Alan Blackshaw (who died last year), wrote what was for many years the definitive guide to mountaineering. Many OWPG members, including your humble editor, took their first steps on rock with this volume in their rucksacks. First published in 1965, it was regularly updated and remained in print for many years. Allan Hartley recalls his first acquaintance with this book, while Rennie McOwan reminds us of another debt we owe to AB.
I bought my first climbing rope when I was 16. It was a British made Viking rope and I was advised to buy the extra full weight rope, some 120 feet long. Having got the rope, it did indeed live up to the ‘full weight’ label on the box, as it seemed very heavy. I then set about learning to tie knots. I was already familiar with the bowline and figure of eight but I was told that the best knot to use when tying on with this type of hawser laid rope was a Tarbuck Knot, a name that completely baffled me (other than the comedian on the telly). Mr Kenneth Tarbuck, the knot’s creator, would not have been amused?
Of course, in those days, many years ago before the invention of the Whillans climbing harness, tying onto the rope was a simple affair. You either tied the rope itself around your waist, or made use of a mile-long length of hessian cord, rather like a washing line, wrapped around your waist tenfold until the ends met and you could tie them together with a reef knot. Having made this rudimentary harness, woe betide you if you fell off, as this strangulation device would quickly ensure you wouldn’t live to tell the tale. Tying on between your waist band and the rope was effected by using a large, heavy, steel screwgate karabiner and figure of eight knot. However, I continued to be told that the best knot for tying on was the Tarbuck Knot, as the knot had shock absorbing characteristics that the other knots did not have. In fact this generally means that if you are going to fall off, the knot would allow you to die more slowly? Well, it is a variation of the hangman’s noose!
So in search of this mythical Tarbuck Knot I set off to Ellis Brighams in Manchester to be enlightened. In the shop I was given a demonstration, but I knew I would forget instantly. I was told there was a really good new book about climbing, full of advice about tying knots including the elusive Tarbuck Knot. The book in question was Alan Blackshaw’s Mountaineering – from Hillwalking to Alpine Climbing . It cost eighteen shillings and sixpence,
Scottish people owe a great debt to Alan Blackshaw for the key role he played in ensuring that responsible freedom to roam formed an integral part of new legislation going through the Scottish Parliament.
Traditional de facto Scottish right of access, long respected and honoured by most Scots and yet constantly under threat of restrictive and new legislation, reached an important stage.
The very presence of the Scots Parliament meant that the legal issue of access would inevitably rear its head and many landowners and, alas, some individuals and organisations within the countryside establishment, seized on the chance to propose changes to the law of Scotland. The debate threw up such absurdities as
hill trampers having to ask for permission to walk in the countryside and being off the hills before dark.
Alan brought his formidable mind to bear on the various proposals, helped demolish the dafter items and generally brought sense to bear. He wrote telling papers and analysed the documentation
Alan Blackshaw received the Golden Eagle Award from the OWG (as it was then) in 2003
quite a sum in 1965. Away I went armed with this encyclopaedia of climbing information where I quickly learnt how to tie the Tarbuck (as illustrated on page 152). Of course hawser laid rope would soon be relegated to history when the much more climber-friendly kernmantel ropes started to appear from the Continent. Out too went the hemp waist band and in came the first breed of bespoke climbing harness that were designed to help you stay alive and enhance your climbing career.
In the years that followed AB’s book became an indispensable source of information and aspiration. I learnt where some of the best crags where. I learnt about gear placement and lots of other things but perhaps the greatest influence the book had on me was the chapter on Alpine Climbing which left me enthralled to the extent that I am still smitten.
And – oh yes – many ropes have been and gone, but AB’s book is still on the shelf almost fifty years later
of others. He passionately believed in responsible freedom to roam and gained wide respect by the way he marshalled his facts and worked with other like-minded campaigners.
It fell to me to have several discussions with him on the details and history of the folk tradition and how that was part of or equated with the legal position as espoused by others.
The passage of new access legislation through the Scottish Parliament reached a successful conclusion, but it could easily have gone wrong.
The fact that it did not was due to the efforts of people like Alan Blackshaw. He’ll be remembered for many things, but the fact that Scotland now has one of the best access laws in Europe must surely be one of these.
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