Easily the best Scottish mountaineer over the first two decades of the 20th century, Harold Andrew Raeburn was born on July 21st, 1865, at 12 Grange Loan, Edinburgh. The fourth son of William and Jessie Raeburn, he grew up to enter his father's occupation as a brewer. It is not documented how or why he began climbing, but a fair guess would be that his deep interest in ornithology led him up steep places he otherwise would not have ventured. Living under Edinburgh's Salisbury Crags and possessing a wiry, athletic build he soon adapted to the vertical world of rock and ice.
Photomontage: Ken Crocket
His other sport was sailing, racing yachts in the Firth of Forth, and here too there may have been a connection with his third life-long passion, ornithology. With his brother John, they raced as members of the Royal Forth Yachting Club, based in Granton. They were successful enough to win the club’s Corinthian Cup three times. Being presented with the Cup, they in turn presented it back to the RFYC, who re-named it the Raeburn Trophy. This is the name under which it is still raced for. His diaries on the sea birds of the Shetland Islands are lodged with the National Library of Scotland.
As to his character, he very obviously possessed the necessary determination and drive of any ambitious and hard mountaineer; Lord Mackay provided a good description of Raeburn, writing that he was ‘..physically and mentally hard as nails, trained by solitary sea-cliff climbing after birds’ haunts, he was certain, unyielding and concise in every movement, both mental and physical’. Mackay went on to remark that Raeburn had a capacity of grip that was astonishing. ‘He was possessed of strong muscular fingers that could press firmly and in a straight downward contact upon the very smallest hold’.
Raeburn remained a bachelor all his life, occasionally climbing with the ladies, including his sister Ruth, herself an expert climber. The Scottish Mountaineering Club was founded in 1889. Raeburn joined it in 1896 and within a few years became its leading climber, recording many classic routes throughout Scotland. There are quite a few 'Raeburn's Gullies' scattered across the land!
Raeburn on the Salisbury Crags above Edinburgh
(Photo: SMC Archives)
On Ben Nevis in particular, he left a superb legacy of quality routes. A solo first ascent of Observatory Ridge (V.Diff.) in June 1901, Observatory Buttress (V.Diff.) solo in June 1902, his outstanding eponymous Arete (Severe) two days later on North-East Buttress, with Dr and Mrs Inglis Clark, and the first winter ascent of Green Gully (IV,4) in 1906. The latter ascent, with a Swiss alpinist called Eberhard Phildius was barely recognised in a later guidebook, as he had not climbed the rocks of the Comb on the left, but had instead followed snow and ice in the gully. Indeed, Raeburn’s ascent was completely forgotten by 1937, when Jim Bell made the second winter ascent, thinking it was the first.
On the Buachaille in Glen Coe he made the first three ascents of Crowberry Gully, including a wintry 1909 ascent, and the second ascent and first Scottish ascent of Crowberry Ridge Direct (1902), then the hardest rock climb in Scotland. His style of rock climbing was very muscular, holding himself close to the rock, while his particular attention to the exact times of ascents could frequently drive his companions to exasperation. There is a humorous reference to this when a fellow club member called Newbigging made a first ascent on Ben Nevis and called it ‘Newbigging’s 80-Minute Route’, this being an echo to ‘Raeburn’s 18-Minute Route’ climbed the previous year.
In the greater ranges too he recorded fine climbs, including the first British guideless ascent of the Zmutt ridge of the Matterhorn in 1906, the ascent of the North Face of the Disgrazia in 1910 with his friend Willie Ling, the first solo traverse of the Meije, as well as first ascents in Norway and the Caucasus. He made two interesting expeditions to the Caucasus, in 1913 and 1914. During the first they made first ascents of five mountains, and attempted Uschba, being turned back by conditions. In 1914 four new mountains were climbed, Raeburn descending to find that a World War had broken out. From 1902 on Raeburn climbed without guides. He joined the Alpine Club in 1904.
Raeburn became Vice-President of the SMC in 1909, later turning down the Presidency. His book, 'Mountaineering Art' was in MS when World War I broke out, and long, hard hours in an aeroplane factory for the next six years stopped all climbing. (At 49, he was too old for the Royal Flying Corps.) As a celebration following the end of the war, in 1919 Raeburn returned to the Alps and made a solo traverse of the Meije ridges
In 1920 his book was finally published, having been postponed due to the war. In this he was unlucky, as by then it was probably already becoming somewhat dated. In Easter of that same year, during the SMC Meet at Fort William, Raeburn made what was probably his finest ascent in Scotland - the first winter ascent of Observatory Ridge on Ben Nevis. With fellow members Mounsey & Goggs, and using a 100ft rope, the three finished the route in just under six hours. One long axe each - and no crampons. The mental and physical control required of all three climbers was barely short of miraculous.
In 1920, Raeburn was on an Expedition to Kanchenjunga, and in 1921 he lead an Everest Reconnaissance party. He worked desperately hard at organising and preparing the party, while suffering from influenza. By the time the expedition reached Tibet dysentery had broken out. One member of the party died, and Raeburn himself had to be carried down, spending two months in hospital. Against common sense, he returned to the expedition, but he was now exhausted and never really recovered. Declining health eventually lead to his death five years later. He died in Edinburgh, on December 21, 1926.
With two earlier SMC Huts - Ling in Torridon and the Charles Inglis Clark (CIC) on Nevis - named after prominent past members, it was fitting that with the building of a new club hut, opened in 1988, it should also be named for one of the club's finest pioneering mountaineers - Harold Raeburn. The Raeburn Hut stands by the road between Dalwhinnie and Newtonmore. Close by is Creag Dubh, on whose steep rocks Raeburn was, typically, the first to climb, in 1903!
Finest Moment: First winter ascents of Green Gully (1906), Crowberry Gully (1909), Observatory Ridge (1920); many fine summer routes.
Bibliography: ‘Mountaineering Art’, Harold Raeburn (1920, T. Fisher Unwin); In Memoriam (W.N. Ling, 1927, SMCJ Vol. 18, pp. 26-31); ‘Vignettes of Earlier Climbers’, Lord Mackay (1950, SMCJ, Vol. 24, pp. 141-180; ‘Of Beer and Boats’, K.V. Crocket & J.R.R. Fowler (1997, In Miscellaneous Notes, SMCJ, Vol. 36, pp.380-3); ‘Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain’, Ken Crocket (1986, Scottish Mountaineering Trust).
Note: The story behind the beer mat shown above is told in ‘Of Beer and Boats’.