Russ Salisbury (l) and Julian Hearne (r)
By ex-hut custodian Julian Hearne
The following account of my time as the hut custodian for The Manse Barn in Onich is not meant to be an exhaustive account of its history, but rather just a semi-coherent account of funny anecdotes with some facts thrown in to anchor it in reality.
Better men than me - and it was all men in the 1970s – could tell you about how the club came to acquire the hut and the effort it took to make it habitable. I take my hat off to all of them for the bloody-minded determination it must have taken to do this.
First - a bit a me: I joined the club in 2003 and was the club’s membership secretary for a couple of years. In November 2007 my dad died so I went back to Guernsey for the funeral. While I was away there was a club AGM and the hut custodian at the time, Russell Salisbury, wanted to be the club president, but he couldn’t hold two positions, so he nominated me as hut custodian. Apparently I was nominated, seconded and duly elected – all to my surprise when I returned to Scotland.
Secondly - a bit about the hut for those who didn’t get the opportunity to visited it: It was fantastic and it was rubbish. It really depends on who you are. I thought it was fantastic, but that is because I had some great (and romantic) times there, but others found it smelly and small. It was cold and there was no shower. If it hadn’t been used for a week or two, green mould spores grew on all the surfaces and hung in the air like a fine green mist. The concrete floor downstairs was covered in an old carpet and sloped downwards from left to right. The reason for this was when it had been used to stable animals and had straw over the concrete, all the poo and piss could be swept down to one end. The kitchen was adequate for two or three people, but if more than five stayed overnight it could be a problem.
Upstairs was the sleeping area and toilet. There were two alpine bunk-bed style mattress covered platforms, sleeping five on the top and five on the bottom. The most I’ve ever counted in the hut was 15 - and that was pretty crowded. One of the main complains about the hut was sound proofing. Basically it didn’t have any. So if you were a light sleeper, had forgotten your earplugs, or were not drunk, it could be a very frustrating night listening to someone else snoring, or drinking and talking downstairs while those upstairs tried to sleep
I have seen grown men in their 50’s almost coming to blows over this – yup I’m looking at you Richard and Harry. Moving on swiftly. There was also a resident mouse in the hut. His name was Malcolm and he only ever came out when everyone had gone to bed or when it was very quiet. I always knew it was time to stagger off to bed if I was the last one downstairs and Malcolm popped his head out of his mousehole. It meant I hadn’t moved a muscle in at least 10 minutes.
The position of the hut, just north of Ballachulish, was idea for so many reasons. It was far enough away from Glasgow (an hour and a half) to make it convenient for a weekend away, but close enough to decide to go home if you wanted a shower and home comforts at the end of a long day in the hills. Many club members used it as a stop-off for weekend winter climbing on Ben Nevis getting up at 5.30am, as the rest of us snored away happily. There are many entries in the hut log books, from club and visiting members to testify to this.
Looking back at the seven year’s I was hut custodian, I don’t remember the days out climbing or walking in the hills as fondly as the comradeship and laughter back at the hut afterwards. Don’t get me wrong. The hills were, and still are so important, especially as I sit here and write this staring down the barrel of another Covid 19 lockdown. Maybe it is all just rose-tinted nostalgia. I don’t drink as much as I used to, and many of the funny things that happened 10 years ago, I would probably find a bit boring now, but the Manse Barn was an important part of my life for at least a decade.
Before I go there is one last anecdote I’d like to tell: I don’t know exactly when this happened but it was probably sometime between 2005-07. A group of us went climbing in Glen Coe, but the only other person I remember on that day was Harry Mccaffery. After a couple of drinks in the hut, we didn’t feel like the two minute walk across the carpark to have another drink in The Onich Hotel because it had all the atmosphere of a morgue. So a group of us decided to go to The Clachaig Inn for a couple more beers. I walked in and guess who I saw: Jimmy Saville standing at the bar in a white tracksuit and purple string vest. At the time he was my hero from Jim’ll Fix It, so I went up to chat to him, telling him I was the membership secretary of The Lomond Mountaineering Club, and if he wanted to join our club as an honorary member he’d be welcome. He chatted to me for a while about the Aonach Eagach ridge and how he would have liked to do it when he was younger, but not now. He shook my hand and I thought it was great that I’d met someone famous. I think I went on about it a bit too much because when I got back to the hut I told those who hadn’t been there all about it. I said I’m never going to wash my right hand again, to which Harry replied, ‘that Jimmy Saville is a pervert and a paedo.’ How right you were Harry. And how wrong was I.
Almost there: The club was always on a shoogly peg concerning the use of the hut. It belongs to the owners of The Onich Hotel and they decided to kick us out in July 2014. There was nothing we could do but to accept the inevitable and close a chapter in the club’s history that stretched back more than a quarter of a century. It was a shame, but I am happy for the memories it has given me.