Friday, 21 May 2010

Archibald Aeneas Robertson...The First Munroist ?

Richard Gilbert on Gannett Peak in the Wind Mountains,Wyoming.
Gilbert Collection©

Richard Gilbert has been an enthusiastic climber and hill walker all his life, starting in the 1940s when his family were evacuated to North Wales.In 1961 he was President of the OUMC and ten years later became the 101st Munroist.
He taught chemistry in North Yorkshire for 30 years and ran an active mounatineering club with expeditions to many ranges including, in 1977 the first ever school climbing to the Himalalaya for which he was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship. .He wrote a monthly column for High Magazine for 15 years and has published eleven books including " Exploring the Far North West of Scotland" which won the OWG gold medal as the best guidebook in 1995. His most enjoyable activities have been family holidays in the Alps and backpacking in the Highlands with his wife Trisha.

Archibald Aeneas Robertson.

Nowadays biographers have a tendency to rubbish schoolboy heroes and expose their human failings. Thus Captain Scott, Amunsden,
Menlove Edwards, Spencer Chapman and TE Lawrence do not attract quite the same amount of admiration as of old.
Sir Hugh Munro still stands aloof, a staunch pillar of the SMC and compiler of his historic tables, yet it is common knowledge that Munro's untimely death in France in 1919 left him just two mountains short of completion. That honour was first claimed by the Reverend Archibald Aeneas Robertson in 1901 when he ascended Meall Dearg above Glen Coe, with his wife and Lord Moncrieff, and reputedly kissed the cairn first and then his wife before they consumed a quart of Ayala champagne and descended the screes.
However, doubts have been cast on Robertson's claims.  From an examination of Robertson's hill-walking logs and diaries a strange entry was discovered for August 1928 (written retrospectively a decade later): 'I did B Wyvis, taking train to Auchtemeed from Tain. I followed the usual way up but near the top it came on heavy rain and as I did not want to get soaked I turned'.
This does not mean, of course, that Robertson did not return to climb Ben Wyvis but there is no record of his having done so. Having made several appallingly dull ascents of the mountain myself, if he did not return he wins a certain amount of sympathy.
The only 3,000ft peak that Robertson had definitely not climbed by 1901 was the Inaccessible Pinnacle because, until the 1921 revisions of the Tables, the adjacent Sgurr Dearg took prominence in spite of the fact that it is 16ft lower. Records show that Robertson climbed the In Pin in 1908, well before the second Munroist, the Rever­end ARG Burn, completed in 1923.
At the turn of the century, the leisured life and social status of gentlemen of the cloth gave them opportunities to take long holidays in the hills. Robertson's motivation seems to have come more from the ascents than 'nearer my God to thee' because he frequently climbed on Sundays, defying local opinion against exertions of any kind on the Sabbath. His logs never mentioned wild life or natural history but had much to say about the contents of his lunch box.
Robertson managed to arrange three month holidays in both 1898 and 1899 during which time he polished off nearly 150 Munros using a bicycle to reach inaccessible places such as the west end of Loch Mullardoch, Monar Lodge in Glen Strathfarrar and Kinlochquoich. He was an enthusiastic member of the Cyclists Touring Club. Robertson and his second wife, Winifred, used a tandem to travel around the High­lands. Winifred was also a keen hill-walker who climbed over 200 Munros.

Hector Munro:So near yet so far!

The biography of AE Robertson gives us a fascinat­ing insight into life in the Highlands 100 years ago. Middle-class travellers could obtain accommodation in the stalkers' cottages- many now ruined- at the flick of their fingers. Thus Robertson records Mrs Scott at Alltbeithe (now a Youth Hostel) sorting and carding wool, Mrs McCook at Ben Alder cottage greeting him at the door 'smiling and neat and clean' and others at Camban, Gorton. Glendessarry, Camach. Barrisdale, Farmich and Inchrory.
Robertson tooting on a tin horn at Totaig to summon the ferryman for a crossing of Loch Duich; running through the rain from the Basteir Tooth to Sligachan for a half tumbler of whisky, an hour's sleep and a hearty dinner. He also shows signs of a mischie­vous streak, 'I came upon a party of men supposed to be mending the path, but all sound asleep. I gave a shout,and how they jumped up — it afterwards transpired that the proprietor, Sir John Ramsden, was half-expected up that day'.
Apart from his ice-axe from Simond, aneroid from Lord Kelvin, compass from Whites of Glasgow and his hobnailed boots from Wrights, he travelled light, knowing that emergency accommoda­tion was never far away. For bad weather he used a heavy German Wettermantel cape which went everywhere with him.
Having finished the Munros, Robertson took up photography and lugged a whole plate camera plus heavy wooden tripod over the hills.His photo­graphs give us a chance to see thatched cottages and wooded glens and corries as they were before the great hydro-electric schemes were built and overgrazing put a stop to regeneration.
Robertson also developed a passion for woodworking and he made the table which still stands in the CIC Hut under the North Face of Ben Nevis.
He was very active in the Scottish Rights Of Way Society and fought hard in the 1930s to secure access to the important Coulin Pass in Torridon.
Robertson joined the SMC in 1893, was President from 1929 to 1932 and was made an Honorary Member in 1953. He died, aged 88, in 1958. Robertson's association with the SMC was nothing like as close as Sir Hugh Munro's, indeed for many years he never attended a meet. Sir Hugh, however, worshipped the SMC and on his election to President in 1894 he said that he held the honour in higher esteem than if he had been made Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Ben Wyvis: A ridge too far ?

Recommended further reading: The First Munroist,AE Robertson:His life, Munros and Photographs.
Peter Drummond & Ian Mitchell.
Ernest Press.

Richard Gilbert©: First published in High:09-93