“And now that I have climbed and won this height,
I must tread downward through the sloping shade,
And travel the bewildered tracks till night;
Yet for this hour I still may here be stayed,
And see the golden air and the silver fade,
And the last bird fly into the last light”.
Dante G Rossetti
Anger, hate, confusion, bewilderment, anxiety, euphoria, fear, regret and pleasure. How can I be feeling all these emotions at once? What is happening to me? Why am I slipping? Why is my head full of this crap? I sense my head telling to relax, clear my mind, say a quick prayer if I must, even accept the inevitable outcome of the downwards motion but get on and do something. I accept and acknowledge in this split second, that I have probably outreached myself this time. Too arrogant by half. This time I have to pay the ferryman, there is no escape as he waits for me at the bottom. Who will cry for me? Who will miss me? Who will even care when they pick my broken mangled frozen body from among the rocks below. No answer was forthcoming. The silence of ensuing death was all that could be heard.
The winter of 1977 was turning out to be a reasonably good one for early climbing routes and I was keen to get out and do as much as I could. Although Sandy and I had only been married for a year, we had agreed from the outset that we should not lose any of our individuality or who we were before we were fortunate to meet, and so whenever it was possible and appropriate, I would go climbing somewhere.
It all started one Friday night as I was sitting in the Golden Rule in Ambleside, having a quiet pint before driving back to Carlisle after climbing alone on Dow Crag where Easy Gully and Easy Gully Ridge Branch gave excellent satisfaction, when my world was rudely intruded upon. “What’s to do Frankie boy” inquired Mick loudly as he danced a jig in my direction, arms swaying to and fro like some mad monk with his habit on fire. This was Mick’s usual entrance when he was trying to impress somebody and in this case it was the new barmaid despite her being nearly twice his age, but then he always fancied himself as a lady’s man and this was to be no exception and so Mick thought he stood as good a chance as anyone else. He was, believe me, full of rampant optimism that night!
I looked up from the book I was busy trying to read and replied as quietly as I could, in the hope that he would steer himself towards someone else in the pub that he knew, but it was patently obvious that this did not have the desired effect as he came over, sat down and helped himself to some of my crisps. I gripped my pint glass tightly. “Not a lot Mick, what’s to do yourself?”
As he tried unsuccessfully to get some more crisps from the packet I was now holding tightly with the other hand, he replied in a loud voice, no doubt hoping to impress the new barmaid who was paying him no attention whatsoever, “I’m off to the Cairngorms for some winter routes with Charlie, fancy coming along for the ride?” My reply was quick, precise and to the point and left no words to be misconstrued. “No thanks Mick, I’ve got other plans”.
Now it wasn’t that I didn’t like climbing with Mick, he was precise in his movements, strong as they come and level headed in dodgy situations, it was the thought of going with Charlie that put me off. Charlie was as they say, ‘another kettle of fish’. Charlie found it impossible to be quiet when climbing and was devoid of any degree of decorum when leading any climb.
His party trick was to see how many times he could belch and break wind which he always tried to do when he was on the front end of the rope, and thought it hilarious to suddenly stop and relieve himself irrespective of who was below him, which was usually his climbing partner. I had been there twice and was determined that there was not going to be a third time.
I well remember the last time when Charlie and I last climbed together in the winter. Whilst Mick’s idea was to eat as much cheese as he could so that it would bung him up, negating him having to bare his backside to the cold. Charlie for his part was the exact opposite. He would eat as much curry as he could, followed by tins of cold beans. His reasoning was that if your crap was like water, then it was over quicker in which case your bum was not exposed too long to the cold. I suppose they both had fair points although in reality terms, we all know that when you’ve got to go you’ve got to go and the cold will have its affect no matter how long, or short, you expose your nether regions.
So there we were, Charlie and I, climbing Central Buttress - Original Route on Lochnagar in Scotland, a route I had wanted to do since doing Parallel ‘A’ Gully solo several years before.
We were going to lead alternately with Charlie climbing the first pitch and I the second and so on. On the third pitch which Charlie was leading and I was tied on and belaying him from a narrow part of the gully lower down, he decided the curry and beans for breakfast just had to go, so without warning, he wedged himself below a bulge, dropped his trousers to relieve his heaving belly of its contents.
Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that in any gully, there is only one direction for anything to travel (according to Issac Newton that is), and that’s downwards and if your’ standing beneath whatever is coming down and you can’t get out of the way, there is a high probability that it will hit you on its way down at 32 foot per second per second.
Up above, Charlie was wetting himself with laughter at the sight of me trying desperately to avoid the downward contents of his bowels. Believe me, I did not see any funny side to his antics and promised myself that I would never be in a similar position again. I knew therefore, that Mick’s attempts to persuade me to accompany them on this occasion, would be fruitless, and it was.
However, Mick was never a one to let sleeping dogs lie so as he was striding to the bar with his usual swagger, he turned his head and asked what it was that I had in mind. As it happened I had nothing in mind, but I was not going to give him an opportunity to try to talk me into going with him and Charlie. I therefore convinced myself that in such situations a little white lie was acceptable. “I’ve had my eye on a route for some time now which hasn’t had a winter’s ascent to my knowledge” came my curt reply. Just as Mick was about to press me for more information, the barmaid who was wearing a tight low neck sweat shirt, leaned over the bar to wipe some of Mick’s beer that spilled out of his glass when he tried to grab it to capture the froth that was still spewing over the top. Fortunately for me, a part of her anatomy was also spewing over the top of her T shirt, which thankfully distracted him long enough to allow me to drink up and leave unseen.
As I drove home to Carlisle, I started to ponder on the little white lie I had told Mick, thinking that this was not such a bad idea after all. After I had given it some more thought, I eventually decided to go to Glen Coe for a brief foray calling into Ben Ledi [north of Callander] and on my return to try a winter ascent of the central gully that can be seen from the car park and roadside and which had not had a winter ascent for many a year if at all, which I hoped to address.
Sandy was already in bed reading when I got in so after some discussion about my ideas for the weekend, I settled down to get some well-earned sleep. As is always the case, sods law came visiting in the guise of a bout of insomnia which clearly had returned with a vengeance. I kept thumping the pillows as if this would somehow bring sleep to my tired eyes but it didn’t so I just got up at 3.30am and had a brew.
By 4.30am I was sitting in the freezing car trying to get the damn thing to start. I did my ‘Basil Fawlty’ routine but from the inside, thumping the dashboard, screaming at it that it was going to a scrap yard if it didn’t start, but this had no effect. I got out of the car and repeated my poor John Cleese impersonation by kicking the wheels and threatening to carry out my threats if it didn’t start the very next time. It did and after patting the dashboard and calling it some nice names I set off northwards up the A74.
The car spluttered and coughed all the way to Stirling where I stopped at a transport café for a hearty but greasy breakfast. Once I was sated with my eggs, bacon, beans and toast, using the last piece of toast to wipe the plate clean, I became conscious of someone standing over me, blocking out what little light there was emitting from a 40-watt grubby looking bulb above the table I was sat at.
I looked up to see a gangly youth, unshaven, long matted hair, wearing a baggy jumper that had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese, and a rather thin hungry looking roll up fag hanging from the corner of his mouth. On his jumper were what was left of the words ‘I’m a fuken Gls’wgian’ so I knew that whatever he wanted, it was not to offer me a cup of tea and hoped it was not to ask which football club I supported, Celtic or Rangers!
“Pardon, I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Did you say something?” “Aye” he said in gutteral Glaswegian as he took the half smoked fag from his lips. “och, I dinny ken youse waa an Englishman, but I asked if yoose wa gooing ta tha Coe”. Before I could stop myself I replied rather quickly, “yes as a matter of fact I am, do you want a lift?” regretting it instantly once it was said.
The gangly youth sat down shouted for “two laarge brews hen”, [ok so I was wrong!] threw me his baccy tin offering me a rollup. Sliding the tin back in his direction, I said no thanks as I had given it up. As he reached out for his baccy tin I noticed his tattoos, love and hate across both knuckles accompanied with the usual gang related dots on the skin between thumb and forefinger. On his forehead he had a star which was repeated on the left ear lobe.
I refrained from asking him about his tattoos as I knew such questions were unwelcome at the best of times. He sat there watching me, his eyes staring, unblinking, which was both off putting and disconcerting. However, as I had done some basic psychology at University, I knew that silence and giving the ‘eye’ is sometimes used as a means of testing out someone else’s mettle.
After a while, he asked, almost demanded to know “whit youse aftee pal”. Not quite sure whether he was referring to the fact that he thought that I was staring at him or not, or he was challenging me to a fight, I asked him what he meant, standing up to take off my denim jacket to expose my tattooed arms as I did so. This caught his attention. I had him thinking now. It appeared I had turned the tables and waited for his next move which came almost instantly, “Whit youse gooing to da in tha Coe then laddie”. The penny dropped so I told him that I was not going to do anything specific just going to see what the conditions were like before making up my mind. “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” with the emphasis on the word pal.
In an instant, memories came flooding back of the two years as a twelve-year-old that I spent living on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1956/57. Gangs were all the rage back in the 1950’s, teddy boys ruled in most towns and cities but there was also those who were not teddy boys who made up a wide variety of gangs, usually comprising of lads from either a long street or a council estate.
The daily behaviour of such gangs were two fold – first to shop lift for kicks rather than for profit (apart from when it was sweets or cigarettes), second to commit minor acts of vandalism, scrumping fruit from orchards, and generally being a nuisance to their local community and society in general, and third, to protect your territory from other gangs.
It was generally accepted that boys were expected to join a gang and I was no different, and as I knew that once you were a gang member, you had the protection of your own gang member friends, it was a no-brainer, so when told to join the gang by lads on the estate, I readily agreed.
Fraser was the street boss and his word was never questioned. In the greater scheme of things, all the street gangs in Greenock (where we lived), were called ‘Wasters’ by those who lived in the city and each had its own preferred ‘weapon’ – flick knives, chains, catapults, bats, and knuckle dusters. The gang on my estate was called the Hatchet Warriors and it does not take Dixon of Dock Green to know what our gang’s preferred ‘weapon’ was!
I could see that my new found Glaswegian friend was getting impatient for an answer to his “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” statement, so I shook the memories away and said without giving it a second thought “It’s just that I’m tired of driving, you must know how it is paaaaaal”.
He appeared to flinch at my seemingly challenging response and asked me where I was from, what did I do, how old was I, and more to the point, “whit does yon tattoo mean laddie”, as he jabbed a tobacco stained finger to my right forearm, but I was elsewhere. My mind had switched to that time in 1957 when I went with my gang and eight other ‘Waster’ gangs to do as Fraser put it, “haaav a feeecken geed ruck with tha tooonie wankers”, names given to gangs from the city of Glasgow. I recalled the splattered blood, the roar of the gangs as they set into each other, I heard the yells of triumph, the yells of pain and the clanging of the police cars as they rushed to end such ridiculous carnage. I know my hatchet hit something or someone and I was pleased that within two days, my father came home to tell us he was posted to Northern Ireland (he was in the Armed Forces) and we were to leave in two days-time. I was relieved that I would not be around when the townie gangs came to take their revenge.
Thinking rather foolishly that he may well have been one of the gang that I and my other pals wreaked havoc on in Glasgow all those years ago, I was paranoid that he had recognized me. Once I realized that this was impossible as that was some twenty years ago and I had improved with age! I just said that it was the mark of a group of RAF lads who had formed an elite club consisting of those airman who had cheated death whilst carrying out their duties.
He was hooked now, I just reeled him in with the knowledge that I was in control and he needed to know more. I explained what had happened many years earlier, when stationed in Germany and I was working inside a confined space of a Canberra aircraft and the ejection seats went off accidentally, but I managed to do the impossible, crouch down between the two front seats which even a stick of rhubarb would find difficult, and I lived to tell the tale.
Sitting there with his mouth open wide, he just leaned forward stuck out his right hand and said, “I like yoouse pal, yoor no feart bastad reet enough”. He shouted for two more brews and we started to have a decent conversation. We discussed my time in Greenock, my Scottish ancestry, my love for all things Scottish, and by the end of twenty minutes’ conversation I had been told his life story, given the names of all his family and we had agreed that not all “bloody Englishmen were wankers”.
He said his name was Tommy Scott, although his family referred to him as Tam and his friends referred to him as Scotty. As I knew there was no chance we were related and that as we had only just met, there was no way he would consider me his friend, I erred on caution by not calling him by any name at all, this way I would be on safe ground, hopefully.
He wanted to know where I lived in Greenock, what school I went to, what gang I was in. This was it I thought, the bugger has recognized me and is just toying with me. I knew in my heart that it would have been impossible for him to recognize me even if he was a member of any gang that we fought with but even if he didn’t recognize me, finding out I was a member of ‘that’ gang, might just be enough for him to exact some revenge right there, right now.
I clenched my fists under the table and told him I was a member of the hatchet warriors. I waited for him to make the first move, but did not expect him to stand up so quick whilst I was still seated, catching me off guard. He leaned across the table “Fack ma ald boots pal, whit a fucken heed banger yous arr” was all he said with a grin that put any Cheshire cat to shame.
He held out an outstretched scrawny hand “poot it thar pal, whit a fucken heed banger”. I assumed, hopefully, that he wanted to shake my hand so stood keeping the left fist clenched, just in case, and took his hand. He clasped his other hand over the handshake and shook it until I thought one of my false teeth was going to drop out.
It would appear that the incident went around Glasgow gangs like proverbial wild fire – blood curdling roars as youths tore into each other – police cars racing to the scene to investigate calls from the public, a by-stander taken to hospital with shock, three young lads accompanied him but for different reasons, and four were seen running off screaming for their mums, some wiping the blood away as they tried to evade the onslaught. All in all, the hatchet warriors had gained a reputation and as such, three months after we left to go to Northern Ireland, they were involved in a gang fight in the city centre when one of the hatchet gang was killed, knifed through the heart.
My new found Glaswegian friend did not recall the name of the poor sod who met his untimely death so whether or not it was Fraser, I’ll never know.
For his part, my enthusiastic new found traveling companion, was a member of the Easterhouse putty gang. Don’t ask me where putty comes in as I dread to think so did not bother to ask him, I just took his word for it that his gang were well known for things they did with putty and left it at that.
Cleary I had risen dramatically in Tam’s estimation and was someone he wanted to be friends with, why I don’t know because if he knew the truth, in reality I am a pacifist by nature, he would no doubt rate me a ‘soft pussy’. However, he was fine with what he knew so I was not going to deprive him of any excitement he was feeling at being in the company of one of the ‘hatchet warriors’, anyway I was relishing the status he was according me as well as the free flow of tea coming my way.
He said he was a shipyard worker who spent every weekend with his mates climbing in the hills and mountains around the Trossachs, but this weekend they were going to visit the Coe as he so eloquently put it, “weeve goot unfinished busniss oop theer pal, and this weeken is when weer gaing to seetle it”. I had no idea what he was talking about but I was sure it had nothing to do with any business proposition.
We left the café and as I opened the car door for him to throw his tattered rucksack onto the back seat, he held out his hand again and said, “caal me Tam”. I had made a new friend!
When he got in my battered old car, he delighted me by taking off his boots, which resulted in the car being filled with an aromatic smell that would make a Turkish whore house smell sweet, not that I would know what one smelled like as when I went to Turkey, it was for climbing rock, honestly.
He put his feet onto the dashboard and fell asleep. There was no way I was going to wake him to ask him to take his smelly feet down from the dash so just sighed and drove off. As we drove down the main street of Callander, he woke and started to sing. I ignored his singing and allowed my thoughts to dwell on the gully on Ben Ledi as we rounded the bend which brought it into view on our left. It appeared to be in good condition and not wanting to bring Tam’s attention to it, I tried to not make it obvious that I was looking past him to the gully.
He must have caught me looking side wards and thought I was looking at him so he stopped singing whatever song he was well into. “Eh pal, sorry aboot the sang, I ken forgoot youse was a bloody Englishman”. “Oh don’t worry”, came my swift reply a little embarrassingly as he should think himself so lucky that I would want to look at him! “It’s just that I wondered what you were singing that’s all” came my reply, quick as a flash to dispel any thoughts he might be harbouring.
Apparently on the Thursday night he and his mates had gone out for a drink or two which resulted in him getting into a fight around 2.30am with a bouncer who refused to let him into a night club, because as Tam said, he was not drunk enough. Tam took a dislike to this discrimination and showed the bouncer what he thought of him. The rest of the morning was spent in the police cells sobering up. When he was released around 8am because the custody sergeant could not be bothered to do any paperwork as he was about to go off duty, Tam found out that his mates had left without him. He had hitchhiked to Stirling which confused me a little as the more direct route for him was a straight north from Glasgow. This conundrum however, was soon settled when he said the only wagon that stopped for him was going to Stirling so he just had to take it.
Conversation turned to climbing which was fine for me as my eyelids were getting heavy and I was losing the battle to keep them open. Tam never offered to do any of the driving so I assumed that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t, so kept quiet about it and just continued with a window open from time to time and the occasional sharp slap across the face to keep my attention especially when Tam fell asleep, which was often. He asked me if I knew any Scottish climbers to which I replied several but have only climbed with one particular Scotsman, a Jock McGowen who I served with in the RAF in Germany. He had a broken nose, a legacy from his youth and as it had set at an angle, which made a lasting impression on you.
He asked where Jock came from and when I said I think it was Paisley, he slapped his left knee and said, “Weel, shag ma auld boots pal, I ken wee Jock, he lives in ma ma’s street”. A further descriptive input from us both confirmed that his Jock and my Jock were one and the same. I asked how he was getting on and was sorry to hear that Jock had cancer and that he had been given a medical discharge from the RAF and was counting his days.
Before I knew it, we were driving down the road into the Glen, past the Buchaille wearing her white mantle, round a few curves and then turning off right to the Clachaig Inn where he said his mates would be. As we pulled up, he said his mates were there already. I asked him how he knew and he pointed to a van parked in the corner. There staring out of the back window was a blow up doll with gaping mouth surrounded by ruby rich lips. Around her neck was a sign which said, ‘Hurry up darling, ma lips await your manhood’. “Ay, that’s Billy’s van aright” Tam said with a smile.
Part Two of The Gully- Next Week