The story of moses rigg
Location: Great Gable, a mountain in the Lake District, UK
Gable Crag, the north face of Great Gable and home of the Lake District’s hardest winter climbing route, Snicker Snap (VIII 9). Though I took the ridge route over Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable, the common walk-in to this mountain is by a path named Moses Trod.
The path is named for Moses Rigg, an 18th-century quarryman who, before there were proper roads in the Lakes, established the route as the shortest way to carry slate from the Honister mines over to Wasdale and thence down the valley road to the port at Ravenglass.
Word is, slate was not the only thing Moses was transporting over the fells. He was also smuggling wadd - then also called black lead, or plumbago, though now we know it as pure graphite. First discovered near Seathwaite in 1555, its many uses (from medicine to gun lubricant to pencils) made it highly lucrative, worth £70,000 a pony-load in today’s money. Smugglers' deals in the back rooms of Keswick may have given rise to the term “black market”, for the stains it’d have left on their hands.
But intrepid Moses did not stop at smuggling wadd. He also made bootleg whisky using water off Fleetwith Pike (bogwater makes the whisky taste better, he’s supposed to have claimed), distilled in a still hidden high on Gable Crag, accessible only by rock climbing, in an era before climbing was done for anything but direst emergency. A perfect location, then, for staying out of reach of the excise men.
Yet, writing in the Fell and Rock Climbing Journal in 1924, RB Graham fretted that “Everybody has heard of him; everybody knows of him; everybody knows that the track was made by Moses, but who ever saw him in the flesh?” Official records of the man are non-existent.
Wainwright, in his guides, made reference to a hut called Smuggler’s Retreat, “the highest site ever used for building in England” - but it was “now completely in ruins.” Writing in 1999, veteran journalist and mountaineer Harry Griffin reported that the hut had “completely disappeared, its last stones swept down the crag by winter storms.” Gone.
It turns out that all the stories about Moses Rigg stem from but one source: the testimony of Auld Will Ritson, proprietor of the Wastwater Inn in the mid-C19th, who remembered from his childhood an old man called Moses who would bring slate over the Trod in a pony trap which doubled as an illicit whisky shop.
Yet Auld Will himself was also a bit of a local legend: as a teller of tall tales. He started the World’s Greatest Liar contest, which continues to this day at the Wasdale Head pub. So perhaps the legend of Moses Rigg was nothing more than that.
But then in 2005 Guy Proctor, a writer with Trail magazine, heard a rambling story from his old man mountaineering editor Jeremy about a winter climb up Central Gully in 1983, and a strange ruined hut. He went to have a look, and to work out where on this rockface a hobnail-booted quarryman might have been able to climb.
Thirty metres down the rake and around a rocky promontory he found a shelter, still standing. A tiny shelf in the hut’s back wall. And on that shelf, two stones looking like “very old and weathered and slightly manky-looking potatoes. …A gentle rub with a thumbnail, and a small section of the mossy mank came off, revealing underneath a silky gleam. I gently rubbed my sample on the corner of my notepad. The soft black smudge said it all.”
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