Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The President's Address

At the First Annual Dinner, December 12, 1889.


I have observed that on occasions like the present the Chairman generally begins his speech by saying that he rises with much diffidence. I beg to state at once, gentlemen, that I rise, on this occasion, with no diffidence at all. Not that I feel any, even the smallest, confidence that I can do justice to my theme; for my theme is such that there is probably no man living who could do full justice to it. But we are here to-night as exponents of a great cause; we are here to express our common attachment to one of the purest and simplest and highest of human pleasures; we are forming an association to keep alive and spread our own love for the choicest of God's gifts to man, and that form of healthful effort which will enable us to make those gifts our own. And from the keenness with which our idea has been taken up, from the spirit which animates you here to-night, as well as the absent remnant of that chosen hundred who are the original members of our Club, I feel assured of its success. I feel confident that this Club will not only enable us to extend and gratify our love of the mountains, but that from the basis of that common love this night will prove the beginning of a personal friendship and intimacy amongst its members which will be, I trust, as fresh and bracing, might we add everlasting, as the hills themselves.

 Gentlemen, this is an historic occasion. It is not often that at the birth of a great man, or at the beginning of a great empire, either man or empire is conscious of the greatness that lies before them. But it is otherwise with us. In the very moment of our birth we can foresee our future. We know that our Club will live to be a famous Club. We can foresee how eagerly and how vainly, before many years have passed, distinguished men will seek for admittance— how many years they will be kept waiting—how famous will be those thirty odd names which have just been inscribed in that book as present at our first dinner. No wonders then, that your President feels no diffidence tonight: he looks to the future of the Club, and feels proud.

Gentlemen, the marvel is not that our Club is formed, but that it was not formed before. The mountains of Scotland are not new; they have been frequently looked at; frequently admired; sometimes even climbed before. The love of scenery and of hills is implanted in the heart of every Scot as part of his very birthright; our mountains have been the moulders of our national character; and if, in presence of any son of Scotland, any man of any nation whatsoever were to dare to disparage the hills of Scotland, you know what treatment he would receive. Nor are we as a nation averse to active exercise. Golf, cricket, shooting, fishing, cycling, every healthful form of exercise, commends itself to the Scot: in football, as in golf, he reigns supreme. And yet it was in England that grew up the first Alpine Club in Europe—not without some good Scots in it, however, amongst whom I may be permitted to name as an original member my own brother, a rare cragsman, who made a well-known first ascent of Mont Blanc from the Courmayeur side in 1854. But why were the English first in the field, or rather on the tops? Perhaps their own dull flats drove them in sheer desperation to seek for heights elsewhere; perhaps the very paucity of their climbers drove them for self-defence into combination: whereas in Scotland, every man has his hill or mountain at his door; every man is potentially a mountaineer; and a mountaineering Club, in its simple sense, must thus have included nothing less than the entire nation. But the fact is that mountaineering has received an altogether new development at the hands of the Alpine Club. It is now a science of a highly complex character, cultivated by trained experts, with a vocabulary, an artillery, and rigorous methods of its own. Nay, it has solved the great philosophical problem of finding the Many in the One; for whereas of old it was thought that every mountain had but one top, and that there was but one way, and that the easiest way, to the top of it, the Alpine Club has discovered that the number of ways. the top of any given mountain is infinite, and that that way only is to be discarded which is easiest.

Again, these are essentially the days of combinations and associations. Outside, we are governed by the many-headed headless multitude; intelligence, superior skill, avail nothing nowadays—indeed are absolute disqualifications—unless they can gather themselves into associations, and assume to speak for uncounted multitudes behind. The single man is nowhere nowadays; the associated man is the only man in it; and even mountaineering, of which the great charm used to be, is still, its solitude—the solitary ramble, with a stick, or a dog, for companion—must yield to the universal law, if it is to live at all, and bind itself into a club.

Gentlemen, what is our great and glorious bond of union in this Club? It is the love of nature in every form, and especially of the hills ; a sense that, after all sports and games have been tried and enjoyed, the most universal, most lasting, most healthful of all diversions, is that of walking in pure air and over beautiful country. Not being carted by train, or car, or tram, like so much merchandise; not confining ourselves to street, or road, or path; but to roam over the untrammeled country, far from smoke and din, drinking in draughts of air as it rolls to us over a hundred hills; and, best of all, "to put a stiff back up the stae brae" of stone or heather or snow, and on to that top which has so long eluded us, where we seem to breathe something else than air, and from which we look down on every side upon a scene untainted by work of man, just as it came fresh from the Creator's hand.

I know no glory, gentlemen, equal to that of gaining one's top; whether it be a Ben Lomond or a Cobbler; whether one is to reap only the senile satisfaction of one's daily climb to the heights of Gilmorehill, or such a moment of supreme elation as I remember when I first planted my foot on the needle-top of the Piz Rosegg. After hours of stiff climb, one's spectacles and veil removed—one single glance round at that glorious, ineffable pageant of peak and snow—and I remember bursting in uncontrolled delight into a wild Highland fling. The top, on which five men could scarcely squat, was about as big as the bottom of a flat bath, with impossible precipices all round; and I shall never forget the grim humour with which that grand guide, Jacob Anderegg, banged down his hard hand on to my shoulder and forced me to a seat, just as I was on the point of commencing the first pirouette.

So much for mountains, gentlemen. But what are we to say of the mountaineer, and especially of the kind of mountaineer whom we desire to welcome into our Club? For, like all fair objects, mountains have their false as well as their true admirers, and we must warn them off. There are many and divers kinds of spurious mountaineers or mountain-seekers. First, there is the finely fashionable sort, who get themselves landed at Lucerne or Chamouni, in August, because they find everybody else goes there about that time, and they wish to do as others do. They look at the mountains, because others do so, and because they can find nothing else to look at; they will even go through the inconvenience of being trundled across a pass on wheels. Such mountaineers I met lately in the persons of a city pair crossing the Albula Pass in the most magnificent of summer days. Bored first by the heat and sun, then by the jolting, they managed to build themselves snugly into two corners under umbrellas, and for hours and hours up that lovely pass found peace each in a yellow- backed novel. Arrived at the top, the lady complained she had seen nothing worth looking at by the way, adding, as sole comment, that "it was very cold up there." Nor do we want the gastronomic mountaineer, who goes to Switzerland mainly for the sake of its hotels; moves from the Schweitzerhof at Lucerne to the Beau Rivage at Ouchy, because he wants a change of menu, and knows exactly when the extra cook, engaged for the summer, is to take his departure. I met two middle-aged ladies of this sort last summer. They had spent five years abroad, all five summers in Switzerland, and they had a knowledge absolutely minute and exhaustive of the dishes and the prices of every hotel within the Republic. Their conversation, naturally, was kept strictly within these limits. We then have the mere curiosity tourist, generally a Frenchman, who notes all that is remarkable or out-of-the- way in scenery, but admires nothing; and never walks a yard that he can avoid. Such a Frenchman sat beside a young lady of my party when she was for the first time crossing an Alpine pass. The road had to force its way through a splendid gorge, and could only emerge by winding round an impossible corner, where one seemed hung in mid-air, with thousands of feet of sheer rock below. Half-frightened, half- enthusiastic, she cried, "N'est pas que c'est magnifique?" "Oui," said the Frenchman, phlegmatically, putting his head slowly out of the window, and peering down over the side; "C'est très creux? "-" It's very hollow!"

Then we have the American mountaineer, who races through Switzerland, by the high roads, in a fortnight, and checks off the mountains, one by one, as he sees them, guide-book in hand, just as he does with the statues in the Vatican. Some years ago I met two such in a railway carriage. They were leaving Switzerland, having "done it" in two weeks. We were starting from Lucerne for Zurich, and as we rose gradually round that grand curve, the whole lake and its mountains were spread out before us. The two were intently discussing some "corner" which had lately been started in New York. Delighted with the view, I shouted to them. "Look, look! there's a grand view for you." "Yes," said one of the two, deliberately, looking up to the main snow-top before us, "I guess that's the Young-Frow." "No," I said quietly, "I think not; that is the Uriroth-stock." "Oh, yes, it is the Young-Frow," he said, "my guide-book says the Young-Frow is the only mountain in Switzerland which has snow on it all the year round!"

Then there is the fair-weather mountaineer, who is frightened away from Pontresina by the first sprinkling of snow in the autumn, and who in this country will never start upon an expedition if there is the least chance of rain or mist upon the way.

And then comes the class who look upon mountains simply and solely as a field for exercising or gaining muscle, or the glory which muscle-culture brings. These men care for no ascent which is not difficult or new, measure mountains solely by their height, never care to repeat an ascent once made, and love to boast that they have crowded so many first-class or second-class peaks or passes into a single week. These men are not so much mountaineers as mountain acrobats. I remember going over the Oberaar-Joch with one who had "done" a hundred peaks, and yet was absolutely ignorant of every point which lends interest and mystery to a glacier. Of the causes which produce moraines, or moulins, or ice tables, or mountain messengers, or bergschrunds, or séracs, he knew or cared absolutely nothing: only how many hours step-cutting each route involved, or by how many hours or minutes he had outstripped Jones and Brown in the doing of it. This leads us to the record- climber, who climbs his mountain against time: having rushed to the top in three minutes less than the shortest time on record, he duly inserts a paper stating that fact, with time, place, and person, in a bottle, which he conceals in the cairn upon the top; that done, he has no time to waste upon the view, but plunges down again at record pace, in the hope of gaining three more minutes in the descent. Such mountain acrobats are inimitably hit off by Ruskin, who says that they remind him of nothing but of those dauntless men who at village festivals climb up greased poles for legs of mutton; with this only difference, that they find no legs of mutton to reward them on the top.

Well, gentlemen, our mountaineer must be something different from all these, though he may borrow something, in moderation, from them all. He will not despise a good novel in a day of rest; and none like he can enjoy a good dinner and a good glass of wine in his capua when he has done good work upon his mountain. He delights in the difficulties and dangers of a new route; and he is fully sensible of the pride of finding his legs firm beneath him, his wind sound within. But his main and great joy is in the glory of the scenery through which he climbs; he dwells fondly on every view with a reverent humble sense of the fresh glories of creation which each discloses. He will never refuse to make a fine ascent because he has made it before, or because he has climbed a higher peak in the same district. He likes fine weather, but he will not be turned by a shower; he likes a big hill, but will delight in a little hill when there are none other; but, above all, whether his climb be difficult or easy, he will carry to it the same sense of joy in nature, of love of her milder as well as of her sterner phases, of her gentle heathery slopes as well as of her heather knowes or of her Aiguilles Dru. And whatever his mountain, he will leave his load of trouble at the bottom, and find himself gaining a larger heart, a calmer nerve, a more hopeful and trusting spirit, as he climbs upwards.

The glory of the hills, then, gentlemen, the beauty of natural scenery, must be our motto. But keenly as we are alive to this beauty to-day, it is strange to think how very new, how very young, in the history of the world this feeling is. The Psalmist indeed said in words, which are never out of my mind, "I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help;" but the exact meaning of the words is open to much question. It is certain that the sentiment of love of natural beauty, as an accepted and essential part of our nature and of our life, is not more than a hundred years old. I wish much that our Vice-President, Professor Veitch, were here to speak on this theme, which he has made peculiarly his own. It has often been pointed out that the early poets of antiquity seem destitute of any admiration for the wild, the picturesque, the sublime, in nature. Homer and Hesiod describe often natural scenes, but the scenes which they call up with pleasure are not the scenes of uncultured nature, but the trim garden, the well-tilled corn-field, the fruit-laden orchard, the garner well-stored with grain, the neat comfortable homestead. I remember an incident which shows that such a preference for man's earth over nature's earth is not dead yet. I was leaving the pier of Inveraray by steamer at six o'clock on an exquisite morning of May. The larches and the spruces were showing their first finger-tips of pink and green; the sun was streaming in bright floods over the brown hills to the east; and the clear blue water was dancing up to meet it in little flashing ripples. As I paced the deck, a solitary passenger, I could not help shouting aloud in delight at the beauty of the scene: "How beautiful! How glorious!" The stolid big-paunched Highland captain, hands in pocket, looked steadily at me for some time, phlegmatic but not unkindly; then at last, "Yes," he said, in that delicious soft Highland accent, "it is vera beautiful; you are quite right; but do you know I did not always know it was beautiful. You see, I was born here, and have lived at Strachur there all my days, and I never could see anything in it but just trees and hills and stones, and the like of that. Now, about Gourock way, or Greenock there, with the gardens and the walls and the lamps, I could see that was all pretty and bonny, but not the likes of this loch here." "And how, pray, did you find out that it was beautiful ?" I asked. "Well, I will tell you," said he. "There was one day an American gentleman here, who was just saying the likes of you, that it was vera beautiful, and all that; and I says to him, 'Well, I don't see it at all—I see nothing in it.' 'Would you like to know what makes it beautiful?' says he. 'Yes, 1 would,' says 1. So he just takes me by the shoulder, and he points with his arm up the loch, past Inverara there, and he says,' Now can you see out that way?' 'No,' says I. 'Well,' says he, turning round the other way, and pointing with his finger to Ardrishaig, 'can you see out that way?' says he. Now, was'n't it vera odd that I had never thocht of that before? And that's the way I found out the loch is beautiful, but I never thocht anything at all of it before!"
Here two points will be noted. Like a Hesiod or a Homer, our worthy skipper, after the natural man, could admire the trim villas of Gourock, but not the romantic wildness of his native loch; and when he did apprehend it, it was as a curiosity—a fact to be known once for all by the understanding; c'est tres czerieux, a Frenchman would have said—not as a sentiment to be feasted on continually.

Nor is our captain friend alone in thinking naturally that the trim, smooth, and straight edges made by man are to be preferred to the irregularities of nature. In my friend Professor Jebb's admirable life of Bentley, you will find that in the year 1692 that scholar delivered in London his famous course of Boyle lectures. His subject was an attack upon scepticism, and he undertook to prove the existence of God "not merely by arguments taken from the sacred books," but "from the mighty volumes of visible nature." In the eighth lecture he imagines his sceptical adversary to bring up against him the objection that the rugged and irregular surface of the earth refutes its claim to be "a work of divine artifice." This objection, if it could be made good, he evidently regards as a very strong one, and he therefore meets it in this way:-" We ought not to believe," he says, "that the banks of the ocean are really deformed because they have not the shape of a regular bulwark, nor that the mountains are out of shape because they are not exact pyramids or cones."

Oh, shade of the Alpine Club! what a superb idea! that the unhappy sea ought to be deemed "deformed" if we could prove that in actual fact its bottom is not as smooth and regular as a hand-basin; and that the Matterhorn, the Coulins, or Ailsa Craig might veritably be stamped as "out of shape," unless with the eye of faith we could discern some larger pan-terrestrial combination in regard to which they would be seen to be as uniform as a row of gas-lamps, as smooth as a shape of jelly!

We gentlemen, at any rate, need no such faith. We go in openly for the "deformed" and the "out of shape" in the objects of our love and of our cult. The more deformed, the more out of shape, the better. In these days of increasing turmoil, from cities ever groaning with labour, befouled with smoke, and disquieted with din, we find every day more and more the need of turning for rest and peace—for calmness of nerve, for sanity of temper, and for that spirit of charity which kills out the thousand worries and disappointments of life—to the everlasting purity and sanctity of the hills. They are our true recruiters and our friends; like Horace's Sabine farm, they restore us to ourselves; and send us back stronger in body, clearer in mind, sweeter in temper, to our work and to our wives.

In conclusion, gentlemen, I know that an address cannot be considered complete without a quotation. Let me give you two. The first shall be from Tennyson. It is from a bad poem—to the mountaineer a fundamentally false poem, because it advances the shallow and unworthy doctrine that Love is of the valley; that

"No pleasure lives in height;"


"In height and cold, the splendour of the hills."

But we will forgive the poem for its false sentiment, because it contains the most true and terse description of a glacier —that crowning object of a mountaineer's love—that was ever penned.

"Nor wilt thou snare him in the white ravine, Nor find him dropt upon the firths of ice That huddling slant in furrow-cloven falls To roll the torrent out of dusky doors."

My second quotation shall be from Cicero. You remember how many great writers have spoken quaintly and affectionately of books as being their best and their dearest friends. The late Sir William Stirling Maxwell had his library adorned with the most charming mottoes in every tongue upon this theme. Well, there are some who go to books to cure them of every ill in life, there are others who go to mountains. For myself, I confess I belong rather to the latter sort; and as I thought over this afternoon the subject of my address, it suddenly occurred to me that a well-known and brilliant passage of Cicero (pro Archia VII.), in which he describes with rare beauty the delights of the companionship of books, might express not inaptly my sense, and, I am sure, your sense, of the splendour and the loveability of the hills. Resorting to a free paraphrase, we may say of mountains what Cicero says of books :"They belong to every clime and country; no race, no age, but has felt their influence. They apply to our youth a spur to active exertion; they afford to old age the peaceful soothing pleasures of contemplation. They add a new elation to our hours of strength; they supply a refuge and recruiting ground in our moments of bitterness and depression. They are the ornament of our native land; they are our first object of interest in foreign countries. We delight to look at them from our firesides; they are as companions to us when we walk abroad. They beckon us to adventures on distant shores, and add a beauty and a tenderness indescribable to the prospect from our country homes."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus