Next weekend, as part of the Fort William Mountain Festival, the hillwalker, climber, writer and educator Hamish Brown will receive the coveted Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture, joining such well-kent names as Adam Watson, Jimmy Marshall, Myrtle Simpson, Hamish MacInnes, Mick Tighe and Ian Sykes. A full list of his achievements would require more space than is available here, but he is best known for becoming the first person to complete all the Munros in a single journey under his own steam – bar the ferries he used to reach Mull and Skye – an epic feat that formed the basis for his book, Hamish’s Mountain Walk. His landmark 1974 adventure took him 112 days and saw him cover 2,638km, ticking off 289 peaks along the way.
The Fort William award also recognises his prodigious literary output – he has written or edited more than 30 books – and his pivotal role in setting up the coast-to-coast traverse of Scotland that was first called the Ultimate Challenge, now called the TGO Challenge, but which is known to most participants simply as “The Challenge”, such is its iconic status among long-distance hikers. Speaking down the line from his home in Fife, however, the 82-year-old seems at his most enthusiastic when reminiscing about his experiences as a teacher at Braehead, an experimental Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven that closed in 1971.
“I had ten years at Braehead School where my time was spent taking the youngsters into the wild, which was fantastic,” he says. “I occasionally get asked about safety, taking 14-year-olds along the Cuillin Ridge or a group traversing Mont Blanc – that was a fabulous escapade. They may have been young, but they were rich and old in experience and they knew what they were doing. They were taught to think and to work things out and to do things properly. They had tremendous responsibilities thrust upon them – and it worked.”
Brown has a new book coming out in March entitled Walking the Song, which he describes in the introduction as “a potpourri, mainly of articles which have appeared, or have their subject matter in events over the last 50 years.” Several stories from his time at Braehead feature – including the Mont Blanc adventure – but the pick of the bunch is the account of a walk from Killin to Skye with a remarkable group of students who impressed a certain Gavin Maxwell with their knowledge of natural history, having knocked on his door and asked him to identify a mysterious fish they’d found on the beach. It’s this tale from which the book takes its title, and it concludes with a wonderful scene in which the students, brown as berries after their long march, are aboard the Kylerhea ferry, explaining to tourists “how drovers swam their beasts across these narrows... about the military road to Bernera Barracks and the Clearances.”
“They knew their history,” Brown concludes, “a history which they had married to geography (and memory) over the hot, long days. We stomped off down the clanging ramp with voices ringing out ‘It’s the far Cuillin that is pulling me away...’”
When Braehead closed, Brown was made county advisor in outdoor education. “It sounds very grand,” he says, “but my boss was basically the man who ran PT and football and things and knew nothing about the outdoors or climbing.” It was Brown’s dissatisfaction with his new job, he says – and the layers of bureaucracy that increasingly seemed to stand between school children and the outdoors – that ultimately gave him the impetus to embark upon his famous Mountain Walk.
“I was in a job I wasn’t very happy with and I needed some excuse to break out, as it were, so the idea was seeded: why not have a go at this doing the Munros in a oner?”
Given the stringent health and safety regulations teachers have to contend with today, you might expect Brown to be gloomy about the prospects of future generations ever making it into the hills, but he is surprisingly optimistic: “There’s never been a time when there has been so much young talent around,” he says, “whether it’s going into the hills, making music, sports, all kinds of things – young people are doing fantastic things. One feels that in many cases it’s against the possibilities, but the self-motivation is obviously still there. Regardless of all the constraints – ‘Oh, you must do this’ and ‘be careful dear it’s not safe’ – people still go off and do it.”
*The Fort William Mountain Festival runs from 15-19 February, www.mountainfestival.co.uk; Walking the Song is published by Sandstone on 16 March, www.sandstonepress.com