Gilbert Thomson

A Glasgow man, Gilbert Thomson was one of the original members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. The club started following a letter in the ‘Glasgow Herald’ from Willie Naismith, on January 10th 1889. This was answered on the 14th by a letter signed ‘Cairn’, supporting Naismith’s suggestion of a Scottish Alpine Club, but objecting to the term ‘Alpine’. ‘Cairn’ was, in fact, Gilbert Thomson and his friend D.A. Archie. Thomson joined the club and became its first Librarian, and was a frequent partner of Naismith on hill outings.

A Civil Engineer, Thomson had offices in Bath Street, Glasgow, as a private practice. His specialty was Sanitary Engineering, and he lectured at the Royal Technical College for over 20 years. He published a standard textbook on house drainage. He had an M.A. degree. There is an amusing story about Thomson, in which he almost died using his climbing experience at work. He was asked to be an expert witness in a case involving pollution from a Highland factory chimney, which the owners of adjacent land used for shooting claimed was affecting the heather. Thomson found a similar chimney in Glasgow and without advice climbed it using steeplejack’s equipment. He stuck his head over the top and almost lost consciousness in the noxious fumes.

As a climber, it has been said that his reputation would have been even stronger but for the fact that he did much of his climbing with Naismith, the latter often preferring a good walk even though he was himself an excellent technical climber. The two were partners in an epic walk one April day in 1890, from Clachaig to Kingshouse in Glen Coe, but taking in the summits of Bidean nam Bian and both of the Buachailles. They arrived after 13 hours’ walking in a famished condition at the road overlooking the Kingshouse Inn, from where they could see the lights of the hotel, but they were so tired they had to rest for some time before making the last few hundred metres.

This annoyed the Victorians’ tidy minds, so they became determined to test whether it was lack of fitness or food which had made them so tired. At Easter 1892 they took the night train to Dalwhinnie, and at 3.30 a.m. they left to walk to Inveroran for a club meet, taking in en route the summit of Ben Alder and the Rannoch Moor. They arrived 16 and a half hours later at Inveroran Inn still going strong, and therefore were satisfied that there was nothing wrong with their stamina, and that as long as they carried sufficient food they could have gone even further. The walk was a distance of 66 kilometres (41 miles).

In April 1895, the SMC held an Easter Meet at Fort William. Collie was there, and before leaving for the south, he generously provided information on several unclimbed routes. One of these was a great ridge on Aonach Beag’s north-east flank. Accordingly, on April 13th, Thomson, Naismith and Maclay made the long walk in from the Spean Bridge side. After a false ascent of another ridge north of their objective, they descended and finally made the first ascent of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag, a fine, long route in a lovely situation. Due to the false start, difficulties met on the route, and their wish to take in the summit, it was midnight before they returned to the increasingly worried climbers back in Fort William.

Thomson made several contributions to the SMC Journal, including an account of the ascent of the NE Ridge of Aonach Beag. His engineering interests showed through when in 1908 he wrote an article entitled ‘Some Mechanics of the Rope and Axe’. This is of interest as it shows an early appreciation of the need for falls onto a rope to be halted gradually, and not suddenly. Firstly, the ropes in use then even when new had a breaking strength of about one ton only (just over 1000 Kg). Secondly, as they knew from accidents in industry, for example in quarry working, the force on a falling man tied into such a rope could easily kill or severely injure the victim. Fortunately, as Thomson reminded readers, most falls on a mountain are not unbroken!

It is easy to forget the relatively primitive equipment in use by these pioneers. They were highly aware of this of course, which is why they had engrained almost at the genetic level the old unwritten rule of ‘Thou Shalt Not Fall’.

Gilbert Thomson was a popular climber in the SMC, and was its Secretary from 1896-1901, and its President from 1907-1910. He had five seasons in the Alps, and joined the Alpine Club in 1906. Lord Mackay, in his devastatingly accurate and honest pen portraits of several of the old SMC members, provided an amusing physical description of Thomson.

‘Physically, he was of a tall, sparse build which somehow always seemed to typify his strong and upright character, with a tall, long neck that carried a small head on top, but that neck was full of character. The eyes in the head had a queer sudden trick of swivelling upon one, with a specially sharp, alert look. When any good point was made the head and neck seemed somehow to me to stretch more and more, up and up as difficulties were involved, so that when he became for a short time our first Scots casualty by having a considerable stone come down a gully and fall on his top, I could almost imagine the neck expanding upwards to meet it, as a something to be scorned.’

The accident referred to by Lord Mackay took place on a spur of Helvellyn, when Thomson was hit by a shower of stones. But Thomson himself was known as a very careful and strong climber, one to be relied on completely. He died in 1941.

Finest Moment: First ascents of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag (1895), Flake Route, on Bidean’s Church Door Buttress, Glen Coe (1898).

Bibliography: ‘In Memoriam’, by A.E. Maylard & J.A. Parker, (1942, SMCJ, Vol. 23, pp.35-38); ‘The “Church-Door Buttress” on Bidean nam Bian’, J.H. Bell(SMCJ, Vol.5, pp.135-140, May, 1898); ‘A Wet Day in Glencoe’, Harold Raeburn (SMCJ Vol.4, pp.24-28, Jan. 1898); ‘The North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag’, by Gilbert Thomson, (1895, SMCJ, Vol. 3, pp.332-337); ‘Some Mechanics of the Rope and Axe’, by Gilbert Thomson, (1908, SMCJ, Vol. 10, pp.17-25); ‘Vignettes of Earlier Climbers’, Lord Mackay (1950, SMCJ, Vol. 24, pp. 141-180;