First, a bit of background. Muriel Gray had been around as a TV presenter and columnist for quite a while when this book was published. The First Fifty: Munro-Bagging Without A Beard appeared in 1991, effectively as a companion volume to her popular series on Scottish Television, The Munro Show, about hill-walking in general and climbing Munros in particular.
Despite its immense popularity among British hill-walkers, I never got into The Munro Show. Gray cultivated a full-on TV persona that was equal parts chirpy and stroppy, which certainly served as an antidote to the ponderous, middle-aged male ambience of a typical Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook—and that was no doubt entirely the point. But it all made me feel … well … really tired after the first few minutes. (And, before you ask, I’m only a year older than she is.) It’s just that I go to the hills for peace and quiet and serenity, and The Munro Show seemed to undermine my whole motivation. Take a look at the opening sequence and see if it induces a sense of serene contemplation:
So, anyway, about four years later I was given a copy of the book, by a friend who had received it as a Christmas gift three years in succession. (In her introduction to the book, Gray had actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen to hill-walkers.) And of course the book turned out to be very much in the style of the TV programme—which meant it, too, was hugely popular but wasn’t really my thing. (This happens to me a lot, though. Looking at you, Game of Thrones.)
What I did notice when I was reading it was that it hadn’t been very well proof-read. This is depressingly common nowadays, but was still a little unusual back in the early ’90s. Mainly, there were two recurring spelling choices that struck me then (and still strike me today) as being … um … well, striking, in a book aimed at a hill-walking readership.
So I sat down and wrote a little piece about it for The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First and Finest Hillwalking Fanzine), which appeared in March 1996. I think it’s a great testament to the popularity of The First Fifty that, almost five years after its publication, I didn’t actually have to mention the title—from a very brief description, every one of my hill-going readers was going to know exactly which book I was talking about.
So here’s the piece, recently recovered from the depths of my hard drive. Some of my Lachlan stories had been appearing in The Angry Corrie round about that time, so it features Lachlan and his long-suffering narrator (albeit weirdly channelling Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes) in their favourite Dundee pub.
A SOCRATIC DIALOGUE
I arrived at our usual table in the Peh and Pint to find Lachlan flicking angrily through a paperback book, his lips set in a pale, wrathful line. At my arrival, he set aside his book, passed a weary hand across his face, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. “Might I ask you a few questions?”
I nodded my assent.
“Thank you. Imprimis: do you know why the fabric Gore-Tex is so called?”
I raised an eyebrow. “But of course. The name derives from that of the manufacturer, WL Gore.”
Lachlan nodded solemnly. “So you would, perhaps, feel that the central letter ‘e’ is an essential part of the name?”
“Indeed. While I have seen the hyphen and the capitals dropped in casual writing, to omit the ‘e’ is to insult the Gore family and their genius.”
“Quite so. Secundus: would you say that the French language has much use for the letter ‘k’?”
I considered this carefully. “Well. One must allow that the placenames of Brittany show some predilection for that letter …”
Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “A region in which the purity of the French tongue has been much diluted by Celtic influences. We speak now only of French of the true Latinate descent, the language of Voltaire and Descartes.”
“Why, with that proviso, I would state that the letter ‘k’ is notably absent from the French.”
Lachlan nodded gravely. “Tertius: do you believe that the word ‘cagoule’ is of French origin?”
“With all my heart. It is no more than the French word for ‘hood’. One must only recall that the French equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan was named Les Cagoulards to …”
Again Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “Doubtless a fascinating tale, but one that is at best tangential to my present theme. May I take it for now that, as a necessary consequence of my second and third points, you would accept that the word ‘cagoule’ should not, in all conscience, be spelt with an initial ‘k’?”
“I recoil at the very thought.”
“As I knew you would. Now. Quartus: given the climatic zone in which the Scottish mountains are located, and the exertions to which those who climb among these mountains are prone, perhaps you may agree with me that the Gore-Tex cagoule is the natural, nay the defining, item of apparel for the Scottish mountaineer?”
“Certainly. The garment’s ability to shed water whilst allowing the microscopic moisture of perspiration to escape unhindered commends it above all things.”
Lachlan sighed and sat back. “I have finished. We are in complete agreement.”
His hand trembling with strong emotion, he raised his book so that I might examine it. I need not give the title here: suffice it to say that the cover bears an image of a thin, spiky-haired, blonde woman, possessed of a certain perkiness of character that some find wearisome. “Is it not then a strange, terrible and above all ironic thing that this book, a bestseller in the annals of Scottish hill-walking publication, should consistently misspell the words ‘Gore-Tex’ and ‘cagoule’ in just the manner we have discussed?” he asked, in the tones of one mortally wounded.
And we fell into a disconsolate silence that lasted for some time.
First published in The Angry Corrie No.26, Feb/Mar 1996