The Rev. A.E. Robertson is probably the second-best known name after Munro, when considering the Munros. Robertson is down on record as the first to complete all the Munros, an accomplishment he made in September 1901.
Robertson was born in Helensburgh in 1870, and his interest in the outdoors was first sparked on family holidays on the Isle of Arran. In 1882 or ’83 he made a solo ascent of Goat Fell, the highest peak on Arran. He was then 12 or 13. Education then continued in Glasgow, first at the Glasgow Academy, then at the University.
An interesting link here was to Lord Kelvin, as Robertson attended his lectures in Natural Philosophy. Kelvin, like many scientists, employed an instrument-maker, in this instance James Pitkin in London. From Pitkin Robertson was later to purchase an aneroid barometer. Many years on, Robertson’s widow presented this to the SMC, and it is a tradition that it is held by the current President of that club during his two-year stay in office.
The interest in the outdoors grew slowly, depending on circumstances and the opportunities for walking with companions. In August 1889 for example, he was staying at a holiday home at Loch Awe, shared between his mother and his Aunt Lizzie. There he and some friends rowed down to the Cruachan Burn and climbed Cruachan.
According to Robertson’s diaries, which are now in the National Library of Scotland, it was in the following year that his conversion to the hills was finally made. That summer, 1890, they were holidaying at Onich, just north of Glen Coe. On 25th August he made a solo walk up Ben Nevis, enjoying tea in the Hotel which then graced the summit, next to the Observatory. Four days later he was on an ascent of Bidean nam Bian, in the company of four experienced mountaineers. As Robertson wrote: ‘This day first shewed me the delights of scientific mountaineering – the use of maps, aneroid, compass etc. – and ever since that day I have steadily pursued the Quest’.
In 1892 Robertson stayed at Aviemore for a week with a friend. At the summit of Braeriach they met a prominent member of the SMC – William Douglas, then Editor of the SMC Journal, along with a friend of Douglas. They exchanged cards and met later in Edinburgh. The following year, Robertson joined the SMC, proposed by Douglas and seconded by G.G. Ramsay, a founder member. Also in 1893, Robertson began purchasing all the paraphernalia required for serious hillwalking; ice axe (Simond), the aneroid mentioned earlier, compass (Glasgow), boots (from an Edinburgh bootmaker, James Wright), rucksack (Silver of London), wettermantel (Frey of Munich).
The wettermantel was a formidable garment, made of loden cloth, a natural wool fabric. It is made from two sheets of fabric, like a herald’s tabard, which are buttoned up the side. A yoke, also a double layer, is worn on top. The sleeves are wide and loose with buttons closing the wrists, and the garment ends just below the knees. With woollen puttees, hobnailed boots, and the rest, the weather could be mostly kept at bay, though it must have been warm on the walk up!
Robertson was now off and virtually running. He completed a Bachelor of Divinity course at Edinburgh University, entered the ministry of the Church of Scotland and was assistant at churches in Musselburgh and Edinburgh before being ordained to Rannoch in 1907
Robertson probably began, as have so many others since, with no thoughts of finishing all the Munros. Over a number of years, he had collected about a hundred. Then, in 1898 a three-month holiday added 75 to his list. This put a twinkle in Robertson’s eye, as the realisation dawned that perhaps he could climb all the mountains. With another three months’ campaign in 1899 providing 72 more, the end was in sight.
Robertson may not have actually climbed the Inaccessible Pinnacle before 1901, at this time it was considered a subsidary peak of Sgurr Dearg. In any case a diary entry details an ascent of the Pinnacle on 13th June 1905, this was made with none other than John McKenzie. There has been some evidence presented which indicates that Robertson may not have reached the summit of Ben Wyvis. In his notebooks, there is a tick opposite all 283 original mountains except for Wyvis. ‘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 last statement appears in his notebook, but we have no way of knowing whether or not he returned to finish the ascent.
Whether Robertson did or did not ‘do’ Ben Wyvis, his accomplishment is to be acknowledged as no mean feat. In a time before properly constructed roads, railways or cars, he often had to walk or cycle long distances just to approach the mountains, staying overnight with local shepherds, crofters and other widely-separated natives. It took a high degree of energy and commitment. To present a balanced view of this, there would have been more people living in remote areas willing to accommodate guests such as Robertson, and let us not forget the good holidays he enjoyed.
To add to his efforts, the good Reverend often carried a heavy whole-plate camera. His outstanding photographs are still in use today. Unlike Munro, Robertson was an accomplished mountaineer, happy on rock and snow as well as the hillside. He was also an accomplished cabinetmaker, building a fine cabinet to house his photographic collection, and a sturdy table which saw many decades of hard use in the C.I.C. Hut on Ben Nevis.
On many ascents Robertson was on his own, but he excelled in the use of map, compass and of course, the aneroid barometer! Were he alive today he would no doubt revel in the use of satellite navigation using GPS units. On other occasions he was often accompanied by his friend Alexander (later Lord) Moncrieff.
Robertson took just over a decade to climb his Munros, finishing with Meall Dearg in Glen Coe, the east end of the Aonach Eagach ridge. The date was September 1901. On this he was accompanied by his first wife, Kate, and his good friend Sandy Moncrieff. It is famously reported by Robertson that after toasting the event with champagne (he carried up a quart bottle provided by Moncrieff), ‘Sandy made me first kiss the cairn and then my wife!’.
In addition to his hillwalking interests, Robertson was active in the Scottish Rights of Way Society, becoming its first President in 1946. He was an avid researcher of the history of the Highlands and its routes and passes. He became President of the SMC in 1930-32. Some of his more technical explorations include finding, along with Willie Naismith, the Eastern Traverse on the Great Tower on Tower Ridge of Ben Nevis. This route is now the standard way up the Great Tower, and was first made by those two in September 1900.
In 1904 Robertson was on the first ascent of a Moderate on the Douglas Boulder, Ben Nevis, while two years’ later, in 1906, he was almost the companion of Harold Raeburn, on the first ascent of Green Gully, only a mild indisposition preventing him being present. He was very much present however, to his danger and discomfort, on Ben Nevis in April 1905, when during the descent from a solo walk he was struck by lightning on the path. Very lucky to survive this, he came to some thousand feet or so lower down, on the steep slopes adjacent to Five Finger Gully. Bleeding badly, and without his ice axe, he managed to stagger back to Fort William.
Robertson continued to work on SMC publications for some years, and was made an Honorary Member of that club for his good efforts. He died in 1958, at the good age of 88.
Finest Moment: Completing the Munros, September 1901.
Bibliography: ‘Notebooks’. A.E. Robertson (National Library of Scotland); ‘The Munroist’s Companion’, Robin N. Campbell (Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 1999); ‘The First Munroist. The Reverend A E Robertson - His Life, Munros and Photographs. By Peter Drummond and Ian Mitchell. (1993, The Ernest Press.) A biography of Robertson, with 96 of his photographs and including a reprint of Robertson’s out-of-print ‘Old tracks, cross-country routes and coffin roads in the North-West Highlands.’; In Memorium, SMCJ, Vol. 26, pp.362-66.