Thursday, 20 December 2012

Caleb's List by Kellan MacInnes: book review

Caleb's List by Kellan MacInnes
Caleb's List by Kellan MacInnes

Caleb's List by Kellan MacInnes (on blogger here and Twitter @KellanMacInnes) is a story with two equally important threads. Firstly, the author is an HIV/AIDS survivor who found the strength to rebuild his life through a love of hillwalking and the outdoors. Secondly, there is The List ... not Munro's List that every Scottish mountaineer is familiar with, but Caleb's List of twenty peaks visible from the top of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh ("The Arthurs"). This book is an enchanting and meaningful blend of these stories. As Kellan climbs the peaks on Caleb's List, we learn about the life of Caleb himself and the deeper truths of the landscape all around.

Caleb Cash was a mountaineer who lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Unlike the upper middle class climbers of the era who had ample leisure time and funds at their disposal, Caleb was a humble geography teacher and therefore his mountaineering exploits tended to be less ambitious. Nevertheless, he was a true lover of the Scottish landscape and an early champion for environmental conservation. Caleb is vividly brought to life and I found it tremendously refreshing for a Scottish mountaineering book to focus on one of the unknown pioneers of the sport. For example, although I am a dedicated student of the history of climbing, I had no idea that Caleb Cash had explored the Cairngorms years before the Scottish Mountaineering Club. He was also a 'keen but appreciative critic' of the Ordnance Survey and pointed out many inaccuracies in the early maps of the Highlands. This man may not be remembered as universally as Sir Hugh Munro, but he certainly made his mark.

The wider historical and cultural context is also explored in a very engaging way, not only in the text itself, but also in the frequent illustrations and diagrams. The author is fascinated by the earliest history of exploration in the Scottish hills. The story takes us back to the Little Ice Age when the mountains were capped with ice throughout the summer. Early mapping, road-building, scientific experiments, and shieling life are all here.

But this is not just a book about hillwalking and history. At its heart this is powerful landscape writing that explores the strong bond between a person and the hills they love. Nature is also a key theme. I detected a clear link to Robert MacFarlane's work, which is really the greatest praise I can give this book; it makes you smell and taste the Highlands.

The author writes with skill and considerable authority. Not only has he climbed every peak on the list (some of them many times during his extensive hillwalking career), he has also made it his business to learn everything that can possibly be learned about Caleb Cash and his world.

If the book has any fault, I would say it does not focus enough on Kellan's own extraordinary journey, which is itself an inspiration. However is not enough to detract from the 5* rating I believe this book wholeheartedly deserves.

This is not a 'ripping yarn' about mountaineering catastrophe; it doesn't feature celebrity climbers, the highest peaks or the hardest climbs; and it certainly is not about breaking records or doing any of the things that commonly make it into contemporary mountaineering books. However, in a quiet, unassuming, and utterly enchanting way, this is one of the best books on the Scottish Highlands I have read in a long time.

You can find the book on Amazon, or direct from the publisher Luath Press.
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