Small but beautifully formed

How do you become a tour guide? Day tours and multi-day tours. Tours all over Scotland, covering large parts of the country. Getting to know wonderful people from all over the world.

Trying to paint the same picture of Scotland that my Dad painted for me, has always been my aim. Hoping some of the memories live on after my guests have left these shores.

Travellers who visit Scotland all have very different needs and wants. Private, bespoke tours, whisky tours, Castles, battle sites, William Wallace, Highland Clans, Tartan etc.

A mixture of all of the above?

Most of all, a fantastic day out. Sitting back and watching the world go by or exploring the remote Scottish countryside.

Remembering dates, folklore, trying to capture a Scotland, certainly not taught when I attended school, can be daunting on your first tour. I remember mine well.

Every Tour guide has a tale to tell of how they ended up in this incredible job. I have one too and mine starts with my Father, Dr Rennie McOwan.

Mountaineer, author, broadcaster, poet, access campaigner and a true son of Scotland.

From my earliest memories of camping out on the hilltops of the Scottish mountains with my Dad (with no tent I might add) to the long family hikes in the snow. The car journeys heading North on family holidays, watching Dad on TV or hearing his typewriter from the end of our street sounding like some old printing press rather a man, fingers a blur meeting newspaper deadlines or trying to keep the flow and passion in a new chapter of the latest book.

My father’s passion came in part, at an early age, from epic tales of this own Grandfather and Great grandfather, legendary Highland Stalkers ‘Old’ Donald Ross and his son Johnnie Ross.

The article below is from the book “The best of Scotland on Sunday” An annual publication of the best of that particular Sunday Newspapers features from the year past.

 Small but beautifully formed (January 28,1990)

     Rennie McOwan

Sometimes hill gangrels argue about which hill is the most northerly on the mainland. The Munro-baggers have a clear cut case: Ben Hope, above Strath More,is clearly the most Northerly Munro, followed by Ben Kilbreck (pronounced kee-bree) and both can be reached via the A836 Lairg and Tongue road in Sutherland.

I once participated in a lighthearted discussion at Cape Wrath over whether a nearby swelling constituted a hill, but aesthetically one of the most northerly mountains of stature is surely Morven in Caithness. At 2313 feet it  is not big and for those who love categories it is not even a Corbett (2500 feet needed), but it is very big when seen from the terrain where is belongs- the flat lands of Caithness, the rolling brown moors besprinkled with lochans, the small fields, with their ‘fences’ of Caithness slab, the big skies, the little fishing villages that have known other, more prosperous  times and the many ruined houses, relics of changing patterns and enforced eviction.

The expansionist Norsemen gave us the name Sutherland, their south land, and Caithness derives from old Norse, Katanes, the naze or nose of the Land of the Cat, from the Gaelic Cattey or Cattadh.

When they looked south across the flat lands, they saw a blocking wall of mountains, which forced the trade routes, as they still do, down the eastern coast.

Morven takes its name from the Gaelic for big or great mountain and it dominates this area, has magnificent views over wide moorland and wild glens and is flanked to the west by the long cut of the Strath of Kildonan. Two lovely rivers, the Berriedale and Langwell, flank it on the north and south.

Here I have to declare an interest,. My mother was born at Langwell and my Grandfather, Johnnie Ross, and my great-grandfather, old Donald Ross, were stalkers on the Duke of Portlands estate. Donald Ross was known all over the northern counties as a head stalker of great experience, a man who thought nothing of using his tongue on guests who would not accept his instructions and a friend as well as an employee, of the Duke.

Donald Ross once threatened a guest with a gralloching knife after he had called him a fool. The guest demanded that he be sacked, but it was the guest that left that night. He also had a fight with the French chef and sat on his head and shouted “Waterloo! Waterloo!” The Duchess wanted Donald sacked. The Chef left. Donald stayed.

Guests in Whites Club in London crowded to the window to watch him walking down the street, wearing plus-fours and carry a crook and saying “good morning” to everyone he met, in the same manner as Crocodile Dundee in New York.

His son, Johnnie, contracted tuberculosis in the days before it could be cured and the Duke sent him to Rhodesia to start a tobacco farm in the hope that the climate would cure him, but he died there.

Granny Ross must have had a big heart to travel there by ox wagon, found a home and with the only other male her eldest son, then aged 14. My mother said she sometimes wept thinking of the chuckle of the Caithness burns and she longed for the feel of rain on her face. But she returned to Scotland and died here after a long life.

Morven is special to Caithness people and so are its neighbours, the long ridge of Scaraben and the sharp pointed, lovely, small peak, the maiden pap. Morven is a landmark to sailors and a weather barometer for local people.

Caithness people of my mothers generation, such as author Neil Gunn, took pride in local people ‘getting on’. I read in an old history that seven distinguished Edinburgh Caithness students early last century had formed themselves into a kind of self help band which they called the Corriechoich Brotherhood, named after a bothy and part of the glen on the Braemore side of the mountain.

The modern landowners of the Wellbeck Estates,now have a popular gardening centre at Langwell and water from the hill burns is bottled, canned and exported,surely one of the most cost-effective businesses in Scotland.

The estate prefers hillwalkers to climb Morven from the northern, Braemore side where a minor road runs west from Dunbeath.Cars must be left beside the phone box at Braemore Lodge(checks are requested during stalking) A track leads to Corriechoich, from where the mountain can be gained over rough ground. The southern route up the beautiful Langwell Glen is also very attractive and both glens have produced poetry, and songs of praise from Caithness people.

Morven cannot be put into a mathematical category. Like Bennachie in the northeast or Dunchuach at Inveraray it has a special character for local people, but it’s the size, stature, setting, history, and vistas that make it its name truly appropriate, the Great Mountian.

Rennie McOwan 1933-2018