AS every schoolboy and girl ought by now to know we, that is the Scots, invented just about everything.
We know this principally because a popular American historian called Arthur Herman told us we did. According to Mr Herman the modern world would be as advanced as the Dark Ages were it not for Scots’ genius.
But for us there would be no light (other than daylight), no roads (thank you, Mr Tarmacadam), no cars (who do you think invented tyres?), no phones, no televisions, no ideas. For not only did we invent things we also invented new ways of thinking. Not since the glory days of Renaissance Florence have so few contributed so much to so many without receiving proper recompense.
Until recently, however, it had never occurred to me that we had invented climbing. It does not, for example, figure in Mr Herman’s tome. Nor is it mentioned on the many websites devoted to hymning our praises. But according to the makers of a forthcoming BBC Scotland documentary we were indeed the first people to go up hills purely for the hell of it.
In the programme, The First Great Climb, three of the country’s leading contemporary climbers re-enact the “epic” ascent of the Great Stac of Handa just off the coast of Sutherland which, it is believed, was first successfully attempted in 1876 by three Lewismen. The discovery of this fact, says the documentary’s director, Richard Else, who obviously knows how to drum up business, means that we and not denizens of the Lake District were the world’s first recreational climbers. One can only imagine the chagrin they’re currently suffering in Ambleside and environs.
But as they come to terms with their demotion, we may as well enjoy yet another example of Scottish oneupmanship. What is it that makes us so eager to be the first through a door, to land a foot on hitherto virgin soil, to be at the frontier of every revelation?
To be honest, I haven’t a clue. Doubtless there is something deep in our psyche that makes us explorers in the broadest sense. Religion is surely another factor. If it has been drummed into you from an early age that you will spend eternity in the overheated equivalent of Guantanamo Bay unless you get your finger out and “do something with your life” it must have some effect.
Then again, some people are simply inveterate inventors. Take John Logie Baird. Long before he made tentative steps towards producing the means by which The X Factor would eventually be beamed into every house in the country, he had a go at making jam. When it didn’t set he turned to socks, producing a heated sock that was stuffed with paper, which worked fine as long as washing was not a priority.
Even Baird, though, did not venture to “invent” climbing. As one who used often to raise his eyes to the hills it never occurred to me to muse on who might have been the James Watt or Alexander Graham Bell of the peaks. In my youth, the rock stars were the likes of Hamish MacInnes and Dougal Haston. MacInnes, who resembled The Cream’s Ginger Baker, personified wild mountain man. Once he was accompanied by Chris Bonnington who by the time the pair reached the hill they hoped to climb was completely knackered.
Haston, who was from Currie, Midlothian, looked like Mick Jagger and was pretty by mountaineering standards. On an expedition to the Himalayas, he was stuck for days in a tent with Don Whillans, to mountaineering what Geoffrey Boycott is to cricket. To while away the time, Haston read Lord of the Rings, in response to which Whillans’ sole comment was “[expletive] fairies”.
Even in the 1960s, climbing retained some of the aura of the 1920s and 1930s when escape to the hills was an antidote to unemployment and depression. My initiation to an Aberdeen Climbing Club involved spending a night under the Shelter Stone in the Lairig Ghru. That was a formative experience which might have led to the loss of a finger or two had not a friend lent me his spare pair of gloves. I discovered something that night but I wouldn’t call it an invention.
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