Book review: There's Always The Hills, by Cameron McNeish

There's a scene in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus '“ after Faustus has sold his soul to Mephistopheles but before he is forced to give it up '“ in which he is treated to a sort of pre-modern helicopter ride around planet Earth. First, he is taken to the top of Mount Olympus 'in a chariot burning bright' to view the clouds, planets and stars, and then, 'mounted... upon a dragon's back, / That with his wings did part the subtle air, / He... is gone to prove cosmography, / That measures coasts and kingdoms of the earth.'

Cameron McNeish
Cameron McNeish

At times, reading Cameron McNeish’s wide-ranging autobiography feels a bit like hitching a ride on Faustus’s dragon; one minute we’re traversing the precipitous Cuillin Ridge on Skye, the next we’re whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon; then we’re standing on the dunes at Sandwood Bay, looking out towards the lonely North Atlantic, and then we’re on a white-knuckle bike ride in the Picos de Europa National Park in Spain, screaming downhill at 40mph.

McNeish is keen to emphasise at the start that this book is not really an autobiography but what his late friend Tom Weir described as “an autobiography of sorts”. Partly this is because, as a very active 67-year-old, he still has plenty of adventures ahead of him; partly, he says, it’s because this is “more a book of thanksgiving, my way of saying thanks to the dozens, if not hundreds of individuals who have influenced aspects of my life.” Indeed, the list of the people he has met and worked with over the years, from WH Murray and Hamish Brown to Chris Townsend and Richard Else, reads like a Who’s Who of Scottish mountaineering.

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Much like Brown, McNeish’s love affair with the outdoors began as a way of escaping the boredom of the classroom. School in Glasgow “felt like a form of imprisonment” but from King’s Park Secondary he could “gaze across the city to the blue outline of the Campsie Fells.”

After a promising athletics career didn’t work out, he spent seven years working as a policeman, a barman and an insurance salesman, among other things, until in 1974, when he and his wife Gina had their first son, he decided to leave Glasgow and look for a career in the outdoors. When he told his boss at the Ford Motor Credit Company that he was planning to leave to “earn a living climbing mountains” he was laughed at, but McNeish did exactly that, first writing stories for outdoors magazines while running Aviemore Youth Hostel, then as editor of Climber & Rambler and TGO Magazine, and latterly as a TV and radio personality (although he’d probably hate that description).

There’s Always The Hills is an inspiring story of a life well lived. Or, at least, the first instalment.

There’s Always The Hills, by Cameron McNeish, Sandstone Press, £19.99