Advice for Walkers

The great thing to do in going up a long steep hill is to stop and admire the view the moment that nature warns too great a strain is being placed on the pumping powers of the heart. Do not mind who is in front or how far; do not struggle on till the heart is bumping against the ribs; do not be ashamed to sit down and rest … The Swiss guides have a very good maxim and always urge you at the beginning of a long day “to start as if you never meant to get to the journey’s end.”’

– Augustus Grimble

What seems perfectly certain is that the art of walking over rough, steep and difficult country is the only possible foundation for any kind of true mountaineering, and that its importance is increased and not diminished as we proceed form the lower hills to the greatest mountains of the world. This art should be well and truly learned on the easier and lower hills as a necessary stage in the education of the mountaineer. Moreover, it is surprising how one continues to improve, even after years of experience. This is one factor which makes the enthusiasm for mountaineering such a life-long treasure and delight. Speed belongs to youth, and many sports must be abandoned on that account in early middle age, but the hill climber improves his skill, preserves his fitness and learns to economise energy to such good purpose that he may still pursue his craft until long past the age of three score years and ten … There should be no rushing up the hill. The pace should be comfortable for the slowest member of the party. Shorter steps are best when climbing, especially on uneven ground. Accurate placing of the feet is very important, on a rough, loose slope especially. Keep the foot as level as possible and save energy. A good pace will usually enable everyone to breathe through the nose and not with open mouth. This does not dry up the body so much nor accentuate thirst on a hot day.

– J. H. B. Bell

breathe in

remember the value
of rhythm

   breathe out again

when you confront
your mountain

step out

with springing step
from the ball of the foot


the knees be-
      hind at every pace

How to walk in the hills? The advice that Balfour-Browne gives would fit snugly in an anthology of Highland zen; a meditative tone: ‘inhaling your breath as the left foot advances, breathing out as the right foot does so, will take you up a steep place in a surprisingly satisfactory manner.
In Deer Forests of Scotland Grimble addresses the walkers’ gait: in those days an average days stalk could cover twenty miles upping-and-downing – nowadays, with the 4x4’s it’s much less. Bell has similar advice in his bible for mountaineers.

A person’s gait is unique and unvarying, to the extent that some criminologists propose it as a more accurate form of identification than DNA or fingerprinting. The way we walk affects our experience of time. Frèderic Gros recalls the example of an old friend who confirmed that walking benefits from a ‘good slowness’, for those that hurry speed up time, whereas those who glide with a steady pace lengthen the day. It is worth bearing in mind the traditional advice for the best position in a walking party:

            air thoiseach ‘sa choille ‘s air deireadh ‘san fhéith

            first into the wood and last in the bog

For a time the gentlemen of The Cairngorm Club made Naismith’s rule of walking into a ‘bogey’ to try and beat – competing against the specified time that a walk over a particular elevation and distance should take. The ultimate test was all seven Cairngorm Munros in one day, beginning from Loch Builg and finishing with Sgoran Dubh – a distance of thirty-two miles and 9500 feet of ascent, which should take approximately fifteen hours and twenty-five minutes.

eum a’ mhonaidh is the Gaelic phrase that describes the heather loup of the Highlander used to traversing tangled hillsides and tiresome boulder scree. Michael Newton likes to think that the strong leg muscles that resulted from such hikes bred a natural proficiency for the dancing of reels among Gaels. A remark of Captain Simon Fraser of Knockie, published in 1816, seems to support this:

In passing through the district of Strathspey, the traveller may be apt to forget, that among the long ranges of firwood and heath on each side, originated that sprightly style of performing and dancing the music which bears its name, now in universal request from the Spey to the Ganges…

John Allan agreed, and added a sly dig: t
he English dances ‘go clipperty-clop to a very pedestrian country beat, whereas the Scottish ones move quickly and with spirit. They are complicated, they allow elegance – they demand it: they are essentially of the court as against the village green.’
Plumb favours the kilt, which ’gives the greatest possible freedom for climbing, yet protects against fierce winds and enables him to sit comfortably on the wettest ground.

Times have changed and
Grant Hutchison’s account of the master hiker appeared in The Angry Corrie’s sketch of hill-walking types, ‘The Wiry Old Guy’ will be recognizable to many:

He's thin and stringy, he's got a face like a walnut and a shock of fine white hair which stands out from his head in the slightest breeze. He walks quite slowly, with his hands tucked neatly under the bottom of his rucksack, but he never stops. In knee-deep heather, vertical bog, scree or on a wet grass slope, he walks at two miles an hour, taking little economical steps, and not breathing hard at all…

 Grimble’s cure for a fall

running downhill
if you slip and fall

turn your face first
stick in your toes

and anchor on
to whatever’s coming

Grimble’s advice
a white handkerchief

is good to wave
and can be attached

to your stalker’s back
during a long tramp

home in the dark

Grimble’s cure for stiff joints

take a warm bath
and then apply

hot strong whisky
mixed with water

and rub vigorously

Midges, gnats and clegs, the first and last mentioned being particularly troublesome in Scotland, will not attack you readily if you have washed your face and hands and legs in water in which some Epsom salts have been dissolved. Wearing fronds of bracken or pieces of bog-myrtle round the back of the hat and hanging down over the neck and shoulders helps to keep off both flies and strong sun.

In future posts I will discuss the New Walking, as I dub it, including place-aware walking, foraging, conspectus and contouring.

John R. Allan: North-east Lowlands of Scotland
J. H. B. Bell: A Progress in Mountaineering
P. R. Chalmers & V. R. Balfour-Browne: Mine Eyes to the Hills

Captain Simon Fraser: The Airs and Melodies peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles
Augustus Grimble: Deer Stalking and Deer Forests of Scotland
Frèderic Gros:
A Philosophy of Walking

Grant Hutchison
Walking Types, No. 1’: The Wiry Old Guy, The Angry Corrie, check issue

‘Hillwalking Hints’, The Scots Week-end 1936, reprinted in
The Angry Corrie 5: Jan-Feb 1992
Donald Meek (ed): The Campbell Collection of Proverbs
Michael Newton:
John MacInnes, conversation with Michael Newton (nd)
James A. Parker, Cairngorm Club Journal, No. 8
Charles Plumb: Walking in the GrampiansAdam Watson: It’s a Fine Day for the Hill

Walkers headed for Glen Derry; beyond that Meall an Lundain, the dub tump, with the Lochnagar massif behind: Hannah Devereux, February, 2016Gill Russell, Creag nam Ban: Hannah Devereux, July 2015
Path, Glen Callater:
Hannah Devereux, July 2015
Cairn, Craig Leek:
Hannah Devereux, July 2015
Creag an Lochain, Glen Ey: Hannah Devereux, *** 2014
poem-label (different as we are / we share / paths in common’): AF, 2015
Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.