Irvine Butterfield (right) with Bill Mejury, topping-out Dibidil bothy in 1970 Picture: Irvine Butterfield collection
When Dibidil – a bothy in a remote location on the south-east side of the island of Rum – was rebuilt in 1970, it gave its name to, and formed the subject of, the first book by Irvine Butterfield, the noted hill writer, photographer and activist who died in May 2009.
Earlier this year, Dibidil – A Hebridean Adventure was republished by Roderick Manson – who discusses the book, the bothy and memories of his friend.
Dave Hewitt: Why did you decide to republish Dibidil?
Roderick Manson: It wasn’t really my idea. Bruce Walker, a sculptor and engraver from Kirriemuir, approached Irvine’s executor (me) with the idea of erecting a small standing-stone sort of memorial to Irvine by Loch Clair in Torridon where his ashes were scattered.
Irvine had strong views on the subject of memorials on wild land, so it couldn’t go there. But it was a very generous gesture, so I looked for places with a strong Irvine connection and, after reading Dibidil, agreed with Richard Kilpatrick, the Scottish Natural Heritage warden on Rum, that it could go above the new pier at Kinloch. It’s a couple of hundred yards along the Loch Scresort trail and Irvine hasn’t come back to haunt me yet, so I suppose he’s pleased.
I was put in touch with Richard by Dave Robertson, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) maintenance organiser [MO] for Dibidil, who tracked down a copy of the original which was on the market for about £60. He suggested we reissue the book with some extra material and use it to raise funds for the MBA, just like the original. So we did.
DH: How many copies did you print? How many were printed first time round?
RM: There were 500 copies of the original book published. That seemed a reasonable number, so we printed 500 of the second edition as well. The first book took about 18 months to sell out. This one is heading the same way: we’ve just passed 400 copies sold. So far we’ve been able to send £1,000 to the MBA. We’re in profit, so every penny received, after postage, goes to the MBA.
DH: Have you been to Dibidil? If so, what did you make of the place, both in terms of location/atmosphere and the weather-resistant aspects of the building?
RM: Yes, Bruce Walker and I followed the coastal track down from Kinloch the day after the memorial stone went in last September. I’d seen the bothy on a previous traverse of the Rum Cuillin but never gone down (Kinloch Castle was a more convenient base) and the book was about to come out, so it seemed a good idea. The going is excellent, although Bruce managed the impressive feat of finding the only bit of bog on the entire path and falling into it up to his waist. I was even more impressed when he repeated the feat on the way back.
It was one of those days you get out west where the light and shade vary from minute to minute, and Eigg and later Muck were wonderful to view. We crested a small rise with sea eagles circling overhead and just looked down in wonder to the bothy. Aesthetically, the situation is stunning. We did wonder how the original settlement could ever have been viable – it was built as a shepherd’s house in 1849 but was occupied only until the 1870s when economics and events overtook it.
The building itself is as solid a bothy as you could imagine, with a new stove that heats the place to excess. Dave Robertson is in the habit of kayaking across – the rocky shoreline isn’t such a problem for him as for the original work party who had to land materials there in a force 6 gale.
Dibidil in 2011 Picture: Jonathan Moles
DH: How many would it comfortably sleep? Any idea how often it is used?
RM: Comfort is probably a relative term. There are two sleeping platforms in one room and plans to build another platform in the other room next year. One room has a stove, the other an open fireplace, though there’s very little timber or driftwood in the area.
There were apparently 25 people in it one night last year, but how comfortable they were can be left to the imagination. As with all MBA bothies, it’s open access and usually it won’t be too busy for anyone to find space to sleep. You may want to take a tent, though, just in case – it’s a long walk to the next bothy.
From the bothy book we know that it is well used in summer, less so in winter due to weather and general difficulty of access; care has to be taken walking in or out after heavy rain when the burns are in spate. There is little soil higher up to absorb any rain, so when you get a deluge – not unknown out west – even the smallest stream can become a dangerous torrent in minutes. I stepped across the Dibidil Burn when I visited the bothy. The next day, the only resident waded waist-deep across a 30-foot-wide river on the way out.
DH: Irvine Butterfield’s reputation is interesting – he was widely liked and respected during his lifetime and remains so more than two years after his death. He wasn’t part of the hill/mountain establishment – never a member of the main clubs and not the kind of man who fitted easily into a suit (in any sense). But he cropped up all over the place, especially in the early days of things – the MBA, the John Muir Trust (JMT), the Munro Society, etc. Was it this broadbased love of the hills that made people like him so much?
RM: It was certainly a part of it, but I think there’s more to it than that. Irvine cared very deeply about the Scottish hills, but more than that he was prepared to invest colossal amounts of time and energy in pursuit of causes he believed in. He didn’t just pick one horse and ride it. He got involved whenever he felt he could do something. People responded to that and were in turn inspired to do more themselves than they otherwise would have done.
As a small example, he put up a bottle of (rather good) whisky as a prize in a raffle at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival (DMFF) one year to try to attract new members to the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS). The next year the JMT was buying Schiehallion, so I suggested we hold a collection at the final evening lecture at the DMFF. Irvine got permission from the organisers and drew a picture of the mountain on the side of a cardboard box (think of the cover of Frank Zappa’s Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch and you’ve got the idea), then I just stood at the door shaking the box and promising to shut up if anyone donated a tenner. After that, he got me involved with the local Schiehallion group for several years.
He did that with a lot of people: got them enthused, then got them doing things even if not on quite the scale he was doing things himself. A couple of years before he died, the Munro Society did a video interview with him which is still available. It gives a very good impression of what Irvine was like.
It’s true he was not in any way an establishment figure, but he got involved and got on with doing things where others would just ponder and fret. He was one of those rare characters who more than deserved his reputation.
DH: Irvine also seemed prone to disillusionment – anyone who spent much time with him wouldn’t have to wait long to hear him chunter about something, often about the way that some organisation had drifted from its initial ideas and intentions. The JMT generally and the Schiehallion group specifically were examples of this. But he never seemed bitter – more just disappointed – and, crucially, he always seemed to keep working with people rather than walking away.
In the grough obituary, I described him as “cantankerous, but never curmudgeonly”, and I tend to see that as an endearing aspect of his Yorkshireness. Is that a reasonable assessment?
RM: That’s a very good summary of Irvine’s character. Irvine was the archetypal Yorkshireman – gruff and curmudgeonly but with a soft centre. No one who knew him even slightly took the exterior too seriously because we knew what he was really like underneath as a friend and as an ally. It’s true he was often disappointed – his standards and expectations were extraordinarily high – but even his disappointment was amiable. Whatever he felt about what he and I often saw as serious errors in the JMT handling of East Schiehallion, he remained on good terms with the parties involved. The JMT even went so far as to make Irvine only the fourth recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award, just before he died. They understood.
DH: What did you make of his politics? Here was a man, after all, whose coffin was draped with two flags: the white rose of Yorkshire and the saltire.
RM: We never discussed politics – just mountain issues. It didn’t really surprise me. Irvine was a very independent individual; I think it’s a Yorkshire characteristic, and there are a lot of things Yorkshire folk and Scots have in common – primarily being misunderstood by them from further south. If there had been a Yorkshire nationalist movement he’d have been part of it; as it was, he’d adopted Scotland and its mountains and felt they’d be better looked after by a Scottish government.
The current random industrialisation of the countryside might have disappointed him, to put it mildly, but he would have stood by the principles he believed in.
DH: What of Irvine’s legacy? Was there an Everyman aspect to him in hillgoing terms? He freely admitted, after all, to not being a tiger on the crags, and had various self-deprecating stories about being helped up awkward hills by more experienced clubmates and colleagues.
RM: It’s certainly true that he was something of an archetype of the Munrobagger. Like many, he “got a lift” up the In Pinn and was decidedly nervous of exposure. He liked the views from the heights; he was less keen on the prospect of falling off. That may be why he balked at the main summit of the Cobbler. It wasn’t about self-aggrandisement with Irvine; he just liked being amongst mountains and he wanted others to enjoy it as well, which spurred his writing and the work he did with the MBA, the MCofS, the Munro Society and others.
I think his level of fame within the outdoors community genuinely baffled him, but he accepted it and used it to further the causes he believed in. He was a very practical man in that way. He believed in giving something back and making the mountains glad.
DH: Do you think he’ll remain a familiar name in, say, 50 years’ time? Or could he end up being a half-forgotten – and uncategorisable – character in Scottish hill history? Would a biography help?
RM: Ask me that in 50 years’ time. There is a mix of the personal memories and the overall achievements when it comes to Irvine which makes it difficult for someone like me who knew him fairly well to be objective. That mix will change over time and a more objective assessment of everything he achieved will be possible. I think that assessment will be that he was a major factor in establishing several important organisations in the Scottish outdoors scene and that he was an important writer and first-rank photographer.
You could compare him to Alfred Wainwright or Adam Watson, but his approach and his impact was much more universal and all-encompassing. In marketing terms, he was a niche product that filled a great many niches, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. His approach was targeted; it’s just he had the vision and energy to aim at a great many targets and to hit most of them.
Irvine will be known initially, I think, because of The High Mountains, which will do a lot to keep his memory alive – but hopefully the work John Burdin and Terry Isles are doing with Dundee University to archive his slide collection will help to enhance his reputation as a photographer. The organisations he was involved with will remember him as well, for example through the Munro Society’s annual Irvine Butterfield Lecture.
As for a biography, the Munro Society DVD was, I think, as far as he would be happy to go. I think he would regard a written biography as an unwarranted intrusion into his privacy. He was a very modest man. A lot of great men are.
– Copies of Dibidil – A Hebridean Adventure are available from Roderick Manson at 33 Cedar Avenue, Blairgowrie, Perthshire, PH10 6TT, or contact him by email at [email protected] Cheques for £8 made payable to Roderick Manson.
Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day