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Mountain Writing Competition 2015

Report by Mike Merchant

A landmark? An entry in Scots, and another in Gaelic, gave us poems in all of Scotland's main tongues. Neither was a winner, though C Comerford's So This is the Hill came close.

The winning poem, by a big margin, was Landscape Speaks of Poets by Claire Askew. She wrote it as a response to Norman McCaig's Landscape and I. Said one judge: ‘…[McCaig] who describes the hawk as An empty glove on steep chutes of air would appreciate her flitting like a moth across/the eyelid of my ancient night.' Another: ‘Tight, stark writing that packs a lot into a short poem.' The thing is, climb it are the landscape's opening words. And who would disagree?

Out, Out by Russell Jones took second place. On one level it's a night-time climb towards the promise of the rising sun; but it's shot through with a complicated wildness. ‘Raw, intense and personal', was one comment; ‘obscure, but maybe that's not a fault!' was another.

Tree Line by Marjorie Gill was placed third. The writer opens her blinds, looks out, and beyond the town, the bridge and the woodland sees the only peak still visible. Her longing survey ends with the birds that nest just beyond the trees, asking no pardon for choosing/a life at the edge of wind. One comment: ‘beautiful, complex writing that forces a new perspective on the reader'.

A great favourite with some, though not a winner, was The Midgies of Scotland by Cat Newsheller: Masters of torture, masters of pain… says it all, somehow!

In the prose category, Mountain Avens by Nancy Somerville came first, and broke new ground in quite a few ways. Avril, Miss Cowan, has just retired from nursing-home work, worn out, and still doesn't know many people in the glen. But she does go for walks up the hill, and there she makes a discovery and finds a kinship. A delightfully gentle appreciation of the sort of small thing most would never notice' and ‘original – and touching' were two of the remarks.

Now by Edward Shelley was close behind in second. A stricken climber on the Grandes Jorasses relives episodes in his mountaineering career: hill-running in the Hebrides, being trapped in a cave, stormbound in the CIC hut, stuck on the motorway. ‘Living in the present comes to a nasty end,' one of the judges thought. ‘Taut and vivid writing on the climb, the rockfall, the aftermath' said another.

It was indeed close, so we awarded two second prizes, George Gall's Up the Airy Mountain being the other. Again, something completely different, for the narrator is not a bagger, a guide or a tiger, but a hill shepherd. Seven men, a laddie, and eleven dogs in a short wheelbase Landrover, heading up to the old Devil's Elbow… who couldn't be gripped by that opening? In Glenshee, Tweedsmuir, the Cleish Hills, the Lammermuirs, it's full of revelations about working days in Scotland's high places. And ‘all the different voices we hear are a bonus'.


1st - Landscape Speaks of Poets, by Claire Askew

2nd - Out Out, by Russell Jones

3rd - Tree Line, by Marjorie Gill


1st - Mountain Avens, by Nancy Somerville

2nd = Now, by Edward Shelley

2nd = Up The Airy Mountain, by George Gall

Fraser Bell won the 2013 prose section. He is an architect from Edinburgh who is a keen climber, walker and skier following an introduction to Scottish hills at an early age by his father and grandparents.

Ian Blake, in another life instructor at OBMS Eskdale, Near Eastern archaeologist, lives at Aultgrishan, Wester Ross. He walks the shore and up the cliff every day, totalling some 1400 miles annually - and twice up Everest! A past president of the Clan Mackenzie Society, his fourth collection, Disciplines of War, was published in 2014.

John Donohoe is a past president of the MCofS.

Tommy McManmon is a former winner of the prose section, and was Orange/Scotsman Young Communicator of the Year in 2002. He lived on Knoydart for over 12 years where he worked as a ranger for the Knoydart Foundation (amongst other jobs). He is now studying water and sanitation in the developing world, at Loughborough University.

Tracey S. Rosenberg is an Edinburgh-based poet and novelist. She won the poetry competition in 2013, and her short story May the Bell Be Rung for Harriet won the 2014 Brontë Society Creative Competition and was published in Best British Short Stories 2015. Her second poetry pamphlet, The Naming of Cancer, is published by Neon Books.

Margaret Squires ran The Quarto Bookshop in St. Andrews for many years, has climbed all the Munros, Corbettsand Grahams and is working her way through the Marilyns. Abroad, she has climbed higher in a taxi than she has on foot (Kardong La versus Kalapathar).

Mike Merchant was coordinator for this year's competition, which he won in the prose category in 2009. He struggles to come to terms with completing the Munros in 2014.