It's Just Like Switzerland Grand Tours of Scotland


It's Just Like Switzerland

Paul Murton scales the summit of Ben Nevis to discover how Scotland was first promoted as a winter holiday destination.


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Scotland's rich and varied landscape

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has drawn tourists from around the world for over 200 years -

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and by the end of the Victorian era,

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Scotland was a favourite summer destination.

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But what happened when the chill winds of winter began to blow

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and the tourists packed their bags and headed for home?

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Slowly but surely,

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enterprising Victorians began to lure the tourists back.

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Using the cold,

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they promoted the Highlands as a winter holiday destination.

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A playground for curling, for skating, for mountaineering,

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and for skiing.

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After all, it's just like Switzerland, isn't it?

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I've been travelling through Scotland

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from the Galloway Coast to the Glens of Ross-shire,

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following routes suggested by one of the first tourist guides ever published -

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Black's Picturesque Guide to Scotland.

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This wonderful Victorian volume has a special place in my affections.

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It once guided my own family when we went on holiday.

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40 years on, I'm dusting it down

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and setting off to recapture the golden age,

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when Scotland was a jewel in the crown of holiday destinations.

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For my final journey, I'm going off-piste

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to discover how Scotland sold itself as a winter playground.

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The last journey of my Grand Tour of Scotland

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takes me from the icy shores of the Lake of Menteith,

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through the snowbound Highlands,

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to the summit of Britain's highest and most wintery mountain,

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Ben Nevis.

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Harsh winters were common in Victorian times,

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and Black's Guide excitedly presents the tourist

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with some impressive statistics about the "frozen north".

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"The lowest temperatures recorded, minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit,

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"or 44 degrees of frost,

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"were observed in the upper valleys of the Don and the Dee

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"at Christmas 1860."

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Now conditions like these seemed ideal

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for transforming Scotland into a tourists' winter wonderland.

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This is the Lake of Menteith two years ago,

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when I was able to enjoy the thrill of playing on the ice,

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just as in Victorian times,

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when bitter frosts transformed its waters into a huge ice rink,

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allowing the ancient game of curling to take place.

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Famously, the Lake of Menteith was once the venue

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for the great annual curling match called the Bonspiel.

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This national competition was last held on the lake in 1979.

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It was a splendid spectacle,

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and thousands came to thrill to the clash of stone on ice.

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To find out more about the history of the "roaring game",

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I'm joining Bob Kelly on the Lake,

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not to slide across the ice this year,

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but to ply its waters in a boat.

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Bob, it's a bit of a sad testament to climate change, isn't it,

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that we're out here in a boat instead of being on the ice?

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Well, isn't it just? Yes, it would be lovely to think we could experience

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the same conditions we had in 1979, but that's the way it is.

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But you were there in 1979.

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I certainly was indeed, yes, enjoyed every minute of it.

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It was just a fantastic day.

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We're talking about 600 teams, 2,500...2,400 curlers.

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2,400 curlers on this ice.

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-2,400 curlers on the ice.

-Plus spectators.

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Plus spectators, plus officials. It was just absolutely unbelievable.

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The sun shone the whole day.

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It was beautiful weather, beautiful conditions.

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Loads of people like-minded, all passionate,

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excited, with great anticipation about the day ahead. It was fantastic.

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I suppose in the old days, there must have been much colder winters

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to have regular matches outside

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because they wouldn't have had the alternative of going inside.

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Well, that's right. The only curling that took place was outdoors

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on naturally frozen ice.

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Every little village would have a curling pond

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and at that time of year, of course,

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not too many farming duties to be done, so when the weather was right,

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the whole community would get out and enjoy the sport of curling.

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-And how old is the sport?

-Well, there's a good question.

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I don't think anybody really knows how old it is.

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There is a stone in existence called the Stirling stone

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which is actually engraved with the date 1511,

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but nobody's absolutely sure whether that's genuine or not,

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but it certainly goes back probably just about as far as that

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and maybe even further.

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Victorian tourists found the excitement infectious.

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"There is a true ring of the national pastime about the whole affair.

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"Ch-ch-ch hissed the stone as it was sent skimming over the ice.

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"Loud and ceaseless were the cries of 'Soup it up, mun, soup it up!'

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"from the excited bystanders."

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Leaving Bob Kelly with his memories of colder winters,

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and the 'roaring game',

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I set off into the Highlands, following a winter route

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described in all its frosty glory by an English tourist and travel writer,

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MJB Baddeley, who came to Scotland in 1894.

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Baddeley was amazed by what he found on his tour.

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The landscape and the climate especially

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were unlike anything he'd ever experienced at home in England.

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In fact, he thought he'd found Switzerland.

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In his journal, he describes the wondrous winter landscape he passed through.

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"It is beautiful, with a foreground of hoar-frosted trees,

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"and the whole landscape chastened, as it were,

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"by the soft transparency of the winter light,

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"through which the mountains seemed objects of the sweetest dreamland.

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"The effect was simply indescribable."

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But that was then.

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I'm re-tracing Baddeley's winter route in February.

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Now, February is normally the coldest month of the year,

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but the contrast in the weather conditions couldn't be greater.

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Whereas Baddeley experienced a winter wonderland,

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I've got rain and incredibly mild conditions,

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so mild, in fact, they're actually forecast to get up to 12 degrees today.

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So what's happened? What's happened to all the snow and ice

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that was going to transform the Highlands into a winter playground?

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To find out why the weather seems to have taken a wrong turn,

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I'm falling in step with climate expert, Ian Cameron.

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If you look at the period from the Victorian age

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actually going back the way a couple of hundred years,

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to a term that we call the Little Ice Age,

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the winters were undoubtedly colder and undoubtedly snowier,

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and lasted longer. I mean it's incredible,

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There's an account by a chap called Thomas Thornton

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who's walking in the Cairngorms in 1786

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and he was taking his friends - very well heeled -

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-They were taking his friends for a picnic...

-Right.

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And it was a beautiful summer's day, 6th of August.

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They decided it would be more civilised

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if they went into Glen Feshie and went for a little stroll there.

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So as they were walking up, not at a particularly great altitude,

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they found a snow drift that they deposited their champagne in to cool it for lunch.

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-Brilliant!

-You know, so that's in August...

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-Uh-huh.

-I know, and that's exceptional.

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As part of his ongoing research into the Scottish winter,

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Ian has been surveying long-lasting snow patches

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in the mountains for several years.

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These summer snow patches are important indicators

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of climate change.

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Now, in 1933, something happened which hadn't happened since 1829,

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in that all snow had vanished in Scotland.

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That's the first time it had been known.

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It was so, um, interesting a subject,

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and it was so unusual that someone actually wrote a letter to The Times.

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-So shock, horror, no snow.

-Headline stuff.

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Someone from the Scottish Mountaineering Club wrote a letter to The Times

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to say that for the first time in living memory, all snow has vanished from Scotland.

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And since that time, it's disappeared an additional four times.

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-1959.

-Uh-huh.

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1996, 2003 and then 2006.

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So the rate of disappearance

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and the frequency of disappearance is accelerating.

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Any sense of what might happen next winter do you think?

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We might get some snow next winter?

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We can look forward to putting our skis back on?

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Oh, I think so. I think that we will... We'll have snow for a while yet.

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You know, people who've written the Scottish winter off

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I think are a little bit premature.

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If there's one thing to be certain about with the Scottish winter is it's unpredictable.

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Certainly is unpredictable.

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I know that for a fact for this winter!

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The unpredictability of the Scottish winter

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seems to be an incontrovertible fact.

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The great walking enthusiast,

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the indefatigable Reverend Grierson,

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was no stranger to winter's icy blast,

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even on a summer ramble in the hills.

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"Near the summit the snow was quite blinding.

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"We were quite benumbed and covered in icicles,

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"so that a taste from the whisky flask was right acceptable."

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Nothing like a little fire in the belly to keep out the cold.

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Continuing north,

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my route follows the course of the old Oban-to-Glasgow railway line,

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which Black's describes as one of the most beautiful in Scotland.

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This is Glen Ogle on the Oban line,

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which closed to trains in the 1960s.

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Since the 1990s, it's been part of a national network of routes

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enjoyed by cyclists and long-distance walkers alike.

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The Victorians were justly proud of their railway.

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It climbed steeply to the head of the pass in front of me,

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crosses several bridges, including this magnificent old viaduct,

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which has become something of a symbol to the golden age of steam travel.

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In Victorian times, railways were crucial

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to the development of tourism in the Highlands, both summer and winter.

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And early snow-sports enthusiasts

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eagerly awaited the arrival of new lines

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to provide swift access to their winter playground.

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Soon, railway companies began using images of Scotland -

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looking like Switzerland -

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to sell their new routes to this winter wonderland.

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And where else would you go in the United Kingdom

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to find the perfect Alpine climate but the Cairngorms,

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which is where my Winter Grand Tour takes me next.

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This is Aviemore, ski capital of Scotland.

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Leaving the train here, the Victorian tourist

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was treated to striking views of the snowy Cairngorm Mountains.

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Black's Guide sets the tone.

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"From the huge, chill desert, totally uninhabited,

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"rises the loftiest cluster of mountains in the United Kingdom."

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Whenever I see snow-capped summits,

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I feel the urge to put on my skis and head for the hills.

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But to get there, early seekers of winter fun

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had to walk or ride a horse.

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Now, it's a lot easier.

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The Cairngorm Mountain Railway

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takes would-be sporting types like me,

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deep into the heart of the Cairngorms

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in search of that essential winter holiday ingredient - snow.

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In Scotland, this is about as close as you can get

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to an authentic, Swiss-style, mountain railway experience

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and, like its Alpine counterparts, it takes tourists in search of snow

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just so they can slide back down again.

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The top station is well above 4,000 feet

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and I'm struck by how busy the place is.

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It just goes to show, the allure of sliding downhill is irresistible.

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Now, I sometimes think that the desire to slide on snow must be an instinctive thing.

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And it's one not just enjoyed by human beings.

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Once, when I was mountaineering in Norway,

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I watched a group of young reindeer clambering up a rocky ridge,

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just to slide back down on their backsides.

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They were literally young bucks having fun and showing off.

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Now, sadly, for me, I've got to the age

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when I'm too old to impress and it's downhill all the way for me.

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Trying not to fall over

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has become an increasingly important part of the skiing experience for me,

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but although I'm pretty rubbish, I'm addicted to it.

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Someone else who has the sport in her blood is Myrtle Simpson.

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Not only is she a former President of the Scottish Ski Club,

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in 1965 she became the first woman to ski across the Greenland ice cap.

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Well, we always say that if you can ski in Scotland,

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you can ski anywhere.

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And, um, I think that's true

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because we get every conceivable kind of weather here,

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and you won't meet much worse wherever you go.

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But what actually made us want to do that was, it was just at the time

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when people started going on cruise ships

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and said they'd been on expeditions,

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and we thought that was not, you know, just not on.

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So we tried to see if we could ski the way Nansen did

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when he crossed Greenland in 1888.

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Nansen was a Norwegian explorer

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and Myrtle wasn't the first to have been inspired

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by his Arctic exploits.

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In 1890, William Naismith took up the skiing challenge,

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making the very first tracks across Scottish snow.

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From then on, skiing snowballed.

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Although the aspirations of these pioneers were high,

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they were often let down by their levels of skill.

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But amazingly, Victorian Scots were actually skiing in the Highlands

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before the sport was taken up in some parts of the Alps.

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And Scotland's snowy slopes even saw early signs of women's emancipation

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as the ladies took to the hills.

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There began to be a sort of movement that you... You could buy bloomers.

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There were shops in Edinburgh - you could buy bloomers.

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Of course you left the village in your skirt

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-because you mustn't let your legs show.

-Heaven forbid!

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And upset the men.

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So they hid their skirts.

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And there are some magic stories of mist coming down like this,

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and they couldn't find the blinking boulder they'd hidden the skirts in.

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But bloomers alone wouldn't popularise the sport.

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The real revolution in skiing

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came with the outbreak of the Second World War.

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I think the British Army was trying to fight

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against the Alpini of Italy, for instance,

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who were crack Olympic skiers,

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and the British Army training didn't even have gloves.

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And they trained here in the Cairngorms.

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All the various estate houses were commandeered by the Army

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and apparently there were just swarms of Army learning to ski,

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and a huge number of people came back,

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and they'd had terrific fun in the mountains,

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and they thought, "Why can't we still do that?"

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There are now five ski resorts across the Highlands.

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On a good weekend, when the snow conditions are at their most Alpine,

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it's reckoned that up to 20,000 people are on the piste in Scotland.

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Hans Kuwall came from Austria as a ski instructor in 1956,

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and he's still here!

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But even then, the snow was unreliable.

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What was your first impression of Scotland?

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"Where's the snow?" THEY LAUGH

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Where WAS the snow? Was there nothing?

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Coming over Drumochter - green.

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And I thought, "Oh dear, what I'm coming to," you know,

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sort of, "Did I make a mistake?"

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It was a bad season.

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We travelled in a minibus from A to B, you know, so...

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-But you were looking for snow?

-Yes.

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Little patches of snow where we could take our beginners

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and teach them to ski.

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In the early '60s, a ski lift was built in the Cairngorms.

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Now Hans and his clients no longer had to spend half a day

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walking uphill in search of snow.

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Aviemore developed rapidly,

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modelling itself on Alpine ski resorts like St Moritz.

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Movie star Omar Sharif was hired

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to lend a sense of international sophistication to the resort.

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Apres ski had arrived in the Highlands.

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Do you think there was a very conscious attempt to try and create

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an Alpine resort here in Scotland?

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Yeah, very much so, you know?

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But there was always difficulties and so on.

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But at one point, it was running quite well, Aviemore,

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you know, especially when we got Continental instructors in,

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and they went into the bar, to the dances and so on,

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and you got that Continental influence, you know,

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the different language and so on.

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Of course, one of the great Continental features of skiing

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-is gluhwein...

-Yeah.

-..which we have here.

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So I'd like to say, "Thank you very much, Hans",

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and zum wohl!

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-Prost.

-Prost!

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This winter has not been kind to Scottish skiing

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with gales and rain instead of sparkling frosts and snow.

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But sometimes, Highland weather can be truly Arctic.

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And as soon as photography developed,

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cameras were quick to capture the power of nature.

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Highland winters were a gift to early newsreels

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and competed in looks with Russia or Siberia for chilly bleakness.

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To get a fresh angle on this winter wonderland for myself,

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I'm taking a short cut to my next destination

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by taking to the air.

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The view from 5,000 feet is impressive.

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This is the highest, coldest and most inhospitable region

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in the whole of Britain,

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where the high tops hang onto winter longer than anywhere else.

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In fact, it's so cold today that the microlight begins to freeze up,

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coating the airframe in a dangerous layer of ice.

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We're forced to turn back

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and it's not until several weeks later

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that we can take to the skies again.

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But this time, the snow seems to have vanished

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from all but the highest summits.

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'It's the flight of a lifetime,'

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with magnificent views of the mighty Ben Nevis,

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which I want to climb.

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Ben Nevis is a deceptive mountain.

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From most angles, it looks like a great, rounded lump of a hill

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with its head forever in the clouds

0:19:570:19:59

but from the air, it reveals its secret heart.

0:19:590:20:04

The great corrie and cliffs,

0:20:040:20:06

riven with deep, snow-filled gullies,

0:20:060:20:08

have been home to Scottish winter mountaineering

0:20:080:20:11

since Victorian times.

0:20:110:20:13

At 4,408 feet, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Britain.

0:20:160:20:22

And it's up the gully below us that I hope to reach the summit.

0:20:220:20:26

This won't be the easiest route up the Ben.

0:20:280:20:31

But long before climbers arrived,

0:20:310:20:33

tourists were making the long slog,

0:20:330:20:35

walking a route that completely bypasses the spectacular cliffs.

0:20:350:20:40

To make it even easier,

0:20:420:20:43

you could hire a pony and guide to take you up.

0:20:430:20:46

And in 1916, an almost effortless ascent was made

0:20:460:20:51

when someone drove a car to the top!

0:20:510:20:53

The tourist route proved so popular

0:20:550:20:57

that a small hotel was built at the summit,

0:20:570:21:00

offering rudimentary accommodation to weary walkers.

0:21:000:21:04

But this is unadventurous stuff.

0:21:040:21:07

Sporting gents wanted something more challenging for the weekend

0:21:070:21:11

and they found it in huge abundance

0:21:110:21:14

on the mighty North Face.

0:21:140:21:16

Having thawed out after my freezing flight,

0:21:190:21:22

I'm meeting up with mountaineer and climbing guide Dave Macleod.

0:21:220:21:27

I want to follow in the footsteps of the early mountaineers

0:21:270:21:30

and Dave is going to take me on a classic winter route

0:21:300:21:34

to the summit of the Ben.

0:21:340:21:35

The great cliffs of the Ben are as close as we can get

0:21:370:21:40

to the big rock faces in Switzerland and the Alps

0:21:400:21:43

and in winter, they can be hugely challenging.

0:21:430:21:47

It might be a small mountain in terms of height,

0:21:480:21:51

but a winter climb on the Ben is a serious undertaking

0:21:510:21:54

and ranks with the best in Europe.

0:21:540:21:58

Slogging uphill for a couple of hours, we arrive at a small building

0:21:580:22:02

known in climbing circles as the CIC Memorial hut.

0:22:020:22:06

So, Dave, what's the story behind this hut? Because to be honest,

0:22:090:22:12

it's the last thing I'd expect to see halfway up Ben Nevis.

0:22:120:22:15

Yeah, this is the CIC Hut.

0:22:150:22:17

It's the only hut of its type in Scotland, really.

0:22:170:22:20

This kind of mountain hut high up in the corries

0:22:200:22:23

is something that's quite popular in the Alps

0:22:230:22:26

but this is the only one we've got in this country.

0:22:260:22:28

-So this is our very own Alpine hut...

-It is indeed, yeah.

0:22:280:22:31

..here, in an Alpine setting.

0:22:310:22:32

It is, yeah. It's been here since 1927, when it was first built

0:22:320:22:36

so it's played a massive part in the history of climbing on Ben Nevis

0:22:360:22:41

but also in Scotland as well.

0:22:410:22:43

An hour out from the CIC Hut,

0:22:460:22:49

Dave and I don helmets, crampons and ice axes

0:22:490:22:53

and begin our climb in earnest.

0:22:530:22:55

-OK, Dave, we're just taking a wee breather.

-Yeah.

0:22:570:23:00

And there are climbers all around us.

0:23:000:23:02

But in many ways,

0:23:020:23:03

this is where mountaineering in Scotland really began,

0:23:030:23:06

winter mountaineering especially.

0:23:060:23:09

It did. I mean, the obvious reason why

0:23:090:23:11

is because this holds so much snow

0:23:110:23:14

and it totally transforms in winter.

0:23:140:23:16

The gullies fill up with, like, tens of metres of snow

0:23:160:23:20

and it forms ice that lasts for half the year

0:23:200:23:22

so it's obvious that climbers came here,

0:23:220:23:25

at first for training for the Alps...

0:23:250:23:27

-Right.

-But then very quickly

0:23:270:23:29

they could see that it had a value and enjoyment in its own right.

0:23:290:23:33

And they started to look at the routes on Ben Nevis especially

0:23:330:23:36

as being obvious targets.

0:23:360:23:37

Were the gullies some of the first routes that were developed?

0:23:370:23:40

The big gullies of Ben Nevis were the first routes in the UK, really,

0:23:400:23:45

in winter, and they were identified

0:23:450:23:49

and picked off one by one by the climbers

0:23:490:23:51

and they were held in really high regard

0:23:510:23:54

and there was really a race for them

0:23:540:23:56

among the groups of climbers there were.

0:23:560:23:58

And this is in the 1880s, 1890s.

0:23:580:24:01

The climb Dave is taking me up today is called Gardyloo Gully,

0:24:060:24:10

a classic that was pioneered in Victorian times

0:24:100:24:14

by men dressed in tweed.

0:24:140:24:16

But sadly for national pride,

0:24:160:24:19

English climbers made the first impression on the Ben.

0:24:190:24:22

In April 1897,

0:24:220:24:24

three Englishmen climbed Gardyloo Gully for the first time,

0:24:240:24:28

while another ascent was made of Tower Gully, witnessed by John Begg.

0:24:280:24:34

"Up this with ropes, ice axes,

0:24:340:24:37

"came three members of the English Alpine Club.

0:24:370:24:40

"It certainly seemed a rash and foolhardy experiment,

0:24:400:24:43

"but their coolness and courage were rewarded

0:24:430:24:46

"after six hours of hard work

0:24:460:24:48

"by their reaching the summit in safety."

0:24:480:24:50

'I'm beginning to feel nervous now.

0:24:550:24:58

'The sheer scale of the towering cliffs

0:24:580:25:01

'is very intimidating.

0:25:010:25:03

'It's time to rope up and face down my fears.'

0:25:030:25:07

Where did it get the name Gardyloo Gully?

0:25:070:25:09

Well, it comes from the summit observatory,

0:25:090:25:12

and hotel and meteorological station.

0:25:120:25:14

Really?

0:25:140:25:16

And to get rid of their rubbish...

0:25:160:25:18

-Oh, they didn't?

-They'd tip it over the edge.

0:25:180:25:20

That's not very environmentally friendly.

0:25:200:25:22

Hence the call, "Gardyloo," which was what they used to shout in Edinburgh

0:25:220:25:26

when they threw their rubbish and water out of the window.

0:25:260:25:30

Gardyloo Gully is an easy Grade Three winter route -

0:25:330:25:37

easy, that is, if you're an experienced mountaineer like Dave.

0:25:370:25:42

But for me, this narrow finger of steep snow and ice,

0:25:420:25:46

slicing through the upper corrie,

0:25:460:25:48

is a forbidding place to be.

0:25:480:25:50

'The crux pitch of Gardyloo Gully is a curious ice tunnel,

0:25:530:25:57

'a couple of hundred feet beneath the summit.

0:25:570:26:00

'Wriggling up this unusual feature is a weird experience,

0:26:010:26:05

'like being trapped in a hole.

0:26:050:26:08

'Now I'm caught in a torrent of powder snow

0:26:090:26:13

'that completely blinds me.'

0:26:130:26:14

I can't see a thing!

0:26:150:26:18

'This is a brutal struggle, and saps all the reserves I have

0:26:180:26:21

'even before I've got to the summit.'

0:26:210:26:24

HE PANTS

0:26:240:26:26

Well...

0:26:260:26:28

I'm out of the hole!

0:26:280:26:29

Was a hell of a hole to be in, can tell you.

0:26:310:26:35

'Leaving me to regain my composure,

0:26:380:26:41

'Dave effortlessly scales the last pitch to the summit plateau,

0:26:410:26:46

'where he prepares to bring me up.'

0:26:460:26:48

Killing me!

0:26:490:26:51

Absolutely killing me!

0:26:510:26:54

'But it's a struggle against tired and aching muscles.

0:26:540:26:58

'I feel so weak I can barely find the strength

0:26:580:27:02

'to climb the last few metres

0:27:020:27:04

'in weather that's rapidly deteriorating.'

0:27:040:27:07

It's knackering!

0:27:070:27:09

'It's taken over six hours to get this far

0:27:110:27:14

'and now the weather has completely closed in.

0:27:140:27:17

'As we make our way across the snow,

0:27:190:27:21

'we pass the ruins of the old weather observatory.

0:27:210:27:25

'Of the hotel that once offered a bed for the night,

0:27:250:27:28

'there's nothing to be seen at all.'

0:27:280:27:30

Would be nice it was still open.

0:27:300:27:33

Could do with a pint.

0:27:330:27:34

'On the summit at last,

0:27:360:27:37

'my sense of achievement compensates for the lack of a view.

0:27:370:27:41

'I also recognise that I have Black's to thank

0:27:410:27:45

'for the culmination of my winter Grand Tour.

0:27:450:27:48

'It was the first book to inspire me with a sense of adventure.

0:27:480:27:52

'It's taken me from the rock pools of Arran

0:27:520:27:55

'to the Solway Firth,

0:27:550:27:57

'from the glamour of Gleneagles

0:27:570:27:59

'to the racecourses of Ayr.

0:27:590:28:02

'From the wilds of Ross-shire

0:28:020:28:04

'to a winter wonderland on our doorstep.'

0:28:040:28:08

Scotland may not really be like Switzerland or the Alps,

0:28:080:28:11

but maybe that's just as well.

0:28:110:28:14

Scotland is Scotland, after all,

0:28:140:28:17

and should be understood and appreciated in her own right.

0:28:170:28:21

This isn't just a beautiful country,

0:28:210:28:24

it's magnificent.

0:28:240:28:25

And as my old Black's Guidebook shows,

0:28:250:28:28

there's nowhere else like it on earth.

0:28:280:28:31

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:530:28:56

By the end of the Victorian era, Scotland had become a favourite summer holiday destination. But what happened when the chill winds of winter began to blow and the tourists packed their bags and headed for home? In this final episode, Paul Murton travels from the icy shores of the Lake of Menteith to the summit of Britain's highest and most wintry mountain, Ben Nevis, to discover how Scotland was first promoted as a winter holiday destination - after all, 'it's just like Switzerland' - isn't it?


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