Alastair Borthwick: Journalist, Historian, Chronicler of the Scottish Outdoor Movement, Broadcaster and TV Presenter

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The Scottish outdoor movement served to set the tone for the life of Alastair Borthwick, journalist and broadcaster. Always a Little Further (1939), a book outlining the characters and life in the Scottish hiking and outdoor movement, was his first literary success, turning into a multi-edition cult classic. A few years later, Sans Peur (1946) would outline a unique military experience of escaping danger and seeing action in multiple military campaigns.

 

In Always a Little Further, Borthwick broke with the conventions of exotic travel writing, and explored a grass-roots movement that spread throughout Scotland. Enthusiasm for hiking took over the unemployed of Glasgow and Clydebank, especially after the closing of the Clydebank shipyard. Scotland’s mountins soon hosted men and women, out to enjoy nature with a lot of time and very little money on their hands. Partly inspired by the Wandervogel movement in Weimar Germany, this movement spread during the times of fragile peace in Europe. Multiple hikers, climbers, campers, berry-pickers and wanderers made their temporary homes in the West Highlands, creating networks and friendships in a landscape otherwise reserved for the privileged. Clubs and groups formed, such as the legendary “Creagh Dhu”.

 

It was among the tramps and berry-pickers that Alastair Borthwick, coming from the middle class, made friendships and wove the stories that made up the unconventional book. Since then, the work has become a classic for outdoor lovers, creating a catalogue of names and characters, now long dead: Alex (Sandy) Mackendrick, who became a film director, who died in 1993; Hamish Hamilton, an exuberant mountaineering character, dead in 1991. Borthwick traced the short lives of Margaret “Midge” Stewart and William Makins, who died young from tuberculosis. Boyd Anderson appeared as the character “John”, in real life becoming a minister, and Stanley Knowles, “Hughes”, went on to become a banker.

 

The stories and characters would set the record and work as a manifesto for the outdoor movement, breaking the boundaries of mountaineering. Freedom and an explorer’s spirit were the message Borthwick produced in Always a Little Further.

 

As a journalist and broadcaster, Alastair Borthwick continued his career with the then-named Glasgow Herald, between 1928 and 1936. He shortly worked for The Mirror before becoming ab broadcaster with the BBC. His broadcasting career was no less unique, once again spawning from his insterst in hiking and climbing. One of the first assignments at the BBC involved a 15-minute broadcast on climbing, commissioned by the producer James Fergusson.

 

The passion of Borthwick for climbing infected his broadcasting persona, immediately impressing his producer: “I saw him in the studio treating the microphone like an old friend, chatting away, waving his arms about, and I knew this was how it was done,” said Fergusson. Borthwick was something of a radio maverick, projecting a friendly, energetic and charismatic persona where the common style asked for official seriousness. Borthwick was shy about his achievement as a radio persona, and downplayed his unique speaking style: “It just seemed the natural way to speak,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t do it.”

 

Just as Borthwick’s media and press activities were expanding, World War II loomed over Europe, calling him in his duty as an officer.

 

Alastair Borthwick began his wartime career with the Battle of Alamein in 1942, traveling 3,000 miles across Africa; he saw action in reclaiming Sicily and occupying Italy, moved on to the invasion of Normandy and the defense of Holland. Borthwick’s incredible luck led him through mined terrain, tank ambushes in Sicily and close-armed combat in Northern Europe. But the memory that would turn into the Sans Peur narrative, was a story on penetrating German enemy lines in Holland without engaging them.

 

Borthwick had only faulty maps to rely on, and the task of leading 600 men by blind navigation, in the dark, among active German positions. He successfully led the Seaforths a mile and a half beyond enemy lines. “I never felt more lonely than I did that night,” Borthwick admitted.

 

Shortly after that feat, the Seaforths’ Colonel, John Sym, commissioned Borthwick with writing a history of the battalion, in lieu of the duty to attend parades after the cessation of hostilities. “I found myself in a position writers dream about,” he remembered. “I’d just had the experience of a lifetime, and had six clear months to write it,” said Borthwick. This is how the 1946 book Sans Peur, based on the moto of the Seaforths, was born.

 

In the post-war years, Borthwick led a life combining writing duties on various topics with side projects ranging from post-war surveys to organizing a heavy machinery exposition. With the arrival of television, he adapted to writing documentary scripts, becoming a TV personality to affably present an ecclectic range of subjects. Asked what he would like to be remembered by, Borthwick said he would be satisfied if people thought, “He never broke a deadline, and was always printable.”

 

Learn more about the life of Alastair Borthwick: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alastair_Borthwick

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