Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Cover of "The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen" By Syd Scroggie

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.
It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out.

That’s a young Syd Scroggie, standing on the summit of Ben Macdui one day in 1942. I chose this particular quote because it’s a companion of sorts to the quote with which I opened my review of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain (1977). Both quotations mark the start of a long love affair with the Cairngorm massif; both describe striking visual experiences. But Scroggie’s lines are made particularly poignant by the knowledge that, when the lines were first published, in 1989, Scroggie had been blind for more than forty years.

Scroggie began his explorations of his beloved Cairngorm Mountains before the Second World War, and was able to fit in the occasional visit during his army training, which took place near Aviemore. He latterly served in the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment that fought in the Allied invasion of Italy. Two weeks before the end of the war, he trod on a “shoe mine” (the German Schützenmine-42), losing a lower leg and the sight in both eyes. After rehabilitating under the care of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), Scroggie went on to study at Oxford, learning Greek and Latin in Braille, before returning to his native Dundee to take up a job as a switchboard operator at one of the city’s major employers of the time, N.C.R. Works.

Then, in 1955, came the fateful moment when his friend Les Bowman proposed a trip to a remote bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms: “Young Scrog, let’s do a trip to Corrour.”

The idea was staggering, of my setting out and returning as a disabled person to the locality which more than any other for me is symbolic of the hills.

Scroggie’s response was, “You bet.”

And so he walked the eight miles in along the rough track by Derry Lodge and the boggy path beyond, his hand upon Bowman’s shoulder. His feelings can well be imagined—here’s how he recorded them in a moving piece of poetry:

The gods thus spoke, the gods of hill and glen:
This is our man, we know his face of old,
He has but slept, behold he comes again.

Scroggie lived about a mile north of my childhood home, and his place of work was a mile to the southwest, so he was a familiar sight for me in those days, striding along with his stick and his one white eye. And I met him once, during the seventies, in the hills above Glen Clova where he airily described the view to me from memory. He had a very characteristic pattern of speech—deprived of visual feedback from the facial expression and posture of the person he addressed, he delivered his thoughts in long, rattling paragraphs, punctuated by pauses to permit responses. You can observe him in conversation with Tom Weir in this classic episode of Weir’s Way, broadcast in 1987:

And I offered you that video because I was going to write that, in The Cairngorms: Scene & Unseen (1989), Scroggie wrote exactly how he spoke. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps no surprise—while the ever-undaunted Scroggie may well have mastered the art of longhand writing or typing while blind, it’s perhaps more likely that he dictated his memoir. But however the words got to the paper, the experience of reading them is exactly like sitting on a rock by a loch and hearing Scroggie speak—funny, clever and discursive, suffused with a deep love of the hills and the people who go there, anecdote heaped dizzyingly on anecdote until all chronology is lost, and the reader no longer remembers or cares whether Scroggie was sighted or unsighted at the time of the events he describes.

Recently republished by the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this is unfortunately the only piece of Scroggie’s writing currently in print. A number of slim booklets are documented by the University of Dundee, and Amazon seems to know of something entitled The Modern Ferla More (1963)*. His poetry collection Give Me The Hills (1978) is now vanishingly rare and I’ve yet to lay my hands on a copy, but there’s a decent sampling of his verse stirred into this memoir.

Scroggie ranges widely through his memories. There are stories here of wartime service, and of his son’s supernatural imaginings in Lower Geldie Lodge, and he’s not above gleefully relaying a good story borrowed from a friend. But in the main this is a narrative of “bothy culture” in the Cairngorms spanning (roughly) the decades between 1940 and 1980—of nights spent chatting and drinking whisky by the light of a bog-wood fire. Some of Scroggie’s bothies are gone now, like the Sinclair Hut; some are now inaccessible, like Derry Lodge; and some have a new lease of life, like Corrour, though Scroggie did not approve of its post-war restoration:

Then the bothy had been friendly and hospitable, and somehow mysterious in its ruin and dilapidation, pregnant with a sense of impending romance and adventure. […] Now [it] had a more clinical air, as if the planners had moved in, and though it was obviously wind and weather tight, and would remain so for decades, it had lost much of its character in the process.

And there are many stories here of the legendary Bob Scott and his bothy at Luibeg. (There’s still a bothy with Scott’s name on it, though it stands farther downstream than the original, below the confluence of the Luibeg and Derry Burns.)

As well as evocations of the Cairngorm scenery, and character sketches of people encountered among the hills, Scroggie also offers some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, beautifully told. One of my favourites is one he relays from his friend Les Bowman, who served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa during the war. One night, an unfounded rumour swept through his unit, that the German army was about to descend on their desert camp, intent on “slaughtering them to the last sapper.” As Scroggie and Bowman tell the story, panic immediately reigned, while the Commanding Officer was reduced to “darting about to and fro” and “gibbering with fear”. When pressed for a plan, the CO instructed his men to “Make for Algiers.”

It was a case of omne ignotum pro magnifico if ever there was one. ‘How’ll we get there, sir?’ The response to the CO’s suggestion—for it was a suggestion rather than a command—took the form less of a lusty shout than a concerted wail from the sappers who could see their chance of ever getting home diminishing in a kind of geometrical progression as minute succeeded minute in the confusion of affairs. There are moments of inspiration which come to every man, based on memories long buried under piles of succeeding experience, and something new stirred in the CO’s mind, paralysed though it was by conflicting emotions, which seemed to have in it the solvent of all their terrors—the perfect answer to the unparalleled exigencies of their situation.
Pale, distraught and pyjama-clad […] the CO made a dramatic gesture vaguely in the direction of Timbuktu, where Jupiter was a conspicuous object in the sky, gazing down with planetary indifference at a warring world below. […] ‘Follow the North Star,’ he cried.

Scroggie was in his sixties when writing this memoir, and like many hillgoers of a Certain Age (ahem) rather wished that things would just stay as they were—he preferred the comfort of a Primus stove to the newfangled gas, and would apparently rather crouch in a leaking hovel rather than countenance any rebuilding work on his remote bothies. He wasn’t that keen on tourists clogging up his favourite glens, and I think would probably have been reduced to tears of frustration if he’d lived to witness the mess now created in Glen Brittle by too many visitors encountering too little infrastructure. He reserves his particular ire, however, for the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

Here he is, in full polemical flow, on the former establishment:

… this is a place dedicated to teaching people everything about the hills except what really counts. It is a kind of fascist training establishment from which intakes emerge to conquer the hills and in so doing, according to the theory, conquer themselves. Absent is the poetry, the philosophy, the metaphysics, the dreamy dwam, if you like, which are proper to the wooing of the hills. A cowering Macdhui, an alarmed Braeriach and a scandalised Cairn Lochain find themselves subject instead to a kind of criminal assault. Glenmore Lodge, in short, represents a machination of the Devil by which he seeks to corrupt the last refuge of sanity with notions proper only to the general lunacy which surrounds it.

(Come on Scroggie, stop beating about the bush and say what you really think … )

I believe it’s evident that here, and in other places, Scroggie is caught up with creating a dramatic effect. Elsewhere, for instance, shortly after an impassioned plea to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall in order to exclude tourists, he undermines his own position by commending two English visitors who were, he felt, clear exceptions to his own black-and-white rule. But there’s also a deep and heartfelt cry in there—he fears that the hills are becoming arenas for feats of mental or physical endurance, for “challenges”, rather than places to love and contemplate. Scroggie would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Nan Shepherd’s observation (in The Living Mountain):

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Shepherd and Scroggie are then, I think, unlikely soulmates—the one alarmingly delicate in many ways, the other tough as old boots; one full of lyrical mysticism, the other pragmatic and forthright to a fault; but both possessed by a deep need to be in the mountains, as a source of calm and solace.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of Scroggie’s poetry, which will resonate, I’m sure, with any hill-lover conscious of advancing years:

I will attempt the Capel Track,
Old, stiff and retrograde,
And get some pal to push me on
Should resolution fade.
For I must see black Meikle Pap
Against a starry sky,
And watch the dawn from Lochnagar
Once more before I die.

* “Ferla More” is undoubtedly a reference to the legendary Fear Liath Mor (“Big Grey Man”) of Ben Macdui—a supernatural creature said to haunt the slopes of that mountain. In Scene & Unseen Scroggie rather revels in the concept of “spookiness”, and evinces a keen interested in the Big Grey Man.
Your Reviewer confesses to a certain sympathy with Scroggie’s viewpoint on this. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is nowadays one of the tick boxes completed by many applicants to Medical School, and I once made a point, during a day of interviews, of asking each award-bearing applicant what they’d taken away from the scheme. I heard a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief, of developing character, of rising to challenges and overcoming adversity; one even talked about “pushing on through misery”. Not one of them mentioned developing a love of the outdoor environment; several quite obviously now hated it with a passion.

3 thoughts on “Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen”

  1. I really enjoyed that footage of Sydney Scroggie and I have now located a large number of Weir’s Way episodes to slowly work through.

    Scoggie’s matter of fact description of his injuries and how he can still enjoy walking through those hills was very moving. I can barely walk through a forest with one eye without tripping up. He had a lovely way with words as of course did Tom Weir when he was describing the landscape.

    The story of the crows that had settled down around him when his ‘tin leg’ had broken certainly brought a laugh out of me. It all looked really appealing – except for those midges that clustered in front of the camera when they were sitting on the log.

    1. Weir’s Way was a fine, gentle thing. I remember watching late-night reruns in the ’90s, and contrasting it with the brash hyperactivity of The Munro Show, which was inexplicably popular during that decade.

      If you enjoy Weir, you might care to look out for some of the Grand Tours … series (there are many) by Paul Murton, exploring Scotland’s landscape and culture. Not on YouTube, but I guess they may be available on a streaming service accessible to you.

      1. I have seen a number of Paul Morton’s shows on free to air TV here on the SBS network.

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