Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorich

Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorich

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Friday 28 and Saturday 29 January - Winter Words Festival at Pitlochry Festival Theatre: Jim Crumley and Stephen Venables

Ben Vrackie from the theatre car park

Winter Words Festival is one of Scotland's leading book festivals and held every January at The Festival Theatre, Pitlochry. This year two authors on the programme caught our attention -  nature writer Jim Crumley talking about his new book The Last Wolf, and mountaineer Stephen Venables giving a lecture entitled In the Steps of Shackleton.

Pitlochry Festival Thearte - not done justice by this photograph

The Last Wolf
 Note: this is not a book review.

We are both big fans of Jim Crumley's writing and I spotted this book in Bookmark in Grantown-on-Spey last September. So while Lynne, happy that her own book was on display, chatted to the owner, I surreptitiously bought a copy of The Last Wolf  for her and smuggled it out of the shop.

As Crumley said at his excellent talk last Friday, he is unashamedly 'pro-wolf', and the book essentially debunks the myths surrounding this beautiful shy creature which has, since ancient times, been the victim of horrendous black propaganda and slaughter; and he argues the case for the wolf's reintroduction to Scotland citing Yellowstone National Park and Norway as examples of what can be done, and the benefits to an eco-system which has been thrown out of balance by the extirpation of this top predator. Clearly some people will have misgivings about this idea - landowners and farmers particularly - and many are downright hostile but we, like Crumley, are 'unashamedly pro-wolf' and were so before we read his book.

According to Jim Crumley, Scotland could support three, maybe four packs at most (about 30 wolves) and if brought in from a country where their prey had been deer, then that is what they would hunt, this being transferred from generation to generation. Consequently, a healthier deer population would result with enormous benefits to the eco-system. That apart the wolf would, at last, be restored to its natural homeland.

Sadly, we think it unlikely that wolves will be re-introduced to Scotland in our lifetime, but we hope we are wrong. During 'question time', someone in the audience told how she'd had the wonderful experience of coming face to face (20 yards away) with one wolf while walking in Italy recently, and would, she said, be talking about this marvellous encounter for the rest of her life. Who wouldn't?

".......standing as a link to the kinds of mysteries that lie well outside our pipedreams of manipulation and control. Seeing a wolf in the wild can feel like one of the final frontiers of nature - a frontier that can never be possessed" Dougals W. Smith and Gary Ferguson, Decade of the Wolf - Returning the Wild to Yellowstone (2005)

In the Steps of Shackleton

For us, it's nearly a 100 mile round trip from home to the Festival Theatre, but an opportunity to listen to Stephen Venables talk about Shackleton and his own traverse of South Georgia in October 2008 was not to be missed. So, it was back up the A9 to Pitlochry on the Saturday.

The story of Shackleton's 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole is well known. His ship Endurance crushed by the Antarctic ice, Shackleton set off with five companions in a tiny lifeboat in search of help, leaving his crew stranded on Elephant Island. After 800 miles across the Southern Ocean they landed on the south coast of South Georgia and from here, with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, Shackleton crossed (it was by then 1916) the unmapped mountains to finally reach the whaling station at Stromness.

Venables is an excellent, humorous storyteller. Using his own superb photographs and film footage, together with originals taken on the Shackleton expedition* he illustrated that first incredibly dangerous crossing  which he has done twice, once with Reinhold Messner and Conrad Anker in the autumn of 2000 when the route was bare ice, rock and littered with open crevasses.

On his most recent trip to South Georgia in October 2008 he and his party were able to follow the route on skis, hauling and lowering their pulks - one, inevitably, finding its way into a half-concealed crevasse. Of course as Venables pointed out, neither of these trips was a fight for survival - on the first he was making a film and the second was a recreational expedition.

South Georgia is a stunning place so it's no surprise that Venables is hooked - he's off there again in November.

He's on tour with this talk so if he's coming near you, I recommend you go along and listen.

* see: Endurance - The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told - Alfred Lansing (2001 paperback)


  1. Very interesting, Gibson. I seem to remember quite a good TV documentary on Shackleton, but you can't beat a good, illustrated talk from an enthusiast...

  2. Thanks Martin. They were both excellent talks but differing in style. I seem always to be looking at hills you crossed last May, Ben Vrackie being the latest!

  3. I like posts which lead you to further knowledge. I shall read the Last wolf.
    Thanks for that.

  4. Thanks very much Alan. In my view Jim Crumley's book is an important addition to wolf literature, but you'll have guessed that from my post! Hope you enjoy it.

  5. Mucking about with nature seems a dangerous game to me, but your comments are interesting and persuasive.

    Locally The National Trust are felling areas of trees on Arnside Knott to provide more habitat for some butterflies, but I wonder how many other species’ habitats they are destroying? We have seen them laying waste to yew trees which are probably hundreds of years old.

    I immediately thought of one of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosche series called The Last Coyote - far removed from the subject of your post. Connelly writes police thrillers based in Hollywood/LosAngles and they are crammed with apparently authentic and fascinating detail. The Last Coyote actually features in the book - it seems there may still be some left in the hills above Hollywood, and Connelly uses this in a symbolic way.

    Shackleton has always fascinated me and I have often tried to tell the story to people who did not know about it and I admire your concise summary. I will try to find out if the lecture is coming anywhere near to me.

  6. Sir Hugh - if you mean that reintroducing the wolf to Scotland is 'mucking about with nature', I think it's the opposite. Removing the wolf from the environment was mucking about with nature, but our species does this sort thing all the time!

    Your paragraph on habitat is relevant - Smith and Ferguson (Decade of the Wolf) tell how they found that no less than 12 different species fed on prey killed by wolves 'food for the masses they called it'.

    I don't know Connelly's writing but it sounds interesting.

    I hope you manage to hear Stephen Venable's talk.

  7. ''the kinds of mysteries that lie well outside our pipedreams of manipulation and control''.

    indeed! Shall be getting those books. You are lucky to be up there in Scotland. That's my pipedream, to return to where my grandmothers from.

    all the best

  8. Thanks for visiting David. I'm sure you'd enjoy any and all of Jim Crumley's books as well as 'Decade of the Wolf'.

  9. Hi Gibson,
    I have now read the Last Wolf book and it poses some interesting thoughts.
    I for one was not convinced that it was a good idea to release a pack of wolves into Scotland. My thoughts were based on ignorance of the subject. However now, having read the book my opinion has reversed. I think it is worthy of trying.
    I enjoyed the way Jim combined Non Fiction with Fiction. I love the quote that the wolf is a painter of mountains.
    I may be wrong but i got the feeling that Jim does not like walkers very much but i also have a comment i would like your opinion on.
    Jim's passage in the book where the walkers in the white T shirts spooked the herd of deer and sent them running over the bealach. Had me thinking this:- Why would a small quantity of wolf packs change the colour of the glens in such a fantastic way when the thousands of walkers in the Scottish hills must do a far better job of spooking Deer constantly and keeping them on the move. Subsequently allowing flora and fauna to re-establish.
    I'm not sure that wolves could improve this better than it already is.
    Thanks for showing me this book Gibson, i will seek out more of his work.

  10. I’m so glad you enjoyed 'The Last Wolf' and have become a convert Alan!

    I don’t really think that Jim Crumley dislikes climbers and walkers (he has walked extensively in Scotland) and last year gave a talk to The Munro Society. However he does, I think, believe that there are many going to the hills today who are not true lovers of mountains and wild places. In 'The Heart of Skye'for example, “too many people being seen and not seeing, being heard and not hearing, and worst of all, not feeling”. I recommend his 'Among Mountains', 'Among Islands', 'The Heart of Skye' and 'A High and Lonely Place'.

    As for your point regarding hillwalkers moving the deer, I can’t say I’ve noticed this much and I’ve certainly not had the experience Jim Crumley describes. Of course it will happen occasionally, but not enough to make any difference it seems. And it’s also about deer numbers which we have completely failed to manage. The wolf would do both, and far better than we humans could. I'm over simplyfying here, but in Yellowstone it seems it’s the movement and reduction of elk by wolves that’s making the difference, says Doug Smith, along with the fact that wolf-kill provides “food for the masses” which benefits other animals, insects and ultimately plant life. A study in 2007 by Imperial College London also concluded that reintroducing the wolf to the Highlands would significantly benefit the eco-system.

    I’m not a wolf-expert by any means, if there is such a thing except the wolf itself, merely an interested pro-wolf amateur, but I’m certainly persuaded by all the arguments and evidence.

    What I don’t want to see though is what is proposed at Alladale, although I think Lister has dropped his wolves idea, for the moment at least.

    Thanks for taking an interest Alan. Much appreciated.

  11. Hi Gibson,
    Thats a fair point about providing food for the masses. That had slipped my mind.
    When i was on Ben Lawers last summer a very large herd of deer were spooked by walkers and they headed off North towards Glen Lyon crossing Allt a Chobhair as they went. It was a beautiful sight and we sat and watched for a while.
    I will make those books next on my reading list which is growing rapidly.
    I fully agree re Alladale. No fences please.

  12. A great sight! I have seen herds thundering across the hill and it's a wild scene, but I can't recall ever seeing the cause!

    I hope you enjoy the books - for my sake as well as yours - having recommended them to you!

  13. I came across this wonderful wolf video today so just in case you hadn’t seen it i thought i would give you the link.
    Hope you enjoy it.

  14. Many thanks Alan - this is superb and one of the best I've seen. "Stirs the soul" for sure.