Cinematic, by Mike Dixon

This article was first published in the IMC’s 50th Anniversary journal. It appeared in this form in the SMC Journal for 2013. The photos are Mike’s too; the plinth above is known as the Diving Board.

Very rarely is a natural setting done justice to in a feature film. John Ford’s films are an obvious exception with the use of Arizona’s Monument Valley in several of his classic westerns. These tend to remain in the same location for their whole duration. In most films, the norm is for scenes to cut to ones which bear no close geographical relation to those before or after them. For instance, in the opening sequence of The Wicker Man the sea plane flies close to the Old Man of Storr eventually landing plausibly in Plockton but bizarrely via a Mediterranean-looking hillside.

Next scene it jumps to Galloway then dots about randomly all over that region. Local Hero flips back and forth from Pennan to Arisaig as if they were just down the road from each other. At least both these films have merit. A modern film A Lonely Place to Die opened promisingly with some spectacular aerial shots of climbing on Rannoch Wall. After that things went downhill in every aspect, particularly the plot. It even ended up in Dingwall, a town whose most photogenic building is probably its Tesco.

Use of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands scenery in films tends to be repetitive to the point of cliché. Glen Nevis and Eilean Donan castle/Loch Duich crop up regularly. Glen Coe has made many a cameo too. Everyone’s been there: Hitchcock, Monty Python, Liam Neeson, Harry Potter, even James Bond recently to name a few. Whisky Galore shot on Barra is a notable exception to the usual filmic flitting but there is another far less well known example of Scottish cinematic integrity.

Shipwrecked 14 miles off the west coast of mainland Shetland lies a constellation of some of Scotland’s greatest natural features. The island of Foula measures less than three miles by three, its hills of modest height. Although only one of them exceeds 400m they form a most alluring, mountaineer’s skyline. Dark fins of land, like sharks on the prowl, lurk on the western horizon when viewed from the Burra Islands. On a rare, fine evening they might be back-lit by a Technicolor sky, with bands of vividness that you normally only see in a cocktail glass. Under such conditions the whole island seems to have risen and the imagination is fired up too.

Given that the stupendous west coast cliffs are teasingly hidden from view and the knowledge that Scotland’s second highest lies somewhere out there, only adds to the attraction. Tom Weir came away highly impressed when he visited on his honeymoon but not many seem to have followed in his footsteps, despite his enthusiastic praise for the scenery. The Kame, he thought, was more continuously vertical and awesome than Conachair on St. Kilda. However the route he took to circuit the main hills meant that Weir would never see the island’s greatest cliffs.

Michael Powell is best known for the films he co-directed with Emeric Pressburger such as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. These are renowned for their expressive lighting and colour, outstanding set designs and original narrative threads. All these strands add up to a filmic magic realism. He later went on to commit professional suicide with Peeping Tom, since hailed as another classic by the likes of Scorsese and Coppola, but never a comfortable film to watch.

In 1936, Powell shot his film The Edge of the World in black and white, almost entirely on Foula. He was inspired by a Times article on the evacuation of St. Kilda, but was refused permission to film on that spectacular archipelago by the then owner Lord Dumfries. Foula was chosen as a stand-in having the advantage of a ready assembled troupe of extras in the form of the small, indigenous population.

Powell’s book about the filming reveals his tenacity, humour and optimism in working in one of the most exacting of locations. Weather alone caused several epics. Powell appears briefly in the film’s prologue with a leggy, blonde honey, in real life his first wife. He quite rightly stayed behind the camera for most of his career, coming across as plummy and wooden. In those days attitudes to wildlife were different. He shoots an eagle for a bit of incidental sport before the main story about the death of an island community begins.

Shetland for me one summer was a replacement for a cancelled Alpine holiday, 4000m swapped for 400m. With the thoughts of what might have been, it was difficult not to feel disenchanted even before setting foot on the ferry in Aberdeen. In my mind I’d conjured up a land populated by fanatical twitchers and beards playing traditional music. But there was one of its islands I’d heard about, ultimately my main reason for visiting Shetland.

Flying out from Tingwall is a good way to appreciate the fjord-like inlets of west central mainland and the sea stacks of Westerwick. Pre 9/11 you could sit in the front seat next to the pilot and watch nervously as he wrestled with the controls through patches of turbulence. Foula’s sharp outline is ever beckoning. The toy plane banked startlingly before it prepared to land but then suddenly pulled up. The rough track of a runway had a fire engine haring up and down it with the siren full on. Had we lost an engine or had the undercarriage failed to lower the wheels, necessitating a crash landing? No, thankfully something far more mundane. The runway had to be cleared of a few stray sheep.

The road north passes more of these motley specimens, several scattered houses and a school at Ham. Viewed from the east the hills are noticeably lacking in rock. For stone monkey Johnny Dawes, Foula seemed like ‘a gigantic golf course that had been compressed until its smooth greens were angled at 1 in 1.’ Pleasant and shapely but verdant and with no real drama were my first impressions. A nagging suspicion of anticlimax was hard to suppress.

Gaining curving height on Soberlie Hill you suddenly emerge on the brink. An abrupt plummet causes senses to recalibrate with a sudden jolt. To the north is the holed Gaada Stack, a classic icon of Foula. Below is the striking arch of East Hoevdi which juts out from the main face like a stabiliser on a child’s bike. The flat North Bank accentuates the feeling of teetering along a skyscraper roof. There is no worn path beside the edge. The grass is slightly flattened, mainly by a herd of ponies which wanders here.

In places you could get down to the sea. The angle of the grass and the ever present moisture would make this very risky. Hugging the edge, the hill rears up and reaches a crescendo at The Kame. This 360m two-tier arête has an upper section which is Dolomitic in profile. First climbed by Mo Anthoine, Ian McNaught-Davis and John Kingston in the late 1970s it was repeated by a team including Johnny Dawes and Dave Thomas in the early 1990s. The latter were unimpressed, having to clear vast amounts of moss to reveal the underlying rock. Dawes performed a cartwheel at one point to demonstrate the lack of steepness and low overall (for him!) technical difficulty. Dolomitic doesn’t always mean the best of quality. In recompense they climbed two much harder, quality routes on North Bank and explored some sea stacks.

Cloud rolled in shortly after our arrival at The Kame. Were we to be jinxed at this, the real spiritual heart of Foula? Luckily, a patient, dreamy wait on the edge of the void, entertained by puffins, led to a sight I’d never seen on a sea cliff. Sun burst through behind and projected Brocken Spectres on to the dissolving cloud over the sea. Eventually the thin shroud retreated up the cliffs like a waterfall in reverse and the naked verticality was there to gawp at again.

From The Kame you can make a detour to the highest hill, The Sneug. Simple on the map; in practice you risk the wrath of the Bonxies (Great Skuas). These sinister birds have an air of Hitchcockian menace and will swoop and attack even without chicks to defend. They will quite literally eat baby puffins for breakfast. The Dawes team found No 10 hexes very useful weapons of defence to bonk them back. After two and a half weeks on Shetland, frequently pestered (and often downright scared) by Bonxies, I’d have happily taken a Kalashnikov to them with great relish.

The ‘inverted amphitheatre’, Nebbifield. Photo: Mike Dixon

Nebbifield is the sheerest cliff round here; a mini El Capitan, Noselike arête, soaring 300m to its apex. As yet this feature has only been breached by two routes, courtesy of Dave Turnbull and Crag Jones. The Nose route itself was repeated in 2011 by Dave Brown and partner. Abseil approaches are serious before any climbing begins. A small plinth near the top of Nebbifield projects like a diving board – pictured, top -over a shaft of deep space. If big drops make you recoil you’ll probably not get the best out of Foula.

Continuing south, you descend a graceful arc where the next section of Nebbifield assumes the topography of an inverted amphitheatre. It has a magnificent striped curvature, a giant cave at its base and overhangs outrageously in its 200m height. It offers Foula’s greatest remaining climbing challenge and will guarantee any takers an awfully big adventure. Anyone climbing here should seriously consider their options if they became cragfast in such a remote spot. Dave Brown was reassured by Magnus the local laird: ‘If you get stuck on a ledge you can trust us, we know what to do. Occasionally our sheep get stuck on ledges. We’ll use a .22 rifle to put you out of your misery. It’ll be more humane than letting you starve.’

A solitary gannet circled overhead, perhaps on the hunt for a weekend retreat away from all the high rise, overcrowded squalor of Noss. Continuing the descent you arrive at the ‘short’ Wester Hoevdi, a vertical slice of fractured rock ending as a blocky wedge above a viscous sea. Yet another significant chunk of 150m virgin rock. The waterfall on the east side was the setting for the climbing sequence in Powell’s film. Devoid of special effects or any CGI manipulation it has an authenticity and visceral punch absent in many modern, action blockbusters.

 From Wester Hoevdi a rising traverse across cliff-sandwiched grass demands caution. This is the home of the largest collection of routes on Foula on the weathered sandstone at Mucklabrek. Here lie climbs of up to 120m, all with a straightforward approach compared with the other venues. A short descent leads to a sheer sided 60m cleft, a real torture chamber of a slit. Once the lair of a mythical beast, the Sneck of the Smallie is now mostly populated by puffins and judging from the smell, the resting place for several unfortunate sheep.

The final hill is detached from the rest and has an elegant conical shape. The Noup has cliffs impressive in their own right, but suffer in comparison with what’s preceded them. A gentle saunter takes you back to zero metres. Any tempting shortcuts away from the edge will niggle those restless natives, the Bonxies. The friendly pilot took us the long way back round the cliffs. It was a different perspective but still left us wide-eyed. In 15 minutes we were back on tarmac, in another 15 enjoying a pint in Lerwick.

Later that evening in The Lounge the fiddly bollocks music was in full flow as I replayed the highlights of the day over and over in my mind. If neuroscientists had scanned my brain on Foula no doubt the areas associated with pleasure and aesthetics would have been glowing luridly. But reductionism is never the full story. Furthermore when these highs occur is often unpredictable and the reason I always travel in hope. After that day I developed a penchant for coastal walks and the heights of hills no longer had the significance they once did. I got a similar hit exploring the even smaller island of Ailsa Craig.

Recently I watched Powell’s film again, followed by the documentary about a revisit he made in 1978. He took lead actor John Laurie (Private ‘We’re doomed, Captain Mainwaring’ Fraser from Dad’s Army) with him and there was obvious affection from both for the film, Foula and its residents. The opening sequences of each film, the latter with aerial colour shots of the great cliffs, had me riveted and goose bumped, testimony to the skill of a director to portray a setting so evocatively. You can sometimes be disappointed after a return visit to a place which has entranced you first time round. With Foula I’m always afraid the same magic might not materialise. Unlike Powell, I’ve never been back.

IMC 70th Anniversary – the early years

The Club’s 70th Anniversary falls on 1st April 2020. Sadly, we can’t have a mass celebration as the committee intended – although I’ve no doubt that we will when the current madness is over. There will be no more meets for the immediate future; instead, I’m putting extracts from the IMC’s 50th Anniversary journal on the website. The first extract is written by Peter Biggar and deals with the early years of the Club. The photo at the top is of “Ice axe practice in the Cairngorms 1974”, with one Marion Potten to the fore.

The Club was born out of a meeting held in the Caledonian Hotel on the 4th of April 1950 at 7.15 p.m.  There were sixteen men, including four doctors, Alec Sutherland who was later to look after Shenevall Bothy on behalf of the Club for the Mountain Bothies Association for sixteen years, eight women, including Miss May Mathieson who was to become a long-serving Meets Secretary and one Sergeant MacKenzie, but whether he was there to become a member or control the crowds, we are not told.  It has been claimed that as many as sixty people attended this meeting – and this may be so – but these are all that are recorded by the spidery handwriting in the first minutes book which runs from 1950 to 1964 and is an invaluable document for those interested in the history of the Club.

An early moving spirit of the Club, Donnie Cattanach was in the Chair (and may even have been responsible for the ad. in the Inverness Courier which called the meeting).  However, during the proceedings Cattanach, in the words of the minute taker, “became indisposed”, a lovely phrase which could mean anything, and a Mr. I. Roberts took over.  Alec Sutherland, who was at the meeting, cannot remember why Cattanach became indisposed.  No matter.  After brief discussions the meeting passed a motion that “this meeting [should] form itself into a mountaineering club”, and an amendment put forward by two of the doctors to make the infant club part of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland was defeated by 21 votes to 4.  Small wonder: the J.M.C.S. did not admit women!  And women have played a conspicuous part in the history of I.M.C.

Despite his indisposition, Cattanach was duly elected the first President of the Club.  A committee was formed and charged with exploring the possibility of holding “indoor meets”.  An experienced member was to be found who could deliver a lecture to the Club on general aspects of mountaineering “for the benefit of those members who have little or no experience.”  Happy days! After all that they must have been as dry as dust, but whether they had beer or tea history, sadly, does not relate.

The Issues

During the fourteen years of this period, various issues alternately seep or rage through the deliberations of the committee.  Information was sought about “Campbell’s Rubber Company of Aberdeen” who, it was rumoured, would give a ten per-cent discount “to members”.  This organisation was also involved in the saga of the badges.  Somebody, it seems, decided that it would help to give the Club a sense of identity if the members wore badges. The modern equivalent is probably the Club “Logo”.  Campbells agreed to supply 144 badges at 4/6 each.  Sadly it was discovered that the Club could not afford this outlay.  The solution was to ask Campbells to supply 72 badges to begin with and the rest at a later date.  Campbell’s were having none of it: 144 or nothing!  Consternation reigned: the committee actually voted to have a “General Meeting” after the next A.G.M. to consider the matter. Plainly, in the more cohesive society of the 1950’s badges were important.  They never materialised.

Homologation

This sounds uncomfortable, but in fact merely means acceptance by the Club. Nowadays there seem to be no particular entrance requirements for being a member, but it was not always so.  Miss Duncan, in the early 50’s, had  to attend “one indoor and one outdoor meet” for the privilege.  All through the early years the committee seem to have wavered between (sensibly) taking anyone they could get and (less sensibly) going through all the rigmarole and hooha of entry forms, trial periods, solemn discussions, white smoke etc.  One suspects that the Club’s bank balance largely determined which selection procedure was used.

Roybridge meet, 22-23 February 2020

The forecast for the weekend was not good – strong winds, snow, avalanches – and when we gathered at Aite Cruinnichidh hostel on Friday night there was much discussion about what hills would “go”.  The hostel is very comfortable and well situated for the Laggan, Glen Spean and Nevis hills. Also handy for the pub as the Glenspean Lodge hotel is just across the road, but unfortunately it hadn’t opened for the season yet.

Saturday dawned with heavy snow showers being blown in by a strong southerly wind, so a team of Steve, Masoud, Dan and Irene opted to climb local Marilyn Beinn a’Mhonicag (567m), otherwise known as Bohuntine hill; funky photo above courtesy of Masoud.  The attraction was that the ascent was largely sheltered from the wind; a wise choice, as only the last part was exposed to the appalling weather.

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Creag Pitridh

Others opted for different activities; going for a park run, visiting the climbing wall, and finally a trip to the swimming pool to warm up (Shona and Kirsty R); a demanding cycle ride through the Leanachan forest to the Aonach Mor coffee shop, again to warm up (Kirsty G and Michael); and a circular walk from Roybridge up to a modest 270m and back by the river (Peter, Marion and Ewen).  All adjourned to the Stronlossit hotel in Roybridge for a bar meal afterwards.

Kirsty on Creag Pitridh

We had great hopes for Sunday, when the weather was due to improve – it didn’t, but that did not deter the team of Dan, Irene, Kirsty G and Shona from the ascent of Creag Pitridh, the Munro south of Loch Laggan; they get the prize for the highest hill ascended.  After sitting in the Creag Meagaidh car park for half an hour in heavy snow, Steve decided to head south in search of better weather. He ended up ascending the mighty Marilyns of Creag na Criche at Little Glenshee, and Torlum at Crieff, on the way home.

Kirsty R attained a respectable height on Ben Tee to the north of Loch Laggan at 901m, while Peter, Marion and Robin visited the Pictish fort of Dun da Lamh west of Laggan.  Michael and Ewen contented themselves with a wander up Glen Nevis to see the Steall waterfall, and of course a visit to the café at Nevisport.

Strathconon meet, 2 February 2020

Thirteen people assembled at the walkers car park in Strathconon.  This was a bit of a relief, because at one stage over 20 people had expressed interest in coming on this meet and I had nightmare images of crocodiles in a Scottish glen.

The “A” team headed for the round of Meallan nan Uan and Sgurr a Mhuilinn – pictured above – starting at Strathanmore.  The steep climb of over 600 metres straight from the car park to Creag Ruadh is always a shock to the system, but once you are up there is a pleasant ridge walk to the summit of Meallan nan Uan.  We just made that summit as the snow came on and decided to carry on down to the bealach for lunch.  We also managed a bit of ice axe and crampon practice on patches of neve and ice at the bealach.   That was a bit of a novelty for our newcomers, and for this winter, the older hands too. 

Tea break on Creag Ruadh

 It was a straightforward pull up to the summit of Sgurr a Mhuilinn in thickening snow and poor visibility; a bit of navigation practice to the South East ridge, then we were back in the peat hags that flank the Allt an t-Srathain Mhoir on the descent to the car park.

Caroline, Cerian, Ewen, Robin, Dougie and Michael decided to head over towards Luipmaldrig bothy from Inverchoran; Cerian opted to go part way along the path and returned to the car by another route.  The path was well iced up, but all made it across the burn and over to the bothy unscathed.  The bothy is maintained by the estate rather than the MBA, and is a substantial building which is kept in very good condition; it made a comfortable lunch stop. The journey back, initially up the River Orrin, was accompanied by snow showers.

Luipmaldrig bothy

Both parties got off the hill at the same time, and rounded off the day with a visit to the welcoming Priory Hotel in Beauly.  Participants: Richard, John, Brian (and Monty the dog), Anne, Arthur, Caroline, Cerian, Ewen, Robin, Dougie, Michael, and prospective members Katie and Karen.

Burns Supper, 18 January 2020

We had a good weekend at Elphin with better weather than forecast both days, though quite wild on the tops on Saturday.  Dougie, Shona, Brian, Masoud and guest Terry get the prize for effort; they had a cracking day on Quinag – panorama above – despite Shona leaving a piping hot flask of coffee and her lunch in the hut, and Terry thinking he’d lost his van keys on the hill only to find them in the van door!

Quinag looking south to Canisp and Suilven

Marion, Peter,  Louise and Jim were one of two low-level parties starting from Lochinver who followed a WalkHighlands route up the River Inver and over the hill to Glencanisp Lodge and back by the road.  Ewen, Anne, Fay and Catherine, having decided against an original plan for a through route from Little Assynt to Lochinver via Suileag bothy because of concerns about burn crossings, did more or less the same route in the reverse direction.  Both parties arrived back at the same time, and joined forces for coffee in the Pie Shop.  

Robin addressing the haggis

In the evening an enjoyable Burns supper emerged from the apparent chaos of the preparations, with everyone contributing to the feast by making something, peeling neeps and tatties or washing up.  As much as anyone could eat and more, all for £5 a head!

 On Sunday a reduced party of mountaineers,  Brian, Dougie and Shona, had a boggy walk into Canisp, were nearly blown off their feet on several occasions but were rewarded with stunning views of Suliven and the surrounding area.  Andrew, Louise and Fay walked from Blughasary road end along the Achiltibuie postman’s path to Dun Canna, with Marion and Peter opting for the fishing track along the river and up to two hill lochans.  Cloudy at first but bright later. 

On Canisp

Ewen and Jim ascended the mighty Beinn Eilideach, a Marilyn behind Ullapool Hill, starting from the radio mast at Braes.  Superb views of An Teallach, the Beinn Dearg group and the Summer Isles; maximum result for minimum effort, as they were on the hill for under three hours.  A chat with some locals they encountered on the hill explained the well defined path up the rather obscure hill, which was made by an Ullapool resident and his dog who ran up there most days!    A visit to the Frigate on Ullapool seafront resulted in a sociable meeting with the aforementioned low level walkers.

An Teallach from Beinn Eilideach