William Wilson Naismith (1856-1935)
A little-known photograph of Naismith as a young man
Brought up and educated in Hamilton, just south of Glasgow, Willie Naismith’s parents were both fond of the mountains, so that Naismith had climbed Ben Lomond when about nine years of age. Naismith’s father, William Naismith, practised for 20 years as a physician in Hamilton, living in the family home, Auchincampbell. He married Mary Anne Murray, and had two children, Annie, and William. Naismith received his schooling at Gilbertfield House School, Hamilton, where he had Andrew Bonar Law as a contemporary.
Before he was 14, Naismith had made a winter ascent of Beinn Bhreac. Always renowned for his walking abilities in general, in 1879 at the age of 23 he walked from his Hamilton home to the summit of Tinto and back, a distance of 56 miles (90km). The perennial active man, at the age of 60 he walked from Glasgow to the summit of Ben Lomond and back, a distance of 62 miles (100km). This latter walk he finished in 20 hours, including stops. When asked by a nephew what food he carried, he replied that he found a bag of raisins in his pocket quite good.
Contemporaries in Hamilton recalled Naismith as a ‘rather careless, pleasure-loving young man’, but Naismith took up the Church and became one of the ‘twice-born’, as his tribute spoken from the pulpit recorded. On selling the family home in about 1905 and moving to Glasgow, Naismith became active in church work, taking up the unpaid post of Western Treasureship of the National Bible Society, a position he held for nearly 23 years. He was also an elder in Kelvinside (Botanic Gardens) Church, Glasgow, for 27 years. His beliefs precluded Sunday climbing.
While a student at Gilbertfield House School, Hamilton, in 1872 Naismith’s Junior Latin Class received a lecture by Professor George Ramsay, on Alpine Climbing. The entire class was spell-bound by the Professor’s demonstration of how to use an ice-axe. Later, Naismith attended Glasgow University, graduating as a chartered accountant.
By the 1880s in Scotland, those few who climbed were frustrated by a lack of communication with others of like mind; in March 1884, Naismith climbed a very icy Ben More equipped only with a long, metal-tipped pole. This exciting experience convinced him that in winter and spring the Scottish hills demanded at least the same respect as the higher Alps.
On January 10th, 1889, a letter from Naismith was published in the ‘Glasgow Herald’, proposing the formation of a ‘Scottish Alpine Club’. It was the catalyst whose time was due, and answering letters quickly appeared, including those from Maylard, Gilbert Thomson, and D.A. Archie. Following on from this exchange, the Scottish Mountaineering Club was formed in Glasgow, on March 11, 1889. Naismith became its first Treasurer. He was quickly and fondly regarded as ‘the father of the club’. The Dinner Menu from the 21st Annual Dinner of the SMC in 1909 had, along with the photographs of the first President, Secretary, Editor and Treasurer, a drawing of a little girl with a long ice axe, rope and bag. The girl is saying ‘I’m father!’
Not only was Naismith a competent and energetic mountaineer, he was a pioneer in Scottish skiing. In 1890 he made the first recorded expedition on skis in Scotland, tackling the Campsie Fells north of Glasgow wearing heavy Nordic-style wooden planks. He was a member of the Scottish Ski Club, founded in 1907. He joined the Alpine Club in 1893. Two years later, in 1895, during a great freeze, he was the first to explore Loch Lomond on skates, getting as far as Rowardennan. He tried canoeing, boxing, and horse-riding. Not content with the above sports and mountaineering, on September 2nd 1901, he made a balloon ascent over Glasgow, reaching an altitude of 5,350 feet (1,630m).
Within the SMC, Naismith made many fine ascents. With his best friend Gilbert Thomson he made the third ascent of Tower Ridge on September 27th, 1894, suggesting that name for the route, which had so far not been named. Eighteen months later, the SMC held their Easter Meet of 1896 in Fort William, from which Naismith made one of his finest climbs, the first winter ascent of the North-East Buttress on Ben Nevis on 3rd April.
It was typical of his modesty that it was not until 1925 that Naismith penned a few lines of description of the ascent. Now a classic Grade III, the 40-year-old Naismith had four companions on the seven-hour climb. This was on the Friday of the meet. On Saturday Naismith made an ascent of Carn Dearg by the South Castle Gully. Church on Sunday, then on the Monday a winter ascent of Original Route on The Castle, Grade III.
In August 1896 Naismith was on the Buachaille in Glen Coe, with William Douglas. Together, they climbed Crowberry Ridge by what is now known as Naismith’s Route. It was the first route to find a way up the formidable challenge of the steep ridge. Naismith made other notable climbs elsewhere in Scotland, including a very exposed route on the Bhasteir Tooth in Skye, straightening out a section of the Cuillin Ridge in the process.
As a mountaineer several who knew and climbed with him have commented that he was bold but safe, with very few bettering his skills in any branch of mountaineering. He made the first ascent of Staircase Climb on Ben Nevis in 1898 for example, but few knew that previously he had attempted the route following a bivouac in the valley, waiting for first light. He came up against a difficult section, estimated that he could climb up it, but not being certain that he could descend the same section he retreated. Later, he examined the difficult section from above, before being satisfied that although it was difficult, it was not impossible.
In his 69th year, to the delighted surprise of his friends, he married Edith A.W. Barron, the daughter of an Aberdeenshire minister, who earlier had settled in Australia. His wife accompanied him on walks, and they continued to scramble on his local Campsie Fells until almost the end of his life. In 1933 he suffered from an illness which kept him in a nursing home for some weeks, but he recovered from this. In September 1935 the Naismiths attended a meeting in Strathpeffer, a ‘Conference for the deepening of Spiritual Life’. Naismith fell ill on the night of Friday, 27th, and died within two hours. He was 79. He was buried in Bent Cemetery, Hamilton, on Tuesday, 1st October, following a service in his Kelvinside Church.
Finest Moment: Founder member of the SMC; 1st winter ascent North-East Buttress (Ben Nevis, April 1896); 1st ascent Naismith’s Route (Crowberry Ridge, 1896); Naismith’s Direct (Bhasteir Tooth, Cuillin Ridge, 1898),
Bibliography: ‘Vignettes of Earlier Climbers’, Lord Mackay (1950, SMCJ, Vol. 24, pp. 141-180; ‘Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain’, Ken Crocket (1986, Scottish Mountaineering Trust); ‘In Memoriam’, by Gilbert Thomson (SMCJ Vol.21, pp.40-44, April 1936); Obituary Notice, ‘Hamilton Advertiser’, 5th October 1935; ‘Early Winter Climbing’, by William Naismith (SMCJ, Vol.17, pp.124-132, April 1925).