SKY DANCE: JOHN D. BURNS. 416 PAGES PAPERBACK, PERFECT BOUND
Published by Vertebrate: £9.99 paperback or £24 in a case bound format.
John Burns is an almost unique polymath of the hill walking/climbing fraternity with a passion for writing and performance. Originally from Merseyside he moved over thirty years ago to live in Inverness to be closer. Pulled by a love of the Scottish Highlands. A keen winter climber and former member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team, he commenced his writing career in 2002 with a book of his poems, ‘Wind Danger’ aimed at raising awareness of autism, a condition affecting one of his two children.
This led on to his participation in the Edinburgh fringe with two one man plays, the first in 2010 ‘Aleister Crowley: a passion for evil’ became an instant success to be followed in 2014 by ‘Mallory: Beyond Everest’ a portrait of a man torn between the love for his wife/family and his burning ambition to climb the world’s highest mountain. Both of these plays he has performed in different venues around the UK, including his Mallory drama at a Kendal film festival. I have watched this with both intrigue and enjoyment wondering if John had not missed his true vocation as an actor story teller. He then published in 2017 his first book, ‘The Last Hill Walker’ tales gleaned from over 40 years of activity in the hills of Britain and adventures further afield in the Rocky Mountains of the USA and Canada. This has quickly become a hill walking standard which received almost rave reviews, and its follow up in 2018, a volume of ‘Bothy Tales’, stories gleaned from the mountains and bothies of Scotland, testifies to the authors intimate knowledge of that countries wild places.
And so we come to ‘Sky Dance’ a novel which has for its sub title ‘Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands’. It does just that for it is the most ‘out’ political mountain book that I have read, dealing with what are now ‘hot’ issues in Scotland and further afield including land ownership, re-wilding, and support for some form of limit on driven grouse shooting. There are no regulations pertaining to grouse moors; which are 15% to 20% of Scotland’s hill areas, and include estates which receive large public subsidies. And which means their environments are far removed from their original natural state.
‘Sky Dance’ tackles these issues head on, with the two main characters of the novel being ‘Rory’ a young climber/hill walker trapped in the drudgery of his everyday life working in a factory environment, and ‘Angus’ an older more experienced mountaineer; a President of the Highland Mountaineering Club and a senior clerk serving the Council in Inverness. They get together and start visiting bothies at the weekends to walk and climb on nearby mountains. One of the areas they begin to visit regularly is the fictional Isle of Morvan, reached from the mainland by a short ferry ride on which the Muir and Purdey estates figure large in the story which enfolds in ‘Sky Dance’. The Purdey Estate is in the hands of Lord Purdey , a caricature of all that is bad in a hereditary landowner; of old money with over 300 years of ownership which he believes gives him the right to do whatever he pleases on that ground, bull dozing new access roads, encouraging his game keepers to kill anything which might affect his shooting clients; raptors, hares, voles etc..even though such as the first are protected and killing them is illegal.
The Muir estate is the opposite run by a new money incomer who won his estate from Purdey in a gamble during a card game! Huge swathes of Scotland are ‘managed’ to increase the numbers of grouse and deer for sport (shooting) for little benefit to society and at a huge cost to wildlife and the environment. A coalition of bodies with interest in changing this has been formed under the title ‘Revive’, and they quickly won public support by organising a petition which received over 100,000 signatures, but which was just as swiftly rebuffed on submission by the Scottish government who stated ‘Grouse shooting is a legitimate activity providing benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation and investment in remote areas’. I do not think the five bodies now involved in demanding change agree this, and they are to meet shortly in Inverness to consider their response.
Both Rory and Angus are married, but as the story develops these relationships are strained for they become ever more involved in the ideas around re-wilding, even receiving support for such from Sinead, a young Irish ecologist and the new estate manager for Tony Muir. They break into a private wild life park, steal two lynx and transport them back to Morvan, releasing them in a forest which is a part of both estates. Not being professional wild life thieves they are eventually caught and arrested, charged and out on bail for an act which in reality is currently a major topic amongst naturalists and environmentalists throughout Europe.
Re-wilding is now on the immediate agenda in Scotland, and an organisation to investigate, promote (?) such was founded in 2015, and a National Conference took place on this subject in Stirling on the 21st September 2019. Already one land owner Paul Lister of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve of 23,000 acres near Inverness is planning to re- introduce such wildlife; lynx, wolves etc to the disagreement of many other Landowners and some local authorities. However this may be short sighted, for Lister believes he can show there is much more money and interest in managed tourism than in shooting, noting once again that this so damages the natural habitat of the Highlands. Which was once covered by 1.5 million hectares of Forest, but now boasts less than 16,000 hectares and where there are now bare open hillsides and valleys that previously were covered by Scots Pine, Rowan, Birch, Oak, Aspen, Alder and Hazel trees.
The proponents of re-wilding point out that since wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA there has been a massive increase in visitors and income, and to consider within the situation in Scotland the benefit that tree planting might make to off-setting global warming and in some areas the threat from flooding and or future storm damage. Obviously to re-introduce lynx or wolves into Scotland would require careful management, but Paul Lister of Alladale is certain this can be undertaken safely despite objections especially from the local farming community.
Sky Dance skilfully brings into its sub plots all the above issues and several more. Trophy hunting is swiftly dealt with and somewhat lampooned by the case of a wealthy German client set up to shoot a stag on the Purdey estate, by its two gamekeepers Donald and Hamish who stalk a suitable ancient animal, beyond its normal life span. And then after its despatch, they build the client up with congratulations noting he was ‘so brave’, and smearing his head with the blood of the dead animal, a ‘Highland’ tradition. Another issue arising in the novel is the use and abuse of bothies; in the main their occupants treat them with respect, take their rubbish home with them but on occasion large groups arrive at the more accessible ones, leave their trash behind and destroy some of their features, scrawling graffiti within their inner rooms etc. This struck a chord with me, for I knew some of those involved in setting up the Mountain Bothies Association in 1965.
Bothying in the recreational sense is almost a modern tradition dating from the post world war two era-however some of these shelters do date from the Highland Clearances and the Highland potato famine years, in remote areas where the population declined over a period of two centuries moving away to the cities to work in their industrialisation and abroad.
Many such are perforce located in Scotland, but there are some in the Lake District, Northumberland, Snowdonia, The Black Mountains and the Cambrians. Over 100 are listed by the MBA, and the ones in Scotland appear in a recent book by Geoff Allan ‘The Scottish Bothy Bible 2017’. I wonder if Bernard Heath and his friends who turned the ruins of an old farmhouse in Galloway into a bothy shelter, which led onto the establishment of the MBA ever thought it would become such a feature of the hill walking and climbing experience in these Islands, basic howffs free for anyone or everyone to make use of. A distant friend of mine from his early mountain days was Irvine Butterfield (1936-2009) he hailed from West Yorkshire, but a posting to Perth as an excise and customs officer led on to his playing a major role in the MBA and popularising their use and hill walking. His book, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland became a classic publication selling over 50,000 copies in a hard back format.
Writing a novel is a real challenge, dialogue is so hard to put down onto paper and achieve a realistic result, climbers and hill walkers are not wilting flowers, so unless it is hard edged it can lose some of its bite, a case in point Rory in Sky Dance comes out against ‘lists’ believing they demean mountain activities. Angus not so, but their reaction to one of their club members completing the Munros , the round of the 284 peaks over 3,000 feet in Scotland is restrained. However both join in a celebratory weekend at the bothy on the Isle of Morvan attended by their club members. The novel becomes ever more action packed and there are so many asides it keeps on giving, and the way its author has planned it to illustrate a whole year of mountain activities, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter is a positive device.
I will deal with only one other subject arising from the pages of Sky Dance; that is the one that the author obviously feels so strongly about, namely landowning! On several occasions he notes that a few hundreds of families own most of the land in Scotland. When I looked at the history of trespass and the life story of Benny Rothman this was a key to the fate that overtook him and his young friends, they had deliberately publicised the unfairness of the access situation by organising a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, and paid for this with jail sentences. John Burns cites this event in Sky Dance, and rightly feels that Benny was some kind of hero, in support of the outdoor fraternities demand for easier and more open access. In researching the trespass movement, it is so obvious that landowning in the UK is a source of great and ongoing wealth. Be it a shooting estate or land where minerals are discovered, with the spread of wind farms and mobile connectors, or that which can be developed for real estate development etc. And until poor people and those not quite so stop voting the rich and privileged into power this will continue to be the case.
I recall here how the senior members of the climbing fraternity during my tenure at the BMC would insist that we had to be careful, not to upset the landowners. Most of whom were actually reasonable to deal with and allowed climbing /hill walking to take place freely on their land, but a few were not and on occasion such as the landowner who dynamited an outcrop on Bleaklow, Yellowslacks to stop climbing taking place, he was not and should have felt the same kind of censure and even more so from the law that was handed out to Benny Rothman and his pals!
Sky Dance is not War and Peace but it is a real page turner, and I will not spoil the reader’s possible enjoyment at the novels conclusion, and the come-uppance near its end of Lord Purdey. It is a good story which however includes the most important issues now facing the environment in which we follow our activities. I enjoyed reading Sky Dance and I am sure anyone who has climbed, hill walked, Munro bashed, bothied, and trekked in Scotland’s wild lands will feel the same about this, John Burns first novel.
Dennis Gray: 2019