Fire Stories - 2

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Jock Nimlin (1908 - 1988)

Jock Nimlin was a pioneering climber of the 1920s and 30s and was a legend amongst working-class climbers.  He was the founder of the original Ptarmigan Mountaineering Club in 1929 at the Craigallian Fire.  He was a 'hammerhead-crane' (150' tower-crane) driver with Harland and Wolff in the Clyde shipyards for 30 years then became the first Field Officer for the National Trust for Scotland in 1963 and started the development which led to the present-day Ranger system.  Though he left formal education at the age of 14, he was a gifted communicator whether in a bothy, on radio, TV or in print.  He was also a lapidarist and authority on Scottish gemstones.

Jock reminisced about the Fire in his article ‘May The Fire Be Always Lit’ which he wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal Vol 27 No. 154 in 1963:

‘……One day on Ben Lomond we were to meet a wider destiny in an encounter with two climbers who called themselves the ‘Craigallian Boys'.   We returned with our acquaintances to Balmaha and took a bus to the Halfway House on the Stockiemuir, whence we tramped over a wooded hill in the gathering dusk to a large fire by the path overlooking Craigallian Loch.   The firelight played on a ring of faces; a gallon-size community tea-can bubbled between the logs.  Someone threw a handful of tea into the can and pointedly remarked at the newcomers that the can had been a Rodine [rat poison] container.   We were not impressed, we used the Rodine half-gallon size ourselves, and we confidently dipped our mugs into the cauldron.   Thus we joined the Boys, and the Boys joined us.   They represented, rather vaguely, organisation, and we in a relative way represented experience.

The Fire and the people who were drawn into its glow could provide a long tale.   The setting, the wooded hollow with its ranks of varied trees reflecting the changing colours of the year on the sheltered loch, and the double echo, sensitive to the lightest bird-call, epitomised the wonder of the wide Scottish landscapes beyond the treetops.   Established some time earlier, the Fire had become a magnet for all the outdoor types escaping from the smoke and grime of the Clyde basin. Already it had a mystique, a glow which drew the cauldrife into community, and the other fires which were soon to glow in the woods and howffs of the Highlands were projections of this parent; shrines of the heat-worshippers.   There was a fire-chant based on the old hymn Rock of Ages:—

Long may old Craigallian woods
Send forth abundance of their goods;
May the fire be always lit
So that we may come and sit.

The songs that followed this invocation were on an abysmally lower level.  

In time the faces became names.   Christian names, nicknames, but rarely surnames.   Through the years came a great roll of names, some forgotten, some unforgettable.   Starry [Willie Boyd], Bones, Sparrow, Peaheid, Scrubbernut, where are you now?   Simple-lifers.   Not for them the Ramblers’ Federation and the Youth Hostels.   Under the wide and starry sky.  There’s a wind on the heath, Brother.   We quoted Stevenson and Borrow at length.   We had an analytical appreciation of Stevenson’s Night Under the Stars, which expresses the very essence of sleeping out.   Only the aboriginals lived a simpler life than we...’

......Time went on, and the Ptarmigan [Mountaineering Club] became a memory.  The Craigallian fire had also faded through the efforts of the landowner who now declined to share the goods of Craigallian Woods.  But some years later a circular went out calling for a reunion of the Old Craigallian Boys.  The gathering, in a Glasgow tavern, was well attended.  The Fire-chant and the old songs rang in the rafters, but this was a poor substitute for the tang of wood-smoke, the trees and echoes of Craigallian, and it was therewith decided to hold a one-night revival of the Fire itself.  It was further decided that in the event of police action instigated by the landowner, a defence fund would be set up for any members falling into the clutches of the Law.  And the Law made its swoop.  The firelight flashed on badges.  The mob darted into the night like minnows before a pike.  Only two men - the ones with the best seats - were captured.  The defence organisation started its cash-gathering; no easy task in the Thirties.  Then came the shock headline in the Daily Express: ‘Climber Calls Magistrate A Tinpot Mussolini! Case Adjourned.’  Consternation among the collectors.  This comment, which might normally have placed the said climber on a pinnacle much higher than that celebrated obelisk in Skye, had to be viewed in the hard light of economics.  An order went out, open to interpretation as a request, a command or a threat: Be good to the magistrate.  The magistrate won in Round Two.  That was the last attempt to revive the Fire.  To-day, by Craigallian, one cannot find as much as a fire-blackened stone.  The echo will never return the sound of camp-fire song, and perhaps the magic of the place is only for those who can see it as it was crystallised in the hungry, receptive eyes of youth......."

You can see Jock and Bob Grieve talking to Tom Weir about the Craigallian Fire and the early days of the outdoor movement in the following episode of Weir's Way - "Wind, Water & Fire" - start at about 7 minutes in....

........later in the mid-1980s, Jock talked about the Craigallian Fire to Jimmy MacGregor in a BBC TV programme "The West Highland Way":

"......You had all kinds of meetings around the Fire, all kinds of discussions.  Occasionally, you'd get people with a bee in their bonnet.  We used to have a chemist who came out regularly and I think he had a high degree in Chemistry and he used to tell us about the atom, long before the atom bomb....."

When asked whether it was true that the Fire was never allowed to die over a period of years, Jock replied:

"No, I wouldn't say so.  You never had enough people who were truly unemployed to keep the Fire going.  And, also, on a wild stormy night with the wind howling up through the glen here, I don't think you'd have had any volunteers to keep the Fire going!"

To a question whether it was a focal point for all the emerging outdoor types of that time, he replied:

".....That was the thing about it - people came out here and, sitting round the Fire, they heard tales told by people who were climbing like myself, who were sleeping in other places up in the Highlands and, of course, the idea spread...." (end of interview)

Tom Weir (1914 - 2006)

Tom WeirBorn in Springburn, Glasgow, Tom was one of the pioneer working class Scottish climbers who was inspired by the views of mountains from the high points in Glasgow to become one of Scotland's best-known and loved outdoor men with his trademark 'wooly bunnet'.   He was a hill tramper, rock climber, explorer, wildlife expert, writer, broadcaster and outstanding photographer.

He climbed all over Scotland and in Europe, particularly Norway, and was part of the Scottish Himalayan Expedition of 1952 with WH Murray.   For over a half a century he contributed a popular and wide ranging monthly column to 'The Scots Magazine' and also presented the television programme 'Weir’s Way' for over a decade.   He was a vice-president of the Scottish Rights of Way Society, an executive member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club from 1984 to 1986, and was a campaigner for National Parks.   In 1976 he was awarded an MBE and, later, became the first recipient of the John Muir Lifetime Achievement Award.

His wife Rhona recounted that Tom went to the Craigallian Fire several times as a schoolboy. He said that there were many Communists and outdoor types there. He found the conversations very interesting and learned a lot from them, though he didn't take any active part being a schoolboy........

Tom described the Fire in his book ' Tom Weir's Scotland':   "The outdoor men of that time tended to gravitate to the Craigallian fire, a howff near Milngavie, in a hollow by the loch encircled by pinewoods and backed by the steep front of the Campsies.   Here, only 10 miles from Glasgow, was a crossroads of adventurers."  He also quoted an extract about the Fire from the diary of his closest and lifelong friend Matt Forrester:  "Coming along the track of a winter's evening, the glow of light and the merry shouts of laughter brought joy to the heart.  One could always be assured of company there, good company, and pleasant tales of the countryside".

Later, in a BBC Radio programme about the Creagh Dhu, he talked about the Fire.   

In his book, he finished his description of the Fire by writing:   "Alas, the popularity of something which had become known as 'hiking' put an end to Craigallian.   The fire was banned because of litter-louts and despoilers.   Notice boards went up, and traditional routes to the Campsies were closed.   But the true outdoor men knew the ways around these obstacles. They met in caves and 'dosses'…………."

David McLure McConnell (1914 - 1951)
David McConnell

David McConnell ('Connie') was born in Dennistoun, Glasgow in 1914 and became a textile engineer with Wolseley.   At the age of 15, he and his friends 'The Good Companions' began their stravaigings in the outdoors via Milngavie on the well-worn route through Craigallian and Carbeth to the Trossachs, Loch Lomond and the wild places beyond.    A staunch Socialist and member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and, later, the Young Communist League (YCL) he applied to join the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War.   Due to a hitherto unknown heart problem caused by a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, he failed the medical but, nevertheless, was accepted due to the intercession of a family friend Harry Pollitt who just happened to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party at that time!

After a gruelling journey, he nearly made it to Spain in 1936/7 but was arrested by the French as he was crossing the Pyrenees; imprisoned for a short period then forcibly repatriated to Britain with a warning never to return !   Apparently, most of his contemporaries in the Battalion who made it to Spain were either killed or simply disappeared…. During the Second World War, he worked on fibre-optic projects with Barr & Stroud, the optical engineering firm where he was also a shop steward.

The following excerpt from his well-documented journals of 1929 to 1934 is probably one of the best contemporary descriptions of the Craigallian Fire – one of his poems about the local area is also included (all by kind permission of his daughter Maureen Oldham):

20th November 1931

It will be a surprise to many of you dear readers to learn that there are many hikers still on the roads even in this wet and foggy weather.   The hiker is too often thought of as per well-known cartoons and caricatures i.e. with rucsac on back, pipe in mouth and with a cake of chocolate enwrapped in many folds of silver paper peeping from the shirt pocket, sitting under a shady tree with the 'only' girl by his side and surrounded by a kaleidoscopic mass of miscellaneous litter, or as per letters of disgust to be seen daily in the Press by "Irate farmer", "Aunt Dora" and "Rev. Spoilsport" etc ; therefore it will most certainly surprise many to know that there are real lovers of the open road who are out summer and winter and who never carry tents nor sleep in hotels or hostels .
      Whether this is common only to Glasgow I cannot say, but it is a fact that every weekend there are hikers who sleep in barns, sheds and shelters of every and any description with or without the owner's permission.   These spartans take pride in their hardiness and love of countryside and one member of the Ptarmigan Mountaineering Club [Jock Nimlin] has a unique record of not having missed one weekend out-of-doors for seven years even to the extent of going out on Saturday and dossing someplace and then returning Sunday morning to catch an excursion train when bent on a day's climbing in the Highlands.   It may be called crankiness and faddism but this outdoor life has a great hold on one and becomes almost a religion.
     Now these weekenders, as they call themselves, congregate at Craigallian Loch near Milngavie and there decide on routes for the weekend and 'doss-houses' for the night and return on Sunday and relate their experiences.   The fire is seemingly ever-burning and the drum of tea is always ready for the returning hiker.   The fire is at its best in the winter-time, for then in the darkness it shines forth like a beacon and cheers the lagging footsteps and lights up the cheery, smiling faces of the healthy hikers around it. In summer-time it is lit all weekend from Friday night to Monday morning – frequently during the week too – when enthusiasts may be seen debating politics and discussing dole cuts, doss-houses, dinners (hikers') and dress (hikers') etc.
     The fire has its veterans too, a few having visited this fire for 15 years. Truly it's a grand institution, worthy of descendants of the Highlander of olden times – Lang May It Reek !

 "It's not a Palace..."

There is a glen I know full well
There does my shanty rest
It lies among the rolling hills
Where the sun sinks in the west

By Allenderbrig, Craigallian's loch
By Carbeth down the Cuilt
Full merrily we jog along
The Road that leads to Dualt

There every week we make a fire
Boil up a can for tea
Of jokes and tales we never tire
This is the life for me!

Below the fall there is a pool
And there we often fish
The glen it is of beauty full
With everything you wish


Not faraway the Campsies rise
Their grassy slopes display
And there beneath the purple skies
We love to pass the day

At Jenny's Lum we love to climb
Straight up the rock wall
With rope and rucsac pass the time
In scaling Harper's Fall

And oft we hike to the Trossachs fair
Past Gartmore and Aberfoyle
On past Loch Ard to Stronachlachar
Then up the ben to toil

Now all these charming bens
A man can reach, be he rich or poor
And the road to them is the Stockiemuir.

(DMMc 1933 aged 19)

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