A remarkable collection of Scottish mountaineering memorabilia is housed in cardboard boxes in a barn near Fort William. Roger Cox meets the man who has put it all together and hears his dream of one day housing it in a purpose-built museum
IN A stone-built barn beside his house near Fort William, Royal Marine turned mountain guide Mick Tighe is showing me around his vast collection of mountaineering memorabilia. “Old junk,” the no-nonsense 63-year-old calls it in his clipped Derbyshire accent but, really, it’s anything but.
Stacks of neatly labelled cardboard boxes reveal treasure after treasure. One contains a number of items belonging to the late climber, author and broadcaster Tom Weir: his twin-lens reflex Mamiyaflex camera, his box brownie, even one of his trademark bobble hats. Another box contains a selection of vintage compasses and other instruments, including an altimeter belonging to Harold Raeburn. A giant of Scottish mountaineering in the early 20th century, Raeburn pioneered a number of classic climbing routes up Ben Nevis and was also mountaineering leader on the ill-fated 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest, which was seriously derailed by an outbreak of dysentery. One member of the party died in the mountains and Raeburn became so ill that he never fully recovered, eventually dying in Edinburgh in 1926. Carefully, Tighe opens the altimeter’s protective leather case. Given the adventures it must have been on, you’d expect it to be battered and cracked, but it’s still in mint condition. Not only that, compared to today’s robust, chunky looking outdoor gear, it seems impossibly fragile, its needle wafer thin.
Tighe’s barn is full of objects that offer similar glimpses into climbing history – from vintage crampons forged by blacksmiths to game-changing ice axes, it seems every object has its own compelling story to tell. In any other country in the world with a mountaineering heritage as rich as Scotland’s, these artefacts would long since have been gathered together and put on public display in a purpose-built museum, but Tighe’s attempts to make this happen have always been frustrated. The lack of a suitable home for his collection hasn’t stopped him trying to get it seen by a wider audience, however, and he has set up various mini-exhibitions over the years in whisky distilleries and at mountain film festivals. This summer, true to form, he has arranged for a small display to be installed in the window of a vacant shop on Fort William High Street, from 10 June.
Only once has Tighe been given any public funding for his collection. In 2006, he received a grant of £50,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This money allowed him to have everything professionally photographed and catalogued, and for a bespoke website to be built. First, though, he had to sign away his collection to the nation, turning it into a charity called the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.
“When we got our Heritage Lottery money, we had to make the collection into a charity,” he says, “so basically I had to give it away. I don’t own it any more – it belongs to you lot – it belongs to the nation. I had to write myself a letter, because I was Mick Tighe, but I was also the chairman of the Heritage Collection, so I had to say ‘Dear Mr Chairman’ – which was me – ‘I hereby hand over my collection’ – signed by me.”
The public sector may have been slow to see the value of the treasures sitting in Tighe’s barn, but the same cannot be said of the private sector. This year, the outdoor retailer Blacks – formerly Blacks of Greenock – will celebrate its 150th anniversary. An advertising campaign featuring vintage Blacks camping and hiking gear is planned, and last month representatives of the company – now owned by JD Sports – visited Tighe for several days to photograph some of the items in his collection. “We have I think about six or eight items that are Blacks of Greenock,” he says, “mostly from the 1950s. Some anoraks, a camping stove, a rucksack and a tent. We weren’t actually able to put the tent up though – it was blowing a hoolie when [the people from Blacks] were here.”
Blacks of Greenock was founded in 1863, when Thomas Black, the son of a sailmaker, had the idea of using the skills already built up in the family business to start manufacturing canvas tents. The company went on to become a household name, equipping British armed forces in both world wars.
“I would say Blacks is one of the major British [mountaineering] companies, and certainly one of the longest standing,” says Tighe. “They were very innovative. Their tents and sleeping bags were way ahead of the game. They were one of the first people to realise that goose down was good for sleeping bags, although it had been used in the Arctic before that, but anyway they capitalised on that market.”
Tighe grew up on a farm in Derbyshire and joined the Royal Marines at 17, where he qualified as a mountain and Arctic warfare instructor. He developed his love of climbing during that time and also began collecting related artefacts. One of the first things he bought specifically for his collection was a box of old paraffin stoves. It was either in the late 1970s or early 1980s – he can’t quite remember – but he does remember this early acquisition cost him the princely sum of £1. “Now those same stoves are £40, £50, £60 each,” he says.
Many of the things in the collection were donated by other climbers. “Once you start collecting, people either avoid you because they think you’re going to rob ’em or they give you stuff because they know you’re a collector,” he jokes. By far the biggest single donation came from the explorer and author Myrtle Simpson. Having tried and failed to establish a Scottish skiing museum in the 1990s, she eventually handed the majority of her holdings over to Tighe in 2008. Now housed in its own building – a replica wooden railway carriage just a few stone steps up the hill from the barn – this skiing collection is of major historical significance itself, with several pairs of skis well over 100 years old.
Tighe is keen to stress that the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection isn’t just about climbing, but about all aspects of mountain culture. True, there’s plenty for climbing nuts to get their teeth into – the many drawers full of ice axes, for example, could furnish an entire exhibition on the evolution of ice climbing, and the pivotal role played in the sport by Scots like Hamish MacInnes, who developed his now-famous “terrordactyl” axes in the early 1970s, to help climbers scale steep walls of ice. But other, less extreme aspects of mountain recreation are also represented – from camping and hiking (tents, sleeping bags and countless pairs of walking boots) to cycling and photography (vintage bikes and elaborate old cameras).
Tighe says his dream is to see the collection housed in a purpose-built museum, ideally in Fort William. It would, he says, be a building full of “nice old leather chairs, all kinds of climbing junk and a library – and a coffee shop, ’cos that’s all anybody cares about these days, isn’t it?” He concedes that such a scheme would be expensive; then again, he believes it would have mass-market appeal.
“I’m not a marketing man, but the outdoors encompasses just about everybody. The first thing you’ve got is photography. There are millions of people interested in photography. Even if they’ve never been on a mountain they want to take pictures of mountains. Then you’d have jackets and boots that a rambler would use, you’ve got tents that a camper would use, you’ve got mountaineering gear that a mountaineer would use and you’ve got mountain rescue gear that a mountain rescuer would use, so there’s a whole gamut of things. If you set up [a museum] it would have to cater to all these groups – you couldn’t have a museum that’s only for the 1 per cent of people in Scotland who go climbing.”
Tighe’s other requirement for any future museum would be for it to be as hands-on as possible – visitors, he says, should be able to “put things on, feel them, touch them, try them out”. Just as we’re getting ready to leave, I spy something that looks vaguely familiar tucked away on a low shelf. Turns out it’s an open circuit oxygen set used by English climber Mike Westmacott during the conquest of Everest in 1953. In the build-up to the 1953 expedition there was a fierce debate among climbers over whether the benefits of supplementary oxygen at high altitude would be significant enough to make it worth carrying three heavy cylinders in a bulky metal frame. In the end, oxygen sets made the difference between failure and success. You can read as many books as you like about Hillary, Tenzing and the rest, but nothing transports you to that time and that place quite like picking up a bit of the kit the climbers in that legendary party actually used, feeling the heft of it, and wondering how far and how fast you’d be able to climb if you had it strapped to your back.
• For more information on the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection see www.smhc.co.uk