Calum Tyler inverviewed Robbie Fraser ahead of our screening of Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes at An Lanntair. The release of the film is being supported by SMHAF, with screenings taking place across Scotland and the UK. 

Robbie Fraser is a Scottish director, writer, cinematographer and producer, noted for making a documentary about the poet Hamish Henderson. His new documentary,  Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes, focuses on the life of the renowned mountaineer and his experiences with memory loss, being sectioned and being able to recover the majority of his memory using his own archive of film, photography and writings. 

I talked with Robbie Fraser just before the film was screened in An Lanntair in Stornoway as the only event for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival being held in the Western Isles.

What attracted you to make a film about Hamish MacInnes?

I didn’t actually know much about Hamish MacInnes at the start of the process and I knew very little about mountain climbing. But it was suggested that we make a film about Hamish MacInnes by Douglas Eadie, a veteran producer of film and TV in Scotland and the person who thought up the film I made about Hamish Henderson. He had made a film about the famous mountaineer from the 70s, Dougal Haston, an amazing mountaineer who had a bad boy personality and was also a heavy drinker, and had met Hamish MacInnes during the course of making it. Doug said: ‘We need to make a film about Hamish MacInnes because he’s a semi forgotten hero of Scottish mountaineering’.

So we went to see Hamish, who was in agreement, and we went to the BBC, who said: ‘Fine make a one hour film about this guy. He’s got loads of archive that you can use and it should be quite interesting.’ But then when we sat down to interview him for the first time he didn’t want to talk about mountaineering. He wanted to talk about this traumatic experience that he had when he ended up getting sectioned and got taken against his will to a psychogeriatric ward and kept trying to escape, was in a terrible state of health, had lost his memory completely and then he proceeded to get it back again by rebooting his brain using his own collection of archive and writing.  That’s the point when I thought there’s probably something more than just a one hour documentary for the BBC.

Is there a specific reason you wanted to make a film about mental health?

I didn’t really set out to make a film either about mental health or about mountaineering. I like telling the stories that people have got so it was first and foremost a story about the guy but then the fact that it had a mental health aspect mixed in with a mountaineering aspect was a recipe that I found very appealing. It’s a very rich recipe because normally mountaineering films are about conquering your inner self to get up something really high but in this sense Hamish had already done the conquering of the peaks, contributed so much to mountain safety, and here he is after a successful mountaineering career conquering a sort of inner Everest.

Is there anything you hope will change because of this film in terms of how we see people with memory loss?

I’m going to flip that around slightly. For me, what I really hope is that the film will change the way that we look at people who are late in life especially people with loss of self and identity but I hope that it also helps people who are going through memory loss, maybe people of an older generation who knew Hamish MacInnes as a figure and even regard him as a hero and look at the fortitude and the will that he had to get through his own experience. The majority of people don’t recover unless it’s a short term thing and Hamish’s was but I hope it helps people to give them a bit of inspiration and fighting spirit.

Do you think attitudes will change towards people who are or have been sectioned?

Let me put it this way. Hamish was really outraged at what happened to him. He was really traumatised by it and anybody who gets sectioned is in a state of distress. They’re acting strangely. They are in the technical terminology perhaps a danger to themselves or others and generally speaking it’s a very traumatic experience to be sectioned. To be put in somewhere that you can’t get out of having been a free person and at liberty. 

In Hamish’s case, he’s very angry at how things happened and I completely understand why. I think looking at his case history and looking at the way he was treated you could argue that the NHS could have covered it a little better in some aspect but basically I kind of think they did the best they could with the information they had ultimately and Hamish himself is very happy with the way the nurses treated him in general. He just found it a profoundly unnerving and unsteadying experience in general.

This film is not meant to be a medical procedural. It’s not meant to be a critique of the NHS or of the way in which people are sectioned because if you are a danger to yourself or others we’ve got a benevolent health service that will try to help you by taking you out of society for a wee while and I believe that’s the right thing but it has to be done with care. It’s a very serious, grave procedure but you have to have multiple signatures from normally a consultant psychiatrist and I think the county mental health officer. In this case it was a consultant doctor who wasn’t a psychiatrist and the local mental health officer but there is no consultant psychiatrist that they could offer. It’s a rural hospital essentially so I think they did the best job they could.

So what do you think the story of Hamish MacInnes and your film will change in terms of how we see old age?

I hope the film will help everybody to look at older people, whether they are people of Hamish MacInnes’s amazing achievements or not, and think about the accomplishments that they have had in their lives and to value them.

Do you have any final comments that you want people knowing about the film?

Just that it’s out and we’re really pleased with it and it’s getting a brilliant response. People who are into mountaineering seem to really like it and it’s got a spread of appeal that we think is really landing.

By Calum Tyler

Calum is a 23 year old living in Lewis. Having battled through depression and anxiety, Calum is very passionate about telling stories about mental health issues.

Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes is showing in cinemas across Scotland and the UK throughout May and June. Find full Scottish dates on the SMHAF website, and further UK dates and details on how to book a community screening on the Final Ascent website