Champion of wilderness
Friday 14 July 2006
Thomas Weir, ordnance surveyor, broadcaster, writer and mountaineer: born Glasgow 29 December 1914; MBE 1976; President, Scottish Mountaineering Club 1984-86; married 1959 Rhona Dickson; died Balloch, Dunbartonshire 6 July 2006.
It all started with the Bar-tailed Godwit. My relationship with Tom Weir had an inauspicious beginning. I had been nominated in 1980 as the only Scottish opposition MP to be a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee considering the legislation which was to become the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. In order to get our way on the establishment of Marine Nature Reserves, the late Peter Hardy, Andrew Bennett and I chuntered on and on in the House of Commons, filibustering, on topics such as Halvergate Marshes and the different legal categories of birds under which the Black-tailed Godwit was to be treated differently from the Bar-tailed Godwit.
A letter arrived, one of many from those lobbying the committee. In no uncertain terms, the writer told me that I was a disgrace, "blithering on" about the situation in Norfolk, and asking the local constabulary to be so expert as to differentiate between the criminal offence on molesting a Bar-tailed Godwit and the lack of offence in dealing with a Black-tailed Godwit.
The writer, Tom Weir, well known to me as a much-loved broadcaster, was incensed that I was not paying attention to what he really cared about - the preservation of wilderness and wild places in Scotland. I decided to see him. He was charming and forgiving, but also a great teacher. Few people in the 20th century did more to educate the British population, through books and on television, in the importance of wilderness than did Tom Weir. Never was a lifetime's achievement award from the John Muir Trust more justified than when Weir received it in 2000.
Born in Christmas week 1914, Weir never knew his father, who was killed at Gallipoli. His mother had to earn money as a wagon painter in the Cowlairs locomotive works in Glasgow, while his grandmother looked after him and welcomed him back from Hyde Park Primary School in Springburn. His elder sister, Molly - who was to have a hugely successful career as an actress, memorably as Hazel the McWitch in the 1976-84 children's television show Rentaghost - was a kindly and caring presence.
After a period working in the local grocer's shop, during which he escaped to the Campsie Hills in any time off, he went to work on a farm on the island of Arran. Years later, when we were both involved in the Council of the National Trust for Scotland, he would describe his adventures on the Brodick estate, later to come into the possession of the trust.
Called up in 1939 to join the Ayrshire Yeomanry, he was transferred to the Gunners as part of the Royal Artillery surveyors' unit. On demobilisation he worked as an ordnance surveyor, and then, in 1948, had his first book published, Highland Days. It described the joys of walking and climbing in the Highlands, where he had been stationed for much of the Second World War, before modern roads and electricity had been installed.
Weir was a fund of information about the Highland lochs (the author of the two-volume The Scottish Lochs, 1970-72) and would recount in great detail stories such as the poisoning of members of the laird's picnic party by duck paste in their sandwich lunch on the banks of his beloved Loch Maree. "Always be careful," he would say, "of what you're given in a picnic lunch."
For an astonishing 48 years between 1956 and 2004 Weir contributed an article each month to the Scots Magazine, alerting readers to the landscapes which should be conserved for future generations. But his greatest influence was through television and, from 1976, the STV series Weir's Way, which brought to life not only the walks which he and his devoted partner, Rhona - a primary school headmistress - undertook, but also the many local characters they met.
Weir was an able mountaineer. Geoffrey Bolton, Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University, climbed with Weir in the Ben Nevis range 35 years ago:
I remember he was very precise, beautifully balanced and climbed with greater ease than many, but he used very little physical strength, relying on his balance and grace, and considerable balletic skills. I never felt that he would come off the rock because he always climbed within his capacity.
Weir both climbed and explored in remote areas such as Corsica, Kurdistan, North Africa, northern Turkey and the north of Norway, but his greatest achievement was in the Himalaya.
Before going on an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Nepal, I read Tom Weir's book East of Katmandu (1955). I was not astonished that in Nepal some of those whom we met had read the book and thought that it was one of the best about that country by any Westerner.
In 1993 I was at a reception after giving a lecture in Glasgow, when I was approached by a diminutive elderly man with a prodigious and rather florid nose, and dressed in tweed plus-fours, writes Stephen Venables.
He mentioned rather apologetically that he had once had a look at some mountains in India which I had been climbing the previous year; the inference seemed to be that, in comparison to our 1992 expedition, he had not achieved anything special. It was only after a few minutes that I realized that this tiny, modest man was Tom Weir, one of the members of the famous 1950 Scottish Himalayan Expedition.
The 1950 expedition was led by W.H. Murray, another well-known writer, and it followed partially in the footsteps of a former Scottish pioneer, Tom Longstaff, covering a huge tract of mountain country, much of it previously unexplored, in Kumaon - a region of northern India once wrested by the British from Nepal.
No giant summits were attained, but that wasn't the point. The expedition was primarily a journey of exploration and it showed what four men could achieve, on the slenderest budget, at a time when Britain was still struggling with post-war austerity. Tom Weir and his companions spent nearly three months in the Himalaya, climbing minor peaks, crossing numerous passes, unravelling the secrets of a landscape still unseen by the eye of the satellite camera.
It was a journey of enchantment that ended beneath the glittering pyramid of Panch Chuli II, which Murray described as one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Forty-two years later, inspired by the Scotsmen's tale of adventure, a group of us - Indian and British climbers, led by Harish Kapadia and Chris Bonington - travelled to Kumaon to fill in some of the gaps left by Tom Weir and co.
As with most expeditions, we built on the achievements of others who had been there first.
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