The healing power of the Scottish landscape

Ben Lawers viewed from Loch Tay
Ben Lawers viewed from Loch Tay
Share this article
Have your say

HE survived an Aids-related cancer and then, despite his patchy health, set himself a challenge – to walk all the peaks visible from Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh as outlined by a long-forgotten Scottish mountaineer. Now Kellan MacInnes has written of his feat in a new book, which is also a tribute to the healing power of the Scottish landscape

KELLAN MacInnes was 33 when a troubling spot appeared on his face. By then he had already noticed other subtle symptoms, his left eye was watering uncontrollably at times and he felt dog-tired. As a gay man who had come out in the 1980s when the Aids crisis was at its height, it didn’t take him long to guess what was wrong. A test at the genito-urinary clinic in Edinburgh quickly confirmed it. He was suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma – a rare cancer often associated with Aids, the devastating impact of which will be imprinted on the minds of anyone who has seen the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia.

Kellan MacInnes with his dog Cuilean. Picture: Julie Bull

Kellan MacInnes with his dog Cuilean. Picture: Julie Bull

Where a healthy person might have a CD4 cell count of 800-1,200 (CD4 cells are cells which help fight infection), Kellan’s was 174. “I watched as the doctor hid the form he was filling in with his elbow,” he remembers. “I didn’t read what he’d written. I didn’t need to. I knew the significance of the form. It was for patients who had less than six months to live.”

Determined to defy the bleak prognosis, Kellan quit his job as an adult care worker with Edinburgh’s social services and, supported by his partner Scott, who tested negative, embarked on six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Harrowing though his experiences on the oncology ward of the city’s Western General Hospital were, Kellan was one of the lucky ones. Although he had probably contracted HIV the previous decade, his diagnosis came a year after combination therapies were introduced.

Since 1997, he has taken a cocktail of drugs including saquinavir, AZT, epivir and a prophylactic antibiotic to ward off pneumonia; his cancer is in remission and his condition has stabilised.

Yet, as he is the first to admit, Aids has taken a toll on his physical and mental health. Not only do long-term survivors continue to experience fluctuating symptoms – he suffers from nausea in the mornings and bouts of diarrhoea – they are prone to anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some feel guilty for having survived when so many died young. Others blame themselves for having contracted the condition.

For years, Kellan existed in a kind of limbo; still living with Scott, now his civil partner, he spent a lot of time keeping house, growing organic vegetables on their allotment and walking their dog, Cuilean (Sweetheart), on Arthur’s Seat. Sometimes he would sit at the top and think of all the lives lost and how lucky he was to be alive.

Then one day, he had a kind of epiphany. After moving from Leith to Meadowbank he became interested in the history of the area. Browsing in Piershill Library he stumbled on Caleb’s List, an inventory of all the peaks, including Ben Lomond, Ben More, Ben Vane and Ben Ledi, visible from Arthur’s Seat, which had been compiled by the almost-forgotten Scottish mountaineer George Caleb Cash in the late 19th century. The closest peak, East Lomond, was just over 20 miles north, the furthest, Ben Dearg, 69 miles north.

The more Kellan read about Cash, the more fascinated he became: who was this man who explored the Cairngorms more than a decade before the Scottish Mountaineering Club had their first meet there and who wrote a moving account of the persecution suffered by the Loch an Eilein osprey on Speyside?

As Kellan contemplated his future, a plan began to take shape: he needed a challenge. Why not see if – despite his patchy health – he could research Cash’s life, climb all 20 of the peaks he came to think of as The Arthurs and write a book about his experiences? It took him four years. But Caleb’s List – a personal memoir-cum-mountaineering guide – will be published by Luath Press on Saturday to coincide with World Aids Day. Some of the proceeds will go towards Waverley Care, the charity Kellan now works with.

The book is an impressionistic work, which combines disjointed memories from his past with descriptions of the climbs and information on Cash. The sections on the peaks – Munros, Corbetts, Grahams and smaller (they are all over 1,000 ft) – contain fascinating details about their geology, flora and fauna alongside quirky historical anecdotes.

Kellan hopes his book might spawn a new trend for Arthur-bagging, with beginners and the less physically able ticking them off as the more experienced climbers do Munros. “There are only 20 of them and they are not the most difficult climbs,” says Kellan. “They’re the kind of thing you could go out and do with your kids or maybe if you were retired. They do not require the same level of fitness, but they still get people out enjoying the landscape and the open air.”

Kellan’s love of climbing was kindled as a teenager when, as a pupil at James Gillespie’s High School, he explored the Five Sisters of Kintail, Ben Nevis and the Devil’s Ridge in the Mamores with a school friend and spent two weeks in the Austrian Alps with a mountaineering club.

At university, and throughout his twenties, however, climbing took second place to socialising and holidays spent in the Greek islands. He makes them sound like heady days. But being actively gay during the 1980s and early 1990s, Aids cast its shadow over everything: it was the era of Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, the controversial Benetton’s ad which showed David Kirby dying, and Princess Diana at hospital bedsides.

Without any symptoms, Kellan, like many other gay men, decided not to go for a test. Back then, there was no effective treatment – and the stigma surrounding the condition enormous. With ignorance so profound people believed they could catch it from coffee cups and swimming pools and the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton, referring to people “swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making”, many people decided it was better not to find out.

“I still don’t know when I contracted HIV,” Kellan says. “But I wasn’t doing anything other 23-year-olds weren’t doing. People that age do tend to sleep around. And to be honest, I didn’t feel my behaviour was that risky – I wasn’t someone who went to clubs and had multiple partners.” In any case, he tries not to dwell on the past too much. “One of the things they say about HIV is that you should forgive yourself for having got it.”

When he was finally diagnosed, Kellan hid his condition from all but his closest family, ducking out of one early appointment when he spotted someone he knew in the distance. But now – though he is writing under a pseudonym – he wants to help challenge ongoing stigma and raise awareness of a disease which has faded a little from the public consciousness. “I think there’s quite a lot of complacency around HIV now,” he says. “I’m involved in a group at Waverley Care and a few months ago one of its members died – he was long-term survivor of HIV like me – so people are still dying.” And he believes that complacency extends to the young gay scene. “I think gay men in their twenties and early thirties don’t bother with safe sex. Because you don’t really see people visibly ill with HIV as you did in the 80s and 90s, I think they think even if you get it, you just have to take pills, but there’s far more to it than that, it’s still a chronic, life-threateningcondition.”

Kellan’s book, however, reads less as treatise than a tribute: to the healing power of the Scottish landscape and to survival against the odds. Conquering The Arthurs has helped Kellan conquer some of the demons which have stalked him since his diagnosis and look towards a better future. “It has given me back my self-esteem and my confidence,” he says.

• Caleb’s List will be published by Luath Press on Saturday. The launch will be held on 5 December.