Saturday 7 September 2013

Caleb's List & Arthur's Seat

As usual when visiting Edinburgh for the Festivals last month I took a few hours off from the shows and exhibitions and street theatre to wander over ‘the mountain in the city’, Arthur’s Seat. In previous years I’d just found a way up to the summit, studied the view and the people, then ambled back down admiring the rocks and the plants and the birds and feeling happy to be away from busy streets for a while. Maps and guidebooks weren’t needed or carried. This year was different though. 

One of the books I’d read during my Scottish Watershed walk back in June and July was Caleb’s List by Kellan MacInnes, a book that is part personal story, part history and part a guidebook. It tells the story of mountaineer and geographer Caleb George Cash who, back in the 1890s, published a list of hills visible from Arthur’s Seat, and also has route descriptions for ascending those hills. Interwoven with Caleb’s tale and the guidebook details is the author’s own story and how discovering and climbing the ‘Arthur’s’ as he names Caleb’s hills, has helped him to cope with having AIDS.  The author is unflinching about the latter and there are some graphic and disturbing descriptions of living with this illness.

As well as route information for the hills on Caleb’s List the book has a description of a walk over Arthur’s Seat and I decided to use this on my last ascent, following the description on my tablet. This took me below Salisbury Crags, where some would-be rock climbers were almost getting stuck, and past Hutton’s Section, an important geological site, then up to the crowded summit where it was wonderful to see so many people enjoying the sunshine and the experience of being on a rocky hill. With Caleb’s List to accompany me I learnt much about Arthur’s Seat and its environs – previously all I knew was that it was the remnant of a volcano and was in Edinburgh – and saw parts of the hill I’d not visited before.

Caleb’s List is an excellent book, well worth reading even if you have no intention of climbing the hills described. Caleb Cash himself is an important if neglected figure in the history of the Scottish outdoors and the author’s personal story gives the book an emotional power unusual in a guidebook.

Next month, on the 4th, I’ll be taking part in an event at the Portobello Book Festival in Edinburgh with Kellan MacInnes called ‘Wilderness Writing’. I have no idea how this will go but I am looking forward to meeting the author of Caleb’s List.

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