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Author interview: John Burns, Sky Dance

Friday, 16 August 2019

John Burns' books are an ode to his love of the Scottish Hills and wild places. Following his bestselling first two narratives Bothy Tales and The Last Hillwalker, his new novel, Sky Dance, returns to this world to explore the key issues threatening the highland landscape – while hopefully raising a few laughs along the way. In this interview John discusses matters including landownership, wind farms, over fishing and grouse shooting; how best to encourage younger people into the outdoors to help preserve our mountain bothies for future generations; his time as part of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team and what the future holds for the Scottish highlands.

Where does your love of the Scottish hills come from and what inspires you to write about them?

There’s a Beatles song that contains the lyrics, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight?’ Well it was love at first sight for me when I saw the Scottish hills. I had just walked the Pennine way and drove North with some friends in a battered Austin 1100.  That drive changed my life. I can still remember how I felt as we passed through Glen Coe. I was stunned into awed silence.  I had never seen anywhere so wild and rugged. The mountains seemed to rise vertically away into the sky.  To me they looked unclimbable and, as the small car weaved its way down the glen, I knew I had to come back. What I didn’t know was that the brief glimpse of the mountains of the Highlands had changed my life and would bring me back to the north country over and over again until I would eventually make my home here.

I was astonished by the freedom that the Scottish hills gave me only a few years later. I spent my early years growing up in the ship building town of Birkenhead on the crowded Wirral peninsular. As a teenager I felt stifled there, what little countryside there was contained endless signs saying, ‘Private. Keep out.’ In the Scottish hills I could wander anywhere I wanted and spend days and even weeks exploring remote glens and visiting empty corries. To me it felt like paradise and even today, many years later the landscape excites and challenges me.

I began writing about the hills almost by accident. At one point in my life I decided I would forget all about mountains and find new challenges in things like acting and writing.  But the hills had been such a part of my life I felt I couldn’t just walk away I’d have to write about my life in the hills as a way of saying goodbye before I moved on to other things. I began to write what was my memoir of the hills and, as I wrote, I relived many of the experiences I had over the years.  In reliving them I began to realise how important that part of my life had been and the act of writing about the hills rekindled my desire to return to them. Now I spend more time than I ever did among the mountains and I have come to realise I can’t live without them. All my books about the Scottish hills are love letters to the wild.  

How to do feel Scotland’s wild places have changed during the time you spent exploring them – for better or worse? What do you think are the most pressing issues affecting the landscape at the moment?

Scotland’s wild places are now under siege more than ever.  I see wind farms doting the hillsides wherever I look, and bulldozed tracks violate even the most remote areas.  Nowhere else in the world is land ownership concentrated in the hands of so few people.  Scotland is owned by around four hundred people and many of these land owners ruthlessly exploit the landscape for their own ends. There is virtually no control over what goes on in the Scottish hills and that needs to change.

Scotland could be an oasis of wild forests helping to reverse global warming. Its forests could be home to lynx and wolves and its seas protected so that the ocean can begin to heal itself. Instead Scotland’s hills are over grazed by herds of deer whose numbers are kept artificially high so that a few rich men can hunt stags in a practice that is a relic of the Victorian era. Our lochs are polluted by salmon farming and our seas destroyed by over fishing. At the heart of all these problems is the question of who owns the land. There are some enlightened land owners who are trying to rewild their estates and work in sympathy with the landscape but far too many are entrenched in the past and obsessed with highly destructive practices such as driven grouse shooting which have turned our hills into blood-soaked deserts. There are some landowners who have as their estates, huge tracts of land, many square miles in area, and it should not be at the whim of a landowner to decide whether to use the land as a huge sporting playground or to manage the land in a more ecologically sympathetic way. These hills are our hills, and the wildlife that inhabits them or should inhabit them, are part of our natural heritage and belong to all of us. The most crucial question facing our wild landscape is land reform, while the Scottish hills remain in the ownership of a few rich men, and it is mostly men, we will never see them become the environment that they could be. 

Scotland is a particularly popular tourist destination for holidaymakers from the US, Germany and France. Have you noticed a change in the number of people visiting the Scottish hills over the last ten years and what do you think is the best way to encourage more people to get out into the wild? 

German and Dutch folk seem fascinated by the Highlands and bothies. I’ve talked to a few of these folk over the years and they tell me that there is nothing like the Scottish bothy in Germany.  I find that surprising as they have mountainous areas. I can understand Dutch people coming over as our terrain is so different from theirs.

Over the last ten or twenty years there has been a change in the way people explore our wilder places. We have perhaps become less adventurous as hill goers. I am not sure if there are fewer people venturing into the hills but, from my experience fewer people seem willing to go into remote places on their own initiative, so many of the more remote bothies appear to be getting less traffic while those in more publicised areas like the Cairngorms and on well publicised routes like the Cape Wrath Trail are getting more visits.  The publication of guidebooks and information on the internet has perhaps changed this a little but I think that the current interest in bothies is likely to fade over time.  

I think it is increasingly difficult for younger people to get out into the hills. Young people seem to have less leisure time than they did. For example it is far more common now for students to need to take on a job to support themselves through college and university.  Employment is less secure than it was with jobs being relatively less well paid. So it’s more difficult for young people to explore remote places as I did.  It’s also the case that there are many alternatives to simply going out doors than there used to be. The number of indoor climbing walls in existence means that many people who take up climbing may never venture outdoors at all.

The culture of the outdoor community has changed. The bucket list mentality means that some people will simply climb a mountain once, tick it off their list, and move on to a series of other one of activities.  When I began exploring the Lake District many years ago there was a kind of outdoor counter culture with people who identified themselves as walkers and climbers, above everything else in their lives.

Encouraging people into the outdoors is a difficult thing as there are social and economic factors that are standing in their way. Outdoor education is important and it would be good if that was more widely available. It is our children who need to feel comfortable outdoors as, if you don’t explore the outdoors as a child, you are unlikely to feel at ease there as you grow older.  I spent many days as a child happily wasting my time in ramshackle fishing huts which is why, I now realise, I feel so at home in bothies. We need to teach our children to waste time better.    

You were a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team for several years. How did that change your attitude to the hills?

Being part of the Mountain rescue organisation made me realise that there is a very serious side to this sport that we love. I knew that, of course, every climber does but you always think accidents happen to other people. When you are involved in situations when things have gone badly wrong you begin to understand that everyone is human and we are all fragile creatures when we walk amonge the kind of forces that the giants can unleash.  

In The Last Hillwalker I wrote a little about that aspect of mountaineering, I felt I had to if I was to write an honest portrayal of my time in the mountains. No matter how shiny your gear is, no matter how fit you are or how confident in your ability mountains are serious places and they don’t care how clever you are. Every winter people lose their lives in the Scottish mountains and I always feel for the people they leave behind who have to live with that tragedy.

Do everything you do in the mountains as thoroughly as you can, whether it’s tying in to a belay, taking a bearing with a compass or packing your rucksack for a day in the hills.  Do all these things as though your life depended on them because, one day, it probably will. 

You must have come across some characters the mountain bothies. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable time?

One of the things I love about the mountains are the people who inhabit them. Mountaineering attracts those who don’t fit in to the regulated sports that abound all around us. The great thing about mountaineering is you make your own rules. There is no class in the mountains, no colour or religion, they are places that transcend such manmade construct. When it rains in the hills everyone gets wet, rank, statue, wealth and education won’t keep you dry.

Alex Roddie, who has made a wonderful job of editing all my books so far, asked me where I came up with all my characters. He laughed when I told him I didn’t make them up, they were all out there among the Scottish hills. A few weeks later he called me when he was nearing the end of the Cape Wrath trail, he told me he’d met all the people I describe in the books, ‘They’re all real', he said.

I remember one winter’s night in the old hostel in Glen Affric a group of us sat in there ridding out a terrific thunder storm.  Davey, a friend of mine, who was a great bear of a man with a wild sense of humour and an even wilder temper, entertained us all by reciting poem after poem of Robert Service finishing up with The Cremation of Sam Magee just as the storm reached its height. Davey was an unpredictable character who could never fit in with societies rules and so was forced to live on the dole most of his life. But that night no one cared if he was a failure or not. He was our mate Davey and we all spent the night laughing while the rain fell in torrents outside the little hostel. In the morning the glen was flooded and no one was laughing when we had to wade chest deep through the flood water to get back to where we had left our cars.

That’s just one of many nights I can recall. I’ll let you into a little secret, the strangest character I’ve ever met is me.  

How do we encourage more young people to help maintain bothies and preserve them for the next generation?

The key to getting young people out into the hills has to be education. I hope the books I write will help and I know at least one college has my books on its reading lists. The most important thing is that young people begin to engage with the outdoors. I also feel that the outdoor fraternity needs to be more tolerant of the behaviour of folk who are not regular hill goers. I often hear complaints about litter, lighting fires in the wrong places and cutting live wood. All these things shouldn’t happen but they are more the result of poor education than malicious intent and we need to engage with people in a positive way and encourage them into the outdoors and not adopt a punitive attitude. Anyone coming into an environment they are unfamiliar with won’t know what’s expected of them, so the key is education.

What do you think the future of the Scottish hills looks like?

I’m very optimistic in the long term. There has been a fundamental change in attitudes among both the outdoor community and the wider public.  Ten years ago if you’d asked the average hill walker what he thought about driven grouse shooting he would have stared at you blankly, now that issue is becoming a hot topic. Awareness of what we are doing to the planet in general is increasing with a recognition that we are in the midst of a climate emergency.  I think that how we care for the planet in general, not just the hills, will be something that concerns everyone.  

As climatic changes become ever more serious and the effects impinge on us more and more there will be a dramatic change in how we manage our wild places. In the long term there has to be a radical reform of land ownership with practices like driven grouse shooting and deer stalking confined to the history books. Then our hills will begin to recover and to be the kind of environmental treasures they should be. I won’t live to see most of these changes, we are talking generations before they come into being but I think these changes will come. The beginnings of those changes are already apparent and I am sure they will come to fruition for future generations. 

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