Alastair Borthwick: Timeless Author and Outdoorsman

November 15, 2018 - By 
Alastair Brothwick Scottish Author

Living a life of adventure in Scotland and experiencing war firsthand gave Alastair Borthwick the experience which led to his life as a writer and broadcaster. Not many people are able to expound upon the human condition, both good and bad, as Alastair Borthwick. He penned stories of triumph and failure, and would later transition away from writing into broadcasting and television, where he displayed a natural fit.

 

Alastair Borthwick was a transcendent storyteller who spoke to the souls of those who would une in to listen. Yet, he never seeked fame or fortune, wishing only to live a simple life where he could tell stories and live in peace.

 

Early Life and Career

Alastair Borthwick was born on February 17, 1913 in Rutherglen, Scotland. However, it wouldn’t be long before Borthwick and his family would move, first to Troon in his early years, and then Glasgow where he attended Glasgow High School.

 

Borthwick didn’t take too fondly of school, and quickly dropped out at the age of 16 to work for the Evening Times, a tabloid newspaper in Glasgow, and soon thereafter the Glasgow Herald. His first job at the Herald was to take down copy from correspondents who called via telephone. After some time he was given the responsibility of editing many of the paper’s feature pages. Seeing as the Herald only had a staff of five, Borthwick quickly rose through the ranks and was given his opportunity to write very quickly. At one point he was even tasked with compiling the crosswords.

 

In 1935 Borthwick ventured to London to work at the Daily Mirror. His time at the paper was short, as he left after just a year, but he quickly ventured in to other media opportunities. Borthwick ran the press club at the Empire Exhibition and then would go on to join the BBC where he would excel at scriptwriting for the station’s many programs.

 

Borthwick Takes an Interest in Hiking

As he was working at the Glasgow Herald for its Open Air page, Borthwick was introduced to locals who would venture out into the Scottish Highlands on the weekends. He was quickly fascinated by these locals who would hillwalk and climb in their spare time, taking a liking to the adventure and beauty of the great outdoors. At the time, hiking and outdooring was seen as an activities for only the most elite in Scottish society as was shown in popular media. However, there was an entire outdoors culture which was springing up in Scotland which was yet to be explored by most.

 

It would be in these Scottish Highlands where Borthwick would spend much of his time hiking, climbing, and the like. He was as well a social person who made sure to befriend anyone who he encountered on his journey. Whether he planned it or not, these Highland beginnings were the start of a wonderful literary career.

 

At the time, writing on the subjects of climbing and the outdoors was seen as only applicable to the very wealthy. Borthwick was one of the first people to take these subjects and write on them for the common Scottish citizen, making them relatable to their experiences. This led Borthwick to compiling his most well-known work on adventures in the Scottish Highlands.

 

Always a Little Further

Published in 1939, Always a Little Further was Borthwick’s masterpiece which gave insight into climbing in Scotland during the 1930s. In truth, the book was compiled out of a series of articles Borthwick wrote for The Glasgow Herald. The poet and writer T.S. Eliot helped Borthwick compile these articles into a full length book. It was a free-loving expedition of the shared experience of climbing between Scottish friends.

 

“But to my mind it (climbing) finds its chief justification as an antidote for modern city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. (On the crag) one cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it; its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primeval fathers did before him the climbers’ worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it.”

 

Borthwick’s imagery took the reader on adventures, up mountains, through valleys, and into lands which they could have never dreamed. He made sure his account of climbing and mountaineering didn’t cater toward the elitists, and instead, focused on everyday, relatable characters. These included motorcyclists, berry-pickers, bird-watchers, hitchhikers, and more. Borthwick recognized the need for everyone to get out in nature and explore its wonder.

 

“At five o’clock we left the road and started up the left bank of the burn which drains the Arrochar face of the Cobbler. The afternoon was excessively hot, and the weight we were carrying was ludicrous. We had yet to learn that heavy pots and pans, thick ground sheets, raincoats, and much tinned food are luxuries to be avoided upon a mountain, just as we had yet to learn that there was an excellent path on the far side of the burn. On our bank, bracken grew with the abandon popularly associated with machetes and tropical jungles, and in some places was taller than we were ourselves. Forcing a passage through it while carrying a heavy rucksack up a steep slope was trying. Also, there were flies. The first thousand feet was a purgatory of heavy breathing, sweat, and the forlorn beauty of bracken fronds against the sky; but higher up the bracken thinned. We cast ourselves down on a bank of heather and bog myrtle, propped our shoulders against a rock, and looked down on Loch Long, where cars crawled along the road and a steamer unloaded another ice cream-less multitude. The sun was still very hot, and the air reeked with the tang of bog myrtle against a background of other mingled and satisfactory smells. Sounds were faint and Arrochar distant. Everything was remote, peaceful, and unreal.”

 

It is no question why readers quickly took to Borthwick’s ability to relay stories of the great Scottish Highlands, and the adventures waiting to be discovered within. The book created a buzz which would permeate throughout the country and into the coming decades.

 

World War II

Borthwick wasn’t immune to the times, and as his country was going to war, he decided to join the good fight. Borthwick became an infantry soldier in the 51st Highland Division’s 5th Seaforth Highlanders. He rose through the military, eventually attaining the rank of captain as a battalion intelligence officer. By all accounts Borthwick was a good, loyal soldier who followed orders and was aware of his role among the other men.

 

With his battalion, Borthwick would push the German Army out of northern Africa and would fight their way through Italy and the liberation of Europe from Nazi control. Beginning with the battle of El Alamein, they traveled over 3,000 miles in total across North Africa to Europe, experiencing more than their fair share of battle with the enemy.

 

One of his fondest memories of the war occured in Holland when Borthwick went behind enemy lines undetected . Under the cover of night, Borthwick was instructed to sneak past the German front lines with 600 men. Although the mission was successful, it weighed heavy on his heart. “I never felt more lonely than I did that night,” Borthwick recalled.

 

Borthwick Writes the War

Alastair Brothwick BattalionJust before the victory in Europe, Borthwick was asked by his colonel, John Sym, to make an account of the previous three years of war. This was his chance to recount all of the stories and memories of what he had seen over that time. This opportunity was not lost on Borthwick. “I found myself in a position writers dream about,” he noted. “I’d just had the experience of a lifetime, and had six clear months to write it.”

 

As a skilled writer, Borthwick compiled stories of military campaigns and battles into what would become a widely praised, albeit minor, classic among war historians and enthusiasts. The resulting book was first titled Sans Peur before being republished as Battalion: A British infantry unit’s actions from the battle of El Alamein to Elbe, 1942-1945. It was first printed by a small Stirling publisher and never saw a large print run. Nevertheless, Borthwick brought his astounding storytelling ability to these accounts of war and battle. Max Hastings from the Daily Telegraph called it, “An outstanding book.”

 

Such accounts of war put the reader in the heat of battle.

 

“It had been warm in the old Bergensfjord as we sailed up the Red Sea; but now, crammed into the tenders, we knew what real heat was. There were no awnings. The sun beat down on the mass of kit, and weapons, and men, and the thought of marching when we reached shore appalled us. Even the breeze caused by our progress over the water did not help: it was a hot breeze, and already it was bearing unbelievable smells. The Bergensfjord dwindled astern, for all its discomfort a last symbol of home; and Suez grew ahead. It was 14 August, 1942.”

 

Battalion was written just after VE Day in Germany and recounted stories of the British Army infantry unit during World War II. Borthwick wrote these accounts through the eyes of soldiers, making first-hand accounts of battle written directly during the times as accurate accounts of battle as one will find in history. The book also included a significant amount of front-line action and planning of battles as told by soldiers who lived to tell the experiences.

 

The book not only used imagery, but intense dialog between soldiers and commanders to paint a vivid picture of wartime. As Borthwick put it, he was, “telling what it was like to live in a tightly knit family and fight a war.”

 

“‘Much farther to go?’ I asked presently.

‘Nearly there now, sir,’ came the answer, and with that reply came the most frightful explosion and blinding flash – from underneath the truck, it seemed to me. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and wondered if I had been seen. There was another explosion, and then another.

‘Reckon that’s our mediums. Just pulled in to shoot up the Quattara Track tonight,’ said the calm nasal voice at my side…”

 

Borthwick made sure it wasn’t just his own voice he included in these accounts, but those of his fellow soldiers. This gives Battalion a multitude of angles and viewpoints on which the war is viewed and experienced.

 

“Captain A. Grant Murray was out with a patrol, covering the start-line when the attack formed up.

‘ The hands of my watch seemed to creep round as we lay listening and watching,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘To our front all was quiet apart from a verey light or two and some machine gun fire…As zero drew near I twisted round and looked back towards our own lines. Suddenly the whole horizon went pink and for a second or two there was still perfect silence, and then the noise of the Eighth Army’s guns hit us in a solid wall of sound that made the whole earth shake.”

 

Returning to Simplicity

After the war ended, Borthwick took his wife Anne (who he had married shortly before the war in 1940) away from Glasgow to the Isle of Jura where they would remain for the next seven years. While living in Jura Anne and Alastair would conceive and have a baby boy named Patrick. It was in Jura where Borthwick began immersing himself in fishing and crofting while continuing to write.

 

Borthwick was searching for a quieter life in which he could continue his writing, yet relax into a more simple life. “I always believed the ideal life was to write a thousand words in the morning and catch a salmon in the afternoon.”

 

In Jura the Borthwicks lived in a small cottage surrounded by the water, wildlife, and quiet. It was the perfect destination for Alistair to live out this fantasy of the peaceful, quiet life of a writer. In 1952 the couple moved from Jura to Islay for a short time before returning to Glasgow.

 

Transition into Broadcasting

As he continued writing, Borthwick decided to take some time to exchange his pen for a microphone and become a television and radio broadcaster. Borthwick got his broadcasting opportunity from BBC producer James Fergusson who brought him in to discuss his climbing in a 15-minute talk show. Fergusson was immediately impressed with Borthwick’s ability to tell a story in front of a microphone. “I saw him in the studio treating the microphone like and old friend, chatting away, waving his arms about, and I knew this was how it was done,” Fergusson would recall.

 

As a broadcaster with the BBC, Borthwick spoke on topics he was familiar with, namely, the outdoors and Scotland, and he did so with a casual and comfortable tone. “It just seemed the natural way to speak. I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t do it,” Borthwick noted.

 

He would eventually receive a contract from the BBC for three years to discuss post-war Scotland. Broadcasting became a mainstay in Borthwick’s life up until 1995.

 

Television

After conquering other media outlets, Bothwick made his way into television. In the 1960s he produced over 150 shows for the Scottish Grampian TV network. Many of these programs focused on well-known and famous characters of the times, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Lola Martinez, and even Senator Joe McCarthy.

 

One of the most notable television programs of Borthwick’s was Scottish Soldier in which he told stories about Scottish infantrymen in firsthand accounts. This thirteen-part series was critically acclaimed for being written from the perspective of a junior officer and not from a ranking officer like many of the previous works of that style.

 

Late Life and Passing

Borthwick would continue to write into his late life, composing a weekly column for the News Chronicle as well as writing scripts for several television programs. He and Anne would eventually move to Ayrshire on a farm before they were moved one final time to a nursing home in Beith. He would stay at this nursing home for the remaining five years of his life. Borthwick would eventually pass away in 2003 having lived a full life of 90 years.

 

Remembering a Legend

Alastair Borthwick will always be remembered as a talented writer and personality who was able to get at the heart of the human condition. He always worked to tell stories of the heart during good times and bad.

 

For Borthwick, fame was of no consequence, and he would be appalled to have his readers and listeners remember him for his status in the world. Borthwick called himself a journeyman writer, “fit to turn out a decent job on most subjects as required.” In this regard it appears as though Borthwick outdid himself in more ways than he knew.

 

Read more excerpts from Alastair Borthwick: https://medium.com/alastair-borthwick-always-a-little-further

Posted In:  Author Biography
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