Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Heroes rarely come untainted

Lt Colonel Kevin de Val, a spokesman for the Royal Marines, gave a graphic account of the problems facing the marine Charlie Paton from Stonehaven and Corporal Alan Chambers from Scunthorpe on their unsupported 700-mile walk to the North Pole: "The ice is breaking up. The weather is clumping in. All we need is a herd of rampaging polar bears to come charging through to make their day complete." Paton's father remained confident: "Charlie will get to the pole by sheer brute force if necessary." Although he had written to his father some weeks ago to say he had frostbite in his thumbs and his big toes, Paton was determined to carry on.

The Arctic explorer John Rae would have appreciated the qualities of stamina and single-mindedness that eventually brought the two marines to their goal - if not the relative pointlessness of their effort. Rae was an Orcadian employed by the Hudson's Bay Company, responsible for mapping hundreds of miles of Canada's northern coastline. As a commercial organisation, run from London, the HBC was interested not in heroics, but in the maximum extension of its empire for minimum outlay. It was thus for reasons of finance as well as efficiency that Rae's explorations were pared-down affairs. Rae observed how the natives travelled and did likewise - with dog and sled.

It was not the way of the Royal Navy, whose hugely expensive expeditions in search of the grail of the North West Passage inevitably ended in failure, if not, as in Sir John Franklin's case, disaster. Rae was never forgiven for having "gone native", and was, in fact, the only key player in the Franklin tragedy not to receive a knighthood.

And yet a line in polar exploration can be traced from the methods of Rae to those of Roald Amundsen, as clearly as the line of Establishment arrogance that led to Captain Scott. But no one seeing Scott's last letter in pencil copperplate - the embodiment of Hemingway's "grace under pressure" - would doubt that any of these men were lacking in what used to be confidently known as "character".

Paton's character, according to his father, was the product of the "true grit of a north-east upbringing". Rae himself saw many of his achievements as stemming from his childhood experience in Orkney. And John Muir wrote eloquently if alarmingly about how his own harsh upbringing had taught him to cope with adversity. Writing in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth about all the "various thrashings" he received at school, Muir comments: "We at length managed to keep our features in smooth repose while enduring pain that would try anybody but an American Indian."

Sadly, however, it turns out that Paton was not selective in his application of "brute force". Soon after his triumph was confirmed, it emerged that he had been convicted of doing "something very stupid" two weeks before the expedition set out. Escorted to the door of a night club, after being caught urinating on the floor, Paton turned on the bouncer and head-butted him. He had kept quiet about the incident, in case its exposure resulted in him being dropped from "the opportunity of a lifetime". Needless to say, some of the glitter has been rubbed off his heroic exploits.

Paton's case is symptomatic of our present experience of heroism and, even more so, of celebrity. Reputations are constantly bruised by the revelation that a perceived super-strength in one area is matched by a weakness in another.

One Scot who, unlike Rae, looks set to receive a knighthood is Sean Connery - the one "loved by every woman he meets and envied by every man". Connery, the ultimate in manly virtues, once apparently condoned hitting women. It would be a less serious matter if Connery were not treated by the media as the closest thing we in Scotland have to our own royalty. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament, it was only the presence of the Queen that prevented the camera from returning lovingly and indecently often to the ruffed-up, kilted film star.

Last week in Dumfries, Prince Charles (or the Duke of Rothesay, if you prefer) unveiled a statue of Elizabeth Crichton, the benefactor of the Crichton Royal Hospital, which is being transformed into the university she truly desired. It has taken almost 200 years to mark her achievements in such a way. But perhaps, in our small country, we are right to be reticent in erecting public monuments to individuals, so confused or wrong-footed can we appear in marking achievements of solid value with the extolling of an imperfect celebrity.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness