The Scots Magazine – October 1970
We won't forget Braehead – Hamish Brown
Braehead is a Junior Secondary School in Buckhaven,
Fife. For ten years under RF. Mackenzie, its original
headmaster, and for the last two under H.G. Roger, his
successor, it has pioneered a variety of educational ideas.
Under comprehensive plans and changing local needs the
old building will finally be closed in the summer of 1971.
"What has Braehead been up to lately?"
A couple of years ago the school nearly closed under local plans and amalgamation. It survived that and went quietly on from strength to strength.
Now, however, the blow has fallen. By the time you read this a third of our pupils will have gone, another third will go in February and the remainder next summer. Braehead will have been "phased out."
This collection of pupil notes was put together before the news broke. It is tempting to be bitter. Braehead school was unique in many pioneering ways, among them the integration of outdoor activities in its curriculum. It was also a uniquely happy school; every pupil mattered equally. That something so good should be destroyed is very sad.
However, for the generations of former pupils there are endless memories. And an active mountaineering club will continue. Plans are being made for next summer in the Alps and Andes. Some things cannot be destroyed; of these we write.
We were approaching the crest of the Cuillin ridge on a sultry summer day. Young David, ahead, suddenly gave a shout to hurry, hurry. We did, fearing the worst, gasping up to him, but before we could word our query he swept a hand around a dancing landscape of light; "Look! Look! Isn't it great?"
From our feet the rocks plunged down three thousand feet to a dark, moving sea, smudged turquoise where the white sands showed through. We were gathered in by an endless crowd of peaks and spires, through which a golden glow of haze drifted in the light of evening. The sun itself was radiating streamers over the far Hebrides, while to the south Rum and Eigg stood out finely.
David has gazed out from scores of summits since, even Mont Blanc, at the age of fifteen. He hopes to be a forester. "I would probably have finished up in some indoor job if the school had not had this sort of activity going on."
I have a note of his from last Christmas Eve.
"Suspect weather kept us off the hills. Instead, we went by Loch Assynt to Lochinver. Some very beautiful scenery. The weather was perfect now: blue skies and little white clouds. We lunched at Achmelvich Bay, with quite waves lapping on the silver sands, making it look like a summer's day."
David had done enough to appreciate the rich heritage that is ours, the tremendous variety ranging from the wide savannahs of autumn gold in Sutherland to the green bracken jungles of Argyll, or the red, bald raches of the Cairngorms; the tremendous changes from a balmy Christmas Eve to a blizzard-blasting June. It is all part of the magic that is Scotland.
Nor has the school been confined to Scotland; on Snowdon last autumn a party of boys and girls achieved the school's last British 3000-foot peak. (Scotland's last had been Lurg Mhor above Loch Manor, one of the most secretive Munros possible.)
We went up Wales's highest, by the Pyg track, in a day of sparkling sun. the desecrated summit alone was misty and chill. We huddled in cagouls for a Victorian
Group photograph, then shot off, some down the railway with Kirsty, some down the miner's track, and Edi and Jimmy along Crib Goch. It was a miraculous day-boys and girls free and confident on the high tops and the lingering, savouring evening descent.
"Let's do it all again, Hamish!"
A bus-load of us went off to Ireland with Kirsty, head of music – and the mascot dog, Kitchy. We seemed to sing and climb our way to the west, even though every empty summit was misty. Several times we were asked if we were all the one family. So we were, I suppose!
There's a tremendous nostalgia, looking back. Now and then a gathering of us will look at slides at home and blether afterwards: on and on for hours, as we recall the hilarious happy days. Enthusiastic former pupils are now the backbone of the mountaineering club; but it is often those earlier days that are recalled – like David's first glimpse of the remote and golden West from the distant Cuillin. Some of these cameos of memory follow – in the disorderly manner of their recalling.
Today we were up in the darkness – just like all the other days – forcing ourselves out of nice warm beds. Three ropes, Bob and I started in slushy conditions, with deer grunting away below us. Then it snowed endlessly; cold, slippery rock. A second buttress had us warmer. On the third we used all the rope, the rock was thickly covered in ice; cold and bitter step-cutting. The summit of the Buachaille was splendid, with the view over the moor to Schiehallion. Our eyelashes and hair were white with hoar.
It was a goldcrest, fluttering like a leaf among the gray branches. Down it went on the list. The eiders were still saying , "Oh-oh!" at us in shocked tones as we turned up Kinloch Glen. We stopped to watch a stag. Then we heard the "rusty-gate" call of a corncrake.
We were all quite excited, and stalked about among the rushy fields behind the farm till eventually we had several views of this elusive ventriloquist. Over the north side a high-soaring shape could only be an eagle. Imagine, in ten minutes, to have eider duck, goldcrest, corncrake and golden eagle added to our Rum list!
There was no view coming down Ben Hope, though the clouds broke to give glimpses down the west cliffs to the loch below. We ran and ran. A golden plover crying was the only sound of life. The burn tumbled from tempting pool to tempting pool, but we wanted dry clothes to replace our wringing, sweaty ones. These we picked up from the car and ran on over to the river.
The cows were standing knee-deep in it, but did not seem to mind our tumbling in among them. We soaped and dived and watched the bubbles float off, and ran up and down the bank naked, to dry off. We picnicked by the broch of Dun Dornadilla – not nearly so well preserved as those up from Genelg.
The River Ossian had swollen, not deep, but fast. Dave let one of his boots float off. We all linked arms and staggered across for the path to Fersit. It just bucketed down. Fun jimping in the puddles to see how deep they were-colour of drinking chocolate so you could not tell. Laugh crossing one river. Tom was horizontal in the flood, holding on to the bank, while nearly everyone sat in the water.
Once we were all over we noticed the bridge 50 yards upstream! Back to Inverlair about two in the morning. Wet boots and socks all over the lobby, and a trail of garments up the stairs to the dorm. There we brewed up and soon asleep. Slept till lunch-time.
She bullied us and loved us, we pestered her and loved her. Someone once described her to a teacher: "Sir, she's six foot-in every direction." Alex, took any excuse to get back to Glen Coe Youth Hostel to see Aunty Ingrid, the first person who ever got through to the unhappy child.
She taught us how to make pancakes. My first tossed beautifully, but I missed it and it went through the opened stove into the fire.
There were teas in the Clachaig and singing in the hostel. There was no one quite like Ingrid Feeney.
Danny was willing to try, but usually was just trying. Plum-pudding shaped, he became a chef. His first efforts we suffered on Skye – "I'm afraid I've singed the soup." Climbing on Clach Glas, he was heard to call. "More slack, please – I want to take a run at it!"
On offering his first rock buns he asked us to take our "pick." There's nothing quite like gabbro.
By five o'clock things were pretty miserable. Sleeping-bags were suffocatingly hot, but any exposed flesh was soon lumpy with bites. Andrew's face was vivid in yellow from plastering on iodine, which he had hoped might help. In the dark he had not seen the colour. Now he looked decidedly jaundiced. Our outlook was, too.
In a frenzy we tried porridge. The spoon would be cluttered with black spots every mouthful. We tore the tents down like mad things and fled Glen Etive for the high pass of Bealach Fhionnghaill back to Glen Coe and the calm sanity of the hostel.
I hate midges. But storming the pass was fun. The clouds poured through like cotton wool out of an aspirin bottle.
Ian always seemed to be catching birds. He would be walking along and would suddenly dive off the path, to return with a protesting snipe or partridge. I can picture him charging about on the Clova hills collecting your ptarmigan chicks.
Out in the boar at Sandaig he suddenly threw himself overboard to grab a greylag goose. Some of us drew the line at that, so chucked him overboard to swim ashore instead of soaking us. Above Zermatt he dived into a bush and came out with a redstart. He climbed more than anyone else in the Alps, and was the youngest on top of Mont Blanc.
Gars-bheinn is 2934 feet. The top was reached at six o'clock, and by eight we has levelled a platform of stones just down a bit. Covered this with grass sods and even clubmoss. The six of us could just lie cramped on it. I think we were too excited to sleep much, except Hugh, who snored away happily. The slope ran straight down to the sea in one sweep.
From our eyrie we heard the faint chug of Ranald's boat, the laughter of gulls and a cuckoo – all far, far below. Our bivouac nested among the spires of the Cuillin: peak after peak, rosy in sunset, never completely dark, later moon-washed – well worth the effort even without the dream of tomorrow's traverse of the Main Ridge.
At 11.30 the alarm went off, Porridge and tea took the stiffness out of us. Tom, Bill, Steve and Hamish went up to Gars-bheinn's top, and at ten minutes past midnight we set off along the ridge of dreams.
I am sure all this is enough to give anyone itchy feet – or bring back their own memories of similar Highland days. Last summer, however, was to produce a more unusual venture than most people can experience so early in life. Seventeen (pupils, former pupils, staff, former staff – and wives) had several weeks in the Alps.
I opened an old Alpine Journal (Vol. 24. P.370) at random the other day, and the first words I read were: "Mountain nostalgia in the young is not a complicated disease and the cure is simple. We took it in the form of a ticket to Martigny."
A week after being on Ben Hope, in Sutherland, we, too, were camped in Martigny. It was one of those Alpine seasons where things "clicked." We were in step, generally, with the weather, with the right people in the right place at the right time. A score of peaks and passes were enjoyed from Chamonix to Zermatt, with probably the most memorable being a traverse of Monte Blanc.
It is hard to connect the young lads seen in camp (or swimming pool, or bargain-hunting for presents) with the efficient climbers on the 15,782 foot summit of Monte Blanc, in the photographs on page 4 of this article. They are obviously delighted with their position: the answer to the question why we climb – the clear, clean happiness to be found on the hills.
That they are there is due to their Scottish training – ropes, axes and crampons were nothing new; snow-plastered rocks and wicked winds were all familiar. But ultimately it was their enthusiasm, not just during the days of the climb, but over the years of learning at home. Every aspect of the Alps was of interest.
The whole Swiss holiday was a happy occasion. Perhaps we should leave them there, on the summit of Europe, for Braehead has, in its happy years, known so many mountain tops.
On Looking at a Rock Pool
Was this how it all began?
Peace, unruffled serenity
Mirroring nothing but azure skies.
And underneath and all around
Aeons of water, cool, clear,
No slimy, scaly predator
Lurking motionless, patiently
For unwary intruder.
No beating wings to cast
No whirring insect to plop
And start off countless waves.
No thirsting beasts to lap and drain,
No storm to anger and replenish.
No nothing, just water,
Still and silent.
Was this how it was a hundred
Million years ago?
Comments from underneath the photographs that accompanied this article:
"The clear, clean happiness of the hills." Jimmy Will can never forget the day he climbed Snowdon and perched on a rock just long enough for this picture to be taken.
On Crib Goch Ringe, Snowdon. Kitchy the dog, accompanied the party of boys and girls who scaled the 3560 ft. Welsh mountain last autumn.
On the roof of Scotland. Braehead climbers and boys from Aberdeen in the observatory ruins on the summit of Ben Nevis.
15,000 feet up on Monte Blanca. The two fifteen-year olds are David McNab (Macduff of Wemyss) and Ian Moreland (Methilhill).
Three active girls. They are, left to right. Dorothy Main, a teacher who often led the girls ski-ing. Angela Crichton, one of the first Braehead pupils to climb Ben Nevis; Janis Haskie, one of the happy party who visited Ireland.
Above, canoeing on Loch Rannoch. Braehead School had the use of a forestry hut there for ten years. Below, taking it easy in Glen Affric after a long day on the high tops.