Sunday, 6 March 2016

Mountain rescue in Scotland

We all hope we don't need it but it's there if we do

All those who go to wild and remote places to enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors take responsibility for themselves and their own safety, but outdoor enthusiasts are aware that their safety cannot be guaranteed. Every year in Scotland there are incidents and accidents involving people who get into trouble on the hills, lochs, moors and inshore waters often in areas which are hard to reach. What would you do if this happened to you? You would reach for your phone and dial 999 (or 112 - more about this below). That call will go through to a call handing centre who will take it from there and alert the appropriate emergency service - and one of those could be a mountain rescue team.

But who exactly are these mountain rescue teams? In the UK they fall into three categories - civilian mountain rescue teams, police mountain rescue teams and - until recently - the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopters (more about this below).

The early days of civilian mountain rescue teams

A party of mountaineers on a snow-covered mountainside
Public domain image from The British Library
Those hardy souls who pioneered walking and climbing in the UK in the early part of the 20th century knew well that if they had an accident they were on their own. If the worst were to happen, the best they could hope for was that their companions would either carry them off the hill or raise the alarm amongst friends and fellow-climbers and organise a rescue party. If they were on their own or badly injured they probably didn't make it to safety. The first mountain rescue teams weren't actually called that. They simply consisted of committed mountaineers and enthusiastic members of climbing clubs who banded together and did what they had to do to rescue club members in dire need on the hills - a culture of helping a fellow climber in need prevailed.

Over time there grew a realisation that this system was inadequate and the first ''proper'' civilian mountain rescue teams began to come into existence. The first official one was set up in the Lake District in England in 1947 - the Conniston Fells Rescue Party (now the Conniston MRT). Others soon followed.

In Scotland, a similar process occurred until the entire country was served by volunteer mountain rescue teams. Currently, there are 24 civilian mountain rescue teams in Scotland plus two Search and Rescue Dog Association teams and one specialist cave rescue team and every single one of the 1000 or so members is an enthusiastic mountaineer and climber - and an unpaid volunteer. They all come under the auspices of Scottish Mountain Rescue which is a registered charity.

Money being donated to a mountain rescue team
CC0 image from Pixabay
All of the civilian mountain rescue teams are self-funded by public donations (you will find collection tins in many pubs, shops, cafes and businesses all through the mountainous areas of Scotland) or through sponsorship by various companies who will supply either equipment or funding. Some local garages will service and repair civilian mountain rescue team vehicles free of charge. If you ever see such a collection tin in any pub or cafe you are in please donate a few coins. You never know - the next call-out a mountain rescue team receives may be to rescue you!

Police mountain rescue teams

Search and rescue helicopter in flight
Free image from Gary Watt/Wikipedia
The Police Service of Scotland has three mountain rescue teams: Grampian, Tayside and Strathclyde. All of the members are serving officers who will give up their free time, if necessary, to aid those in need. The police also have the responsibility for organising mountain rescue operations in Scotland. They have the ability to request assistance from the civilian mountain rescue teams and, until recently, the RAF Mountain Rescue Service and the Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopters based at HMS Gannet at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow although these two resources have now been withdrawn by the UK government (after 70 years of successful service) and handed over to a private contractor with the new SAR-H service due to become fully operational in the summer of 2017 (until then the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will provide a temporary rescue helicopter service). There has been much controversy over this decision and how well it will work but it's a done deal and only time will tell.

Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service

This article is not intended as a history of rescue services in the Scottish hills but it is interesting to understand how and why the RAF Mountain Rescue Service came into being. Ever since the Wright brothers first took to the air in a powered aircraft there have been accidents and, given the nature of aircraft which can go anywhere over land or water, many of these crashes happened in remote places particularly in poor weather conditions over mountains 

Obviously, military authorities had a responsibility to their aircrew and were duty bound to seek out and rescue survivors of any aircraft crash. At first this was an ad hoc affair - a rescue party would be cobbled together from medical personnel and knowledgeable servicemen from the nearest RAF station and a rescue attempt would be made. This was soon recognised to be inadequate. Mountain rescue, especially in poor weather conditions, requires well-trained, well-equipped and highly-motivated personnel and one incident in particular brought these facts home to the military authorities, the mountaineering community and the general public - the crash of Avro Lancaster TX264 in the early hours of 14th March 1951 on the 3310-feet Wester Ross mountain Beinn Eighe.

Avro Lancaster similar to the one which crashed on Beinn Eighe
Photograph by Ronnie Macdonald/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
TX264 crashed just below the summit of Beinn Eighe in atrocious winter weather conditions. Beinn Eighe is a notoriously complex mountain of many ridges and gullies and it was two days before the crash site was pinpointed. Due to continuing bad weather and deep snow it took several more days before any rescuers (two Royal Marines Commandos) reached the crash site and recovered one body but it wasn't until nearly six months later that the last remains of the eight aircrew who died were recovered.

At the time there were rumours of some of the crew surviving the actual crash but succumbing to the elements before they could be rescued. The public outcry over this delay (especially from the mountaineering community many of whom had offered their services and been refused) led directly to the establishment of the modern Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service which has served both military and civilian victims of accidents on the hills for 70 years until recently withdrawn to be replaced by a civilian contractor.

If you need to call mountain rescue

In the UK the dedicated emergency number is 999 which will connect you with all of the emergency services (ambulance, coastguard, fire service and, of course, the police who are responsible for co-ordinating mountain rescue) there is also another number you can use - 112. That number not only works in the UK but will also work all over Europe and further afield. In the UK it is also possible to register your mobile phone to send a text message to the emergency services instead of a voice call.

This ability could come in very handy if you are in an area where there is poor reception - a text message stands a better chance of getting through than a voice call. It is also a great way for someone who is speech or hearing impaired to communicate their needs to the emergency services. This short video will explain further and gives more information and handy tips you may not have thought of:

Author's note: This video is incorrect in one minor detail. It states that in the UK it is possible to call the emergency services from a mobile phone even if the phone does not have a SIM card installed. This is not the case. Since it is the SIM card which stores the necessary information to make an emergency call one must be present in the phone or it won't work.

Sources: Wikipedia, in-text links


  1. Thank you for this information

    1. You're welcome and thanks for visiting.

  2. What an interesting post. My hat goes off to all the mountain rescue teams that sometimes risk their lives to save others.

    1. I also have a lot of respect for the mountain rescue teams. They go to the aid of those in need with no thought of reward for the simple reason that they are kindred spirits.

  3. Good know there are ways to rescue people in far out remote places if needed.

    1. I have never needed to be rescued from Scotland's hills (so far!) but it is good to know that help is only a phone call away.

  4. Wow, this is awesome information. I never thought about having to be rescued. Our rescue number for police etc. is 911

    1. The 112 emergency number can be used in the US in certain circumstances.

  5. This is interesting. I live in northern Idaho and we rely on similar services. In fact, residents can sign up for a sort of insurance for emergency helicopter service in the event of needing rescue from one's back yard.

    1. Some kind of insurance policy for adventure sportspersons needing rescue or help in wilderness areas has been mooted in the UK on several occasions but so far nothing has come of it.