IN today’s Scotland on Sunday, I wrote a story detailing plans for a long overdue memorial to Tom Weir on the banks of his beloved Loch Lomond, which he considered one of Scotland’s great natural treasures. If the statue is physiologically faithful to its subject, it will stand only a little over five foot, with perhaps an inch or two more stolen should Weir’s trademark bobbly hat adorn his likeness (it is difficult to fathom him without it). Be in no doubt, though, that though short in stature, this spry, diminutive man boasted a immense presence to whom a memorial can only begin to do justice.
During his lifetime, it was only fitting that Weir was the recipient of the John Muir Trust award, made in recognition of his contribution to the “wider understanding of the value of Scotland’s wild places.” In an era when environmentalism was little more than a niche and warnings of a thawing permafrost were heeded only by those with tickets to Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice, Weir blazed a trail for future generations who would devote their life’s work to the preservation of natural habitats both in Scotland and further afield.
He did so not through scientific rationale or political discourse, but as a modest, self-trained man who loved nothing more than a striding yomp, whatever the weather. The wondrous natural places he showed us on television were his only argument, but sufficiently convincing to encourage others to escape the cities – tentatively armed with Pac-a-Macs and Thermos flasks – and rediscover their country. Graham Hendry, the founder of the statue campaign, is one such disciple. Growing up in Glasgow’s Springburn area, where Weir and his sister, Molly, were raised, he took heart from one man’s travels beyond the urban sprawl.
Nowadays, Weir is enshrined in cult status, thanks in large part to STV’s twilight repeats of his seminal programme, Weir’s Way, at the turn of the millennium. The show began life in 1976 as a series of eight-minute fillers aired during Scotland Today, for which its star received £50 a pop. Their success led to a stand alone series which ran until 1987, amassing a loyal fanbase in the process. The broadcaster’s decision to dust down the shows from its archives was one borne out of frugality – Weir was denied further payments in the process – yet it proved an unlikely triumph of scheduling, with as many as 72,000 bleary-eyed revellers – a 30% audience share – tuning into the third channel at 3am, where they found a man who derived as much pleasure from crags as they did from clubs.
“It would be a disservice to Weir to simply label him as an undergraduate fancy, and the statue – planned for the centenary of his birth in late 2014 – will, I hope, assist in trumping such lazy stereotypes”
Welcome though this new audience was, it would nonetheless be a disservice to Weir to simply label him as an undergraduate fancy, and the statue – planned for the centenary of his birth in late 2014 – will, I hope, assist in trumping such lazy stereotypes. He belonged to age of television whose creed dictated that passion and eloquence trumped condescension and a Colgate smile. The subject matter may have appeared couthy and lumpen to some, but Weir helped elevate it to a charming travelogue. Had he not been the presenter, it is possible that the awful scenario dreamt up years later by Armando Iannucci in his dazzlingly brilliant sketch, ‘Except for Viewers in Scotland,’ may well have come to pass – “a Paul Coia quiz show about hills.”
Indeed, in the wake of Weir’s death, the hillwalker and writer, Cameron McNeish, recalled how Dermot McQuarrie – one of the early producers of Weir’s Way, and a supporter of the campaign – bemoaned how his presenter’s curatorial knowledge was almost overwhelming at times. In one episode, ostensibly an interview with a Western Isles crofter about Bonnie Prince Charlie, Weir seized the narrative. Addressing his subject, the film rolling, he said: “This was the house where Prince Charles Edward Stuart and Flora MacDonald sheltered before setting sail for Skye when the Prince was on the run from the Duke of Cumberland’s forces after the battle of Culloden.” The crofter looked at Weir, entirely lost for words with which to add, but for a simple, “Aye.”
In the process of writing the story, I had the pleasure of speaking to Weir’s widow, Rhona, a retired primary school headmistress, who still lives in the Gartocharn home the couple shared for many a happy year, and from where Weir would set off, sometimes at midnight, to ascend the hillock of Duncroyne, better known as the Dumpling. Now a sprightly 92, Mrs Weir told me how Tom cared not a jot that he was not being paid for the STV repeats, telling people that the enjoyment viewers received from the shows was “payment enough.” She spoke modestly about her late husband’s influence and said he would have been glad of the memorial in his honour. A few minutes after our conversation, she called back. There was, she said, one more thing she wished to add. On his gravestone, below his name and age, she explained, were engraved three words: ‘Who Loved Scotland’. How fitting that Scotland should now give something back a man who did so much to further our nation’s understanding of itself.