The Inverness Mountaineering Club; 70 years young

This article was written by former President Robin Forrest for the Scottish Mountaineer magazine, with publication intended in May 2020. The photos, which are of Ben Nevis with the Observatory below, predate the IMC by some years!

Celebrating its 70th anniversary in April this year, the Inverness Mountaineering Club is something of a Johnny-Come-Lately among Scottish mountaineering clubs – Aberdeen’s Cairngorm Club dates from 1887, Dundee’s Grampian Club was up and running from 1927. The neighbouring Moray Mountaineering Club, dating from the early 1930’s stole a march on their Highland cousins by almost two decades. The IMC was formed in an Inverness hotel in April 1950 by a group of like-minded enthusiasts brought together by a newspaper advertisement. By the end of that month a committee was in operation and there were more than 30 signed up members, eight of whom were ladies. The membership list also included four medical doctors and one police sergeant – though whether the latter was a genuine outdoor enthusiast or merely there to monitor whether this strange new association was actually a possible front for subversive activities is not recorded.

Thereafter, the infant IMC wasted no time in getting down to the serious business of getting to grips with the hills. The first “official” meet was to the original Glenmore Lodge (now the youth hostel) by Loch Morlich at the foot of Cairngorm on 30th April, and in that first year other day meets were arranged to Kinlochewe, Ben Nevis, An Teallach and Glen Affric. The first of what was to be many weekend meets saw the first IMC assault on the rocky ramparts of Glencoe.

There were early expeditions to the “greater ranges” of the continent too, with several members in the fifties taking part in Alpine trips based usually at Chamonix or Zermatt. Writing in the IMC Journal for 1975, founding member the late Alex Sutherland recalled summiting Mont Blanc in the summer of 1950. Despite the perfect visibility – they were lucky – and the inspiring view, the party had to beat a swift retreat “with hands half-frozen” thanks to a “searing wind” despite the “bright August sun.”

There were no doubt other inspiring tales to be told, but as is the way of things, not everything was recorded for the benefit of posterity. Fortunately some documentary evidence does exist, and much credit is due to Dr Peter Biggar, a former IMC President and leading literary lion (also editor of the SMC Journal) for his research into the club’s history; without his sterling efforts much of interest would have been forgotten.

In an era when specialist outdoor equipment was hard to come by and many headed to the hills attired in less than ideal ex-military surplus gear, the committee stalwarts helpfully arranged a club discount for members with Campbell’s, in faraway Aberdeen, who supplied the IMC with copies of their mountaineering catalogue, full of exotic climbing goodies of a kind then unavailable in the Highland capital.

By the late sixties the IMC had matured considerably into an established and very active mountaineering organization. The club magazine for 1968 has no less than six pages devoted to an extensive catalogue of new climbs put up by members in the preceding four years, in locations ranging from the “local” crag at Loch Duntelchaig, just south of Inverness, to the Cairngorms to Torridon, with grades ranging from Diff to Hard Severe. Membership stood at forty-two with, curiously, almost half of the female membership giving their addresses as the WRAF accommodation at RAF Kinloss in neighbouring Moray Mountaineering Club territory. The foreword to the magazine was penned by Professor (later Sir) Robert Grieve, then Chairman of the Inverness based Highlands & Islands Development Board, not himself a member but a weel-kent figure in the Highlands and in Scottish mountaineering circles, being at various times President of the SMC and the then Scottish Mountaineering Council.

Professor Grieve had much to say in favour of the IMC of the time, calling it “a lively group that takes its sport seriously.” He mused that “to have such a thriving club within the Highlands is particularly apt…. this reflects two things – first the growth of interest in participation sports. This is a trend which has special relevance to us here in the Highlands for it holds out prospects for development in the recreational field. And second, the democratization of the sport of climbing. Not so long ago this was the province of the few….  Now, through clubs like that of Inverness, it is something shared, as it should be, by everyone.”

This increasing popularity of the great outdoors was reflected in the relative ease with which by then Inverness outdoor folk could properly equip themselves for their weekend adventuring. Instead of having to rely on mail order they could pop along to Fraser & McColl (Eastgate) for camping equipment, Norland (Bank Street) for anoraks and cagoules, or John MacPherson & Sons Sporting stores who offered – for those who could afford it – Grenfell “climbing jackets and knickerbockers” as well as such hi-tech innovations such as the “Marvellous New Space Mountaineering and Camping Blanket, 10 times warmer than wool.”

Naturally, the Highland hills have always been the main focus of IMC activities, and, in common with most other clubs of the time, in the early days arranging and sharing transport was a big part of the committee’s remit, car owners being in a privileged minority. Day meets involved hiring a bus, which left from outside the La Scala cinema at 7.30 am every third Sunday. Meet attendance was reported as high, but even so, by 1957 the committee felt obliged to discontinue bus meets if there were less than 12 bookings. The reason given was that hire costs had risen by some 25% thanks to fuel shortages brought about by the Suez crisis, but may also reflect on the increasing numbers of club members acquiring their own motorized transport. Nonetheless occasional day meets by bus continued up until the early 1970s, by which time there was much agonizing over mounting financial losses.

Enjoying the hills in safety was always an IMC priority. One of the club committees first resolutions was to arrange that “an experienced member should deliver a lecture to the club on the general aspects of mountaineering for the benefit of those members who have little or no such experience.” Despite these early good intentions, there were still epics to be had. In 1955 members on a meet to Sgurr Mor became disorientated in a snowstorm, and on descending found themselves at Loch Fannich rather than the Ullapool road where the club bus was waiting. Fortunately the lodge there had a telephone, allowing a call to be made to the Aultguish Inn whose owner intercepted the bus with her Land Rover in time to prevent an emergency being declared.

In the late sixties Kenneth Anderson recalled a climb with three others on the Triple Buttress in Beinn Eighe’s Coire Mhic Fhearchair in gnarly conditions. The climb was bad enough, but it was on topping out in the dark that their problems really began: “The lashing rain numbed the side of the face and the screaming wind deafened…. Visibility – nil, gale force wind, rain, mist, no map, no torches, at night, three thousand feet high.” Well, at least they did have a compass, which no doubt helped in them reaching the road, still roped up, only six hours overdue. It should be noted that Ken was, at the time, the IMC’s “Mountain Rescue Liaison Officer”. When the club began mountain rescue in the Highlands was nowhere near as organized and efficient as now, and throughout the fifties and sixties the IMC creditably provided a pool of willing volunteers available to Highland police to assist in rescues and searches for missing persons if called upon. In the fifties there was much useful collaboration between the Inverness Mountaineering Club, the Moray Mountaineering Club and the emergent RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. To this day several members play or have formerly played a part in assisting the wider outdoor community as members of various rescue teams.

Fast forward seventy years to 2020 and how things have changed. Since the IMC’s foundation in the 1950’s the population of the Greater Inverness area has more than doubled from 28,000 to 60,000, the fastest growing city in Scotland, and one of the fastest growing in Europe. New roads and bridges have brought once distant hills ever closer. The northern Cairngorms, perhaps having a claim to being Inverness’s “hills of home” – the northern corries being little more than half-an-hour away by car – now enjoy protected status as the centrepiece of the UK’s largest National Park. (Although Ben Wyvis, being the only high hill actually visible from the streets of the town, retains its special status as “Inverness’s Munro”, acting as the Invernessian hillgoers “snow barometer” giving a useful guide during the winter months to what conditions may prevail further afield.) Nor do outdoor orientated Invernessians have to rely on the Royal Mail to get their hands on the latest innovations in outdoor equipment, having around half-a-dozen assorted and well-stocked gear outlets available. Large swathes of the wider Highlands have been changed irrevocably over the last few generations. In 1950 the large hydro-electric schemes which hugely transformed the Highland landscape over the next decade were just getting under way. Now, in the 21st century, wind farms advance over the foothills, and bulldozed landrover tracks push their way ever further into once quiet glens. Yet, the hills are still there, and – thanks to Scotland now having some of the most liberal land access legislation in the entire world – are free and open to all who are willing to seek out and enjoy the challenges and rewards they offer.

And what of the Inverness Mountaineering Club itself? Currently we have around sixty members, mostly living in or around (but not confined to) the Highland capital, ranging in age from twenty-somethings to still sprightly seventy-somethings, and ranging in character from the effusively gregarious to the incorrigibly curmudgeonly (as with most clubs “characters” abound). Sadly but inevitably none of the founding members are still with us to celebrate our seventieth birthday. We’re sure they would, however, be happy in the knowledge that the IMC today is still fulfilling the purpose for which is was established – that of providing an opportunity to get out in the hills in like-minded and congenial company, and enjoying Scottish mountaineering in the widest possible sense, whether as strollers, stravaigers, scramblers or danglers. Long may it continue to do so, and as we are – just as in 1950 – a friendly and welcoming bunch, anyone with an interest in the club can easily find out more by having a look at that modern mountaineering innovation the original membership could barely have dreamt of – the IMC website – https://invernessmountaineering.club