Syd Scroggie

'Vagabond' mountain walker who made more than 600 ascents despite losing his sight and a leg

Saturday 16 September 2006 00:25

William Sydney Scroggie, hillwalker, writer and poet: born Nelson, British Columbia 1919; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Bridgefoot, Angus 9 September 2006.

The very last scene vouchsafed to the eyes of William Sydney Scroggie was of the planet Venus, bright in the twilight sky above the hills of central Italy. Then a German mine exploded, robbing him of all sight and of the lower part of his right leg.

Syd Scroggie's subsequent recovery and renown as a mountain walker, poet and author, fits well alongside tales, simultaneously inspiring and humbling, of others who have overcome disablement or disease to achieve feats that tax or daunt the able-bodied. Three years ago, for example, a blind man reached the summit of Everest.

However Scroggie did not set out on his hundreds of ascents in the Scottish highlands in order to make a statement, but because he loved the hills and their sense of freedom. He simply wasn't going to let blindness deny him of them. Indeed he contended that the visual aspect was only a tiny part of the experience, one of the "merely physical phenomena", along with croak of the ptarmigan, the scent of heather or the rasp of granite on the fingers - though these he could enjoy with a heightened pleasure.

"What draws you there," he wrote,

is an inner experience, something psychological, something poetic, which perhaps cannot be fully understood when the physical aspect of things gets in the way when you can see.

This may sound a little high-flown when set against an image of the man seated at a summit cairn, shirt off, drinking a can of lager, smoking a cigarette. Scroggie was a good many things that might be thought (erroneously) to be contradictory. Routinely described as "down to earth", he yet taught himself Greek, through Braille, to read Herodotus and Thucydides. And, while much of his poetry has a sensitive beauty, there is also work, as Professor Chris Whatley observed when Dundee University conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, which could not be quoted on such a dignified occasion.

The misfortunes of war twice dictated the course of Syd Scroggie's life. He was born in British Columbia, in 1919, his father having emigrated from Fife to Canada in 1910 and embarked on farming. During the First World War, Austin Scroggie rose to become a decorated lieutenant-colonel, but he died soon afterwards of an old wound and his widow returned to Scotland with her three sons. Young Sydney was sent to John Watson's School in Edinburgh, where he captained the rugby team and set a record for the quarter-mile, later moving on to Harris Academy, Dundee.

On leaving school he was taken on by the Dundee publishers D.C. Thomson and became a sub-editor on The Hotspur - then a story paper; it did not become a comic until 1959. Scroggie's adventures in the hills, his colourful acquaintances such as stalkers and highland bobbies, humour and triumphs over adversity would have fitted well within its pages.

With the Sidlaw Hills behind the city and the Braes of Angus and the Cairngorms beyond, Scroggie took to rambling and rock climbing. Employing the Scots he used to effect in poetry, his self-description was as a hill "gangrel", that is, a tramp or vagabond. He and John Ferguson must certainly have looked the part when, before the Second World War, they cycled and hiked the considerable distance from Dundee to Lochnagar where they almost made the first ascent of the mountain's now-fabled Eagle Ridge.

Lord Byron's lines "Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic! / The steep frowning glories of dark Lochnagar!" encapsulate the atmosphere of the place and the foul weather the Dundee pair encountered. Climbing with a rope more like a washing line, Scroggie was eventually thwarted high on the ridge and abseiled off a peg hastily hammered into a crack. Eagle Ridge was successfully climbed in 1941 and is today regarded as one of the classic routes of the Highlands.

Scroggie recalled the elation of the climb, pushed to the very limit, in his autobiographical work The Cairngorms Scene: and unseen (1989): "The only thing that compares to such moments in rock climbing is the exhilaration of battle in war against an enemy." And after Eagle Ridge that was to come soon enough.

Volunteering at the outbreak of the Second World War, Scroggie saw five years of active service, first in the 7th Cameronians, Scottish Rifles, and for two years as a lieutenant in the élite Lovat Scouts. During training in Canada, he led a team of 35 soldiers up Mount Columbia (12,294ft), the second highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and hitherto unclimbed in winter.

A fortnight before the war's end, up against German Jaeger troops during the last offensive of the Italian campaign, Scroggie stepped on a Schu anti-personnel mine. When he came to, he was sitting in a hole, lights flashing in his head and a red mask blocking his vision. He knew for certain that his sight was gone. He was fitted with an artificial leg at a Naples hospital and eventually transferred to the care of St Dunstan's, a charity that helps service personnel who have lost their sight.

Scroggie was taught how to operate a telephone switchboard and thus was able to get a job on the switchboard at NCR in Dundee, remaining with the company until his retirement in 1975. His first wife, Barbara, who died in 1980, had been a nursing sister at St Dunstan's centre at Ovingdean, Sussex.

Before returning to Dundee, he also spent five terms at New College, Oxford, where, as he put it, he learnt how to read and think. Reading, of course, meant Braille and by this method in 1954 he began teaching himself Greek. He also applied himself to finding a companion who would act as a pair of eyes in the hills. Bob McLean took up the challenge, though Scroggie had only told him the sightless bit of the story. Some while later, as McLean rummaged in their tent for something to use as a pillow, Syd said, "Try this", and handed across the wooden leg he had just taken off.

With the guiding hand of friends like McLean, and later his children and particularly his second wife, Margaret, Scroggie went on to make more than 600 ascents. Margaret saved his life on Carn a'Mhaim in the Cairngorms, flinging herself across his tumbling body. They had been heading for one of Scroggie's favourite places, Corrour bothy, a simple shelter above the Lairig Ghru pass. As much as the hiking it was the companionship in these huddled places, the stories embroidered by a dram or two by a bothy fire, that drew him. He walked with a big stick and frequently with his shirt off to feel the wind and sun on his body.

The blind hillwalker became something of a celebrity in 1964 when he was featured on the popular television shot This is Your Life. His collected poems appeared in 1978 under the title Give Me Hills. And in 1988, somewhat bizarrely, he was branded a subversive by the right-wing Economic League after writing to a newspaper in defence of a friend, the Dundee painter Lex Braes, when Edinburgh District Council raised a brouhaha with its purchase of Braes's portrait of Nelson Mandela.

Scroggie was still heading for the hills as he entered his eighties. In 2000, guided by Margaret, he climbed Balluderon Hill (1,320ft) in the Sidlaws, not far from his home, for the unveiling of a cairn and indicator placed on the summit in tribute to his achievements. A year later Dundee University awarded an honorary doctorate to the "remarkable vagabond".

Stephen Goodwin

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