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Mountain Writing Competition 2014

Report by Mike Merchant

It’s a matter of life and death, this mountaineering. That’s what I understood when reviewing the winners in the closely contested Prose category, won by Ian Blake with The Climber’s Tale. It tells how a desperate on-sight solo climb of a mountain crag, survived only thanks to a strange intervention at the crux, is hailed as a first ascent. But things were not as they seemed… “Very well told indeed” sums up what the judges thought. Ian is from near Gairloch, and his fourth poetry collection appeared this year.

Death and Life in the Mountain by Alan Laing took second place. It starts with a scattering of ashes on a Scottish hill, but that is the beginning, rather than the end, of a journey through the life and times of the mountain and its folk. Alan came third in the 2013 competition. The judges praised his “imaginative exploration of the life of a mountain”.

Jim Cassidy’s tale Via Ferrata takes us to Scotland again. His “iron way” is not the sort they have in the Dolomites. Jim, from Airdrie, works as a signalman and had planned a factual article on railway trespass and access – but “somehow it became a short story from the point of view of the trespasser.” “Powerful writing…rings true” said the judges.

Just out of the prize list, the judges enjoyed Pentland Thoughts by Jesse Rivers – “a lyrical stream of consciousness about walking in the hills”. And nobody dies!

The poetry section drew more entrants, at 33 probably the most ever. A winner with an unremarkable title, The Climber by David Wilson, reveals the Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz (1943–92) as she advances to her death on Kanchenjunga in pursuit of the eight-thousanders. In effortless and moving lines, the poem also chronicles her life’s other journey, out of war and through tyranny. David lives in North Yorkshire and has particular fondness for winter mountaineering in Scotland. He’s published one novel and is working on a poetry collection.

With Resurrection 1959, Jack Hastie won second prize for a poem that “creatively captures a rich seam in Scottish climbing history”. We are talking about the working week, then the Loch Lomondside road on a Friday night, and then stepping among the summits “like a risen god”. Jack, a widely experienced walker and scrambler, says the poem “reflects my introduction to the sport by the Lomond MC”.

Alan Laing, the prose second prizewinner above, also took the third prize in poetry with Land of the Mountain and the Flood. It’s about Scotland’s hills, and it’s about rain. The judges said: “amusing, ingenious, swings along … a great rhythm that evokes falling rain”.

Just out of the prize list was The Tarn by Jesse Rivers, a “deceptively complex” poem about a high camp, a solo climb, and a cold plunge.

Thank you to all who entered, and to our competition judges.


1st - The Climber's Tale, by Ian Blake

2nd - Death and Life in the Mountain, by Alan Laing

3rd - Via Ferrata, by Jim Cassidy


1st - The Climber, by David Wilson

2nd Resurrection 1959, by Jack Hastie

3rd - Land of the Mountain and the Flood, by Alan Laing

Fraser Bell won last year’s prose section. He is an architect from Edinburgh who is a keen climber, walker and skiier following an introduction to Scottish hills at an early age by his father and grandparents.

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, as the ranger, postman and many other jobs: now he’s moved to pastures new in the French Alps.

Tom Povey won the prose prize in 2010.

Tracey S. Rosenberg is an Edinburgh-based poet, novelist, and spoken word performer. She won last year’s poetry competition and her second 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, Corbetts and 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.