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There's Always the Hills


WRITING an autobiography is a curious thing. As you write there is a continual thought running through your mind - why should anyone be interested in the story of my life?

It is, in many way, a very vane thing to do, making the assumption that not only will people be interested in your story, but will be willing to pay £20 for the benefit of reading it. However, I kept telling myself, the same thought processes went through my mind while writing each of my 19 previous books. Will anyone buy these? Will anyone be interested? Thankfully they did and they were...

As in previous aspects of my life I've followed the advice of my old friend and mentor, Tom Weir. Tommy must have suffered the same doubts because he described his autobiography, Weir's World, as an autobiography-of-sorts, so that's what I'll describe mine as - a kind-of-an-autobiography!

The book, There's Always The Hills, is essentially the rags-to-riches story of a wee boy from Govan. For those of you who don't know where Govan is I'll tell you. It lies on the south bank of the River Clyde in Glasgow and is, to put it kindly, a working-class area of the city. When I was born there in 1950 it was described as a slum, which I always think of as rather unfair because I have happy memories of the tenement buildings, the dirty backyards and the busy streets.

There was a community spirit in those tenement areas, a spirit that was largely lost when folk were moved out to the big housing schemes in the outskirts of the city, places like Castlemilk, Drumchapel and Easterhouse, places that the great Billy Connolly described as "deserts wi' windaes."

When I was young my family moved a couple of miles up the road to leafy Cardonald. It was still a working class area but this time it was a working class area with trees, where the houses had front doors and wee gardens. It was a world removed from Uist Street where I was born.

And it was here that I roamed free as a youngster, and that is the first beefy subject I tackle in my book. The freedom I had compared with the lack of freedom youngsters have today. My play radius as a 10-year old was probably in the region of several miles, more when we were old enough to get bikes (which we rode without helmets). Youngsters of that age today, in a city like Glasgow, will be lucky to be allowed out of their parents' sight.

And because we had that freedom we learned how to take risks, and more importantly, how to recognise risk and manage it. Those were vital lessons for someone like me with a lifetime in the great outdoors ahead.

We also learned to dream, and to grasp those dreams to make them a reality. I was still fairly young when I first experienced the pull of the hills and I was in my early teems when I surrendered to that pull and went to the hills. Telling my parents I was going to an official Scout camp I would catch the bus from Glasgow to Blanefield and my pals and I would wander the Campsie Fells all weekend, learning the basic skills of hillcraft and campcraft as we went along.

Sure, we got lost in the mist, we burned our fingers trying to cook on an open fire, we fell off trees and crags and got soaked attempting to cross rivers but we never gave up. These were some of the most memorable and adventurous days of my life.

From the summit of Earl's Seat, the highest of the Campsies, we would look north to Ben Lomond and tell ourselves when we were good enough to would climb it. When we thought we were, we would then gaze north towards the jumble of hills that rose around the north of Loch Lomond and Crianlarich and promise ourselves when we were experienced enough, we would climb them too.

And so we made a natural progression through the seasons to higher and bigger and more remote hills, building our bank of experience as we went along.

And as we became more experienced we cemented a deep love and appreciation for these landscapes, a connection with wildness and wild places that has influenced so many aspects of my later life.

I don't reckon I could have achieved that level of connection if I had learned to climb in an indoor climbing wall.

Another point I try to make in the book is the vital importance hills, mountains and wild places have played in my life, a point that gave birth to the title of the book.

There's Always the Hills is a direct quote from my old friend, the late Chris Brasher, which I explain in the book, a quote that had influenced me in times of disappointment, depression, when I feel let-down by people or events or on those days when the world appears a darker place than it was previously. For example when Donald Trump became President of the US, or when the Tories win a General Election.

I now know, from experience, that in these times there are always the hills, places where I can go where the insignificance of man, against the lasting reality of big skies, mountains, rushing rivers and birdsong, makes me realise that even the President of the world's most powerful nation is, in fact, pretty insignificant and transient.

It's then that the hills become a place of redemption, a place of healing, where I can be renewed and revitalised, and over the years I've realised that I don't even have to stand on a summit to benefit from the worth of the mountain.

The important point, the vital point, is simply in the "being there."

I mentioned earlier that this is a rags-to-riches story but that is not strictly accurate. My parents were hard-working and we were never dressed in rags and the riches I earned in later times were not monetary riches but those treasured aspects of life that come from good friends, family and in my case travel.

I've lost count of how many different countries I've walked, climbed and skied in but I'll finish this little essay with a quote about travel from Mark Twain.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."

I'm happy to say 'Amen' to that...

There's Always The Hills, published by Sandstone Press, will be published on 15th February. A pre-order discount of £5 is available to those ordering the book before the 31st January if you quote EARLYBIRDFEB at https://goo.gl/Xpi57o

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