The Descent of Man (A Fire in Glen Elchaig)

IN Glen Elchaig I trudge west along a rough road to a stone bridge over a stream that I’ve pinpointed on the map as a potential place to camp. This is called forward planning – a concept I am not too familiar with. I am four days into the Cape Wrath Trail, following a route I lifted from the internet that weaves in a sort of vague though interesting fashion from Fort William to the cape. Night is drawing in.

When I reach the bridge I discover a shit-hole – literally. The entire area has been churned up by Highland cattle. But I find a tiny patch of unsullied grass higher up the stream, pleasantly situated beneath trees and just large enough to accommodate the tent. There is an abundance of dry wood about, so I resolve to cook my supper on an open fire to conserve my dwindling petrol stock.

This is something I’ve been itching to do for a long, long time. Many years ago, when I was a shipyard apprentice, I read a fascinating article in the Great Outdoors magazine. The author was the late Showell Styles and his piece entitled Lament for the Roadside Fire. It was later reproduced in a book called The Winding Trail.

It was one of the most delightful articles concerning wilderness walking I have ever read, rivalling Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes. It evoked images of wayfarers cooking supper over glowing embers of oak and elm, in dark woodlands, ruined farmhouses and secret corners across Europe. It was an homage to the fire – the modest, flickering, whispering fire of the weary traveller.

So in imitation and respect I set about kindling a tiny fire. I recall one piece of advice from the pen of Styles. Gather as much wood as you think you require (just the slenderest of twigs, mind, not hulking great branches) then gather as much again. I set about this task like a squirrel, furtively gathering the slenderest of twigs from beneath the trees and placing them in front of my tent.

I fashion a rudimentary ring of stones, just large enough to support my Famous Army Stores aluminium billy can. 100_1061I build the tiniest pyramid of twigs, under which I stash a little heap of crackly-dry leaves and moss. I strike a match and the leaves whisper and sigh as the fire takes hold.

This action, the ability to create flames and heat and light, is fundamental to our evolution, I tell myself. With the strike of a match and the burst of a flame I have crossed the divide between primate and man. I have climbed down from the tree and taken the first upright steps on the African savannah. I am a sentient being. I light fire, therefore I am.

With delicate puffs of breath I coax the flames until the twigs glow red. I place the billy can on the stones and watch the smoke curl around it. I cannot tell you how much pleasure this gives me. I have a warm sensation in my breast that is kindled by pride and satisfaction. No doubt I have sparks dancing in my eyes.

But the night is windy and the draught blows the heat away from the billy can. After a great deal of fretting, and with much coaxing and fiddling with twigs, I manage to warm enough water for a brew of tea. This is full of interesting cindery bits and tastes like bonfire night.

It begins to rain – that awful Scottish drizzle that descends in a blanket and leaves the world dripping. By this time my billy can is filthy with soot and I smell like a smoked haddock. The wind gets up, and the meagre heat my tiniest of fires generates is blown into the darkness of a Caledonian night.

I retreat under the flysheet to cook my pasta on the petrol stove – one of my better decisions, it transpires. But I am left with a sense of defeat, as though Homo erectus has shrugged his shoulders and climbed back up his tree. This really is a setback for the evolutionary theory. Darwin did not take Scottish weather into account.

And as for bloody Showell Styles. Lament for the Roadside Fire, my arse. Bet he wrote it for a laugh.

About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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9 Responses to The Descent of Man (A Fire in Glen Elchaig)

  1. greg says:

    I will have to look for that book in the second hand shops. Ive got his ‘Backpacking in Alps and Pyrenees’ book and I must have read it half a dozen times.

    I was always amazed by the fact he could walk all day then describe eating a few crackers and knorr soup. I need far more than that !


    • McEff says:

      Me too. A heap of rice and curry or pan of pasta. If this is any help it’s The Winding Trail, edited by Roger Smith, Diadem Books Ltd, London, ISBN 0-906371-75-9, publishd in 1981.


  2. alan.sloman says:


    Just that – Made me grin, that did.


  3. BG! says:

    Beat me to it, Alan.
    The experiences of the many, but the writings of a genius.
    PMSL here!


    • McEff says:

      I’ll tell you what, BG, you don’t know how much better it makes me feel to know that other people can’t light fires and cook on them.


      • BG! says:

        The lighting is the easy bit, it’s the subsequent upkeep and control that used to escape us. One attempt during my youth was a pearler – on a breezy day down by the canal we’d stopped for a brew, the fire was only just aflame and the fuel was at that level of dampness that meant that it wouldn’t blaze no matter how much we stoked. We were feeling strangely warm, however, so we carried on.
        It was to no avail, though – it just wouldn’t kick in, so we extinguished it and repaired the ground. Only after that did we find the reason for our warmth… the stubble in the field the other side of the hedgerow was alight!
        With much panic we ran to the farm and told the farmer’s wife that we were really sorry and that we were good kids really and didn’t merit being arrested for arson.
        After a good ten minutes of her smiling strangely and letting our guilt get the better of us, she told us to stop worrying and calm down. Turned out that her husband and some farm-hands were down in that field intentionally burning-off the stubble, it wasn’t our doing after all.
        You’ve no idea how relieved we were to hear that!


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