Reading Hamish Macdonell’s thoughts on the decline of a once-common form of headwear set me thinking, given that the Road from Balaklava is one that I, like many other hillgoers, have travelled.
The balaclavas (balaclavi?) that seemed near-ubiquitous when I started climbing hills in the early 1980s were hellish itchy. Made from coarse wiry wool, they were undoubtedly warm, but wont to induce eczema-type ailments on the lower face and neck. One of my first hill companions, a dapper Church of Scotland minister named Alastair Lamont, asked his family for a birthday present of a high-quality (and high-price) silk underbalaclava, mail-order from some exotic overseas supplier, specifically to offset the corrosive nature of his standard woollen one.
A thick, bright-red, bebobbled balaclava was part of my hill kit when I started venturing out, as were various other standard items of the time – the Peter Storm cagoule and overtrousers (basically a pair of blue plastic bags equipped with limb-holes), tweed breeches (actually, I bought a pair of full-length tweed trousers, again very itchy), and some short-but-thick outer socks to be worn over the fancier loopstitch ones.
The wearing of double socks, like the balaclava, like the comedy tweeds, like the ultra-basic cag, might have faded away, but only three decades ago it was very much the done thing – to the extent that gruff old-timers met halfway up some corrie would express disapproval if they noticed any attempt to modernise these standard items of apparel.
Working out what not to wear is one of the key early aspects of an outdoors career, and there are parallels with deciding what is and isn’t a dietary essential on the hill.
My first Munro – Lochnagar on a hot day in the summer of 1982 with the aforementioned Reverend Lamont – saw an entirely bespoke attempt at solving the nourishment problem. For reasons that now escape me, but which must have made perfect sense at the time, I climbed the grandest hill on south Deeside armed with 24 salmon sandwiches and a six-pack of Tennent’s Special.
While that one day got the really inappropriate foodstuffs out of my system, so to speak, it merely prompted a switch to cheddar-and-chutney sandwiches and Mars Bars. These, again, accorded with the received wisdom of the time, and being young and stupid I went along with the idea – despite not really liking either item.
Cheddar was fine when toasted at home, but unpleasantly chewy after a saliva-reducing slog up some hillslope, smears of chutney notwithstanding. The Mars Bar seemed actively unpleasant and even dangerous: there was a real risk of losing teeth, given that the chocolate-and-caramel became a gooey mess in summer and a brick-hard block in winter. There were only two weekends each year, one in spring, one in autumn, when a Mars Bar was safe to eat.
I even tried Kendal Mint Cake – there’s nothing like playing up to the hillwalker-rambler stereotype – but that was unspeakably worse. You might as well cut out the hillwalk and drive straight to the dentist.
As with the clothing, it took a few years to establish what worked better on the food front – and, more to the point, what I actually liked. A moment of enlightenment came during my Glasgow years, while living in one of the heavily Asian parts of town. I suddenly twigged that the humble vegetable samosa was near-perfect hill food: self-contained, tasty, and decidedly cockle-warming when one was wedged in behind a windy summit cairn. The only downside was fragility: if you sat on your rucksack, you ended up with peas and flaky pastry everywhere.
The samosa remains my preferred hill snack (accompanied by a tin of fish, a flapjack and a banana), but I’ve had to adapt since moving to a part of the country where good subcontinental food isn’t so readily available as in Pollokshields. And, oddly, I’ve gone back to cheese – none of that dry cheddary stuff, but Stilton-and-lettuce in a wholemeal roll, mmm. What I haven’t tried again, however – and I can’t say I’m tempted – is the salmon-and-Tennent’s combo.
Anyway, back to the headwear. In due course I ditched the balaclava and experimented with a variety of millinery options. These were many and varied, to the extent that a friend named Jan came out with a line that another of my hill companions still gleefully repeats to this day: “He has a hat for every occasion, and all of them silly.”
Being bearded did away with half the need for a balaclava – plus beard-on-balaclava scraping makes a hair shirt seem cosy. Wearing specs also brought a gradual realisation that some form of peak was useful when rain was falling, especially given that wired cagoule hoods never do whatever job it was they were designed for.
For a couple of years at the start of the 1990s I was fond of a strange peaked woollen bunnet that made me look like a jockey out on some particularly chilly gallops. Quite where that came from is a mystery – probably found lying on some hillslope, given that a decent majority of my hats and gloves have arrived that way. But it was replaced by a simple if silly-looking combination of baseball cap with, if temperature or wind-speed demanded, a woolly or synthetic-thermal hat shoved on top.
This mix’n’match approach remains my chosen style when out on the slopes, and has been known to extend to cap, two woolly hats and ski goggles, all worn simultaneously. I really don’t care what I look like when I’m not jostling in the street.
So if you ever see a tall beardie bloke dressed like that on the Ochils or one of the southern Munros, do stop and say hello. If, however, you see someone sporting a scratchy balaclava, it won’t be me – but speak to them anyway, and ask what’s with the retro look.