The Angry Corrie 44: Jan-Feb 2000

TAC 44 Index

In defence of A E Robertson

Peter Drummond

For most of the departing century the Scottish mountaineering world has regarded A E Robertson as its first Munroist, the first person to climb all the peaks listed in Munro's Tables. Most of his summits were surmounted in the last decade of the 19th century and completion took place in September 1901 on Meall Dearg of Glen Coe when he kissed the cairn and his wife, famously in that order. He wrote up the account in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, which also published extracts from his hill logs many years later. When the SMC began to publish lists of those who had completed the Munros, AER was listed as number one, 22 years ahead of Ronald Burn and precursor to the post-war hundreds then thousands achieving the same goal. So really there was little challenge to the idea that AER was the first Munroist. Until recently.

What stirred up the sediment was the publication of two books, The First Munroist - the Reverend A E Robertson by Ian Mitchell and myself [TFM] and Elizabeth Allan's Burn on the Hill - The story of the first Compleat Munroist [BotH]. The apparently conflicting claim expressed in their titles could be resolved by accepting that the "compleatness" of the latter lay in Ronald Burn having done all the Tops as well as the Munros, while AER only laid claim to the separate mountains. However TFM (p3) explored the point, first raised by Robin Campbell (SMCJ 1989, p222), that AER may not have stood on the top of one of the Munros listed at that time, Ben Wyvis. His notebook, a retrospective and patchy affair, says of an 1892 trip: "I did Ben Wyvis, taking train to Auchterneed 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" [my emphasis].

Towards the end of his completion AER returned to other hills not fully done (Meall Dearg was one such) and while it is not impossible he did re-do Wyvis, it was never recorded in his scrappy notes or logs. On the basis of this confession, the charge is now being laid by tribunes of the people Dave Hewitt (SMCJ 1999, p242) and Alan Blanco (TAC42, p5) that AER did not complete, and that Ronald Burn should be given the title - or even Hugh Munro himself since he also only "missed one" (AB).

As a co-author of TFM I would jump to AER's defence, wouldn't I? Well, perhaps. Ronald Burn comes across from his logs (in BotH) as a far more likeable man, with a wide interest in the local people and their place-name culture, than AER who was the archetypal boring old fart of the SMC old guard. And Burn's logs, on which BotH is based, were more detailed - and more interesting - than AER's. Un homme beaucoup plus sympathique.

The argument about Munro advanced by Alan Blanco is pretty thin, since one completes against the list of the Munros extant on the date of completion, the list having changed several times in the 20th century. And at the time of his death and against his own list Hugh Munro had still to do two separate mountains, not one: Carn an Fhidhleir and Carn Cloich-mhuilinn (the latter reduced to a Top in 1981). He had not even got to "near the top" of either as AER undoubtedly had on Ben Wyvis. The case for Burn is stronger, but there are perhaps clouds over some of his ascents too since he was not a good navigator: his biographer says of him (BotH, p6), "In spite of a lifetime preoccupation with maps, Ronnie often got hopelessly lost." On Sgurr na Fearstaig for instance he arranged a few stones into a cairn "where he judges the top to be" (BotH, p87) and felt like knocking down another cairn nearby. (Could Cameron "cairn-kicker" McNeish be Burn's reincarnation?) We all know how difficult it can be to judge the exact summit of some hills and in mist many completers may have touched a cairn "near the top" but not exactly at it.

Is there a comparison to be made with Mallory and Irvine's 1924 climb on Everest, when they were last seen about 300m below the summit? Leave aside the debate about whether they went to the summit and died on the retreat - highly unlikely given some of the technical difficulties ahead. Supposing they had gone past the First and Second Steps on the north-east ridge and were "near the top" when they retreated in bad weather, should they have been able to claim an ascent - 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing - as AER appears to have done for Ben Wyvis? No, surely, for three reasons. One, they failed to get down alive, and a successful ascent should imply a safe return to the valley. Two, a shortfall of even a few metres at that height and in the jetstream still contains huge mountaineering difficulties (unlike the flat top of Wyvis). Three, Everest's summit was a single goal in itself, not one of 280-odd summits. Sorry, chaps, you can't hide behind AER.

For pedants of course AER did not complete the Munros. Even if we assume he was 95% of the way up Wyvis (and could easily have strolled along the broad plateau, topped, and descended alive to the train), and that he got to the exact top of the other 282 separate mountains in the 1891 Tables, then still he was only 99.98% complete. Not 100%. However, as the reverends Robertson and Burn would have pointed out, humans are all imperfect: there are surely many complete Munroists who knowingly or not have not stood on the exact summits of the Munros, due to mists, or to trig points or cairns not at the precise summit. This writer fought his way in a blizzard on hands and knees to touch the trig point of Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn), then crawled down out of the hurricane and discovered in the car later from the map that the summit was several metres further on. I returned with my son 25 years later to square the tick with conscience, but if I hadn't I would still feel I had climbed it that first occasion even though I was 0.01% short. Ronald Burn probably had several such percentage slippages too, as I have indicated above, and most human Munroists do too.

Finally, in a sense AER is the first Munroist because he is regarded as such, his claimed achievement indicating to those who came after him that "it could be done". A Christopher Columbus of the serried waves of Highland peaks proving you could get to the far side and survive. Hugh Munro drowned, as it were, in sight of land, several years later. Ronald Burn was the Amerigo Vespucci, following in the trail-blazer's wake but going a little further by doing the Tops. Hamish Brown, only number 62 but the man who first did them in a continuous round, might be considered a Pilgrim Father. The rest of us by com-parison, in our swelling numbers, are mere package tourists. But A E Robertson showed us the way.

Ed. - Yes, but surely Peter's Vorlich incident is more akin to Mallory and Irvine's "huge difficulties" than to AER's retreat from Wyvis? On Vorlich and Everest the top was strived for to the limit of ability, whereas AER seems to have willingly turned in only moderate weather.

TAC 44 Index