On Top Of The World At The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

By Kate Day | 12 November 2002
Betty Stark - <I>Monica Jackson with two Sherpas on the summit of Gyalgen Peak in the Jugal Himal, 1955.</i> Courtesy Evelyn McNicol

Left:Betty Stark - Monica Jackson with two Sherpas on the summit of Gyalgen Peak in the Jugal Himal, 1955. Courtesy Evelyn McNicol

Kate Day donned her hiking boots, strapped on her knapsack and set her compass to north to take in this intriguing exhibition.

On top of the world: Scottish Mountaineers at Home and Abroad is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 19 January 2003.

The show contains photography, paintings and original documents and articles that chronicle the achievements, and some failures, of Scottish mountaineers both in and outside Scotland over the past 200 years.

As well as detailing many first ascents and showing images of those who made them, this exhibition captures a sense of the personal qualities of the individuals, allowing the audience to stare back into the eyes of those who made such fine achievements.

Jimmy Marshall - <I>Robin Smith</I>

Right:Jimmy Marshall - Robin Smith

Perhaps most haunting are the portraits of those who died while pursuing their passion, such as Robin Smith (1938-1962) who was killed in the Russian Pamirs after "achieving first winter ascents all over Scotland and successes in the Alps."

Smith's death is described as, "a shattering blow to the whole climbing fraternity" and Jimmy Marshall's photographic portrait evokes his "articulate, intellectual and lovable character" with touching intimacy.

In comparison, it is entertaining to see the photographs of the original Ladies Scottish Climbing Club formed in 1908, climbing on Salisbury Crags.

Left: Evelyn McNicol - first all women's Himalayan Expedition, 1955.

The women are dressed in ankle length skirts and hats, much in contrast with John Barry's photograph of Polly Murray - the first Scot's woman to conquer Everest in 2000 - dressed in the most up-to-date apparel to keep the elements at bay. With such inclusions the exhibition presents evidence of social changes as well as technical advances.

An ice axe, formerly belonging to Reverend Archibald Eneas Robertson (1870-1958), can be viewed alongside Hamish MacInnes' Terradactyl Axe of 1970 - on which all modern drop picked tools are based.

These items form a physical reference for staggering photographs such as "The South Face of the Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurrnan Gillean, the Isle of Skye", taken by Robertson, who was described as, "a superb photographer who thought nothing of carrying a whole-plate camera up the remotest of slopes".

Right:unknown photographer - Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken climbing on Salisbury Crags, 1908. Courtesy Ladies Scottish Climbing Club.

A particularly fascinating portrait is that of John Muir (1838-1895) who climbed the remote peaks of High Sierra from 1869 onwards, by Theodore P. Lukens.

Muir is described as having climbed, "alone without specialist clothing or equipment and with little food or water long before mountaineering was considered a sport in either Scotland or America."

Despite Muir's particular eccentric tendencies, in many ways he represents the raw passion and determination that can be sensed throughout this exhibition.

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