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Mountain Writing Competition 2016

Report by Mike Merchant

Two waymarks this year. In poetry, we welcomed one Gaelic entry in 2015; now we have a prize-winner in that tongue, acclaimed in both its Gaelic and English versions. As for prose – bothies are a staple of Scottish mountain writing, but who would have bet on bothy tales taking three out of four prizes?

A clear prose section winner, Vera Fletcher’s Bothy recounts a couple’s walking trip which ends – let us say – disturbingly. As one judge put it, the “passive, unemotional narrator” only drives home its unnerving nature. Another said “economical in the telling, sinister in the unfolding”.

That bothy is unnamed. Brendan Hughes’ In the Cold Locker is set in the Hutchie Hut, and then in Luibeg, in a year when temperatures really did fall to -27.2°C. You expect a hard-man story to start with, but you get much more: the indifferent majesty of the natural world, and the shadow of war.

That shadow falls harder on The Bothy King by John Coughlan. It’s set in Coiremor below Seana Braigh. The pals’ walk in, and then up the hill, is a fine entertaining tale. Their harrowing encounter with the place’s other occupant is something else; and sad to say it rings true.

Alan Laing, a serial prize-winner, takes us to the world of mountain rescue with his third-equal story The Last Call-out. An MRT veteran tells a young boy about the aftermath of one hill tragedy, which mysteriously bears on what threatens to be a much worse one. WH Murray’s line about “The evidence of things not seen” comes strongly to mind.

There was a tie for first place in poetrty. Roderick Manson’s The Coffin Road tells of someone’s last journey to a resting-place by the Isla. “A beautiful, moving, well-crafted poem”; “the words ‘passing’ and ‘crossing’ used to great effect”; and “fine synthesis of landscape, ritual, emotion” were some of the comments.

“Anyone who loves hills and mountains would relate to it,” said one judge of Ellie Danaks’ first-equal poem Why You Go Hillwalking. Others thought it “a poem that stays with the reader”; and praised the freshness of lines like “…strange gifts from glens licked flat/by glaciers”.

In second place, Death of a Climber by Catriona Malan has a familiar sounding title, but an original and skilful working out. It was admired for fine, well-disciplined writing; for conveying deep feeling without being mawkish; and for giving the mountain itself a human aspect. And it scans; and it rhymes.

Kate Langhorne wrote Moladh / A Praise in Gaelic and in English. It’s a poem about an important quest: the writer’s vow “I will know my land yet / Through the eyes of the Gael”. Comments included: “magical appreciation of how those who are born in a landscape become part of it”; “memorable, gutsy, strewn with arresting and sometimes violent images”.

This is a feast of writing, some of it by people who have had little or no work published. One judge said: “It brought home to me just how important the Scottish hills are to people – there was incredible depth of feeling.” Think about taking part next year.


1st = The Coffin Road, by Roderick Manson

1st = Why You Go Hillwalking, by Ellie Danak

2 - Death of a Climber, by Catriona Malan

3 - Moladh/A Praise, by Kate Langhorne


1 - Bothy, by Vera Fletcher

2 - In the Cold Locker, by Brendan Hughes

3 = The Bothy King, by John Coughlan

3 = The Last Call-out, by Alan Laing

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. His The Climber’s Tale won the prose competition in 2014. 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 Mountaineering Scotland.

Tommy McManmon, a former winner of the prose section, lived and worked on Knoydart for over 12 years. He’s just completed a Masters degree with the Water, Engineering and Development Centre in Loughborough, and intends to return to Scotland.

Mike Merchant was coordinator for this year’s competition, which he won in the prose category in 2009.

Louise Peterkin is an Edinburgh poet whose work has appeared in New Writing Scotland and The Dark Horse amongst others. She received the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award 2016 for poetry. She works for the University of Edinburgh Library.

Nancy Somerville, a Glaswegian who lives on the Isle of Mull, won the prose section of the 2015 competition with her story Mountain Avens. Her poetry collection Waiting for Zebras was published by Red Squirrel Press (Scotland) in 2008.

David Wilson won the poetry prize in 2014 with The Climber. David’s an active hill-walker and mountaineer and has recently had Slope, his collection of mountain poems, published by Smith/Doorstop.

Maoilios Caimbeul, Gaelic poet and novelist, kindly read Moladh/A Praise for us in Gaelic and English. Maoilios’ website is at maoilioscaimbeul.co.uk.