Alastair Borthwick, writer and broadcaster: born Rutherglen, Lanarkshire 17 February 1913; OBE 1951; married 1940 Anne Corbett (died 2003; one son); died Beith, Ayrshire 25 September 2003.
In an era when most climbing and mountaineering literature comprised formulaic expedition books recounting travels to exotic places by the well-to-do, Alastair Borthwick's classic account of domestic mountain adventures Always a Little Further proved little short of ground-breaking. Published in 1939, it vividly captured the beginning of the "grass-roots" movement into the Scottish hills by the working-class and unemployed of Glasgow and Clydebank.
Originally inspired by the "Wandervogel" movement blossoming in Germany's Weimar Republic, a wave of enthusiasm for hiking and climbing had spread across northern Europe by the early 1930s, resulting in the establishment of national youth hostels associations. In Scotland, these developments were tempered by the arrival of mass unemployment in the Clydebank shipyards: a substantial body of men and women had time on their hands, mountains on their doorstep, and very little money.
Resourceful Glaswegians hitch-hiked north in their hundreds to camp, climb and walk in the hitherto privileged domain of the West Highlands, dossing in caves or "howffs" and forming informal climbing clubs such as the legendary "Creagh Dhu". As the mountaineering historian Ken Wilson colourfully put it, "It was rather as if a group of East Enders had suddenly decided to take up grouse-shooting or polo."
While other writers of the period such as W.H. Murray and J.H.B. Bell chose to record the activities of the mountaineering élite and concentrated on the climbing itself, Borthwick chronicled the personalities among the new breed of impecunious egalitarian climber, and "gangrels of all sorts". This would have been sufficient in itself to establish Always a Little Further as a valuable document portraying a period of major social change, but Borthwick's entertainingly humorous style and irrepressible joie de vivre ensured that it became much more than that.
Descriptions of encounters with tramps, tinkers and hawkers, naïve beginner's escapades on the bens and crags of Skye and Argyll and hilarious hitch-hiking accounts (such as a memorable journey to Ben Nevis in the back of a lorry accompanied by a flock of dead sheep) made it a classic of its genre. Borthwick first offered the manuscript to Fabers, who initially demurred, unsure of the unusual subject matter. Fortunately, T.S. Eliot, then one of the directors, insisted on its publication. It has never been out of print since.
Borthwick was born in 1913 in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, and brought up in the Ayrshire seaside town of Troon before moving to Glasgow in his teens. Leaving Glasgow High School aged 16, he became a "telephone boy" with the Glasgow Evening Herald, taking down copy from roving correspondents. Borthwick soon moved on to a busier role with the Glasgow Weekly Herald; a publication that employed just five staff to fill 28 pages. He was promoted to writer and editor of the Women's Page, Children's Page, Film Reviews, Readers' Letters and Readers' Queries (often writing the queries too), as well as Crossword Compiler and regular contributor to the front page.
The paper also ran an "Open Air Page", and it was as a result of his involvement with this that Borthwick discovered the city's burgeoning outdoor recreation scene - and a love of rock climbing. "I became an addict," he remembered. "Most of my experiences ended up in the paper and I later used most of this material to write Always a Little Further."
Initially ambitious, Borthwick secured a job as reporter with the Daily Mirror in 1935 but, perhaps pining for the open air of the Highlands, didn't take to the life of a Fleet Street hack. He was not surprised when the Mirror sacked him a year later. It would prove a blessing, encouraging him to move into areas more suited to his easy-going informality, such as radio broadcasting.
While interviewing at the BBC in 1934 Borthwick had casually mentioned to the producer James Fergusson that he had been climbing at the weekend. Intrigued, Fergusson commissioned a 15-minute radio talk on the subject and Borthwick revealed an innate talent for broadcasting. "I saw him in the studio treating the microphone like an old friend, chatting away, waving his arms about, and I knew this was how it was done," said Fergusson admiringly.
Borthwick was modest about his ability to sound friendly and relaxed in an era characterised by starchy formality. "It just seemed the natural way to speak," he said. "I couldn't understand why everybody didn't do it." It was the start of a long association with radio and television; his first broadcast was in 1934 and his last was in 1995.
Other interesting jobs came Borthwick's way, such as running the Press Club for the 1938 Empire Exhibition (during which he was required to perform a radio commentary from the top of the Exhibition Tower during a rainstorm while wearing a top hat and morning coat) but his most exciting and demanding employment arrived with the advent of the Second World War. As an Intelligence Officer assigned to the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, Borthwick was to see more action than most.
Beginning in 1942 at the battle of El Alamein, Borthwick and his fellow Seaforths would eventually travel 3,000 miles across North Africa and Europe. Following the defeat of Rommel, they took part in the conquest of Sicily, helped invade Italy, moved on to the invasion of Normandy and then secured the canal zone of Holland, before their highly mobile war culminated with a series of vicious battles on German soil following the crossing of the Rhine.
Narrowly escaping anti-personnel mines and heavy shelling in North Africa, ambushes by tanks in Sicily, snipers and close-quarter combat in northern Europe, Borthwick appeared to have led a charmed life. But he insisted his most vivid memory had nothing to do with battle, but penetrating enemy lines in Holland without engaging them. Borthwick was tasked with creeping past the Germans' front line in complete darkness, leading 600 men by dead-reckoning navigation and then digging in. "The maps were known to be faulty," he recalled:
Air photos were difficult to memorise. There was a stretch of bog in the middle. When dawn came the Germans found the Seaforths dug in behind them, one and a half miles ahead of where they had any right to be.
Borthwick had pulled off a remarkable piece of navigation, but admitted the responsibility had hung heavy. "I never felt more lonely than I did that night."
A different kind of responsibility was handed to Borthwick just before the cessation of hostilities. The Seaforths' Colonel, John Sym, traded him permission to attend no more parades once shooting had ceased, in return for a battalion history. "I found myself in a position writers dream about," he remembered. "I'd just had the experience of a lifetime, and had six clear months to write it." The result, Sans Peur (1946; taking its title from the Seaforths' motto and subtitled "The History of the 5th (Caithness and Sutherland) Battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders, 1942-1945"), relates the saga of how a group of naïve civilians evolved into an efficient, battle-scarred fighting unit.
When it was republished as Battalion: a British infantry unit's actions from El Alamein to the Elbe, 1942-1945 in 1994, it received glowing reviews, Max Hastings declaring it "outstanding". Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, Battalion has been called "The British Band of Brothers" (a reference to Stephen Ambrose's best-selling 1992 account of the US 506th Airborne Division Regiment's wartime experiences later made into a television series). Borthwick himself simply described the book as "telling what it was like to live in a tightly knit family and fight a war".
Following demobilisation Borthwick felt a need for a change of direction. With his wife, Anne, he left Glasgow for the Isle of Jura in 1945 (so preceding George Orwell to the island by three years). There he pursued a combined broadcasting and smallholding existence, presenting the BBC's Scottish Survey, a series examining the country's assets and liabilities following the war. "I always believed the ideal life was to write a thousand words in the morning and catch a salmon in the afternoon," he said.
The Borthwicks stayed on Jura for seven years before moving to the less wild island of Islay. Journalism took a back seat while Borthwick was co-opted by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnson, to organise a "Festival of Heavy Engineering" at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall as part of Scotland's share of the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. Basil Spence was his architect and, although deemed an architectural and presentational success, the attraction was poorly attended. "No woman on earth would cross the road to a Festival of Heavy Engineering," Borthwick would ruefully observe. It did ensure him appointment as OBE, however.
When television came, Borthwick's broadcasting career appeared to have stalled. "I was a script man in an age of live TV," he explained. But with the invention of the autocue, and the increasing necessity to script complicated documentary features, Borthwick found himself in demand once more. Grampian TV frequently used his services from the 1960s onwards and Borthwick wrote and presented some 150 half-hour shows on an amazingly eclectic range of subjects. "Bonnie Prince Charlie one week, Lola Montez the next and Senator Joe McCarthy to follow - viewers never knew what would happen next!"
The Borthwicks lived for the last 30 years in Ayrshire, finally settling on a hill farm near the village of Barr before living for the last five years in a nursing home at Beith. Asked how he thought he might be remembered, Borthwick modestly said he considered himself as a journeyman writer, "fit to turn out a decent job on most subjects as required". He would be satisfied if people thought, "He never broke a deadline, and was always printable."