Bill Murray was born in Liverpool in 1913. Less than two decades later he was working in the Union Bank of Scotland, in Glasgow. By the mid-1930s, he had joined the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland (JMCS) and was shaking the complacency into which Scottish climbing had all but succumbed to. Climbing often in a foursome with Bill MacKenzie, Kenneth Dunn and Archie MacAlpine, he was the mainspring of the renaissance in Scottish winter climbing. He was also, as we shall see later, one of the conservation giants.
Starting out by climbing any available rock climbs in Glen Coe and Ben Nevis, the team began to realise that almost any rock climb could be attempted in winter if suitably plastered with snow and ice. In Glen Coe their exploits in winter included Garrick’s Shelf Route (1st winter ascent, March 1937) and Crowberry Gully on the Buachaille, and Deep-Cut Chimney (1st winter ascent, April 1939) on Stob Coire nam Beith. On Ben Nevis they stormed up Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge (2nd winter ascent, February 1938), North-East Buttress and Comb Gully. Years later, Murray wrote that he and his contemporaries were starting afresh, with very few guidelines to help them. Raeburn, for example, could have been a good starting point, but his deeds had somehow been sublimated through time and opaque reporting.
The various lengths to which Murray’s group went to aiding their progress in climbing – the use of head torches, shorter ice axes, slings and karabiners – began to attract the attention of the mandarins of the SMC. They were not amused, and huffily told Murray so. It was, in retrospect, probably one of the lowest points the SMC reached. It was also one of the best periods enjoyed by the JMCS, whose rapidly increasing numbers began to alarm the senior club. Luckily, sense, and World War II, intervened before relations deteriorated too far.
The use of a head torch was probably due to the fact that MacAlpine was a dentist. In their ascent of Observatory Ridge in1938 for example, Murray and MacAlpine held a lightweight torch in their mouths when climbing, while MacKenzie had the reflector and bulb held on his head by an elastic band, with the battery in his pocket. It was to be another grim and often dark 40 years or so before well-designed head torches appeared in the climbing emporiums.
The idea of a shorter ice axe came from Bill Bennet, who had a slater & plumbing business in Glasgow. They took a 14-inch slater’s hammer, cut off the side-claw (used for levering slates off roofs), and they had a heavy but short ice hammer for steep ice cutting. Douglas Scott, who on occasions climbed with Murray, had a short axe made for himself by a blacksmith in 1936, making the 3rd winter ascent of Crowberry Gully with it. MacKenzie made the 2nd ascent the week before this, but with a longer axe.
Climbing for Murray was brought to an abrupt halt in 1942, when, fighting in North Africa, he was taken prisoner by the Germans following an attack by a Panzer Division. For three years he was in prison camps in Europe; in Czechoslovakia and Germany. It was during this spell that he wrote his first of two now-classic books on climbing, Mountaineering in Scotland. Or rather, he wrote the first of two drafts of the book, as the first was confiscated by the Germans.
It was also in the prison camps that Murray was introduced to meditation, a practice he continued for the remainder of his life. This is almost certainly a factor in his often clear and detailed descriptions of climbs done years earlier. He has even described in a later article how he succeeded in recalling the climbs he wrote about, without any written records at hand to help him. It was, in essence, a triumph of sustained concentration day after day for weeks, until the details not only appeared in his mind, but began to flood, and in full colour.
Mountaineering in Scotland was published in 1947, to be followed in 1951 by Undiscovered Scotland. The former is the better book, perhaps due to its unusually prolonged and painful birth. Both became quickly popular and essential reading in the post-war generation of climbers. Their popularity has remained virtually undimmed, and fortunately they have been published as a twin compilation by Diadem in 1979. It is safe to state that they are amongst the best of any British mountain books published, and an inspiration for decades of climbers.
On his return following the end of the war, Murray joined the SMC, and became involved in writing the first edition of the Climbers’ Guide to Glen Coe. This was published in 1949. In August 1951, Murray was on an exploratory expedition to Everest, led by Eric Shipton. Also on the team were Ed Hillary, Tom Bourdillon, and Michael Ward. They approached from the west, through Nepal, and though they could not gain the South Col, they felt that this approach was more suitable than the old north route. And so it has proved to be. The Swiss Expedition failed in 1952, but while Murray was writing his Story of Everest’, published in 1953, the successful Expedition of 1953 was preparing to go out. A certain Ed Hillary was a member, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although Murray’s climbing was now much reduced, he continued to develop his appreciation of the Scottish landscape. He married his wife Anne in 1960, and while on a six-week camping honeymoon in Scotland did much of the necessary fieldwork for a survey commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland. This was ultimately published as Highland Landscape, in 1962, and quotations from this seminal work continue to used to this day. He was a founding Commissioner when the Countryside Commission was formed in 1967, and soon after was Chairman of the Scottish Countryside Activities Council. He was active on the latter body from 1968 to 1982, only cutting back the work in his 70th year.
In 1982 was published one of Murray’s best books – a biography of the Highland folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor. It was to be one of Murray’s few disappointments in life that the Hollywood film epic of the same man bore little resemblance to this learned yet extremely readable book, easily the best treatment on MacGregor written. He had also written various fictional novels, though none as popular as his mountaineering books.
When the Association of Scottish Climbing Clubs was reformed into the Mountaineering Council of Scotland Murray was to be its second President, from 1972-75. Many other bodies have enjoyed his experience. There are many who regard his later work on the landscape and conservation of Scotland’s wild areas to be of even greater regard than his earlier mountaineering exploits. He will probably be seen from a distance as a balanced man who not only played in and over the hills, but tended them carefully for the irreplaceable and priceless assets which they are. His writings have been widely quoted, including a selection in the conservation book ‘Earth in the Balance’, by U.S. Vice-President (he who should have been President) Al Gore.
Bill Murray suffered a heart attack in 1995, which hospitalised him for a short time. Back at his home on the shores of Loch Goil he continued to work the garden with his wife, collecting seaweed by the barrow load as organic fertiliser. He died in 1996 following a second attack, in his 83rd year. His obituary in the SMC Journal occupied an unprecedented 10 pages, and through the pages of that Journal, of whose club Murray had been Honorary President, his name is maintained through an annual W.H. Murray Literary Prize. Awards which had been given to Murray during his lifetime included an O.B.E., an Honorary Doctorate from Stirling University, and a D.Litt from Strathclyde University.
Finest Moment: First winter ascents of Garrick’s Shelf Route (Buachaille Etive Mor), Deep Cut Chimney (Stob Coire nam Beith), 2nd winter ascent of Observatory Ridge (Ben Nevis), first ascent Clachaig Gully (Glen Coe), 2nd ascent Rubicon Wall (Ben Nevis).
Bibliography: ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’, By W.H. Murray (1947, Dent, London); ‘Undiscovered Scotland’, By W.H. Murray (1951, Dent, London); (Both published as a double compilation by Diadem, 1979); ‘The Story of Everest 1921-1952’ By W.H. Murray, (1953, Dent, London); ‘Rob Roy MacGregor, His life and times’, W.H. Murray (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1993); ‘In Memoriam’, By Donald McIntyre, Douglas Scott, Bill MacKenzie & Bob Aitken (SMCJ 1966, Vol.36, pp.149-158); WH Murray - The Evidence of Things Not See, A Mountaineer's Tale (2002, Bâton Wicks, Leicester).