Uncommon Places Number Five

Climbing Mount Schiehallion

In January 1945, I became 18 and got my driver’s license. I had been caddying for Dr. Hunt, a well-known lawyer, at the Peterborough-Milton Golf Club since I was 14 and since it was just two miles from my home on my bicycle.  Dr. Hunt was used to having a chauffeur for his Humber Super snipe car and his regular driver, Albert had been drafted into the army and had been killed in a tank fight just as the war was ending.  Petrol was rationed and you could not have your car more than 25 miles from your home unless you were on business, but the doctor very often had court cases in Oakham, the county seat of Rutland and was also a member of near-by Luffenham Heath Golf Club so I got promoted from caddy to chauffer-caddy.  I not only enjoyed driving this fabulous car, I also enjoyed sitting in the back of the court and hearing the doctor in action.  (I once got thrown out for chewing gum).  On week-days, Dr  Hunt could not often find someone to play with and he started letting me play with him, with me sharing his clubs and caddy.  In this way, I started a 70 year love of the game.

Two of the doctor’s weekly foursome at his home club were in the habit of taking their families to Scotland for two weeks each summer and they invited Hunt to go with them. They usually rented cars and did some sight-seeing as well as playing lots of golf and they always stayed at the Hydro Hotel in Pitlochry, Perthshire.  Hunt agreed to go as long as I could drive and caddy for him.  I was not due back at Imperial College, London until mid-September so I agreed to go.  We went by train to  Edinburgh and got a local train to Pitlochry.  One of the families had a son, John, who was my age and we drove the two rental cars.  Petrol was not so strictly rationed in Scotland because they needed the tourists.  The hotel was fun in the evenings because they had a resident instructor for Scottish dancing and they recruited all the younger people, including the staff, for two eight-some reels and many other group dances.

On one of the sight-seeing trips John and I had the urge to climb near-by Mount Schiehallion, a 3,547 foot lone, almost perfectly conical mountain. Its name in Gaelic means, “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” and, because the latitude and longitude lines of Scotland’s boundaries intersected near it, it is also called the, “Center of Scotland.”  The name Schiehallion is used for an oil-field near the Shetland Isles, a brand of whiskey and a Scottish dance.  In 1774, because of its perfect shape, gravitation experiments including the deflection of a pendulum by the mountain , were conducted by the Astronomer-Royal in his quest to calculate the weight of the Earth.I

After a bit of a struggle, we got approval to rent bicycles and plan our trip. The entire hotel got involved and the climbing of Everest could not have been much more involved.  We took off after breakfast with packages of food and water and soon realized the cycle trip was further than we had calculated.  (Actually 22 miles.)  We decided to eat lunch at the foot of the mountain rather than carry it and set off from what looked like a good spot.  There were no tracks of any kind and going was harder than expected because of the heather which was nearly knee-high or higher in places.  The slope was about 30 degrees but in many places, we found we were almost crawling, using our hands to pull us up steeper inclines.  We continually saw what we thought was the top, only to find another hilly slope which again and again fooled us to thinking we were there.  Eventually, after about a dozen false caps, one opened up to an amazing panorama below us.  It was close to 6pm but we sat and reveled in the sight and the lovely cool breeze.  We got a clear view of Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis 80 miles to the north of us and were surprised that it looked so small at 4,416 feet, mainly because it did not stand alone.

Knowing we were late and still had a 20 mile ride, made us want to hurry down, but we were shocked to find the heather equally troublesome on the way down. We were running and jumping and would catch our feet and tumble in the heather.  By the time we got down, and after a scary search in the darkening sky, we found our bikes and headed back to the hotel.  Even this far north it got dark about 9.00 pm and, without lights on a strange road, we rolled into the Hydro Hotel about 10.30, tired and very hungry.  We did not have a happy ending because we were met by two policemen in a car and they were organizing a search for us.  We quickly ate and quietly crept to the elevators and left the stories for the morning.  Dr. Hunt told me the police wanted to charge us until he arranged for the hotel manager to insist that they each take a bottle of Scotch for their trouble.  This was nevertheless one of the most memorable things I have ever done.  Years later, when I made a ‘bucket list’ I already had ‘climb a mountain’ crossed off.

Another memory from that same trip occurred in the middle of the night when the entire hotel was awakened by bag-pipes. We discovered a fat gentleman in pyjamas marching up and down the lawn between the flower beds.  When security got him to pause, we all learned that Japan had just surrendered and World War Two had ended.  It was August 16th, 1945, the day we left for home.   The official (V-J Day was September 3rd when there was a signing ceremony.  V-E Day was on May       8th 1945.)

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