A Childhood at Rannoch, 1963- 1981
Opuscules by André Zaluski
The following five short stories, or “opuscules” as my father has chosen to call
them, were all written long after we had left Rannoch. An incident or comment
would inspire my father to write. A paper copy would then be dispatched to me
for my family archives as my father assumed that I would type the story and sent
it on by email to other family members to read. I have scrupulously kept
everything, my training as a historian influencing me and, I must say, thank
goodness, for otherwise they would likely be lost. My father never kept any
copies for himself and I have not asked whether Isabelle, Mick or Kasia kept
The first opuscule, “An incident on the Allalin”, describes an event in the
summer of 1960 which was such a shock that it was fifty years before my father
had the courage to write about it. The experience of almost falling to his death
left a deep impression on him and influenced his conduct in the mountains
thereafter, whether alone, with colleagues or with the Mountain Service at
The second opuscule, “A Rannoch Memoir”, is a copy of my father’s text in the
“Rannoch Anthology, 40 years on”. I imagine most former
The third opuscule, “The chocolate éclair”, gives an idea what my mother was like at Rannoch from the mid-1970s and the consequences. It describes a car accident my mother had one winter’s day. Finally, the fourth and fifth opuscules “Rannoch revisited” and “The last chance” deal with understanding and accepting changes at well-known Rannoch fishing haunts as well as the limitations of old age with good humour. At some point, we all have to acknowledge that our physical abilities have diminished and former pastimes no longer cause us pleasure. Fortunately for you and me, my father’s mental abilities remain undiminished. Long may it last!
1. An incident on the Allalin
An estimate of Dave’s degree of fitness would fall within two strict parameters:
he was fit enough to play rugby in
I took the train, complete with Swiss wife and baby daughter, leaving them with
in-laws, while Dave hitch-hiked. Something went wrong because he arrived in
I had always been an English conservative in the matter of belays, but I also
secretly admired the Gallic panache with which the French dispensed with such
facilities. This was the day when we would move together “a la française”, using
only half of the rope.
It was exhilarating, the climbing was easy, the weather was superb and so was
the vista to the right where a sea of clouds led the eye to some distant Bernina
mountain or something, beneath the risen sun.
I have since spoken to some people who knew the Allalin. Without exception, the
next section has remained vivid in their memory. The route leaves the ridge,
bears right, and crosses a very steep hanging gully in a place of quite extreme
and intimidating exposure. The fact that most people cross this after the sun
had been at work on the steep snow must impart a feeling of insecurity.
Perhaps you don’t remember that 1958 summer in
Dave was a New Zealander, but he had not been to
So, how does it feel when all common sense, all your climbing experience, all
patently obvious evidence, points obviously, indubitably, suddenly, that this is
the Great It. The It with a Capital Full Stop.
First of all, it felt quite different from that peel on some God forsaken Kirkus
route in the Carnedds in
“I think I am coming off.”
It seems she2 wasn’t quite ready for holding a falling leader, but
she held me as I hit a sloping slab, and watched as the little guide – Carneddy
Climbers’ Club, pretty green hard covers, Moulam, if I remember - jolted from my
right pocket by the jerk with my upside-down position, fluttered gaily like a
demented butterfly to the screes.
She got a finger burnt, but otherwise it was most enjoyable. I suppose this is
the point of bungee jumping. We did something else and the next day I did some
of my best climbing.
The Allalin was different. Very. I saw the smile of my ten-week old daughter. I have recently learnt that children of that age do not smile at you in the way we would expect. It seems they smile at anything that moves, but I didn’t know that at the time. I saw that smile and a great longing come over me for one of these bloody great belays that are such a feature of the East Face of Tryfaen. But of belays there were none, only the useless ice axe, the realisation that there was no chance whatsoever of holding Dave, and the hissing snake of the snow sodden rope disappearing round the shaft of my ice axe. I dived head first at some rock which stuck out a few inches above the snow some fifteen feet below.
Two things surprised me: the violence with which my chin struck the rock and the
gut wrenching tug of the rope at my midriff but, totally unexpectedly, that was
upwards not downwards. As we fell, the rope, slicing through the surface of the
snow, found sufficient indentation behind my rock to arrest our fall. Moreover,
that was sufficiently rounded for the rope not to be cut. A moment of pure
terror followed. Dave was on the rocks forming the true right of the gully. I
clambered onto the rock, ready to drop off again on the side opposite to his
should he fall. He climbed to my level where he found a belay, the only one “for
miles around.” Digging my arms up to my armpits into the snow, I climbed up to
my ice axe, stuck at a crazy angle above, and with infinite care, belaying
frequently, we made our way up the gully and onto the ridge. As soon as we found
a gully on the
At the time, with the arrogance of youth, it felt important to tell myself that
it was my presence of mind, my master he-manship which had saved us. Now, I
doubt it. As in Whymper’s description of the Matterhorn accident, in such
situations one grabs at anything solid. In our case, the only such was fifteen
feet below me. I did not know what was to happen.
Nevertheless, had I waited for the great jerk, the conditions in which our fall was arrested would not have been fulfilled. We fell with the profile of a snorkel, with Dave at the mouthpiece and myself at the air intake. So, how much time did I have for my deliberations is difficult to say. To my knowledge, there are no reliable scientific data on the acceleration of falling New Zealander rugby forwards. A second is actually a very long time. Less than a second is the probable answer.
We went to the Zermatt museum. Worth the detour as the Michelin guide would say.
It contains items of clothing, boots etc. of people who had fallen, with the
characteristic tears and damage caused by passing rocks. I noticed with
satisfaction that the front of my anorak, with my rock’s depredations and
liberally embellished by dried blood from my chin, did not disappoint in that
Ever so long, I have felt that I should write an account of the incident, but
the very thought was intimidating. I preferred to leave it and get on with my
life. About twenty- five years ago someone asked in one of the mountaineering
journals (Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, I think) for people with
extraordinary close shaves – I can’t remember the exact words – to describe them
to him. I thought of doing so but couldn’t face it. Then, at the age of
sixty-five, I started writing. First, a biography of a very interesting great
great great grandfather of mine. Then, a book in Polish on a similar subject,
then a short Orwellian satire about human cloning and selective abortion. The
Allalin incident was to be forgotten.
And now there appeared in the Sunday Telegraph a request from Dr. James Le Fanu
for news from people who have been saved “by an extraordinary stroke of fate”. I
knew that if I didn’t write now I never would and, what’s more, my word
processor had just been mended. With the writing, the doubts returned. Am I
really alive? Why am I alive? Is it a mistake, a muddle in the eternal order of
things? And how about those three of my children who were born after 1960, and
the four3 relevant grandchildren?
I seem to be alive. Not only that, but there would seem to be a future. I have
pills for my diabetes, inhalers for my asthma, priority in flu jabs, cream for
my psoriasis, and evening primrose oil works for my arthritis. I have three
score years and ten well under my belt and plan to write a book about the
thousand years of Polish – Jewish cohabitation, while the vigneron in Burgundy
told me not to drink his wine before Christmas 2002. Some of the wines in my
cellar need keeping longer.
For many years, I had a scar on my chin where it had hit that rock on the
Allalin. I had a look in my shaving mirror the other day. It is now very faint
but still there, if you know where to look.
Recently, I spoke about this to someone in the sports shop in Glenridding who knew the Allalin. I told how I wanted to write the incident up and kept putting it off. She looked at me, taking in the manifest senile decrepitude: “You’d better hurry up then.”
Notes from the Editor
1 Sir Edmund Hillary, first person to climb Mount Everest
2 “She” is not my mother, just somebody my father happened to be climbing with in Wales.
3 Dr James Le Fanu is a medical journalist who has weekly columns in the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph.
2. A Rannoch memoir
It was all Richardson’s fault of course. I wonder whether he knew that deep in
my psyche there was a sort of Scott in the Antarctic gene, one which would
incline me to undertake such an idiotic journey as trying to reach Ben Alder
Cottage in the Land Rover. I knew, naturally, that it was absurd but the
continual encouragement was spellbinding; “Look, this way sir! … and after that
over that bit of heather!” The end came not quite as expected. We all leaned
forward as the vehicle tipped slowly and gracefully like a ballerina taking her
bow to thunderous applause after a more than usually successful performance of
“Swan Lake”, and with a gentle squelch sank right up to its axle into the bog.
It was quite different from getting stuck in the conventional sense as the
reader conversant with getting stuck will doubtless appreciate. No matter. Next
day twelve good blokes and true came to survey the situation. Brawn, not too
much brains, but what invention! Amid much theorising about levers and points of
contact, the Land Rover was extracted without the help of another vehicle or
some farmer’s tractor, which would have been cheating of course.
It is typical that after almost twenty years away from Rannoch, it is the
glorious mishaps that remain in the memory. Not just mine but also others. I was
not the first to lose a Land Rover temporarily. That honour belongs to
Wielochowski, the even madder Pole who once abseiled down the main façade to
retrieve some trivial object from Piaaaahno’s locked room. Then there was Roff
who lost a whole flotilla of canoes in some miserable spot to the west of
There were also the impersonal mishaps. Like those heroic Victorians (here
Gordon of Khartoum springs to mind) who stood their ground to the last man
against overwhelming odds. It was so glorious and appropriate for the cutter to
succumb to a fire started by a couple of smokers.
Apart from the Mountain Service Land Rover, the cutter was the last vehicle, if
one may use that expression for something not even amphibian, the last vehicle
of real character. Much as I loved the Mountain Service Land Rovers, there was
nothing that inspired such affection in drivers as the “New Green Bus” and the
“Blue Bus”. Both the Green Buses were roughly of similar age and you would need
the Antiques Road Show to tell you whether it was the early thirties or the late
twenties when the Green Buses first saw the light of day. Be that as it may, the
“New Green Bus” was definitely the connoisseur’s choice. No racing driver at the
wheel of his Maserati has the power and exhilaration like a god on some distant
Olympus, which you felt as you double declutched and pressed the magic
accelerator! The “New Green Bus” looked like something out of one of these old
photographs one sees in pubs of people alongside their vehicle struggling up
Hard Knott or the Devil’s Elbow in the days when roads had hairs on their chest.
Only one of us had the nerve to take the “New Green Bus” to its full speed. What
a sight it was to see Huggins thunder at 75 m.p.h in it past the Loch Tummel
Were we all mad? I think most of the historians were mad. There was something
Napoleonic about those such as the late much-loved Haines, or Claude for that
matter. Are Rannoch historians still Napoleonic? Have they now succumbed to
politically correct thinking? Actually, many of us were not mad. Alec Cunningham
springs to mind. His expeditions were so well and meticulously planned that, at
least in my time, nothing ever went wrong. As for one of Alec’s expeditions,
horror of horrors, being late for Sunday Chapel was about as likely as an
elephant taking wing and joining that eagle in its patrol of the skies above
Is there honey still, for tea, as the poet says? Probably not, but do boys still get beaten for smoking? I shouldn’t think so. How boring it must be for them …
Notes from the Editor (Alec Cunningham)
Claude Lester Staff 1966-1967
Martin Roff Staff 1967-1970
Andrew Wielochowski Staff 1970-1975
Charles Richardson Wade 1972-1976
Written mid-1990s. Printed in “Rannoch Anthology, 40 Years On”, Published in 1999 by Rannoch School. Edited by Alec Cunningham and Daphne Banks.
3. The chocolate éclair
The powerful blow rocked me in my chair, with only the cupboard on my left
preventing me from ending up on the floor. Theres pointed to the solitary
chocolate éclair adorning the Fusion Café dish purposefully placed well out of
It would be wrong to say that Theres punches beyond her weight; she has regained
some of that recently. More accurately, she punches well beyond her gender and
punching is the way of expressing her needs and desires. From her recumbent
position, a right hook would have been theoretically possible but her preferred
manoeuvre is a mighty prod of the elbow, with the arm rest in no way incommoding
I ascribe these attributes to Theres’ origins: she comes from good Swiss farming stock, with the added advantage that her mother is from inner Switzerland, once home to the mighty William Tell. And so, I gave her yet another digestive biscuit, in the hope of a few moments of respite. Like a cricket captain, satisfied with having got most of the opposition out for relatively few runs, I was basking in the satisfaction of having confined Theres to just one cake. Like fears of a determined last wicket stand, I feared Theres’ sheer toughness. As I sat, barely conscious of the entertainment, the memory came to me of an incident over thirty-five years ago.
We lived then in Rannoch, in North West Perthshire technically, but really in
the Highlands. There were two good grocers in Kinloch Rannoch, but for more
serious shopping one had to go fifty-five miles to Perth. There were two ways:
either along Loch Tummel and Pitlochry, or over the “Goat Track” and Aberfeldy.
The “Goat Track” was a typical Highland single-track road with passing places,
winding under Shiehallion at about a thousand feet. It was one of these dreich
early winter days: steady if moderate rain with the probability or rather
certainty of snow further up, when Theres announced her wish to go to church in
Crieff. I had my misgivings as Crieff necessitated the “Goat Track”, but I knew
my remonstrations would not bear fruit and anyway Theres was an excellent
driver, familiar with local conditions. And so she left.
Two hours later came the message… Theres had come off the road, but she was all
right and waiting at the farm under Shiehallion. “Come off the road?” I imagined
that she was either in a ditch or even just unable to make progress because of a
wheel spin. I hurriedly got the Mountain Service Land Rover, threw a towrope in
the back and set off. As I drove up the hair pins the rain turned to sleet and,
as I passed the little quarry where we used to practise the technical stretcher
work, there was about an inch of snow on the road. One single set of tyre tracks
were clearly visible in the virgin whiteness. Obviously, no one else had come
this way yet or, for that matter, would have been keen on coming. And so I drove
along wondering what my quest would bring, along that grey and lonely road
following the depressing tracks.
We were all familiar with the “Goat Track”, it held no surprises or abysmal precipices, but it was a mountain road. At one point, there is a sharp turn right followed at some distance by a gentler turn left and at some more distance there was the farm on the left with the mountain on the right. As I approached the sharp right turn I saw it quite differently from usual for there were the distant hills, the distant valley floor and …. nothing in between, while without any sign of skidding or even hesitation the tracks continued straight over to whatever lay beneath. Now I knew what was meant by Theres being off the road all right, and I approached the bend more with curiosity than the dread and horror which I would have obtained if the message had not had the element of reassurance. The car lay twenty feet down, upright, and jammed between the snowy mountainside and the tops of a plantation of young trees, probably Norway Spruce. It amazes me now that when I picked her up at the farm I did not ask Theres what had happened, but that is easy to reconstruct. To end up the way it did, the car must have done at least one sideways somersault. With the driver’s door firmly jammed against the mountainside, Theres must have got out via the passenger door, fighting her way through the tops of the trees, down and then up to the road. She walked of course through the snow to the farm, no scratch or bruise though we did not have seat belts then.
A powerful thump brought me to the here and now. The chocolate éclair still lay on the dish, solitary and despoiled of its siblings long since eaten. What the hell! After all, she had had five cakes two months ago and survived. Two cakes would, all things considered, not be a bad score. My hand moved, not tentatively but purposefully, towards her desired object.
Written in 2014.
4. Rannoch revisited, (Fishing at Rannoch 1960s – 1990s)
The osprey had seen something that I had instinctively, over the past couple of
hours, come to feel wasn’t there – trout. Its circling optimism was infectious,
and gave me hope, but I was not to know with what justification. Two yobbish and
very ill-mannered seagulls came to mob the osprey, which flapped its wings
angrily and flew off in the direction of its secret island hideout a few miles
off. I wondered how many generations separated it from the one who had been my
fishing companion on Finnart one evening twenty years earlier.
I was visiting Rannoch after an absence of fifteen years, perhaps to get it out
of my system, perhaps out of curiosity. Much had changed. New people had taken
over old hotels and shooting lodges, but one thing hadn’t changed. Dunalastair
Reservoir, once one of the very best trout lochs in Scotland, was fishing just
as badly as it had been in the late 1970s.
It had been the victim of a well-meaning but disastrous, and very instructive,
policy of trout management, or mismanagement.
In the early 1970s Dunalastair was the home of plentiful and magnificently conditioned trout, averaging ¾ pound, which tantalized by only feeding every few hours, and ultimately gave the enormous satisfaction of trout which are not too “easy”.
Sometime about 1976 a local fisherman was playing a half pound trout when something big, nasty, strong and brutish came and swallowed it. General consternation. The pike had got into Dunalastair!
The attitude of Scottish fly fishers to pike is similar to that of Scandinavian mothers to wolves. The wish to exterminate is endemic. And so, extermination was proceeded with. Nets were set and vast quantities of vast pike were caught. The effect on the trout was magic. The following season the trout had doubled in size and I must admit to having been the beneficiary on several occasions. The heart of even the most resentful fishing widow melts when confronted by a two and a half pounder for the pot at 11 o’clock in the evening. The next season I mostly fished Rannoch, but on Dunalastair the trout had further increased in size and people were catching four pounders.
day I was kindly taken out by a boat owner on to Loch Rannoch, where I had had
my own boat years ago. It was particularly nostalgic, but even here one thing
had changed. In the process of catching about seven hundred trout on Rannoch,
and that took a long time, I had never ever before seen a cormorant. In fact, I
had only once seen another cormorant on a Scottish freshwater loch. It was on
Suirdalain, in the shadow of Suilven near Lochinver. The awful truth began to
dawn. What these two lochs had in common was that they both contained stocked
trout. The conclusion was obvious. Cormorants don’t feed on most Scottish lochs
because they can’t catch wild trout. That bird galivanting on Rannoch was
gorging itself on Eddie’s fish!
This vulnerability of stock fish to predators made me think of the 2000 released into the pike infested waters of Dunalastair. Surely these convent-educated virgins don’t survive till Christmas, let alone next season. The occasional trout caught must be wild fish. Worse, for every trout eaten by pike there is a pike not eaten by pike. For two thousand trout … . The conclusion this time is positively macabre.
Then, one very windy September day, two Rannoch boys caught seventy trout. It must have been virtually the whole of the adult population of the small reservoir. The fishing never recovered. Small and immature fish, rising short, abounded. It taught me that, contrary to the beliefs of highland gamekeepers, overfishing results in the diminution of the size of fish.
The big reservoir, Dall. Photo by Gavin Lindsay
I skirted round the “Large Res”, struggling though bushes. Its level had been much lowered to comply with some fatuous Brussels ruling, making it ugly. The level of the “Small Res” was, however, the same. Only the magnificent vista to the wild snows of Ben Alder in the north had disappeared behind a canopy of now tall conifers. But my favourite casting spots remained clear. There was an immediate response. After an hour, I had six fat adult trout, but they were small, barely 4 oz., and a different, lighter colour. They had also been too easy to catch. We change, the world changes, memories do not translate into reality.
Written in 1995.
5. The last chance
This side of Keswick on the A66 there is a straight stretch of about two miles of single track road. As you drive home after a day on the hill you see the Pennines, with Cross Fell straight ahead. I have noticed how the sight is always different according to the time of year, weather, light and other factors. Quite different and varied colours above all.
At the summit enjoying birthday cake and champagne, “Happy Birthday” songs in English and Polish. André Zaluski, Alison Watson and a small team of friends. André had decided to climb this hill to celebrate his birthday and to raise money for Fusion Café. Fusion Dementia Café supports people with dementia and their carers. The climb taking in Little Man peak took them over two and a half hours with the round trip, which covered 6.61 miles, taking four hours and twenty minutes.
Written in 2012.
Notes from the Editor
1 Francis Cook, 1935 – 2012, was a British Independent politician. He was the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Stockton North from 1983 – 2010.