It sits right on most of our doorsteps. We see it from a distance, clad in snow contrasted with the sharpest of azure skies or (as is much more common) shrouded in swirling mist, summits lost above a frustratingly low cloudline. Many of us dabble with it occasionally, panting and peching our way along well travelled paths before peeling the tinfoil from the cheese rolls and digging out the Ribena from the bottom of our rucksacks. Cameras click on iPhones, stills and videos fill up our iCloud storage waiting to be shared on social media so the world can be in no doubt that, on this day, you were there. You stepped out into Caledonia’s Playground and made it back alive. I am of course referring to Scotland’s glens, hills, and mountains. The Great Outdoors that surrounds us, binds us, holds the Galaxy together. Or something.
I was never a natural hillman. I possibly should have been. I was born in Stirling and lived my entire childhood in the Hillfoots. Alva sits in the shadow of the Ochil Hills, the eastern half of the town below the hill locally known as Torry, while the western half is faced with the grim bastion that is Craigleith. Running between these two is the Carnaughton Burn, which falls gracefully about halfway down in a feature known locally as the Mare’s Tail – suitably impressive when in spate. Craigleith in particular had a fearsome reputation amongst the kids in the town; a classmate’s sister had ventured directly up the front of it before falling to her death. Getting up to the summits of these two was left to the Hill Racers in the annual endurance race held as a part of the famous Alva Games. Competitors came from all over Scotland and the UK to take part, while we local kids focused our attention on the shows. We fired as many 10p pieces as we could scrounge into the arcade games and bandits, sharing the odd cheeky cigarette and candyfloss while our parents sat sipping from hip flasks on the hellishly uncomfortable wooden rails put up annually for the Games.
The most prominent hill from Alva is probably Dumyat. It sits about three miles west of Alva and is one of the smallest in the Ochils but by virtue of its isolation is visible for miles around from all parts of the compass. It was Dumyat that drew me into hillwalking and it’s a hill I’ve revisited many times. The views from its curious kettle cap summit are simply wonderful. The whole of the Devon and Forth valleys are visible, taking in the view all the way from the bridges at Queensferry past the Wallace Monument and across to the Campsies. Looking further west and north reveals the start of the Southern Highlands: Ben Lomond, Ben Ledi, Ben More and Stob Binnein, with Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich completing the vista. And all this for a leisurely hour’s walk. Dumyat rewards the walker handsomely.
This is the beauty of walking in Scotland. There is so much variety, from the size of the challenge to its accessibility. When I started in my early twenties, I climbed with my cousin and occasionally we would be joined by my uncle, his dad. The two of them had been out in the hills from an early age unlike myself, so I had a pair of old hands to rely on for advice. Other than walking locally in the Ochils, they had plenty of Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000ft) under their belts and it was through climbing with them that I got bitten by the Munro bagging bug. It is a debt I can never repay. From topping Dumyat, to my first camping trip in the far north in the wilds of Coigach, to my first Munros (Conival and Ben More Assynt) took less than two months. That first trip set the tone and from there we took every available opportunity to get away into the hills. A typical Saturday could see us hitting the road at 6am, which put us in easy striking distance of ranges as far afield as the Mamores, the hills of Glen Coe and Appin, and the Cairngorms. If the weather forecast for Sunday was favourable, we’d plan to climb on that day too. If it wasn’t, we’d grab a fish supper from the Ben Ledi café in Callander, sprint home for a shower and shave before hitting the pubs in Stirling. A full day’s climbing and a full night’s bevvying together would ensure Sunday was written off. The summer months were the prize time though. Trips of up to a fortnight were planned, with a brutal climbing itinerary that was often way too ambitious. Inevitably we’d settle into a rhythm of two days climbing, one day off, and repeat until it was time to head home. Accommodation was primarily canvas but I remember one year where having worked every overtime shift available for a month we booked a self catering flat in Ullapool for a week. This bourgeois betrayal was very much a one off but what a difference it was to wake up with home comforts and cooked breakfasts.
You remember the hills but you also remember the craic. The sheer sense of achievement and the camaraderie that is forged through the shared endeavour of long hours in the wild, particularly in winter when days can take on an expedition feeling. The almost fantasy film beauty of Scotland and the unremitting savagery of so much of its landscape, a scenic character that too many of its people miss out on. The wild camping, the campfires, the feeling of living rough off the land even if you are heating up a tin of Heinz beans and sausages for your evening meal. Sitting out at 3am under a clear night sky looking up at the stars, your senses somehow cleansed of the background noise and incessant traffic rumble that comes with living in a city. The nirvana that is finding a clear, cold stream in which to bathe your feet and fill your bottle from on a hot summer’s day (just not in that order). And the social life of the camping trips away: hitting the local pub or hotel, taking the money off the locals on the pool table and chatting up the talent. The days on the hills brought their own vitality, rewarding the effort expended with a spiritual rejuvenation.
It’s probably ten years or so since I last climbed a hill. My wife and I climbed a few Munros together before we married, but that was it. Ben Vane in the Arrochar Alps was our last climb, the cramp that gripped my left calf on the descent the first real hint of what was to come. And ten years on I now race about in an electric wheelchair, motor neurones dead and dying while the brain remembers. We have a young family and all the joys, hopes and fears that go with parenthood. We have a new addition in the shape of our year old Labrador, Dexter. Life is busy and the thought of climbing a hill has never seemed further away. But every so often I see something (today it was a picture on Twitter) that brings all the memories of Caledonia’s Playground flooding back. Every so often I hear the sound of vibram sole on rock, in my mind’s eye I can see those glorious views. And I think about how I can encourage my family to get out there, start small, and go explore.
If you’ve never gone walking or climbing in Scotland, it’s never too late to start. Take the right kit, wear the right gear, learn how to use a map and compass, and get out there. Just wait till next year though. The skies might be safe then.