Dressed in plus fours and a bowler he gazes nonchalantly into the camera, perched on the Salisbury Crags below Arthur’s Seat.

While the title of 'father' of Scottish mountaineering has been attributed to a number of prominent climbers, it truly belongs to Harold Raeburn (1865-1926) says the author of a new book charting his many accomplishments.

The Herald: Harold Raeburn deserves to be named the 'father' of Scottish mountaineering says the author of a new biography Picture: ArchiveHarold Raeburn deserves to be named the 'father' of Scottish mountaineering says the author of a new biography Picture: Archive (Image: Archives)

Raeburn was described as "physically and mentally hard as nails, trained by solitary sea-cliff climbing after birds' haunts and unyielding and concise in every movement, both mental and physical."

Lord Mackay went on to remark that the Edinburgh-born climber had a capacity of grip that was astonishing: "He was possessed of strong muscular fingers that could press firmly and in a straight downward contact upon the very smallest hold."

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One ascent of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, was about 44 years ahead of its time, done with no more than an ice axe and 100ft of hemp rope. A number of routes have been named in his honour including Raeburn's Arete.

The Herald: Harold Raeburn completed many first ascents of Ben Nevis Harold Raeburn completed many first ascents of Ben Nevis (Image: Agency)

His records before World War One included a "remarkable" list of new climbs on rock and ice in Scotland, guideless first ascents in the Alps, and the conquest of several new peaks in the Russian Caucasus.

He also led a group of mountaineers on the first Scottish attempt to ascend Mount Everest in May 1921 at the age of 56.

"He was the most distinguished mountaineer of his day in the late 19th and early 20th century, probably in Britain and possibly in Europe as well, " said Peter Biggar, author of Harold Raeburn, The Steps of a Giant.

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He expressed surprise that the climber had not yet been honoured in his home city of Edinburgh with a blue plaque.

"I have an enormous respect for this man. I think he genuinely deserves to be called the 'father' of Scottish mountaineering.

"He loved the Highlands and climbed all over them in Skye, Arran, Lochaber and Glencoe and Torridon, doing first ascents in all of these places.

"His ascent of Green Gully [on Ben Nevis] in particular was about 44 years ahead of its time. It was graded IV/IV which by today's standards is about a middle grade and he did it with simply an ice axe, 100 feet of hemp rope and that was all he had.


"He cut steps up the whole way on this magnificent ice climb," said the author, who lives in Torridon in the north of Scotland and is himself an accomplished climber.

"One false move and he and his partner would have been killed," he added.

The Herald: Raeburn with Natalya Yovitchitch (L) with whom he climbed and his sister Ruth Picture: Archives Raeburn with Natalya Yovitchitch (L) with whom he climbed and his sister Ruth Picture: Archives (Image: Archive)

"His greatest achievement was doing the first Summer ascent of Observatory Ridge and then much later in his life the very first winter ascent and he did the first winter ascent in five and three-quarter hours and believe me that's an extremely good time for nowadays let alone in 1920."

Peter Biggar will be a guest speaker at the Fort William Mountain Festival, which is taking place from February 15 to Sunday 18 February 2024.

The Herald:

Highlights include talks by wildlife cameraman Hamza Yassin and record-breaking mountain runner Jamie Aarons.

One of a family of 11, Raeburn lived in Edinburgh all his life and came to mountaineering through ornithology. His collection of birds eggs is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. 

"He took this extremely seriously," said the author, who says Raeburn was unusual in that he regularly climbed with women mountaineers.

"It's beautifully detailed, he measured all the sizes of the eggs and where they came from. 

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"He was taken so seriously by the intelligentsia of Edinburgh that he was actually made a member of the Edinburgh Physical Society which was almost unheard of.

"There should obviously be a blue plaque on the house where he was born in Barnton, in Edinburgh.

"I think it's true to say he's been largely forgotten." 

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which oversees the blue plaque scheme said: "Our Commemorative Plaque Scheme is currently under review.

"This includes the nomination criteria and process, and we are therefore not currently accepting proposals for plaques."