Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Mu dheireadh de na fir beinne

The Strath of Glencoe and neighbouring Glen Etive has many legends stretching back into ancient history. From Irish/Scots and bardic legends such as Deirdre and Naoise through to Clan battles, massacres and folk of fame and authorship.

Such ancient legends are incomparable with the people who have made the Glen their home and hefted themselves and families to these hills and Glens in modern times. Many of these were shepherds trying to make a living from an austere and difficult landscape.  Sheep were not the highlanders friend in bygone days. But the sheep soon became a big part of the highland economy, and the folk who tended them hardy souls, and by necessity damn good mountaineers. Through this they became the very backbone of early rescue from the mountains and later formative in the creation of Scottish mountain rescue teams. Along with fellow men and women from the estates the contribution of these families to this way of life and especially to mountain rescue should not be overlooked.

Sadly Glencoe lost the last of these hill men this week when Walter Elliot passed away.  Vicki Sutherland wife of Alastair current Chairman of Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council summed Walter and the Elliot's very well in a community Facebook post:

"Our neighbour up the Glen, and Alisters childhood friend Walter Elliot passed away on the 11th July in his 91st year. Walter died in the small white cottage in the heart of Glencoe where he and his 5 siblings were all born. Their parents moved to Glencoe from Luibeilt which lies between Corrour and Glen Nevis in 1922. Their Father Wattie Elliot was a Shepherd and Stalker and long before any formal Mountain Rescue Team was formed rescued people off the hills in Glencoe. Both his sons, Willie and Walter were members of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team first formed by Hamish MacInnes. Walter, also a shepherd and stalker was awarded an MBE for his services to the Mountain Rescue. Walter & Willie, both unmarried lived at Ach-na-Beithe with their sister Doris. Hogmanay at the Elliot's was the traditional place for all in the Glen to bring in the New Year, The tiny low ceiling rooms were packed to bursting and Doris provide a spread of Venison sandwiches and Clootie dumpling and the whisky flowed! The Glen will not seem the same with the death of the last of the Elliots at Ach-na-Beithe and we will mourn the passing of the old way of life and the "craic" that was always to be found there"

Its hard to sum up a family that was not only in the heart of the glen but its beating heart. The epitome of Highland hospitality and the very spirit of mountain rescue in early mountaineering's heyday in Glencoe. Walter Senior was part of an ad hoc shepherd group along with the other local keepers helped on occasion by the Scottish mountaineering club (summoned by a telegram sent to the SMC clubrooms) who undertook long epic rescues. One in particular taking a couple of days on Stob Coire nam Beith for a rock climber with a broken leg as the telegram was missed by a day because no one was at the club room to receive it. The chap survived! Undermanned, with poor equipment but a blithe spirit in often trying conditions it was to this the two young Elliot boys served an apprenticeship as shepherds and rescuers, later being the very foundation of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. The respect shown to the family by team leaders past and present such as Hamish MacInnes, John Greive and Andy Nelson, and from the teams members was always evident, and the Elliot's wise counsel often sought on a difficult rescue where a shepherds knowledge of the terrain got the team down on an path to safer easier passage, or their keen eye spotted a car parked up too long, or maybe a strange light, over the years saving dozens of lives. If parked up at Achnambeithach the rescue team was never short of a cup of tea or a venison piece if Willy had been stalking. New year was not complete without a visit to Achnambeithach, and the cottage itself has witnessed many dramas, such as the man laid out in the Sunday parlour dead after his recovery from the mountains by old Walter and helpers. The Stramash when he unthawed alive as he was obviously hypothermic is the stuff of legend. All those needing help were taken in and while a family member such as Doris was calling out the team many poor souls had an ear and tea while help was on its way.

The family were good to me as daft young man. Walter himself leading the way when I myself was rescued as a teenager with some friends. I was fortunate to have been on many rescues with Walter. He was a great hill man with an intimate knowledge of Glencoe and a really good mountaineer. Anyone who has helped gather sheep from Glencoe and Glen Etive will be aware that you need a good head for heights and be damn good on your feet. So its very sad that the last of the Glen's, and perhaps its greatest shepherd mountaineer, has gone. It is the end of an era both literally and figuratively, my few words just cannot do justice to that passing.

Below are a few pictures of some of the shepherds, all of whom were rescuers and folk who loved the mountains. Truly the passing of legends and end of an era.

Alastair MacDonald top left and his search dog Roy. Alastair was shepherd in Glen Etive and the Buachaille and worked closely with the Glencoe shepherds at clipping and gathering times.

Taking the stretcher upfront  local shepherd Alan Findlay son of long time rescue team stalwart and Achtriochtan Shepherd Huan Findlay

Picture left Huan Findlay and right Peter Weir. A shepherd and Forest worker doing the stretcher graft. 

An Achtriochtan shepherd in more recent times, Sandy Watson

2nd from left Willie Elliot accompanied on his left by rescue stalwart Wull Thompson and right by Sandy Whelan's.  Also well known guide Jeff Arkless, husband of Brede Arkless the UK's first female guide.

Sandy Macewan Gleann leac na Muidh Shepherd and nephew of the Elliots

Walter Elliot on the left and Alan Findlay right digging out a deeply buried avalanche victim

Top right Walter Elliot senior on a rescue from the Coire Gabhail circa 1930's

Walter Elliot Jnr on the right digging out an avalanche victim. Midnight Hogmanay 1980 Creise

Willie Elliot going to be spy in the sky on Rescue 134 with John Anderson 1978

During the 1960's and early 70's many MRT's became "special constables" to gain insurance cover. Above are a mix of Oban and Glencoe rescuers from "Y" Division Argyll.  When GMRT was able to get its own insurance cover folk quickly left the "Y Fronts".  To be fair "Y" Division exerted no influence and left local MRT's to it, and the policemen who came out were terrified. The exception was Sandy Whelan's who both as an ex RM Commando and local bobby on the beat was himself a mountaineer. 

An early rescue of a fatal avalanche victim circa 1957 from opposite the Elliot's cottage up in a gully just West of the AER decent path to Clachaig road end. The young Elliot brothers would no doubt have been in there digging.

The highlighted links "Strange Light" and "rescued as a teenager" are to another couple of tales.