How much do you remember about the major events of 1974? What is your most vivid memory? The Miners’ Strike, Harold Wilson installed as Prime Minister, Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, McDonalds opening their first UK outlet or inflation running at 17.2%. For some. at a more local level, it was the founding of the Upperward Mountaineering Club.
In February of that year a few likeminded individuals, who were already enjoying the challenge of walking and climbing in the Scottish hills, sought the advice of the Scottish Mountaineering Council with a view to forming a club in the Biggar/Lanark area. With the guiding text of Edward Whymper “Climb if you will .....Look well to each step and, from the beginning, think what may be the end” foremost in mind, an article was placed in the Lanark Gazette inviting people interested in hill walking to attend the inaugural walk from The Grey Mares Tail in Moffatdale, via Broadlaw to the Crook Inn in Tweedsmuir.
Twenty four people with great enthusiasm, and from all walks of life, gathered in an assortment of outdoor clothing which included Barbour jackets, orange cagoules and oilskins complete with sou’wester. Footwear ranged from tacketty boots and wellies to country brogues and stout shoes. Canvas rucksacks had the look of an Army & Navy Stores job lot and compasses were either those left over from the war or a two shilling bargain from one of the mail order firms – this was, you must remember, long before the internet.
The demands of the weather, rough tracks and physical exertion whittled down the initial group, leaving a core of fifteen members who were quickly to gain the expertise and experience that took them beyond the rolling border hills and onto the rugged mountains of North and Northwest Scotland. Many of this founding group were undoubtedly carried along with enthusiasm onto mountain ranges beyond their experience but, survive they did,and quickly left the lapwings and grouse on the lower slopes to scale summits shared with ravens and eagles.
By the spring of the first year, the Cobbler – a hill of much rugged character that punches way above it’s height - was climbed in snowy conditions and by the summer some of the major peaks in Glencoe had been tamed including the Aonoch Eagach and Buchaille Etive Mor via the precipitous curved ridge route.
Although Munro bagging had not really gathered momentum in those early days – Muriel Gray was just a wee lassie trying to count up to her first fifty - nevertheless the club reached out for challenges. The Isle of Arran with its rocky summits and ridges was a favourite place – witnessed and captured on camera by the Gazette photographer Peter McCulloch. Slowly but surely members added to their experience by attending training weekends at Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore. Crampons and ice axes, previously thought to be equipment used only by the serious mountaineer, became standard equipment and navigation became the responsibility of each member rather than the leader of the day.
By the late 70’s and into the 80’s the club was well established with members from Lanark and Biggar even forming a local mountain rescue section. There was also a junior section, one of whom who, after gaining their initial expertise through the club, went on to become a serious alpine climber. So into the 90’s and 00’s when improved transport opportunities and the experience gained by members led to more frequent weekend forays to far flung corners of remote Scotland. Skye and Torridon became favourites and are now visited regularly in alternate years, normally in May, and locations such as Knoydart and Ullapool frequently appear on the programme. Island visits have proved popular with members with Mull, Rum, Eigg and Raasay all ticked off the list. In the last two decades club members have walked and climbed in the Himalayas, the Atlas mountains of Morocco and summited Mont Blanc – the highest peak in Europe. All, I imagine, a far cry from what those original founding members must have envisioned when they met at the Grey Mare’s tail 40 years ago.
The camaraderie forged by walking and climbing together, and cemented in the many après climb hostelries where thirsts were quenched, led to friendships that remain strong to this day and although new members seek to conquer munros and plan their way towards compleation of the full round of 282 Munros, their elders have returned to the rolling border hills and less demanding days. There are occasions such as the regular New Year meeting at Coulter Fell and the repeat of the inaugural walk every five years that brings everybody,young and old, together. So too does the biennial Burns Supper held every other year at Blackwater Hostel in Kinlochleven. This event has grown in stature over the years and is now a keenly anticipated part of the social calendar of the club.
So where to now for the Upperward Mountaineering Club now that it’s growing pains of the first 40 years are passed? It is great to see the way the baton of experience and expertise has been passed down the decades to each new intake of members and it is one of the major strengths of the club that new, raw hillwalkers and climbers are given the level of confidence and enthusiasm necessary to go off to the hills on their own, to battle with their inner fears and find their own pinnacles. For these are the next baton carriers who will carry on the cycle and ensure that the club continues to thrive.