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Anniversary Cake

A few weeks ago we referred to a splendid interview with the doyen broadcaster, mountaineer and conservationist Tom Weir by Dr Jenny Taggart in the February 2005 issue of the Scots Independent.  Our thank to Dr Taggart for her assistance in making the interview available for Flag visitors.  Tom Weir was the first winner of the SI's Oliver Brown Award and the interview has been added to the Tom Weir section of the Oliver Brown feature.

Tom Weir in conversation with Dr Jenny Taggart.

 A few days after his ninetieth birthday ceilidh I have the pleasure to meet the diminutive Tom Weir, resplendent in his trade mark woolly bunnet, fair-isle jumper and nicky-tams. He is sprightly and energetic, keen for conversation and eager to enjoy birthday cake and tea made by his wife, Rhone.

His earliest recollection is of his grandmother who would give him a penny to sing ‘Rowan Tree’. “I can still sing it today” he laughs. He remembers as a child wanting to climb - anything, anywhere. His mother loved mountains and together the pair would escape Glasgow.  A short bus journey would take them from their home in Springburn to the Campsite Hills, a place that is still a favourite of Tom’s today.  A commemorative cairn now marks the start of ‘Weir’s Walk’ from Clachan of Campsie through the hills. From his earliest days, he also remembers wanting to be a writer. Here he was helped by another member of his strongly matriarchal family. His elder, and equally weel-kent sister, Mollie, taught him to touch-type, charging him two shillings and sixpence a lesson.  “It was money well spent”, he says.

I ask about his experience as a Battery Officer in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. “I was in action in Italy. They don’t let you off, you know. We were called out anytime, day or night. One time the men had really suffered. We were supposed to have an inspection each day, and I said to the men ‘never mind that, you’ve done your bit’. I was back to a private again by the next day because I didn’t get it right. One thing I will never forget, I was in the cinema in Germany and there was an explosion and the whole screen blew right out covering everyone with debris. We fought our way out again. There was the time too when I was in a top bunk and another chap was on the lower. We were bombed and the bomb went straight through the two bunks between us.”

He came back to Glasgow after the war, and began work as a surveyor. But he was soon able to support himself by his writing, and in1950 took part in the first post-war Himalayan expedition. In 1952, he was one of the first to explore the mountains of Nepal and Katmandu. Some of his most difficult ascents were there. He also climbed in Greenland above the Arctic Circle, in Morocco, Iran, Syria and Kurdistan, as well as in Scotland. He says he likes the challenge of the climb and the achievement of reaching the summit.

Despite being one of Scotland’s foremost mountaineers, he was never a Munro-bagger. He has been to the top of most Munros, but preferred to climb only those he liked best, enjoying the whole experience of the sky, the lochs, trees, birds, flowers, animals – the spiritual as well as the physical. For example, the tiny 142-metre Duncryne, known locally where he lives in Gartocharn as ‘The Dumpling’, has been important always to him. “I used to climb Duncryne every day, sometimes even at midnight.” I ask him if this is his favourite place in Scotland. “No”, he replies, “That honour goes to Glen Lyon. It is a beautiful place. I call it ‘the three Ls’: the loveliest, the longest and the loneliest. I like to walk there because of the loneliness.”

He believes climbing should be safer today than fifty years ago because of better clothing and equipment. But this has had the contrary effect that climbers may now extend themselves beyond their ability to prove how good they are. Consequently, they can be in greater danger. He says, “For me, it was never what I did, but what I saw, that was important”. Tom was injured only once in his life, rock climbing on Ben A’an in the Trossachs. Recalling the incident, he said, “It is a difficult climb. We were just starting and I hadn’t got the feel of the mountain. I missed a vital hold and fell forty feet. I nearly lost my life, but it was my own fault. I was climbing without a belay. I never did that again”.

Tom Weir has been given many awards. He has received the Scots Independent Oliver Award in 1983 for advancing the cause of Scotland’s self-respect. He has an MBE. He was awarded STV’s personality of the year in 1978 for Weir’s Way, a programme that introduced the Scottish countryside to many Scots whose lives had given them no prior knowledge or experience of it. He is most proud of The John Muir Trust Award given him in 2000. The award, proudly displayed in his home, is inscribed “Presented to Tom Weir in recognition of his contribution to the wider understanding of the value of Scotland’s wild places”. The John Muir Award is not given annually, and has only been given twice in the twenty-one years of the organisation’s existence in this country. Tom was the first recipient. All of their married life he and Rhona have lived on the shores of Loch Lomond. Concerned that the area should be protected, Tom campaigned to see the setting up of the National Park. He is proud that this has come to pass and believes that the Park is necessary for management of the land, the flora and the fauna. He also campaigned to safeguard the Cairngorms and Glen Nevis.

I ask Tom if he believes in Scottish Independence. He replies “Scotland could easily do it. It has everything. There is no reason why we can’t look after ourselves. I believe we should, but I have never been actively involved in politics”.

“Do you believe in God?” I ask. He is sure of his answer: “No. Everyone has one life. That’s all it is. No spirit looks after you beyond death. I was lucky not to have been killed in the war. I was lucky not to have been killed on Ben A’an. I don’t believe the world will be in existence in another one hundred years. Man is outliving himself. The atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were terrible. Now climate change is destroying the world. I have lived long enough to see the difference from when I was young. Life was more free then.”

What is the secret of a long life, I wonder? “Good health, good friends, and enough money to live at your own level. Always be doing something you enjoy doing. Good and happy memories”. Has Tom Weir, legend in his own lifetime, enjoyed his life? “I enjoy it still. Every morning I wake up and there is something else to do”.  

The secret of long life is always be doing something you enjoy.

 Biographical note

Tom Weir was born in 1914 in Springburn, Glasgow. His father was killed in the Great War later the same year. He was brought up mainly by his grandmother, while his mother painted railway wagons to support Tom, his brother Willie and sister Mollie. After leaving school at 14 years, Tom worked as a grocer’s boy. Later, in the late 1940s he worked for a short while as a surveyor for Ordnance Survey, before becoming a full-time climber, writer and broadcaster. For 56 years he wrote a monthly column for Scots Magazine. He has published 14 books on climbing and on the wildlife and natural history of Scotland, writing his first book, Highland’s Days, while on active duty in the Second World War. In 1976, he made the hugely successful Weir’s Way for STV, a programme that is currently being rerun to record viewing figures despite being broadcast at 3.00 a.m. He has won many awards including the first ever Scots Independent Oliver Award in 1983. He still enjoys a level of fitness today that many half his age would envy.

Anniversary Cake is the appropriate recipe to celebrate the inspiring life of 90-year-young Tom Weir and this week you also get the bonus of a further recipe for Almond Paste!

Anniversary Cake

350 g (12 oz) butter; 350 g (12 oz) soft brown sugar; 6 eggs, beaten; 350 g (12 oz) flour; pinch of salt; 1 teaspoon baking powder; 1 teaspoon mixed spice; 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg; 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; 350 g (12 oz) sultanas;350 g (12 oz) currants; 225 g (8 oz) seedless raisons; 100 g (4 oz) mixed candied peel; 175 g (6 oz) glace cherries, finely chopped; 75 g (3 oz) blanched almonds, finely chopped; finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon; 4 tablespoons brandy, rum or sherry

Grease a 23 cm (9 inch) square cake tin and line with a double layer of grease-proof paper. Brush with oil. Beat the butter until soft and light, add the sugar and cream together until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs a little at a time, adding a little of the measured flour if the mixture shows signs of separating.  Sieve the flour with the salt, baking powder and spices into a large mixing bowl.  Stir in the dried fruit, candied peel, glacé cherries and almonds and mix thoroughly.  Fold into the butter and sugar, adding the lemon rind and juice and half the spirits.  Mix well together, then spoon into the prepared tin.  Spread level.

Bake in a warm oven (170°C, 325°F, Gas Mark 3) for 3½ hours or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.  Cover the cake with foil if it becomes too brown during cooking.  When cooked, remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly.  Prick a few holes in the top of the cake with a skewer and spoon over the remaining spirits.

Leave until cold, then turn out of the tin and remove the greaseproof paper.  Wrap in aluminium foil and store in an airtight tin for at least a month to improve the flavour, spooning over more spirits from time to time, if wished.  Cover with Almond Paste before icing and decorating.

Almond Paste

350g (12 oz) ground almonds;  175g (6 oz) caster sugar;  175g (6 oz) icing sugar, sieved;  1 egg;  3 egg yolks;  1-2 tablespoons lemon juice;  few drops of almond or vanilla essence (optional);  about 3 tablespoons sieved apricot jam, warmed

Put the almonds and sugars in a bowl and mix well.  Beat the egg and egg yolks together with half the lemon juice, and the essence if using.  Add to the almond mixture and mix carefully until the paste comes together, adding more lemon juice if necessary, but do not overwork.  To add to cake work as follows: brush the top of the cake with apricot jam.  Halve almond paste and roll out one piece on a board sprinkled with icing sugar, to a round slightly larger than the cake.  Lift on to the rolling pin and lay over the cake.  Trim.  Brush the sides of the cake with the remaining jam.  Roll out the remaining paste into a rectangle, long enough to go half round cake and twice as deep; cut into two.  Press one piece at a time on to the cake, cutting away any excess along the top.  Smooth the joins with a palette knife, smooth the top of the cake with a rolling pin and roll a straight-sided jar round the sides.  Leave to dry for at least one week before icing.

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