Chapter 8 – University
In October, 1962 I started going to Aberdeen University. I was a forestry student, but in my first year I continued to study science. In my second year I studied geography, geology and moral philosophy. To the academic side of student life I was completely unsuited: I was a very slow learner, and I found that the times allocated to exams were far too short. It was not until I started working on the Wainwright books in 2003 that I found an activity to which I was completely suited. It was about three months after I arrived in Aberdeen that I started to grow a beard.
I noticed that the Rector of the University, Peter Scott, had the same name as a well-known naturalist, and when I learned that someone of that name was to address the Biology Society I wondered which of them it would be. Then it was explained to me that they were the same person, and that it was quite usual for well-known people to be elected Rector. Those from the past included the comedian Jimmy Edwards and, before he became Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In November 1963 it was time to elect a new Rector. I was called upon to write the manifesto for the singer Kenneth McKellar, but I voted for the Scottish racing driver Jim Clark, and the eventual winner was John Hunt. The slogan for the McKellar campaign was ‘McKellar’s the Feller’. Like me, Kenneth McKellar had been a forestry student at Aberdeen, and we both designed covers for the magazine Arbor.
When I arrived in Aberdeen I joined twenty clubs. I once received a questionnaire from one of them asking why I joined and replied that I collected membership cards. I knew that in a few years’ time I would be voting in a general election, and I thought it might help me to decide which party to vote for if I joined the Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Scottish Nationalist societies.
It so happened that a member of the Scottish Nationalist Association lived at the same address as me, and he invited me to one of their meetings. I found myself appointed Social Convenor, a post to which I was completely unsuited, and later Business Manager of the society magazine Symbol, a job that was much more in my line. The Editor of the magazine, Irene Hughson, once confided that she was short of material, and I wrote to a number of people inviting them to contribute. I was only offered one article, which was about a group of singers who had recently become very popular, and I told the Editor about it. I remember her exact words. She said ‘This magazine won’t be published for months yet: by that time everyone will have forgotten about the Beatles.’ Forty years later ordinary suburban houses were being opened to the public because members of the group had once lived there.
As a member of the Scottish Nationalist Association I played a part in a radio broadcast for Radio Free Scotland. Because I was the only person with an English accent I was called upon to impersonate Sir Alec Douglas-Home, reading a passage from Private Eye. The recording was broadcast on television after it had closed down for the night.
Shortly before I left Aberdeen I was invited to a meeting to discuss the university magazine Alma Mater. The other participants couldn’t understand why 400 copies of Symbol had been sold, but only 140 copies of Alma Mater. I made no contribution to the meeting until someone asked if I had anything to say. Then I said that Alma Mater was supposed to be a university magazine, but that in practice it had become a magazine of the Arts Faculty, and I gave examples of subjects that I thought should be covered. I expected that I would hear no more about this, but after I left Aberdeen I sold some textbooks through the students’ book agency and agreed to accept student magazines instead of cash. Among the magazines was a copy of Alma Mater, showing that they had done exactly exactly as I suggested. In a small way I had left my mark on the University.
In my first year I was one of a team of proof-readers for the university newspaper Gaudie. Normally each of us was given a different part of the newspaper to check, but on one occasion two of us were given the same part by accident, and then we found out how many mistakes we had both missed.
Another job I had was to help backstage at the French Club play Dr Knock. The most difficult task was to construct a car on the stage using various spare parts that we borrowed from local scrapyards. For a long time it seemed inconceivable that these things could be made into a car. Then, by a complete fluke, we discovered that two invalid carriages could be joined together to make a four-wheeled vehicle.
I was also the secretary of the Motor Club, the editor of the Forestry Society magazine Arbor, the president of the Humanist Society, and the circulation manager of the university newspaper Gaudie, but none of these things enabled me to get onto the Union Management Committee, which was the equivalent of the Union Executive Committee at college.
As Secretary of the Motor Club I was responsible for organising the Deeside Rally, which took place in the hours of darkness. At the start of the rally I was driven over the route by Ian Underwood to provide the marshals with watches and so on, but we set off much later than we should have done, and at one point we were overtaken by the leading competitor. I asked Ian to flash his lights: the car kept on going. I asked him to keep on flashing his lights: the car stopped. I promised the driver that he would not be penalised for late arrival at the next control and asked him to wait for five minutes so that we could get ahead.
Most of the navigational problems were similar to those on the rallies I had organised before, but the last section was quite different. A hypothetical aircraft was described, starting at 4500 feet at a particular place, travelling due west and losing height constantly at the rate of 600 feet per mile. Competitors had to pass through the place where the aircraft would reach the ground. Had it been able to, it would have reached sea level under the A 92, but it reached 300 feet where the 300-foot contour crossed another road, and that was the way the competitors should have gone. Only four of the sixteen finishers got it right. The rally was won by Charlie Miller, who was later to be my team-mate on the Scottish Rally. Ian Farquhar, who was seeded number one, came second.
On the night of Saturday, 20th October, 1962 I navigated for James Winton on the Granite City Rally, which was the main rally of the year in the Aberdeen area, and the following day I went on the Lairig Club trip to Lochnagar. I was able to do this because the rally finished at a hotel in Aboyne, and the coach to Glen Muick happened to stop at the same hotel within half an hour of our arrival. It was a beautiful day, and there was a long line of people up the mountain, almost a hundred of us.
On the night of 23rd November, 1963 I navigated on the Town and County Rally, the main rally of Aberdeen University Motor Club, for Chris Burges-Lumsden, who lived in Pitcaple Castle, one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in my life. When viewed from the drive there is a fifteenth-century keep on the right and a nineteenth-century extension on the left. There is a large five-story round tower in the right-hand corner of the keep and a similar tower in the re-entrant angle between the keep and the extension. Incredibly there is a tiny round tower squeezed into the top part of the angle between this tower and the main part of the keep. There is another small round tower corbelled out at the top of the third corner of the keep. All these towers have concave conical roofs. Inside there are stag’s heads and paintings all over the place, including portraits of Chris’s ancestors going back many generations. We were placed first on the rally, and we also won the special stage, which depended entirely on the driver. In January, 1964 I met Chris when I was skiing, and he introduced me to Lord and Lady Brodie.
On 15th March, 1963 I set off to hitch-hike to Istanbul, but I spent so much time in Paris and Switzerland I only got as far as Komotini in eastern Greece. After I got back I wrote an account of my travels that was published in the University Geographical Society magazine Orb.
From 1st July to 31st August 1963 I worked for the River Lochy Association as a river watcher. I lived in a bothy at Camisky, a country house near Fort William. My job was to look for poachers and report them, but only one was caught as a result of my efforts. While I was there I made a note of the names of various pools on the river so that I could show these on the Ben Nevis panorama if ever I produced on. I eventually did so in 1977. I know that I was planning to produce panoramas before then because I wrote in my diary in 1959 that I had compiled a table to enable me to allow for the curvature of the earth in the construction of panoramas.
On 28th September, 1963 I went up the mountain called Glas Maol because the weather was very clear, and I could see the Southern Uplands, 80 miles away. On 31st August, 1964 I climbed a subsidiary summit of Ben Cruachan, because I had worked out that it should be possible to see Ireland from there, but by the time I got there it wasn’t clear enough. Little did I know that one day I would see Ireland from Ben Nevis at a greater distance.
On 20th June, 1964 I started working in Aberdeen as a street photographer. We used to photograph people without asking them, and if they bought the photographs we got a commission, but on average I only made 1s 8d an hour. On 8th July I started working for City Taxis, driving a three-door cab, and this was much more lucrative. The best time financially was around the New Year, when I made £69 in two weeks, but the time I enjoyed most was when it snowed. To me, driving without snow was like rowing a boat without a current: you can do it, but there is nothing to allow for; and when the snow finally melted and I was back on dry tarmac it was like playing whist when I had got used to playing bridge.