Elizabeth Allan: Burn On The Hill

Cover of Burn On The Hill by Elizabeth AllanRonnie was a short-legged hunchback and a social misfit; his navigation was pathetic and he was not competent even with a railway timetable. He never carried more than a sandwich, and often not even that, and was entirely dependent on the spontaneous goodwill and hospitality of keepers and shepherds. He only at any time had one pair of boots, and they perpetually in need of repair. It was commonplace for him to be completely lost on the hill; he paid scant attention to advice from more experienced folk and made daft decisions about routes. He took really silly risks in dangerous situations. He fell down places.
And he enjoyed every minute of it.

Reverend Aubrey Ronald Graham “Ronnie” Burn (1887-1972) was (among other things) a scholar of Classical languages, an Anglican minister and (later) a Roman Catholic priest. In the years 1914-1923, he snatched brief holiday trips to the Scottish Highlands, during which he managed to climb all the Munros and Tops listed in Sir Hugh Munro‘s notorious tables of Scottish mountains higher than 3000 feet—a total of 558 hills at the time. He was the first person to achieve this, despite the disadvantages detailed (above) in the introduction to Elizabeth Allan’s book about his feat, Burn On The Hill, subtitled The Story Of The First ‘Compleat Munroist’ *.

Ten of the diaries he kept during his days in the hills turned up for sale on a second-hand book-stall in the late 1970s, were bought by a collector, and eventually gifted to Aberdeen University, where they remain today.

Elizabeth Allan assembled the story of Ronnie Burn’s days in the hills from his diaries, and produced this numbered, limited edition book  in 1995. (My copy is numbered 1692, so it wasn’t that limited an edition.) The diary entries extend to 1927, when (for various reasons) some of the magic went out of the hills for Ronnie, while at the same time a change in his circumstances made it difficult for him to continue his hill activities. Allan has interspersed the diary story with a little of Burn’s life away from the hills—he had many other interests, adventures and disappointments in a long life.

And, to be fair to Burn, he quite obviously wasn’t nearly the incompetent Allan describes above—in the passage I quote, she pretty much makes out that we’re about to read a hill-going episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. He sometimes got things wrong, and sometimes made poor decisions (don’t we all), but most of his epic journeys around the remote glens of Scotland went smoothly. To judge from the copious diary extracts Allan provides, it absolutely was not “commonplace for him to be completely lost on the hill”. And he relied on the hospitality of folk in remote Highland houses because that’s what travellers did at the time—he always offered money in exchange for food and accommodation (though sometimes quibbled over the price), and on more than one occasion found that no bed was available because another traveller had arrived before him.

If this were just a book about a man going up and down 558 hills in ten years, it would be as deeply tedious as “Munro round”  and “mountain challenge” books usually are. But it’s interesting for two different reasons:

The first is that Burn himself is interesting—a blindingly fast walker given to very long days on the hill; a staunch Jacobite, two centuries after the 1715 Rising; a scholar given to keeping his hosts out of their beds of an evening, interrogating them for information about the Gaelic language, its stories and place-names; an academic Anglican minister turned Roman Catholic priest, littering his diary with Latin tags and sometimes paying for his accommodation with a little prayer or blessing; and a confident solo walker who nevertheless seemed to be besotted with the disdainful patricians of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (and few patricians were more disdainful than those of the SMC at that time). During the First World War, it was vanishingly unusual to find a fit young man with the leisure to visit these remote parts, and he was on more than one occasion marked down as a German spy by those he met.

A few quotes from his diary will give you a feel for him.

On shooting estates:

Every h-dropping tradesman who has made his fortune thinks he ought to have a deer forest so as to have the pleasure of shooting down defenceless creatures as if they were vermin, or worse; butchered, all of them, to a make a Sassenach’s holiday. Aye, and the keepers are brutalized, being made to hunt out the pretty creatures who have fed at their hand in winter. And this is called sport!

On guidebooks:

This walk is said by Baddeley to be very arduous and only to be attempted by very hardy walkers. It is miled by him (to Strathearn) 17 miles. Really these guide books seem to be written for anaemic women or girls who sit over the fire reading Tennyson.

And, when regaining his feet after a life-threatening 300-yard tumble down steep snow with rocks at the bottom:

Stupidly I forgot to take the angle of the slope with the protractor clinometer that Gilbert Thomson had shown me how to make and use.

The second source of interest in this book is its description of a lost world in the remote glens. These places were still populated, albeit sparsely. This was a time when the local schoolteacher would come up the glen, stay with a family for a month to teach their children, and then move on to another community in another glen. But it was all on the cusp of change. A second Highland Clearance of sorts was about to take place as sheep crofts were replaced with deer forests, and that depopulating influence would be consolidated by the loss of a generation of young men in the trenches. So Burn’s routes are strange and appealing to a modern walker—instead of each glen being a self-contained project, with the day focussed around the necessity of returning to a car parked at the end of a public road, for Burn the glens were stitched together in long routes that crossed the grain of the land. He would leave a house at the head of one glen, walk the ridges, and then descend at the end of the day to seek shelter at the head of the next glen, or the next. The following day, copiously fueled by milk and porridge (he seemed to eat, or want, little else), he would do the same again. Some of his routes through the glens are now simply gone, submerged under the expanded waters of modern hydroelectric projects—I’ve written about one such case in detail, in my post about The Lost World of Loch Mullardoch. So I found it easier to keep track of Burn’s wanderings using a copy of the 1912 Survey Atlas of Scotland, rather than a modern map.

In a way, Burn was ahead of his time—he is quite clear that his outings are driven by the urge to go “Munro bagging”. I was surprised to see him using exactly that phrase, a century ago—I’d always thought of it as a product of the 1980s fashion for table-ticking. Another piece of vocabulary that surprised me was his reference to “doing” a mountain—an oddly dismissive phrase that I again have always associated with those ’80s walkers who seemed to climbed hills only so that they could make a tick in a book or stick a pin in a map.

And that philosophy was to be Burn’s undoing. Once he was “compleat”, the hills seem to have lost much of their appeal for him. At the same time, the families he knew and cared about in the high glens were moving away, and more and more houses were standing empty. His 1927 diary has a definite note of melancholy to it, as he senses the end of an era approaching.

Read this book, then, for a glimpse of a lost way of life, and a lost way of hillwalking.

* No, that’s not a misprint. For reasons best known to themselves, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, keeper of records for all things Munro-related, affect the spelling of “complete” used by Izaak Walton in his book The Compleat Angler. The difference being that Walton was living in the seventeenth century, and the SMC just wish they were living in the seventeenth century. (I actually considered, for about fifteen seconds, using the same spelling in the title of my book The Complete Lachlan, as a sort of hillwalking insider joke, but was put off by the twin fears that people would think I was a) serious and/or b) illiterate.)

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