John Norman Collie

Norman Collie was born on September 10, 1859, at Alderley Edge, just south of Manchester. He was the second of four sons. He has a fair claim to be Scots, as his grandfather, George Collie, was tenant of the farm of Wantonwells at Insch, Aberdeenshire. His father John lived for several years at Glassel on Deeside, where from a small shooting estate he could enjoy fishing and shooting. Norman Collie was six at this time, and even in his 80s he recalled the magic of good days out on the foothills of the Grampians around Banchory. John Senior had married Selina Winkworth, and here there was a link to climbing, as one of Collie’s uncles, Stephen Winkworth, had joined the Alpine Club in 1861.

The family moved south in 1870, to take up residence in Clifton, near Bristol. The excitement of wandering over the Scottish landscape was exchanged for the palpable danger of the rocks in the Clifton Gorge. Schooling was initially at Windlesham in Surrey, then in 1873 the leading public school Charterhouse. The family money had been made in the cotton trade, but in 1875 the American Civil War resulted in their financial ruin. Sherman’s army torched a vast amount of cotton which the Collie’s firm was about to load on to their blockade busting ships,  and despite a shady insurance scam by Alexander Collie, one of John Senior’s brothers, the company went bust. (As an interesting aside, Alexander’s wife Flora MacNeill was a descendant of Flora Macdonald; she who helped Prince Charles escape from Skye.)

Collie had to leave Charterhouse, transferring to Clifton College. His uncle Stephen paid him an annual allowance while he was a student, and with a small inheritance belonging to Selina the family was able to escape poverty. At Clifton Collie found he was completely unsuited for the classics; only when he attended University College in Bristol was his true vocation for chemistry discovered.

He rapidly developed the two main interests in his life; a long and distinguished career as a scientist, and an equally long and distinguished life as a mountaineer. As a scientist he began as a student under Professor Letts in Bristol, before moving to study at Würzburg University in Germany, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in 1884.  After that he spent two years as a science lecturer at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which he disliked, before moving to London in 1887 as Demonstrator in the Chemical Laboratories in University College, London.

In 1886, aged 27, he was on the Isle of Skye, scrambling in Coire a’ Bhasteir. The fishing had been poor. He watched as two climbers made an ascent of one of the pinnacles on Sgurr nan Gillean. A few days later, armed with directions from the Skye guide John Mackenzie and accompanied by his brother Henry, he climbed Am Basteir. It was the beginning of his life long love of the Cuillin. Mackenzie was then the ghillie at Sligachan Inn, and was some three years older than Collie. It was also the beginning of a famous friendship – more than a partnership – which lasted until Mackenzie’s death in 1933.

But whereas Mackenzie never climbed outside the Cuillin, Collie became renowned as a climber and explorer in many mountainous areas of the world. He climbed in the Alps, the Himalayas, the Lofotens, and the Canadian Rockies, where he made many first ascents. During six expeditions between 1897-1911, he recorded 21 first ascents and named at least 30 peaks.

Back in Skye, Collie had climbed all the main peaks by 1888. On September 12, 1896, he made the first ascent of Sgurr Coir’an Lochain, perhaps the last peak to be climbed in Britain. With him were Willie Naismith, E.B. Howell, an English climber, and of course John Mackenzie. By 1890 Collie and Mackenzie were systematically exploring the Cuillin. The following year saw the first ascent of the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap, a crucial obstacle on the Cuillin Ridge. In the same year, 1891, he joined the SMC. By then he was an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at University College London, and had a house at 16 Campden Grove, Kensington.

In 1892 Collie began his climbing in the higher ranges, with his first visit to the Alps. He was climbing with the controversial A.F. Mummery. Controversial because his promotion of guideless climbing antagonised the chronic conservatism of the Alpine Club. Along with Hastings and Pasteur, the foursome made the initial traverse of the Aiguille de Grépon, including the famous ‘Mummery’s Crack’. The following year, this Alpine season, along with Collie’s impressive British climbing record, allowed him membership of the Alpine Club.

In 1893 he hit the Alps again, with Slingsby, Hastings and Mummery. They made the first ascent of the Dent du Requin, the Petit Dru, and the Matterhorn by the Italian Ridge. They also made the first ascent of the west face of the Aiguille du Plan, a 19-hour expedition.

By March 1894, when he joined the SMC Easter Meet at Inveroran, he was a seasoned Alpinist. He was accompanied by two guests from the Lake District in England; Godfrey Solly, and Joseph Collier. After making several first ascent in Glen Coe, the trio moved on to Fort William, where Ben Nevis was in splendid winter condition. On Friday, March 30, they pointed their ice axes at Tower Ridge. They were almost certainly unaware of the descent 18 months earlier by the Hopkinson family, though they soon spotted nail marks left on the rocks of the ridge by the Hopkinson boots.

The trio were successful, climbing Tower Ridge in five hours, and visiting the Observatory on the summit. Collie was unstinting in his praise for the route, and thought that it ‘resembled the Italian side of the Matterhorn, and was the best climb he had ever had in Scotland’. He liked it so much in fact, that he climbed it again the very next day, taking along his regular Alpine partner Geoffrey Hastings. Late that summer, Collie, Hastings and Mummery made the first guideless ascent of Mont Blanc by the Brenva Glacier. The next year, 1895, Collie was on Nanga Parbat with Mummery, when the latter disappeared trying to cross a pass.

Collie never returned to the Himalaya, and went on to explore the Canadian Rockies to great effect. But during this period, on Skye, he had spotted, on the great Sron na Ciche, on a late afternoon summer in 1899, an unsuspected shadow on the face, obviously cast by some large pinnacle of rock. He took a photograph as a record and determined to investigate it at some later date. The shadow was that of The Cioch, and he waited until 1906 to climb it with his friend John Mackenzie.

By the time he returned from the 1911 Canadian expedition, he was in his early 50s. The pressure of scientific work was increasing. He had succeeded Sir William Ramsay in 1902 as the Professor of Organic Chemistry, and in 1913 as Director of the chemical laboratories. It was effectively the end of his mountain expeditions. But he had discoveries still to make in science. He was a good experimenter, and made the first neon light. He had always been interested in colours, and in fact synthesised his interest in fine art and science with three papers on the colouring of Chinese glazes on pottery and porcelain.

There is good evidence that Collie should be credited with the discovery of neon, rather than Ramsay, in whose lab he did the work. He proposed a dynamic structure for benzene, and discovered the oxonium salt of dimethylpyrone, which was the first example of such a salt. He invented the term polyketide for a group of compounds which playa major role in the bioynthesis of various natural products. It was not until 1955, almost 50 years later, that this theory was finally shown to be correct. He was probably, as if his other work was not enough, the first to use X-ray photography for medical purposes, when a patient with a needle fragment embedded in her thumb was sent to the college.

Collie continued to visit Skye every summer, often renting Glen Brittle House with the painter Colin Phillip, a fellow member of the SMC and a noted water colourist. (Collie himself was also an excellent artist, according to Phillip.)

On November 30, 1925, an article in the Aberdeen’s Press and Journal reported a story which Collie had given at the Annual Dinner of the Cairngorm Club. Collie was Honorary President, and had been asked for a dinner speech. He told the assembled diners, for the first time in public, of a terrifying experience he had had 35 years earlier, on Ben Macdhui, while climbing alone in mist and snow. He was coming down from the cairn when he noticed that for every few steps he took, he heard a big crunch, and then another crunch, as if someone was walking after him but taking steps three or four times the length of his own. He was seized with a blind terror and rushed down the mountain for several miles into the safety of Rothiemurchus Forest.

Some 12 years after the dinner speech, Collie told this story to A.M. Kellas, a lecturer and Himalayan climber. Kellas also, it turned out, had had a bad experience on Ben Macdhui’s summit. Collie’s story started the interest in what became known as ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui’, and those who are interested are pointed to books by Affleck Gray and Rennie McOwen.

When war broke out in 1939, Collie closed his London home and retired to Sligachan. He had by then lost most of his friends to old age, including Mackenzie, in 1933. When his old friend died, Collie made a solo ascent of Am Basteir. It was, he said, his last climb. He continued to fish. In the autumn of 1942, a friend invited him out for a day’s fishing in the Storr Loch. It was very windy, yet Collie managed to find a relatively sheltered spot and pulled in dozens of trout. Trying to regain the bank the wind blew him into the loch and he was soaked. A chill rapidly developed into pneumonia, and he died on the 1st November, 1942.

John Norman Collie was buried next to John Mackenzie, in the old graveyard at Struan, by Loch Harport. A short walk leads to a skyline view of the Cuillin ridge, etched black against the sky. The graveyard is tiny and the graves humble. One supports a weathered lump of gabbro, the rough rock of which the Black Cuillin is made. It is an appropriately modest stone under which to rest, for one so travelled and learned, yet one so modest and unassuming. For most of his life Collie had pressed down on this roughest of rocks, and it had held true. Surely it was only fitting that now a small piece of it could press down on him, and hold firm what had been a fine life?


Finest Moment: Numerous peaks and routes. In Scotland the 1st ascent, and 1st winter ascent, of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis (1894); Thearlaich-Dubh Gap, Skye (1891); Sgurr Coir’an Lochain, Skye (1896); The Cioch (1906). In the higher ranges the Dent du Requin, Aiguille du Plan (1893);  Mt. Athabasca, Canada (1898).

Bibliography: ‘In Memoriam’, John Norman Collie, by William Garden, SMCJ Vol.23, pp.95-7, April 1943; ‘The Snows of Yesteryear, J. Norman Collie, Mountaineer’, William C. Taylor (1973, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Canada); ‘The Cuillin of Skye’, B.H. Humble (1952, Robert Hale Limited, London); ‘Skye and the Hebrides: Rock & Ice Guides, Vol.1 The Isle of Skye’, John R. Mackenzie and Noel Williams (1996, Scottish Mountaineering Trust); ‘Climbing on the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges’, J.N. Collie (1902, Edinburgh: David Douglas); ‘Climbs and Explorations in the Canadian Rockies’, H.E.M. Stutfield & J.N. Collie (1930, London: Longmans, Green & Co.); ‘Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui’ Affleck Gray (3rd Edn., 1994); ‘Magic Mountains’ Rennie McOwen (1996); ‘On the Divine Mysteries of the Oromaniacal Quest by Orlamon Linicus’, J.N. Collie, SMCJ Vol.3, pp. 151-157, Sept., 1894; ‘A’Chullion’, SMCJ Vol.4, pp.259-266, May, 1897.