Friday, 13 July 2018

Ancient Stones and Wanderers

Hamish Brown :Photo-The Scotsman

I had the notion one sunny morning to oblige a reader and go seeking a stone called Clach nam Breatann in Glen Falloch. I had visited it once before, a long time ago, and I remembered it was hard to find for it is not on the map.  Clach nam Breatann is Gaelic for “Stone of the Britons”, and it is of significance because it marked the northern boundary of Strathclyde, beyond which was Pictland.

I made the mistake of parking at the Falls of Falloch, when it is better to drive a mile on up the glen, park at a good lay by on the west side and begin the climb by passing under the West Highland Railway by a cattle creep. You do not see the stone until vou have climbed a few hundred feet to a skyline beyond which it is conspicuous, perched on a pointed knoll. A local name for it is the “Mortar Stone” because from the south it looks like a piece of artillery.
Perched on its slippery top and looking down on the steep-sided glen, I thought of the Romans whose Empire stretched from the Black Sea to its north-westerly limit at Old Kilpatrick. They couldn’t use Glen Falloch to penetrate the north because of the Picts waging guerrilla war from these slopes. And even in the expansionist times when the Romans left and the power of Strathclyde grew, they could not contain the native Picts and the Scots from Antrim who combined in 843 to form Alban under Kenneth McAlpin.

Clach nam Breatann leaps into history when Robert the Bruce, in 1306, after his defeat by the English at Methven, headed west and was unlucky enough to fall in with the McDougalls below Ben Lui in Strath Fillan. Bruce was routed in that battle and forced to turn south. In Glen Falloch he paused with his 500 men at Clach nam Breatann before pushing down the eastern side of Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. The stirring events that broke English domination of Scotland were yet to come.

From the Stone you can drop to the railway in a north-easterly direction and find, in less than a mile, a path which takes a short-cut to Crianlarich. It is the soggy remains of General Caulfield’s military road, and it speaks of other conquests, the pacification of the Highland clans, the introduction of sheep and the exploitation of the Caledonian Forest. I walked along the path whose northern signpost was the snowy top of Ben More against which remnant Scots pines of the most southerly fragment of ancient woodland stood bravely.

During the summer I had followed Caulfield’s road right across Strathfillan and over Rannoch Moor, then across the Devil’s Staircase to Kinlochleven. This was for a new series of my television programme, Weir’s Way, and some of that journey made in a heatwave, with hordes of clegs and midges, had been memorable enough.
 STV crew filming 'Weir's Way' in the early 1970's

What surprised the camera team was to find that we had the route to ourselves. We met no walkers except in the Glen Nevis gorge, yet the roads were humming with traffic. One of the things I find interesting, working with different production teams, is how they grow to like the hills. Indeed, cameraman Harry Bridges has become a Munro-bagger on his own account and now claims a score of 20.

Perhaps some of this was due to a programme I did with Hamish Brown in the Arrochar hills with Hamish recounting his great trip across the Munros in a single walk of 1640 miles in 112 days and 450,000 feet of climbing. I was impressed at the lightness of his rucksack con­taining nylon tent, sleeping bag, stove, pots and food. I could lift it easily with one hand and reckon it was hardly more than 20lb.

Hamish grudges time spent in motor cars, and believes that to get the best out of the hills you should expedition across them, using bothies, or camping, carrying your own food and bivvy material. He can afford to look for novelty, since he has now done all the Munros five times. A few days before I wrote this he knocked on my door at 9am to talk about the sharp peaks of the Garhwal Himalaya where he plans to go next year as a member of a light­weight expedition to bag Himalayan Munros of around 20,000 feet.

Despite wintry weather, he was just back from a high camping trip in the Braemar copies of the Cairn­gorms, and as we talked he told me something of his background which was new to me. Born in Colombo in 1934, one of his earliest memories is of his parents going off to climb Fujiyama, leaving him disconsolate. But they did take him to the Valley of a Thousand Hills in Natal. A banker in Japan, Hamish’s father had to make an exciting escape from Singapore to reunite with the family in South Africa before coming back to Scotland. With such outdoor-loving parents, Hamish began on the right footing, though it was in the Ochils while at Dollar Academy that he learnt his stuff.

He grinned when I asked him what he had done in the way of work since his R.A.F. days as a National Serviceman. “Lots of things. I’m a ‘stickit’ minister – I was for two years an assistant in a Paisley parish. I gave it up to teach English at Braehead, Buckhaven, then went on to outdoor activities. I was there for twelve years, and readers of The Scots Magazine will probably re­member some of the articles I wrote of our doings.

“Now I’m a freelance moun­taineer/instructor, writer and lec­turer. I do mountain guiding by arrangement. I organise regular holiday courses in winter and summer. I just like being amongst the hills, and I have probably an unrivalled knowledge of the High­lands and Islands off the beaten track. I have almost finished a book on the long walk across the Munros. I’ve written fiction stories for maga­zines, and a guidebook to the Isle of Rum. I’m very happy – and very poor.”

But rich in experience through his travels in Ethiopia, Cyprus, Morocco, the Andes, Pyrenees, Corsica, Poland and most alpine regions of Europe. From among a lot of adventurous men I know, I cannot think of another who has crammed so much into a mere 43 years. The basic thing is, of course, that he is pre­pared to barter security for moun­tains, and has the capacity to enjoy a full life NOW, rather than playing safe and laying up treasures for his old age. Being a bachelor helps, of course!

Tom Weir. 1975: first published in the Scots Magazine