Caught by the River

Mountains of the Heart

Sue Brooks | 8th April 2022

In the company of Robert Macfarlane and W.H. Murray, Sue Brooks traverses icy terrains of the heart and mind.

In the deep midwinter of 2022, Robert Macfarlane returned to Rannoch Moor to commemorate the 75th year of the publication of a book which had been inspirational in his life as a climber: Mountaineering in Scotland by W.H. Murray.

It was an incredibly dramatic morning. God Rays — those fingers like searchlights probing the moor…the Buachaille a child’s drawing, almost perfect of form as though it had been sketched into being by a conjuring pencil. A Scottish voice joins in — it held us spellbound, a pureness of beauty above all the eye can see or ear can hear. Footsteps crunch into the distance.

Yes, it’s a radio programme, broadcast ironically on one of the hottest days of the year — March 20th, the Spring Equinox — entitled Cold as a Mountain Top.

Buchaillie Etive Mor — the big shepherd of Glen Etive. This mountain, more than any other of the high Scottish peaks, nurtured Murray during three years as a POW in the 1940s. He wrote Mountaineering in Scotland entirely from memory on toilet paper. In Robert Macfarlane’s view, the intensity of the relationship saved his life.

As the two voices follow each other in my head, I begin to understand the theme which is gradually building: the book speaks of and rings with a complex interplay of freedom and confinement. Certain landscapes, experienced deeply, can console and sustain us even when they are distant in time and space. In fact, because they have retreated in space, they become more powerful in re-presentations to the mind and memory…these are the Mountains of the Heart and we carry them with us for our whole life. The Buchaillie was Murray’s mountain of the heart.

There is much of Nan Shepherd in this, although she is never mentioned. She and Bill Murray were contemporaries in the 1930s. Both were influenced by Buddhist texts and the Perennial Philosophy that Murray heard about when he was in the camps, and they often echo each other. The thing to be known grows with the knowing (Nan). By a natural law the mind grows like that which it loves, and knowledge grows as love grows (Murray). I thought of how Robert has carried the same echo on his own journey, through Mountains of the Mind and all his subsequent books, towards matters of the heart.

I acquired a second-hand copy of Mountaineering in Scotland (long out of print) so I could read the words on the printed page and watch the desire to make some kind of tribute grow strong and compelling. There was no doubt about where to go. The place most dear to me in these parts, the one where I hope my ashes will be scattered: May Hill in West Gloucestershire. Beloved of the Dymock poets who lived close by in the summer of 1914, especially Edward Thomas. 

Such a glorious afternoon I spent there. The air was sweet and warm on the skin, and it was strangely quiet. No other walkers, no cattle, and no wind. If there were sounds they were too high-pitched for my poor hearing, just the voice in my head — Murray’s voice — The beauty of Living and of Life itself. Small birds were everywhere. Linnets, siskins, stonechats, red kites overhead and perching in the tall conifers. I walked slowly around the crown of Corsican Pines, planted for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, once for W.H. Murray, once for Edward Thomas and once for the poem he wrote there, ‘WORDS’. I sat facing out over Herefordshire and the Black Mountains of Wales and spoke the words aloud.

 Let me sometimes dance
With you
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme
As poets do.