“I always believed the ideal life was to write a thousand words in the morning and catch a salmon in the afternoon,” Alastair Borthwick (17 February 1913 – 25 September 2003)
Alastair Borthwick always believed in going a little further. The famous author is best remembered for his book that was almost never published, but also, he was a distinguished journalist, a broadcaster, a war historian and an organizer of national exhibitions.
Borthwick, who died aged 90, is one of the rare talents who managed to write magnificent pieces in several genres. His literary success includes “Always A Little Further” (1939), a vivid memoir of a carefree decade in the Scottish highlands and the equally vivid “Sans Peur” (1946) that focuses on the last years of the second world war.
Always a Little Further
“Always A Little Further” is Alastair Borthwick’s classic that captured the beginning of the “grass-roots” movement into the Scottish hills. The title was originally taken from Flecker’s poem “Hassan,” and it quickly became a kind of fresh-air classic that still has a cult following.
The book was inspired by the “Wandervogel” movement that blossomed in Germany’s Weimar Republic at the time. It was a unique wave of enthusiasm for hiking. By the early 1930s, the movement spread across northern Europe, resulting in the establishment of national youth hostels associations.
The movement was triggered by the arrival of mass unemployment in the Clydebank shipyards, when a substantial number of men and women had a lot of time on their hands, and hiking through the beautiful mountains relieved the stress and even more important, it was free of charge. Borthwick once noted: “One cannot sweat and worry simultaneously.”
Alastair Borthwick was one of the many who took to the hills during the weekend, slept under the rocks and lived rough. He was a part of the group that was determined not to be crushed by the mass unemployment and believed that the mountains and other natural beauties belonged to them.
Although more middle class than most, Borthwick made friendships with berry pickers, tramps and other people who were the part of the movement. All of this served as inspiration for the book that he first offered to Fabers, who initially rejected him. Luckily, T.S. Eliot, who was then one of the directors, kept insisting int its publication and it has never been out of print since.
Since the first publication, the book was recognized as a joyful classic of outdoor literature. “Always A Little Further” became instantly remembered for its memorable characters, humor and vivid descriptions, unlike the other climbing and mountaineering literature of the time.
The Life of Alastair Borthwick
Borthwick was born in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire in 1913. He was brought up in Troon, Ayrshire, and moved to Glasgow at the age of 11, where he went to high school. When he was 16, Alastair became a copytaker on the Evening Times and graduated to the Glasgow Weekly Herald. As a teenager, he wrote and edited the women’s, children’s and film pages as well as letters to the editor, and answers to readers’ queries.
In 1935, Alastair Borthwick got a job at the Daily Mirror as a reporter. Unfortunately, he got fired only a year after, which turned out to be a good thing as it encouraged him to move into another area that was more suited to his informality – radio broadcasting.
As a broadcaster, Borthwick had the ability to sound friendly and relaxed in an era of much more formal radio voices. But just like with everything else, Borthwick was modest about his skill to sound relaxed. “It just seemed the natural way to speak,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t do it.” Alastair Borthwick first broadcast was in 1934 and last in 1995.
The Second World War and Borthwick’s Life After
On the outbreak of war, Borthwick joined the 51st Highland Division’s 5th Seaforth Highlanders. Most of his service was in the Western Desert, Sicily and Europe. At one point, Alastair reached the rand of captain and worked mostly as battalion intelligence officer. In 1945, he led his whole battalion of 600 men at night and in single file through German open lines. The Germans woke up at dawn only to find that the Seaforths dug behind them.
Soon, Alastair was given a different type of responsibility, just before the end of the war. John Sym, the Colonel, gave him permission to attend no more parades in return for a battalion history. “I found myself in a position writers dream about,” he said. “I’d just had the experience of a lifetime, and had six clear months to write it.” That’s how “Sans Peur” came to life as a story about a group of civilians who evolved into an efficient fighting unit.
After the war, Borthwick and his wife Anne went to the coast of Jura, where the lived in a small cottage for seven years. This is also where their son Patrick was born. In 1952, the family moved to Islay and finally settled in South Ayrshire in 1960, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Alastair Borthwick was once asked how he thought he might be remembered. He modestly said that he considered himself as a journeyman writer, fit to turn out a decent job on most subjects as required. He said he would be happy if people thought that “he never broke a deadline and was always printable.”