extract from Hamish Brown's book 'The Last Hundred'
A chapter dedicated to his many travells with pupils from Braehead School.
BRAEHEAD, THE STORY
OF A SCHOOL
My recollections of the hill days and other expeditions I was involved in with Braehead School occupy something like 60 closely written notebooks (out of a total for my adult lifetime of 230). Each of these books is crowded with memories as soon as I begin to dip into them. The first dip brought up the forgotten memory of an attempt on Macdhui one winter.
In the end we gave up our attempt on Macdhui. The snow was becoming so deep we could hardly move and, on those steep slopes, the avalanche risk was beginning to mount. Time to retire. I leaned on my axe, gasping for breath, both from the effort at beating out our furrow of trail and from having the blasting wind shove the breath down my throat. It was an incredible turmoil of wind and snow.
One of the lads with me sidled up and, putting his mouth to my ear, bellowed: 'Is it bad enough, Hamish, to have to dig in?' The tone was hopeful, I smiled, not that he'd see it below the ice-crusted mask on my bearded face, shook my head and pointed downwards. His pursed lips mouthed a four-letter word.
Back in the Corrour Bothy, the snow, still blasting past horizontally, we supped the welcoming brew and went over the day's adventure. I was struck then by how trusting they were (very humbling) but also how rightly confident, their morale high despite being caught by such severe conditions at near 4,000 ft. (A week earlier one or two had 'squatted' overnight in old Glenmore Lodge snowholes!) It was only back home, days later, that we heard of a tragedy that was happening on the same mountain, at the same time.
On the other side of the mountain a man and two kids had succumbed. New to the Cairngorms, new to the ferocity of winter on the tops, they had neither the skills, nor the morale probably, to survive. The importance of morale (based on knowledge and experience) is not something I've ever seen discussed as a factor in survival situations but I'm convinced it is a vital one. All too clearly I could imagine a boy, battered and baffled by that blizzard, unsupported by the adult present, just giving up in the end. The kids with me almost hoped it was an emergency situation so they could deal with it. I'm sure the biggest difference on the mountain that day was morale, Braehead morale.
Another dip. The girls finally reaching the top of the Ben, some of them after two previous defeats or postponements because of bad conditions. Supper in the hostel that night was euphoric. Wee Caroline (to gain height) climbed up on to a bench at the table and threw her arms round my neck. I didn't need to dip to recall that. I reckon it was one the sweetest kisses I've ever been given. Half a century later one of the girls on that trip met me and, recognition assured, her first question was 'Dae you mind yon trip up Ben Nevis?' Braehead memories, so bittersweet in retrospect for the school only existed for about a dozen years. Also, it was a meteor and its glow fell into the consuming layer of the earth's atmosphere.
Braehead School once stood in Buckhaven, or Buckhynd, as the locals more correctly called it, and was created as an entity to cater for the postwar 'bulge'. (The bulge was the baby boom that followed troops returning to family life after their years of horrible absence, and this, year by year, caused all sorts of demands - like the extra school places being needed.) The Braehead building was the old high school building but it had been so old that a new super high school had been built and some of the original was used by the local technical college. Come the 'bulge' and the condemned building was suddenly given renewed life. we were to be grateful for its antique condition.
In the new high school sticking sellotape on a wall was a sin; in the old we could do what we liked - and liked what we did. For the annual Christmas concert the whole hall, and balcony, never mind the stage, was covered in murals painted by the kids. And hardened critics came from London for those concerts. With hindsight, it was a good time, of hope and confidence, the post-war austerity gone at last, life there to be grabbed, the Beatles banging out the sound of it. How disappointed our prophet head would be to see the emasculated education of today, the gray sterility of it all sagging down from guardians who do not care for people or for the future. Outdoor education is a farce. But I rage, rage against it because, now, it is my pupils' children who are the feckless, flat-arsed button-pushers denied the most vital part of all - challenges to the imagination. Which is what Braehead gave.
The headmaster, the late R. F. Mackenzie, has written about his ideas and the school so I'll not do so here, other that to say that taking parties into the wilds of the Highlands and Islands was very much part of the school's heart; at any time a third of the pupils had been away on trips. I had whole strings of brothers and sisters coming up 'rarin tae go'. They were all people of equal value and what we did on the hills was just what anyone else did. It began as basically as one could imagine.
On our very first trip, to Glen Coe, staying at the youth hostel, I handed one lad two packets of soup and told him to put them in a pan. About five minutes later he was holding out the pan to me, the two unopened packets lying in it, with initiative enough to ask 'Whit dae ah dae noo?' That first trip something of an experiment for I was given two real things (and two 'goodies' to balance them) with the remit to knock the hell out of them and see if it would do any good. It did a surprising amount of good and my report got them suspended sentences rather than being put away. Their quest for living had begun.
Donkey jackets and ex-W.D. gear, borrowed axes and crampons; these took them up Bidean gullies and along the Aonach Eagach. We climbed on the Buachaille and walked back to the hostel. No 'simulated adventure' for them. Years later I visited our county's outdoor centre and it was just like an extension of school, every day programmed out. If 'Canoe II' got wet, they could come in and have hot showers, then sit in the carpeted lounge watching TV till a bell rang and they trooped in to supper the staff had prepared. It was an exercise in soft living such as many didn't have at home but it had little to do with outdoor reality. Centres always struck me as being poor introductions, and, if proof were needed, in ten years our local climbing club received not one recruit from pupils inspired by going to the centre. Braehead had its own thriving club of pupils, former pupils, and invited friends - all able to do their own thing. School parties were often dropped off, say at Glen Coe, and then picked up again, a week later, at Dalwhinnie. In between we were on our own - expeditioning as genuinely as in the Andes or Atlas.
Somehow we begged and borrowed the gear we needed. Requisitioning 100 cricket bats was easy; obtaining for primus stoves took months of explaining, discussion, committees, even being interviewed - once such meeting terminated with one of the bureaucrates asking if we couldn't light bonfires and cook on them instead of having fancy stoves... It was always a struggle but I reckon that, in itself, was valuable. People helped each other. Now, they sit back and expect it all to happen. With hindsight, the pupils who had the toughest introductions invariably became the keenest. In a recent discussion with some old FPs I was told, 'If you did it, so could we... You never asked us to do anything you'd not do yourself.' Joe, on our very first trip, after swimming up several pitches of the Clachaig Gully (it was 22 January 1961), wrote in his log, 'To give Hamish his fun we swam up several pitches.'
I hated my own teachers as a boy because of their blatant insincerity (rules encforced on us could be ignored by them) so was very conscious of this with our gangs away in the wilds. They often amazed people with their confidence, and competence, even in things like cooking and behaving in a bothy. But why should a boy not be able to cook a good meal? The question is back to front.
We accepted weather hammerings then which would be regarded with horror by the educationists now. (Maybe the boffins' ignorance was our bliss.) Once, after a day on Narnain and the Cobbler we returned to camp soaked to the skin so, out of curiosity, we piled all our wet garments in a blanket and tied it up then weighed it back at school. Everything was then dried and weighed again. The difference, per person, was 10 lbs, which, in those pre-metric days, equalled a gallon of water. No Gore-Tex for us. But no identikit boredom either.
We once looked like being stuck in Knoydart by torrential rain. The bus was due two days later at Glenfinnan but the Carnoch River was in full flow. A trick of John Hinde's got us out. We had big organge bivvy bags so off came boots, clothes, rucksacks, and everything was put into the bags and these sealed. Once in the water they fabulous floats and everyone just held on to these and paddled a long arc round the mouth of the Carnoch in the harmless waters of Loch Nevis. They were constanatly made to think their way out of problems. I abhor 'rules', for the mountains keep coming up with situations not covered by 'rules' and then they find easy victims.
There was a classic case of some school kids who went astray in Snowdonia in cloud and pitched tents and waited several days for help. Thousands of man hours were spent searching for them. The culprits even had a radio but, far from being interested in news or a forecast, they listened to pop music till the batteries died. The news told of the search under way. When found they were actually praised for their behaviour. I asked our gang away at the time what they thought of this and got the retort 'The ejits should hae their erses kicked. You canna be lost in a place like yon.' But they had been, hamstrung by 'rules'. Had they used thier gumption they could have been in touch in an hour. The stream they camped beside led down to a farm, a town, the sea. In Snowdonia you can't be more than an hour from human contact. But basics like that are lost sight of in a flurry of complicated navigation exercises needed to fill classroom programmes and timetables. Instructoritis can be a fatal infection.
This is no light matter. The watershed tragedy of the Edinburgh school party on the Cairgorm Plateau was a 'programmed' disaster. They were set to do a navigation exercise over the plateau that day and that was what they damn well did, despite everyone else finding their way off as quick as they could. To this day I'm often infuriating my parties by changing plans, sometimes again and again, yet, at the opposite pole, I've had broadsides condemning the rash things I've done with kids - such as the Cuillin Ridge. But this is the whole point. Nothing was ever rash (I'm too big a coward!) but nothing was/is ever so hard and fast that it cannot be altered to suit the needs of the moment. Braehead learnt this. Asked where he would have gone that so fateful day on Cairngorm, one of my kids grinned back 'The Avaimore swimming pool'. He was dead right. Sadly, other were right dead.
Those years gave me early grey hairs of course. I was almost glad when the school closed (the 'bulge' had passed and the mining industry had collapsed, at a local level with the tragic disaster at the Michael pit), yet, in some ways, I had very few really worrying times because the kids did behave, they did use their intelligence, the did THINK. I can recall, that first Braehead summer, how epic the traverse of the Aonach Eagach felt yet, a few years later, relative beginners romped it. We saw the whole history of mountaineering telescoped into a handful of years. In the last few years of the school's life gangs went off in the summer to climb in the Alps. The day the school officially closed for good we did just that.
We did a great deal of sleeping-out, bivouacking, howffing and bothying in the Braehead years. We had to with minimal budget. But it was also fun. I wonder if future archaeologists will wonder at the odd circular walls dotting the Scarba shore of the Corrievrachan? Our kids built them to sleep in. Roofless they may have been but they were still preferable to the goat enriched caves on the Jura side of the great strait. Snowholes were easier they could be built anywhere. I recall one glorious climb on Beinn a' Bhuird's Coire nan Clach done from a cave which was half snow, half pink granite. A candle in that secret burrow turned it into a glittering palace of white walls and rosy ceiling. Or the nights under the mouse-noisy Shelter Stone. I like the brief entry in the visitor's book that declared, 'It moved'.
Once we had tents, movement could be completely free but, with youngsters, systems had to be devised to minimise the loads carried. A tent on top of Braeriach entailed a consderable foot-poundage of effort. That particular camp was one of the coldest we ever experienced, as various details recalled would indicate: prunes left to soak in a dixie ended as dark objects enshrined in a cylinder of ice, lemonade under a pillow froze solid, eggs froze and even when fried, and apparantly normal, remained crispy-centred. When someone spilt water and was about to sacrifice a vest to mop up the groundsheet he was restrained from doing so, 'Just wait a wee bit.' He did - and then simply prised up the ice and threw that out the entrance instead.
Black's Pal-O-Mine tents were our standard. We added angle poles for strength and extended flysheets round the back to ground level. If on a long trek, we'd take an extra flysheet and link this between two tents facing each other. With four kids in each side and myself in the middle along with the stoves we could largely contain an expedition under one roof. We cooked on good old pariffin primus stoves. They were safe. Even if misbehaving the could be controlled, usually. We only once burnt a tent - because the stove was outside. On a winter occasion when a stove was flaring a kid applied the ultimate 'immediate action' and put his hand under it and lobbed it out of the tent - and straight into the tent opposite!
The players were not amused. It landed on a vital school-championship chess game and they just could not set up the pieces again. Chess was a great tent game. At Bridge of Orchy we once sat out a 72-hour non-stop deluge and I think we must have played as many games of chess. Old Mr Macdonald, who then had the hotel, came over on the second evening expecting to find a scene of disaster. At the first tent he found everyone asleep, in the second he found several chess games in progress, in the third he was offered a cup of tea ('He looked so wet and miserableoot there!'), in the fourth he found me. 'I thought you'd be in distress,' he commented. 'But you're obviously all right. Bring them over for a bowl of soup later and they can watch TV if you like.' Because the kids were obviously capable and friendly we made many friends like that. Adolescent inhibitions mean little when there are shared enthusiasms. the crime today is that the inspiration is not given: false economy and moral backruptcy.
At the end of a blazing heatwave trek from Killin to Skye we had a few days spare at our final camp near Glenelg. On one of these the local laundry van took us over Mam Ratagan which allowed us to climb the Saddle by a too-hot-to-handle Forcan Ridge. This mighty Munro is one of the few with a pool virtually on the summit. We didn't have much to take off before cramming into the coolness. Photos show strangely white torsos and brickred or brown faces, arms and legs. We'd not dared trek without shirts on in case shoulders burnt and carrying rucksacks became impossible. In the Lairigmor from Kinlochleven to Fort William everyone, twice, jumped in fully-clothed into pools only to dry off in minutes. Our Cuillin traverse was done in a heatwave and the commonest cause of failure on that venture is heat (if its foul and wet you just don't start!) and this is also the commonest cause of failure on the annual TGO Challenge each May. When I did an account of our scorching day on the Saddle for a magazine I wrote something like 'We collapsed by the cairn and drank our bars of chocolate' only to see this editorially changed to 'ate our bars of chocolate'.
That same magazine also altered the everyday term 'bum-sliding' into 'bottom-sliding' - which took years to live down. That particular bum-slide was off Spidean Mialach above Loch Quoich and when we reached the lochside road we had gone through trousers, long johns, undies and some epidermis! I've photos to prove it. On a programme about birds one of the boys cheerfully explained that the name 'wheatear' was a ridiculous, meaningless Victorian euphemism for 'white arse'. The BBC, then very much in its Auntie image, but that from the programme. It's as well they'd not got on to Munro names. Such as the equally euphemistic Devil's Point which, in the original Gaelic, is bluntly the Devil's Prick! Incidentally, behind the Devil's point is Locan na Stuirteag which is Gaelic for black-headed gull (stuirteag has always struck me as just the sound they make!) but the lochan is now the nesting haunt of the common gull. Did someone make an ornithological blunder, or did the common gulls take over from their noisy cousins?
to be continued.....