Go into any Scottish bookshop and you'll find no shortage of books about the Munros, the 282 individual mountains in Scotland above 3,000ft in height. Generally they fall into two categories: books that show you how to climb the Munros yourself; and books that recount the author's own adventures on the mountains, whether in winter, or in older age, or as a single expedition, or in other circumstances that help set apart their feat as especially unusual, noteworthy or inspiring. The Munros and their collection has also served as the focus of, or background to, works of fiction.
As a result, you could be forgiven for thinking that just about every angle it's possible to take on the Munros has been covered, and committed to print. One of the many joys of "The Making of Mickey Bell" by Kellan MacInnes is that it proves beyond doubt that there is always room for a new way of looking at a well-trodden subject, and that it is possible to produce as a result an outstanding book that is both memorable and unique. "The Making of Mickey Bell" is a novel that explores the interaction between a life lived in the darkness and gloom of one of the most disadvantaged corners of a very modern Scotland on the one hand, and the timeless joy of reaching a summit cairn and drinking in a view that stretches for miles on the other.
Mickey Bell is 35 years old. He lives on the ground floor of one of the blocks of high flats in Drumkirk, a fictional suburb of Glasgow. He has been living with HIV for five years, and only surviving because of his medication. For the same amount of time he's been claiming benefits because his medical condition and complications arising from his medication makes it impossible for him to work. Or, at least, that was what his advocacy worker told the DSS at the time the benefits award was made, and she should have known because she had previously worked for them.
The thing is that Mickey has become inspired by the Munros, and a chance a few years before to spend some time on the west coast of Sutherland allowed him to begin climbing and collecting them, and to acquire his collie dog Tyke. Ever since, Mickey has steadily closed in on his goal of climbing every Munro. But then Mickey's psychotic ex-boyfriend, Jonnie, reports him to the benefit fraud hotline, and with a decision about to be made on Scotland's future as an independent nation (or not), the prospect of a high profile conviction of a Munro-bagging benefits scrounger is one that appeals to the very highest levels of the powers-that-be in London.
This is a book that relentlessly picks up pace as it proceeds. Mickey only has a few Munros left to climb, but fears that the DSS are on his tail. Can he complete his goal before they track him down? And if he does, what happens then? "The Making of Mickey Bell" is a lovely book that captures perfectly the atmosphere of remote Highland communities , and the joy of hillwalking. The author's approach to storytelling has some innovative twists that work beautifully. We see much of the action from Mickey's point of view, though later we spend some time with Nige, a DSS investigator. Amongst other viewpoints used to tell the story are those of Tyke, the collie, and "The Munro Book", the book which Mickey found in a charity shop and in which he has ticked off his conquests. The result is a long way from any other book about climbing Munros you are likely to have encountered, not least in that the actual climbing is usually incidental until the very end. Yet it is also likely to be one of the more memorable books about Munros you will have read: or about life in modern Scotland, for that matter.