I’m being flippant (and thinking of a Michael MacIntyre comedy sketch), to make a point. I considered all of it as I sat one morning at the lovely Gairloch camp site: what would it be like if these scattered people in tents were from different clans as it was before; what was it like before we became more civilised? We wouldn’t all be enjoying the seaside camp site, that’s what it was like. In which respect, if clan A had a scrap with clan B at Glen C, where I was going tomorrow, I didn’t really want to know. It’s “history”, but which refers to suffering, death, and killing which is all rather tragic, sad, and regrettable. We can be grateful it no longer exists, and reading about it is like true crime porn: a popular genre, incidentally, in city libraries.


Not nice:

I know Chris can write in a more ‘personal’ way – there’s been a recent example about his experience of open fires when you wild camp – and when he does it I think he’s one of the best. But there’s little of it in this particular book. It’s more ‘objective’, crammed full of facts like who owns a certain area, what it’s boundary is, and what a certain writer has said about the Scottish name of a particular hill. Maybe I’ll change my feeling about it, but I was discouraged with so many ‘facts’ and their tenuous link with actually climbing the hills. It’s a lot of “stuff” – intellectual clutter which, like rucksack weight, I keep minimal in the hills. I’ve noticed this before in regard to newspapers. On a rainy morning, or a day off morning, I might think the Sunday papers would make for a pleasant few hours. I have on occasion done this, or perhaps in the afternoon or evening in a pub: The Boot in Cumbrian Eskdale comes to mind. But I’ve also found, many times, I deliberately don’t want to care about all the nonsense in the news: who’s killing who, what the economic woes are and all the latest acts of street crime, political corruption, and all the rest of it. Even the culture writing, perhaps a book review, often doesn’t suit my mood on a hill trip when I like to mentally relax.

Cameron’s book is the kind of read I liked for my two week holiday. It does, actually, give you route instructions which I have on previous occasions copied out and taken with me on scraps of paper. It’s minimalist, but so are the Kew instructions. Additionally, it’s got lovely full page photographs and a personal tone which I enjoy. It’s not easy to get this right. Too quirky, and it puts people off. Try too hard, and that does too. And if you are too personal – subjective, meandering, woolly, irrelevant – that’s the worst. The hills are a topic for discussion where different people meet and which different minds perceive. Good literature is an orchestrated balance between an author’s internal world and anticipated reader response: how will someone feel if I say this, or that, or is it better (more effective) if I don’t say it at all? Many times in my own articles, I’ve written something I later removed for the latter reason. I wanted to say it, but it didn’t serve any purpose. A mountain book is hardly ‘literature’ but it’s still writing.

At one point Cameron refers to Ben Lawers and says “I must admit these are not my favourite hills”. I barely noticed this, and had been attracted to the area for a year or so which started when I saw signposts saying ‘Ben Lawers’ when you drive near Loch Lomond. It’s very enticing: over there, the sign suggests, is another area for you to explore and it’s not too far away. When I arrived there a few months ago I found I agreed with Cameron; the views south across Loch Tay are rather dull. I didn’t agree however with his disparaging remark about grassy hills (boring) compared to the Tarmachan Ridge. I like grassy hills. Pillar, Grasmoor, Great Gable, Red Pike, Helvellyn – are all lovely hills in the Lake District, where soft grass is part of their beauty.

So four books (The Kew guides a volume and two), each serving a different purpose and no doubt popular with different people. The Kew books are excellent walking guides, sufficient in themselves for carrying into the hills in good weather. The Townsend book is excellent for scientific, geographic, historic detail etc, helping you understand the hills in such terms. The McNeish book I would characterise as partly coffee table photographic, partly route guide, with an occasional personal touch which you may or may not agree with: he evaluates the hills according to interest and beauty, although sometimes according to a ‘rough is best’ idea I don’t agree with.

Scotland photography