Scotland’s pioneering women who broke new ground in the mountains

Jane Inglis Clark, of Edinburgh (pictured holding ropes) , a founding members of the Ladies' Scottish Climbing Club. Members are pictured ahead of a New Year outing in 1909. PIC: National Library of Scotland.
Jane Inglis Clark, of Edinburgh (pictured holding ropes) , a founding members of the Ladies' Scottish Climbing Club. Members are pictured ahead of a New Year outing in 1909. PIC: National Library of Scotland.
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They embarked on ­adventures around the world – and broke down expectations of where a woman’s place was meant to be.

Scotland’s early female mountaineers and adventurers could be found navigating the deep passes of the Himalayas, venturing into the Middle East and topping the highest peaks of the Highlands from the late 19th century.

Evelyn McNicol, who was part of the first all-female expedition to the Himalayas in 1955, checks the health of a sherpa. PIC: National Library of Scotland.

Evelyn McNicol, who was part of the first all-female expedition to the Himalayas in 1955, checks the health of a sherpa. PIC: National Library of Scotland.

Now, a new event at the National Library of Scotland will ­examine the triumphs of women such as Jane Ellen Duncan, of Glasgow, who travelled through western Tibet in 1906, Jane Inglis Clark, of Edinburgh, who helped found the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908 and Arctic traveller Isobel Wylie Hutchison.

More recent-day travels of women such as Evelyn McNicol, Monica Jackson and Betty Stark, who in 1955 mounted the first female-only expedition to the Himalayas, will also be examined.

Curator Paula Williams, who will host the Petticoats and Pinnacles event, said: “Women in mountaineering were very overlooked in adventure literature and their achievements were really quite ­dismissed. It is great to be able to pull together these stories and explain how these women were not only fighting their physical environment but also that societal environment.”

She added: “Some women had huge support from their husbands and partners and were given help to go on these adventures. But in some cases, it was completely dismissed. I think society in general was ­completely outraged by them.”

Arctic traveller Isobel Wylie Hutchison who ventured forth from her West Lothian home in the 1920s. PIC: The Alpine Club.

Arctic traveller Isobel Wylie Hutchison who ventured forth from her West Lothian home in the 1920s. PIC: The Alpine Club.

Climber Etienne Bruhl wrote of the first “manless climb” of the ­Matterhorn in 1929 when the first all-female rope made it up the mountain. He wrote: “The Grépon has disappeared. Of course there are still some rocks standing but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity too, because it used to be a very good climb.”

Earlier, Claude Benson wrote in his 1914 book British Mountaineering of a woman being “moderately helpless” in the art of tying knots or of proper management of the rope.

However, he added: “When a lady takes mountaineering seriously, she generally does so successfully.”

Benson also noted how “doctors, in this age of feminine athletics, are constantly having girls on their hands who have overdone it, and will never be quite the same again”.

Ms Williams said women often appeared to scale back on their adventures so they did not appear “too outré”.

Jane Ellen Duncan, of Hillhead, Glasgow, wrote of wearing Kashmir chaplies – sandals with felt lining soles – and scruffy clothes while travelling in the Himalayas. But Ms Duncan, who did not go adventuring until she was in her 50s, also noted how she ­carried a lead bath in a basket. A smaller ­basket contained her table linen.

Scotland’s early female adventurers took to the mountains in long skirts and Mackintosh cloaks with suitable clothing hard to find. Jane Inglis-Clark recalled wearing a boy’s suit, made by ­Forsyth’s in ­Edinburgh – much to her mother’s horror. She wrote: “My own mother could not endure the spectacle and cried ‘Oh what a fright you look!’ It was not done in those days!”

Advice on how to adapt women’s clothing started to emerge. Leather could be sewn around a hem to stop it fraying on rough terrain. Ribbons could be stitched into a skirt to create a ‘Roman blind’ which could be hoisted up to the desired length when required, Ms Williams added.

Skirts would sometimes be discarded during mountain climbs to reveal tweed knickerbocker-style bottoms. If the skirt was lost or left on the hill, guides would sometimes be sent on to buy another so the women could “rejoin society”, Ms Williams added.

Petticoats and Pinnacles is at National Library for Scotland on March 8 at 2pm.