Born and raised in Springburn, Glasgow, it is perhaps not surprising that Tom Weir sought to escape this unhappy fate through his wanderings in the wild places.
As a young man he was introduced to the joys of climbing, which was to become a large part of his life, at home, in the Alps and ultimately in the high Himalayas. Indeed, it was in the Himalayas that Tom first came to national prominence, following his spectacular ascent of Nanga Parbat. Disdaining the high tech gear, team support and oxygen cylinders that todays climber considers essential, Tom scaled the peak unaided, fortified only by a bottle of ginger, a big bag of Pan Drops and a round of ham sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper. Climbing was far from being Tom’s only interest, and during a trip to the mountains of northern Iraq in the 1930’s he was to visit Sir Leonard Wooley’s excavation of the Sumerian city of Ur Upon being shown a bas- relief that had long puzzled the distinguished archeologist, Tom immediately identified it as a depiction of a young boy ‘letting one go’ while his companions fell about laughing. Thereafter Tom was unwavering in his opinion that ‘blowing off’ was in fact the oldest joke known to mankind. This view, long the subject of ridicule, has recently received support from Professor Michael Boogered of the University of Tuhghen. In his work of the development of speech in early humanoids, Boogered has concluded that the first words uttered by our Australopithecine ancestors were not, as was thought, warnings of nearby predators, but rather a primitive version of “Him that smelt it- dealt it.’
Tom’s disenchantment with the world of professional climbing came after Sir John Hunts Everest Expedition of 1953. Initially it had been planned that Tom, rather than Edmund Hillary, would be the first man to the summit. In the event, Tom was thrown off the expedition – officially for damaging team morale by insisting on Izal medicated toilet paper when his fellow climbers would have preferred a more absorbent brand. However, to this day many believe that Hunt simply felt that the dignity of his enterprise would be compromised if the first man up Everest were to be a cherry nosed buffer in a bubble hat, cheerfully dispensing Soor Plooms to his sherpa and commenting on the ‘rair views’ from the top.
Returning to his native Scotland, forged a new career for himself as a writer on the great outdoors. Then, in the early 1970’s television came calling, and Weir’s Way was born.
On paper the formula for the programme looked simple: just Tom tramping the byways of Scotland, chatting to folk met along the way, with lots of scenery thrown in to aide overseas sales. With Tom at the helm the show became so much more – an allegory, indeed, of life itself. Tom was Everyman, Tom was Pilgrim, but a Pilgrim whose arrival in the Celestial City would be infinitely deferred, a Pilgrim for whom the journey was everything, indefatigably enthused by the utterly unexceptional, never losing the capacity to see the miraculous in the mundane. And set against Tom’s hopeful traveller were the people he encountered on his wanderings, the tragedy of the human condition made flesh.
By and large Tom’s interviews fell into one of three broad camps. In the Lowlands the figure that looms largest was the desperate chemistry teacher, reeking of iodine and failure, the chemistry teacher whose wife had left him after 15 years of lonely sexual disappointment and who had thrown himself into his local history society in a frantic attempt to salvage something from the
wreckage of his life. He could talk – and Tom would wisely let him talk – and for a time it was possible to believe in him as a man content with his lot. All the time, however, the truth was there in his eyes: the sheer stark terror of one who knows he stands on the very edge the void, nauseated by the pointlessness of his own existence.
Then, on the north east coast, Tom would meet the Naturalist. Exuberantly bearded but devoid of any social skills, the naturalist had fled from his fellow man to live on some bleak and godforsaken salt marsh, whipped relentlessly by the North sea wind. A cold wind, as cold as the spaces between the stars, as cold as the ashes of a love that’s died, a lonely life with only Puffin and Tern and Gannet for company, but this lonely life is the only life the naturalist could ever life.
And in the central highlands Tom would come across the third of Scotland’s rural tribes: the Inbred. Immaculate in tweeds and brogues. But with a disturbing slack vacancy around the face, the inbreed made his living teaching gentlefolks how to slaughter the local fauna. His pleasures were chiefly incest and whisky, and he had a deep suspicion of twentieth century ways. His interviews tended to be halting and monosyllabic, and the inbred would never look directly into the camera, fearful that the southern sorcery of this magic lantern would steal away his soul.
For some, these folk he met were the chief joy of Weir’s Way, and indeed the recent late night re runs of the show gave rise to the ‘Tom Weir’ game, popular amongst students, Participants would commence having sexual intercourse at one in the morning, Weir’s Way normally being shown at twenty past. The aim of the game was to delay the moment of orgasm until Tom had met his main interviewee of the evening. Players would then gleefully climax, timing it so that they did so they could shout along with the telly, “Well, Hello there Tom!” Being students few, if any, of them lasted that long, but it’s nice that they tried.
Tom himself came to understand that the interviews were merely incidental, and in the stunning nautical spin off ‘Weir’s Aweigh’ he paved the format down to the bare bones. regarded by many as the crowning glory of his life’s work, the show featured a cast of three: Tom himself, the taciturn skipper standing at the wheel of his craft, back for ever to the camera as he gazed into an unguessable future and the third, wholly ghostly, member of the trinity, never seen, never heard, who lurked below decks brewing endless pots of tea. Only Tom was ever permitted ashore, the others being condemned to an eternity of watery wanderings from desolate Hebrides rock to desolate Hebrides rock. The whole thing was both mysterious and hypnotic, part travelogue, part natural history, part Samuel Beckett. Somehow , when one saw that boat set sail for the last time, one sensed that some sort of closure had been achieved – that the rest would be – had to be, silence.
And now Tom has gone. The day of Tom’s Passing was one of great sorrow both here in The Weekly offices (Dunfermline and Roslyn) and throughout the land, sorrow and disbelief. It is difficult to believe that no more will Tom go tramping his beloved Highland hills, difficult to accept that that restless spirit is finally and forever stilled. Yet, for those of us fortunate enough to have been touched by his genius, Tom can never truly die: He will always be somewhere by our side to guide our faltering steps, and to teach us to see a world in grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, to hold infinity in the palm of our hand, and eternity in an hour.
Tom Weir, a true hero: hail and farewell.