Ben Humble’s remarkable legacy to mountain rescue  in Scotland

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Arrochar mountain rescue base, provided by St John Scotland, with the Cobbler beyond and a Royal Navy rescue helicopter taking off.

Words and pictures by Bill Heaney and Donald Fullarton

There has been, as ever at this time of year, a great deal on television and the newspapers about climbing and, sadly, about climbing accidents.

The winter snow arrived first on Ben Lomond and the freezing conditions that accompanied it quickly spread along the Long Crags, the Cobbler and the Arrochar Alps.

We are so lucky here to live close by some of Scotland’s finest mountains, but as with so much that is beautiful in this world, danger is often to be found lurking nearby.

Climbing can have tragic consequences, especially when freak weather conditions set in and even the most experienced climbers can be caught out.

For example, two hill walkers died after falling on Ben Hope in Sutherland.  The bodies of the men were found by a Coastguard helicopter crew on the north-west side of the mountain at about 02:00 on Wednesday.

Concerns had been raised for two men in difficulty at about 15:45 on Tuesday. The search operation also involved a number of mountain rescue teams.  Police Scotland said both bodies had been recovered and taken off the mountain.

Mountain rescue teams, like the one at Arrochar on Loch Longside and the Rest and be Thankful, are relatively new however, less than a century old, and most definitely not as old as the hills.

And it is thanks to a Dumbarton man that they are here at all.

Ben Humble, pictured above,  was born on Oxhill Road, Dumbarton in 1903, the seventh in a family of eight brothers, and fated to completely lose his hearing by his early thirties.

Despite this handicap however, Ben Humble left a unique mark on the Scottish outdoors as an author, journalist and photographer and as one of the early pioneers of Mountain Rescue in our country.

The breadth of Ben’s legacy is remarkable.  Thirty-six years after his death his books and photographs remain in demand.  And one of the books is accepted as the definitive history of The Cuillin of Skye.

Photographic slides from his lectures on mountain rescue are in the care of the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

His restored 16mm cine films of the Civil Defences of the City of Glasgow during the Second World War are held by Scottish Screen Archive, who also have custody of his pioneering climbing films.

They include the classic In Days of Old made in 1953 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Scottish Ladies Climbing Club.

Travelling the length and breadth of the country, in the early days mostly on foot, little escaped Ben’s notice or his pen during years when outdoor activities were steadily burgeoning.

His ‘one man’s view of Scotland’ can be explored by visitors to our National Library in Edinburgh, where under the title Humble Collection all his published contributions are stored alongside his equally valuable scrapbooks of early hill-walking and climbing accidents.

In a totally different sphere of interest the lasting results of his fascination and skill with heathers and alpine plants can still be seen today at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms.

There, the Ben Humble Memorial Garden guards the entrance to Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre.

At a higher elevation, visitors taking a walk round the Wild Mountain Garden at the Base Station of the Cairngorm Mountain Railway can learn more about this aspect of his story.

“Not bad, not bad” was a common phrase Ben used.

These words might well serve as his epitaph, for despite his inability to hear any lectures he had originally qualified in Dentistry at the University of Glasgow.

Later Ben became one of the first specialists in Dental Radiology in Scotland.

He was an early pioneer also in Forensic Dentistry where his method of identifying human bite marks was the accepted standard in criminal cases for over two decades.

All this he eventually had to abandon, enjoying telling his friends “I couldn’t hear my patients screaming!”

General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2018

Had he still been with us at his old home in Bellfield, West Bridgend, would have been proud to hear Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.

Ms Sturgeon praised to the high heavens the work of the Scottish Mountain Rescue team which has carried on, saving so many lives of lost or trapped climbers and hill walkers, into the 21st century.

Asked about support foresee brave men and women, Ms Sturgeon, pictured left,  said the Scottish Government provides annual grant funding of more than £300,000 to Scottish Mountain Rescue to help all 28 volunteer mountain rescue services carry out their work.

She added: “We are the only Government to fund mountain rescue in that way. We are also contributing £100,000 over three years 2016 to help towards the cost of replacing the Scottish Mountain Rescue team’s ageing very high frequency radio equipment, as well as assisting with the procurement process.”

The First Minister told the Holyrood parliament: “We work collaboratively with Police Scotland, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Scottish Mountain Rescue to help resolve any issues around search and rescue that arise from time to time.”

Her SNP colleague, Gail Ross, asked the FM: “Given the harsher weather conditions across the country, will the First Minister go into further detail on the dialogue between the Scottish Government, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Police Scotland in relation to helicopter support? Does the First Minister agree that the voluntary work of the Scottish Mountain Rescue service is invaluable?”

The First Minister replied: “I whole-heartedly agree. Mountain rescue volunteers, including the cave and dog teams, do a vital job and often put their own lives at risk. I am sure that we would all want to thank them for that.

“Recently, there has been some concern about search and rescue helicopter support. The levers for change around that remain with the United Kingdom Department for Transport. However, following recent discussions between Police Scotland and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, we understand that guidance has been updated to address the issues that have been raised around support for body recovery and for lifting volunteers from the hill following a rescue.

“Police Scotland’s helicopter has also been introduced as a last resort to assist mountain rescue teams with body recovery, thus helping to improve the situation. I understand that the chief pilots of both Prestwick and Inverness air crews met the four independent mountain rescue teams just before Christmas to discuss how they can better work together in the future.”

Retired anaesthetist Roy M Humble who wrote the book about his uncle Ben.

The Voice of the Hills, the story of Ben Humble, MBE, written by Ben’s nephew a retired anaesthetist Roy Humble, was published in 1995. Added to immeasurably by contributions and humorous stories from old students, friends and climbing colleagues, and using Ben’s words wherever possible, this book tells the story of the lasting contributions of a proud and independent Scot.

Ben’s whole life was a response to the challenge of his deafness and to the one voice he did hear – the voice of the hills.  A limited number of copies of the book are still available and may be obtained through the Arrochar, Tarbet and Ardlui Heritage Group, with whom the author has kindly agreed to share the remaining royalties.

This award winning voluntary organisation, which is supported by St John Scotland, may be contacted either by e mail at group@arrocharheritage.com or by telephone at 07879 486742Mountain Rescue Services (Support)

Three Arrochar team members about to set off on a training exercise; and Helensburgh solicitor Douglas Dow, then Chancellor of St John Scotland, handing over the keys of an ambulance to then Arrochar team leader, Mark Leyland.

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