In his classic Undiscovered Scotland, climber and writer W.H. Murray likened devouring a good book to his passion for the mountains: 'I once received a book after waiting long and eagerly for its publication. Like a wolf coming down starving from the mountains I gulped the courses in any order, reading the end first, snatching bits in the middle, running here and there through the pages in uncontrolled excitement. I wanted to know it all immediately. In the end I was sufficiently exhausted to sit back and read whole chapters at a time. This was exactly how I felt about mountains.'
Murray's memoir, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, edited by his wife Ann, published posthumously in 2002 following his death in 1996, and now re-issued by Vertebrate Publishing, was an object of similar anticipation for fans of his beautifully-crafted writing. Snippets of his long and varied life were known to readers through Undiscovered Scotland, Mountaineering in Scotland, Story of Everest and other Murray titles, as well as his eloquently-put philosophies on life and climbing. Just as Murray could seemingly merge his being with the mountain landscape, so he intertwines his thoughts and feelings with the hard facts on a more global range of events and travels from his long and varied life in his biography, which won the Banff Mountain Book Festival's Grand Prize in 2002.
Murray and I have some things in common, both of us being born in Liverpool and brought up in Glasgow. Add to that my Liverpudlian paternal grandmother having been a Murray in maidenhood, who was born seven years after Murray and grew up just a few miles from Murray's infant home. Possible cousins or relations of some sort? Having briefly delved into online resources, it doesn't seem so; at least not without some distance. But it was worth some research! Perhaps the mutual passion for mountains and writing is a connection stronger than blood.
When I returned to Scotland after a perspective-altering few months in Europe during my university studies, I had an awakened sense of curiosity for my own country's high places. I was guilty of neglect and wanted to make up for lost time and experiences. Although far smaller in scale, I knew that the Scottish mountains had a fierce reputation. I ventured north for the first time. Driving through Glen Coe, I was struck by the prominence of Murray's beloved Buachaille Etive Mòr, which guarded the narrow, winding passage like a surly sentry, looming above the undulating expanse of Rannoch Moor. I soon appreciated W.H. Murray's theory in Mountaineering in Scotland that this mountain represents 'a harmony of the vertical and horizontal' which 'must be seen and felt before it can be understood in words.'
Mountains were also a common currency which sometimes eased Murray out of tricky situations and afforded him a worldliness that garnered friendships on travels. Having been captured in Egypt during the Western Desert Campaign in 1942, Murray would later describe a fortuitous encounter in Mountain magazine:
'To my astonishment, he [the German tank commander] forced a wry smile and asked in English, 'Aren't you feeling the cold?' ... I replied 'cold as a mountain top'. He looked at me, and his eyes brightened. 'Do you mean – you climb mountains?' He was a mountaineer. We both relaxed. He stuffed his gun away. After a few quick words – the Alps, Scotland, rock and ice – he could not do enough for me.'
While imprisoned during the Second World War over a three-year period in Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia, Murray wrote the first draft of Mountaineering in Scotland on rough toilet paper - the sole paper source available - only for it to be discovered and subsequently destroyed by the Gestapo. Rather than languishing in despair, Murray's response was to start over again. Emaciated and lacking in physical or mental energy, he stubbornly continued to write on loo roll during his internment and successfully redrafted what was to become Mountaineering in Scotland. 'The Gestapo's destruction of my original draft became the greatest benefit they had unwittingly bestowed on me,' he would go on to write in his biography. Describing his last year of confinement, he wrote: 'I had not once thought of myself as imprisoned. I lived on mountains, and had the freedom of them.' Murray would hide sections of his manuscript under his clothes, or in tunnels in the camp.
On his return to Scotland, after building up his strength, there was only one mountain on Murray's mind: An Buachaille. 'I drew deep draughts of the moorland air so enlivening after the dead air of prison compounds. I was free!' he wrote. 'I could turn around and go home if I wanted but I had learned in prisons that to go to the mountains is to go home.'
During later trips to the Himalaya in the '50s, Murray was a 'trailblazer' who helped forge a route up the Khumbu Icefall from Nepal up to the South Col of Everest: an overlooked feat which paved the way for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic first summit ascent in 1953. In his biography, Murray wrote that his team had 'climbed the impossible and conquered the psychological barrier of the inaccessible.' The use of 'conquered' might raise eyebrows, but his employment of it to describe a psychological threshold rather than beating a mountain into submission is typical of Murray: a man devoid of ego and obsessed by the shedding of one's self and its preoccupations. Murray's extensive travels through Asia exposed him to various Eastern philosophies, enriching an already contemplative and curious mind.
Gothic descriptions of the impact of Scotland's mountains on Murray's emotional state show the deeply-held connection he felt to them. In Mountaineering in Scotland, Murray's prose on the Cairngorms and their effect upon him channels phenomenological concepts of oneness with the world: 'One had the pleasing sense of being detached from one's own body. One drove it over the plateau as though wielding a weapon in battle. One had the mastery and exulted. When one halted the feeling was different, then one dwelt as though in a tent for a brief bivouac, the real self or soul being no more confused with the body than the camper with the canvas and pole. On a wind-swept plateau we may drink the living waters of freedom and learn of our heritage.'
Murray was a master of translating felt experiences into language, not unlike his slightly older contemporary Scot, writer, naturalist and mountain-lover Nan Shepherd. As Shepherd's The Living Mountain is experiencing a new lease of life and reaching a broader audience, it would be extremely satisfying to see this new edition of The Evidence of Things Not Seen spark a similar revival of interest in and study of Murray's writings. As in the first edition of the book, there are accompanying black and white photographs in this latest edition alongside appendices, book-ended by a new, emotive foreword by Murray's close friend Hamish MacInnes, which makes for a welcome addition.
There are vague parallels to be drawn with Murray's time spent away from his beloved mountains with what we are experiencing today, as the UN Secretary General proclaimed the COVID-19 pandemic to be 'the worst crisis since the Second World War.' Murray dragged his heels as he descended from his last pre-conscription climb up Crowberry Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mòr, reluctantly walking away from the freedom of the hills and towards the atrocities of war. He spent years imprisoned as a POW separated from his loved ones and his beloved mountains. He returned to Buachaille Etive Mòr for his first post-war climb, the rock 'not strange but familiar,' the day being 'another rebirth.'
In these strange and uncertain times, a read of Murray's memoir during lockdown will make us appreciate that our time to truly go home, to return to the mountains, will only come with patience and the power of past mountain memories to stimulate the imagination. The author's ability to find positives in the face of adversity - whether in captivity, during battle or a mountain mishap - will be a timely and inspiring story for many. In this period of crisis and excess toilet paper, take a roll, grab a pen and start writing your mountaineering memoir in quarantine. You never know, you might write something worth publishing.
A Mountaineer's tale
The Evidence of Things Not Seen is the autobiography of remarkable mountaineer, writer and environmentalist W.H. Murray. After being introduced to climbing in his early twenties, Murray's relationship with the outdoors was shaped as much by his time on the mountains as away from them. His early Scottish climbs were brought to a halt by the Second World War, which saw him spend three years as a Nazi prisoner of war. These years were devoted to not only to philosophical study, but also to writing his classic Mountaineering in Scotland not once, but twice, on toilet paper.
The time to write about mountains only fuelled Murray's enthusiasm to climb them. The regeneration in mountaineering that followed the war saw Murray complete three Himalayan expeditions, alongside other iconic figures such as Doug Scott, Tom MacKinnon and Tom Weir, and Eric Shipton. He not only explored Himalayan peaks never before attempted by westerners, but also established the crucial Khumbu Icefall route up Everest, which paved the way for the mountain's first ascent in 1953.
Later life saw Murray return to Scotland and begin the fight to conserve the wild places that motivated him. From pioneering the John Muir Trust to fighting threats to forestry, Murray's writing is laced with a philosophical edge and a contagious appreciation for Scotland's wild places, capturing the essence of why Murray's work has been inspiring readers for decades.
Written just before his death in 1996, and with a foreword by renowned Scottish mountaineer Hamish MacInnes, The Evidence of Things Not Seen is a must-read for anyone for which the mountains are still a source of wonder.
To buy it see v-publishing.co.uk