Roger Butler reviews There’s Always the Hills – an excellent new book by former TGO Editor Cameron McNeish
Cameron McNeish needs no introduction and his new book – part autobiography, part guide to the wild lands of Scotland – looks back on more than forty years of hearty outdoor life. The story begins with boyhood escapades in Glasgow, continues through teenage years as a flourishing long jump champion and goes on to describe the ups and downs of life once he realised he was never going to be happy in a suit and tie. Some of those highs and lows mirror the contours of his beloved hills and glens and there was a strong hint about his future direction when he gave his wife a pair of climbing boots as a wedding present!
If anyone has followed their dreams, it’s Cameron. There’s Always the Hills flows like a friendly conversation, shared over three or four single malts, and develops into an engaging tale that covers his years as a Youth Hostel warden, recounts a few early camping expeditions, and outlines the convoluted route which eventually led to him becoming editor of The Great Outdoors. He was determined to stamp his mark on the magazine but, despite the workload and the inevitable meetings, always made time to head into the mountains to meet fellow enthusiasts and soak up the rugged beauty of the Highlands.
This book helps make the case that, today, the great outdoors are more important than ever.
The story then develops into a love letter to the hills, and Cameron says we can all have our own Everests. Mountains make him happy. They raise his spirits, they excite, thrill, sooth and refresh. And he now appreciates that just being out there is what really matters and, as a result, no longer feels an instinctive need to dash to the nearest summit. The wind, the lichen and the cry of the curlew: it’s all about being part of the fabric of a mountain and he explains how walking and backpacking provide the perfect opportunity to study the small print of the landscape.
His travels with a TV crew wandered through wildest Sutherland, tramped across the Isle of Skye, cycled up the Outer Hebrides and, in one big bash, hiked all the way from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath. This walk helped pioneer the route of the Scottish National Trail and, along the way, Cameron explored little-known paths and byways, sought out quiet places and familiarised himself with aspects of Scotland that don’t always feature in political manifestos. And there are overseas journeys too: amusing memories from Mount Elbrus, an unexpected encounter in the Hindu Kush and a glorious dusty trek through ancient Jordan.
The more I read, the more I felt Cameron should have a role within Scottish Natural Heritage. But this wouldn’t be someone who sits behind a desk and prepares dry policy documents – this would be someone who stood up for those special intangibles such as spirit of place, well-being and a sense of belonging. There’s a theory that human wisdom has its origins in the inspiration we gain from natural untamed landscapes, and this book helps make the case that, today, the great outdoors are more important than ever.
There’s Always the Hills is published by Sandstone Press (£19.99)