Two of a Kind

Websiteupdate16 Websiteupdate5 Websiteupdate24 Websiteupdate18

As well as their climbing achievements their story is one of an extraordinary 47 year friendship that defied the rigid class conventions of Victorian Britain. Despite their different backgrounds they were bound, like the rope that they slung between them, by a common love of Skye’s wildest places. Collie may have climbed in the Alps, Norway, the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies but it was Skye and the memory of his friendship with Mackenzie that he would return to at the end his life.

There are few views of the Red and the Black Cuillin in Skye as spectacular as the one from the Sligachan Hotel. On a clear day you can scan the shattered peaks and ridges of this great mountain range before letting your eye follow the Sligachan river’s wide sweep towards a blue glimmer of distant sea.

It is the perfect setting for a sculpture of the two men who forged the Cuillin’s reputation for world class climbing back in the late 19th century. John Mackenzie was a crofter from Sconser, nicknamed  ‘Little Goat,’ who scaled the fearsome peak of Sgurr nan Gillian when he was just ten years old. He went on to become the first British guide of Alpine standard, leading over a thousand climbing expeditions into the Cuillin for over fifty years without a single accident.     

Norman Collie was the Manchester born chemist and scholar who mastered both rock and ice to become one of the finest international climbers of all time. He made 17 first ascents of peaks over 10,000 ft in the Canadian Rockies, scaled Mont Blanc without a guide in 1895 and reached 20,000 ft on the mighty Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. Collie later became president of the prestigious Alpine Club and was behind Britain’s first expedition to Everest in 1921. 

Collie’s passion for rock climbing was first sparked on Skye during a fishing trip with his brother to the Sligachan Hotel in 1886. Wandering across the moor one day they spotted two tiny figures climbing the Black Cuillin’s indomitable Sgurr nan Gillian. Collie was transfixed by the image, later writing that “it seemed to me perfectly marvellous that human beings could do such things.”

He sent a telegraph for some ropes to be delivered to the hotel and later tackled Sgurr nan Gillian with abundant enthusiasm but little experience. Beaten back twice, he only succeeded on his third attempt after seeking the advice of local ghillie and mountain guide John Mackenzie. The climbing partnership was cemented with a joint ascent of Am Basteir (The Executioner) later the same year.

Mackenzie and Collie went on to explore the farthest corners of the Cuillin range together in the 1890s. They pioneered spine chilling routes such as the Formidable Gap and the western face of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. In 1896 they ascended Britian’s last unconquered summit, Sgurr a Choire Lochain and discovered the Cioch buttress in 1899. They left behind the memory of their names in the Cullin with two peaks still named after them in Gaelic: Sgurr Mhic Coinnich and Squrr Thormaid

What is even more extraordinary about the intrepid pair is that they mastered the Cuillin in all weathers dressed in Norfolk jackets, tweed breeches and hobnail boots. Faced with a particularly difficult pitch Mackenzie would take his boots off and climb up in his woollen socks. Once on the tops the scholar and the crofter would stop to smoke their pipes, preferring unspoken empathy to loose conversation.

As well as their climbing achievements their story is one of an extraordinary 47 year friendship that defied the rigid class conventions of Victorian Britain. Despite their different backgrounds they were bound, like the rope that they slung between them, by a common love of Skye’s wildest places. Collie may have climbed in the Alps, Norway, the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies but it was Skye and the memory of his friendship with Mackenzie that he would return to at the end his life.

In 1939 Collie moved to the Sligachan Hotel, aged 80, to take up a solitary vigil over the Cuillin. He was often seen alone out on the moor, or in the hotel’s smoking lounge where he liked to drink a glass of wine after dinner. He died in the hotel of pneumonia in 1942 after falling into Storr Lochs on a fishing trip.

His last wishes were to be buried at the foot of Mackenzie’s grave in the small graveyard at Struan a few miles up the road. The lie of their headstones, both cut from the gabbro of the Black Cuillin, gives the impression that Mackenzie is still leading Collie on their last great ascent into the afterlife.

The bronze statue of the two men is earmarked for a rocky knoll across the river from the Sligachan Hotel. Stephen Tinney the sculpture’s creator has spent years pouring over photos of the two men to create a likeness that will be true to their characters and their antiquated dress code. He has even had time to double the height of his workshop and has put in a children’s roundabout to spin the sculpture around on while he moulds it out of clay.

The sticking point to the sculpture actually being built is a funding target as daunting as the peaks that Mackenzie and Collie first contemplated over a hundred years ago. The Collie and Mackenzie Sculpture Group needs to somehow find a further £150,000 to cast the two men in bronze. “We have had a lot of support, especially from the John Muir Trust, and all of Skye is behind us,” commented the group’s Chairman Hector Macleod. “We’ve put ten years into this and aren’t about to give up now.”

The sculpture is tantalizingly close to finally being erected. All the infrastructure is now in place with a car park and paths completed. A beautiful dry stone wall has been  built by the local stone mason Hector Nicolson and 140 eager schoolchildren. The group even managed to persuade SSE to bury three hydro poles that had strung an electricity line across the view from the hotel onto the Cuillin’s wonderful savagery.

Once finished Mackenzie and Collie will become a permanent feature in this view - a glittering reminder that you can’t separate a landscape from the story of its people.

John Muir Trust Journal, Autumn 2012

Web site design Edinburgh, Scotland