Irvine Butterfield

Irvine Butterfield

One of the grand names of Scottish hillwalking died this week.

Irvine Butterfield, a Yorkshireman who spent much of his life in Scotland, and most of that on the mountains, had been ill for some time. grough contributor Dave Hewitt, who knew the man, writes this account of his life.

Irvine Butterfield, a significant character and man of many parts in the Scottish hillgoing world, died on Tuesday aged 72.

He was best known for The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, Volume 1, a lavish, photograph-filled book published in 1986 that remains many people’s favourite guide to the munros. It was a typical, thoroughly researched, Butterfield project: his own words and pictures combined with photographic contributions, readily acknowledged, from colleagues who had a knack of taking evocative high-quality hill pictures.

Butterfield was born in the Yorkshire village of Farnhill, between Skipton and Keighley, and his earliest off-road walking was on the local moor. His hillgoing career almost never started: aged 16, he was out with friends when “a shotgun trigger caught in a gate and blew a hole in my foot”. Twenty-nine pieces of lead remained in situ and photographs of the wound were used for hospital training.

He worked at Keighley gasworks and as a post office clerk, before 1957 brought long-term employment with customs and excise. His first posting was to London, but in 1960 he was transferred to Perth, then to Dundee and Inverness.

He returned south to Manchester in 1966, but those initial half-dozen years in Scotland had sown the seed, especially as there was a tradition of excise officers taking their exercise on the hills.

Butterfield began to explore the Highland landscape and to gather good, experienced hill people around him – several of whom came to form one of the country’s less high-profile mountaineering clubs, the Crochallan, of which Butterfield was life president.

His first hill was the Cobbler, but his first munro was Stob Diamh at the eastern end of the Cruachan ridge, climbed during that initial Perth placement. It was a deluge of a day that would have deterred many for life, especially as he suffered cramps in both legs.

Thus began a munro-bagging – and, more to the point, a munro-loving – journey that saw him complete the full set on Ladhar Bheinn on the penultimate day of October 1971. In the modern era, with over 200 rounds of munros being logged each year, it is easy to forget what a notable and almost pioneering feat this was back in 1971.

“The pace of life was slower,” Butterfield later noted, “without the same requirement to get out on the hill for this so-called ‘spiritually refreshing experience’.”

There was no guidebook to the munros, the roads were often poor, and while access rights existed informally, the lairds and keepers often held sway in the glens. There was little or no ‘leisure industry’ to provide an endless choice of garments and gadgetry; Butterfield’s first piece of ‘shell clothing’, for instance, was a red anorak from which the dye ran so freely on Stob Diamh that friends feared he was bloodsoaked from a fall.

He never pretended to be any kind of hill tiger (a bearded, burly man, he more resembled a sea captain than a crag-rat), displaying instead an empathy with the ordinary walker and occasional scrambler that added to the warmth with which he came to be regarded.

He freely admitted that the Inaccessible Pinnacle stood as a daunting obstacle, a potential ‘stopper’ for his Munro round; but ‘a climbing friend from Manchester hauled me up it’, and his completion day in Knoydart was then less than ten summits away.

Crucially, alongside the actual hillgoing, Butterfield developed a reputation as an organiser and general chivvier of causes. One didn’t need to spend long in his company before hearing the phrase ‘Give something back to the mountains’, and over his lifetime he gave an enormous amount.

Involvement in the Mountain Bothies Association saw him serve as its second secretary (1969–1972) and also led to his first book, Dibidil, a Hebridean Adventure (1972), an account of bothy renovation on Rum.

Typically, his MBA activism also meant that he completed the munros just after, rather than just before, the list of such people had reached the 100 mark: one of several instances of the common cause being put before personal ambition.

He took a hands-on role in the Scottish Wild Land Group, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (based in Perth, close to where he finally settled in an old cottage that seemed too small to contain both his physical bulk and his overall presence), the Munro Society and, particularly, the John Muir Trust.

He did much fundraising for the JMT’s 1999 purchase of the eastern side of Schiehallion, donating royalties from his second-most successful book, The Magic of the Munros, another high-quality photo-fest.

In 2008, he became the fourth person – after Tom Weir, Adam Watson and Doug Scott – to receive the JMT’s lifetime achievement award. Similarly, in 2000, he became the sixth recipient of the Outdoor Writers’ Guild golden eagle award.

Despite all this graft and committee work, Butterfield was never an insider, never close to becoming part of the Scottish hill establishment (and never wanting to, either). His gruff-but-kindly Yorkshire character, his outspokenness, and his moments of emotional enthusiasm were unlikely to give the more well-heeled and reserved hill-set the feeling that a kindred spirit was among them.

He was undoubtedly a better photographer than he was a writer, tending towards the purple in his prose but displaying a classical eye for composition when a camera was in his hand. Various books appeared over the final 20-odd years of his life, with only The Magic of the Munros hinting at repeating the success of The High Mountains, Volume 1.

The 1992 book, A Munroist’s Log (co-authored with Jack Baines), was a curious work, most of its 240 pages left blank for readers to enter details of their various ascents. Better were The Famous Highland Drove Walk (1996) and The Call of the Corbetts, the 2001 follow-up to The Magic of the Munros, and better still the 60-minute biographical interview with John Burdin published as a DVD in 2008 as part of the Munro Society’s Early Munroists series.

The follow-up that he longed for was The High Mountains, Volume 2, covering the Corbetts, and for a time in the 1990s a certain amount of chuntering about the non-publication of this tended to feature both in private conversation and, occasionally, in public appearances. Clearly he was frustrated, even though the production costs were by now prohibitive even for a publisher as bold and innovative as Ken Wilson. The wonder of it, really, was that such a spectacular book as The High Mountains, Volume 1 (which sold around 50,000 copies under Wilson’s Diadem imprint) had ever appeared.

Butterfield was a bit of a chunterer generally, with a tendency towards disillusionment as organisations that he had nurtured developed in more bureaucratic ways than the original vision might have suggested. While he didn’t fall out with officialdom – he was too genial a man, and too much the retired civil servant, for that – he often seemed and sounded frustrated with the way the world was going. He could be cantankerous, but never curmudgeonly, and his kindliness over-rode everything.

That Butterfield was a great encourager of the next generation could be seen from the space he gave in The Magic of the Munros to the hill-painter Paul Craven.

Another example came in the way he helped the present writer in his research into the history of hill lists. Again and again pieces of half-forgotten information – names, dates, events – were dredged from a combination of his memory and his filing system. One day he rang up and said: “I’ve remembered two men called Macdonald – unrelated to each other – who completed the munros together in 1969.”

The significance of this was that Butterfield pushed his own completion a little further back in the timeline (there were 15 or more of these unlisted munroists by the end of 1971), but the integrity of the research was the main thing for him. He was undoubtedly proud of being an early munroist, but never in the slightest bit boastful.

He was of the generation that used the card index rather than the computer database, and because of this there was a danger of his expertise being underrated in his later years. But his study, with its meticulously catalogued slides, its ring binders crammed with obscure unpublished hill lists acquired from goodness knows where, and its library-like shelves of treasures, was one of the great repositories of British hill information, and he was always willing to share his knowledge and push the research on a little further.

Ultimately, Butterfield was an old-fashioned amateur-enthusiast: knowledgeable, kindly, generous with both time and money – but rather scornful of those whose good works for the hills were done with half an eye to status, be it a gong or a place on a committee. In that sense, for all his gruff outer shell, he was something of a romantic, and indeed could come close to tears when pleading the case for protection of the mountain environment.

He was a major figure in Scottish hill life, wonderfully unique and uncategorisable. As with his munro round, his writing career and renown developed through a combination of skill, hard work and strength of character. If there was any label to be put on him, it was perhaps that of Old Testament prophet. He looked the part, and certainly he was a voice crying for – if not in – the wilderness.

Irvine Butterfield, 8 August 1936-12 May 2009

© Dave Hewitt