William Brown was the eldest son of ex-Sheriff Brown of Aberdeen. He was educated at Aberdeen, where he graduated with an M.A., and then at Edinburgh where he studied law, graduating with an L.L.B.
As a lawyer he soon showed much promise, being called to the Bar in 1892. He had joined the SMC in December of the previous year, and his energy ensured that he served on the Committee from December 1895 to 1899.
As a climber too, Brown was energetic and full of enthusiasm; bursting in fact with the joy of exploratory climbing. On Ben Nevis, following the dramatic descent of Tower Ridge by the Hopkinson family in 1892, with the first ascent under winter conditions two years later, all eyes were fixed on the massive skyline ridge of the North-East Buttress. What was unknown to the Scots however, was that the Hopkinsons had also climbed the Buttress, three days after Tower Ridge. So it was that on the 1895 Easter Meet of the SMC, in Fort William, the buttress became the object of ambition.
Brown determined to be the first to climb the buttress, and enlisted his usual climbing partner William Tough (the latter pronounced ‘Tooch’). There was only one problem; the train timetables. The newly opened West Highland Line was not designed for climbers, so they devised the plan of taking the Friday night express to Kingussie, cycling to Fort William, climbing the route then cycling back to Kingussie the same day to return to Edinburgh tired but hopefully happy on Sunday evening. This was in May, 1895.
The weather, naturally, decided not to cooperate. When, after a tiring cycle journey, sharing one bike after the other one had suffered a burst tyre, they arrived at the foot of the rocks at 5.30 pm, the heavens opened and down it poured. Once it cleared somewhat they soloed up to the first platform and roped up. Things went steadily until, several hundred feet below the top, and in thickening mist, they failed on slabby rocks, ‘which turned out to be the man-trap of the ridge’. It was now 9.45 pm, with daylight almost gone.
A bivouac crossed their minds, but Tough egged on his friend and they succeeded in finding a variation avoiding the rocky step above their heads. With another few pitches the route was finished, and reaching the Observatory on the summit just after 10 pm they grabbed an hour of sleep. A telegraph sent by the intrepid pair to the SMC Journal Editor read ‘Climbed our ridge reaching top 10.05 Saturday extremely difficult and sensational Brown.’
Brown and Tough eventually reached Edinburgh, after 45 hours’ of continuous travel, to be met by William Douglas. Later that summer, the Alpine Club Journal came out with a short report by the Hopkinsons on their ascent of the buttress. It was impossible, however, to know exactly where the Hopkinsons had climbed, but all routes lead to the man-trap and presumably that way had been taken. Probably in the damp gloom Brown and Tough had failed to see any nail scratches on the rocks from the first ascenders’ boots.
In July 1895, Brown and Tough, along with Rose, made the first ascent of North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. This rock climb, still a respectable and enjoyable route of about Difficult in standard may be regarded as the first climb in Glen Coe recognisable as a clean, distinct and lengthy rock climb, Collie’s earlier expeditions notwithstanding. It was another bold piece of exploration by William Brown.
In August of the same year, 1895, the same dynamic duo made the first rock climb on Lochnagar, climbing an ascending line across a steep, slabby buttress now known as Tough-Brown Traverse. In 1896 Brown was in the party which made the first winter ascent of the Grade III Castle Ridge on Ben Nevis. His partners that April day were Naismith, Maclay and Thomson.
Sadly, Brown was soon to fall ill, and after a three-year struggle with a wasting illness he died on September 15th, 1901. He was then in his 33rd year, and had just been made a lecturer at Edinburgh University. Undoubtedly the history of early mountaineering in Scotland would read very differently had he enjoyed a normal life span.
Finest Moments: Second ascent and first Scottish ascent North-East Buttress, Ben Nevis (May 1895); first ascent North Buttress, Buachaille Etive Mor (July 1895); first ascent Tough-Brown Traverse, Lochnagar (August 1895); first winter ascent The Castle, Ben Nevis (April 1896).Bibliography: ‘In Memoriam’, (William Douglas, SMCJ Vol. 7, pp.20-22, 1902); ‘Ascent of Ben Nevis by the N.E. Buttress’, W. Brown (September 1895, SMCJ Vol. 3, pp.323-331); ‘Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain’, Ken Crocket (1986, Scottish Mountaineering Trust).