Sunday, 8 November 2009

Robert McTavish: the Unsung Mountaineer

Exploring the links list I mentioned in the previous post, I came across a dead link. Yahoo Geocities sites, apparently, have ceased to exist! Fortunately, I was able to retrieve information from the page I'd linked to and I thought I'd publish it here. Apologies to anyone already familiar with McTavish's doings...

Though many have heard of Sir Hugh Munro, creator of the famous list which gave birth to the sport of "Munro bagging", few have heard of Robert McTavish (1746-1795) - the unsung founder of Scottish mountaineering.

McTavish grew up in a fashionable suburb Edinburgh. He was a bright lad, though attracted from an early age to the hills. Often, his parents would frantically scour Edinburgh in search of him. More often than not, they would find him on the summit of Arthur's Seat.

The young McTavish went on to study law, but when his father was tragically killed by a horse, he inherited his father's fortune which, sorry to say, had been made in the slave trade. McTavish, an admirer of Thomas Paine, who held high hopes for the turbulent political changes of his age, always felt uncomfortable about the source of the wealth which allowed him to pursue his first passion: mountaineering.

McTavish was a contemporary and friend of Burns, who he met at a country dancing school in 1776. The "twa Rabbies" as they were known were a familiar sight in the dives and fleshpots of Glasgow. Burns wrote an epitaph on the occasion of his friend's untimey death (he died of typhus, aged 49):

On Mr McTavish
McTavish is to heaven gane
And mony shall lament him.
His talents midst the Bens they lay.
The English nane e'er kent him.
He scaled a' the fearfu' hichts
He hirpled doun the glen.
A braw, braid laddie was our Rabbie -
When will we see his likes again?

The dismissive reference to the English alludes to McTavish's education. His father had sent him to England to study law at Oxford University. He returned to Scotland an Englishman in language and manner, though as all who knew him could testify, still Scottish at heart. Burns was no doubt amused that the English were wholly unaware of McTavish's achievements. Unlike that of Balmart and Paccard, who had made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, McTavish's achievements were unknown and unsung outside his native country.
McTavish was also known to McGonnagal, who wrote of him:
In Praise of Robert McTavish
How much praise can I lavish
On Robert McTavish?
From the loftiest Ben
To the leafiest Glen,
From Arthur's Seat to Ben Nevis,
He explored every crevice.
The bold mountaineer
Was totally without fear,
And only the very cynical could doubt
The voracity of his account of the ascent
Of the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye.
from "Forgotten Scotsmen" (1896)

How much credence can we give to McTavish's accounts of his doings? His journals leave us in little doubt that in his short life he scaled most, if not all, the peaks later catalogued by Munro, plus many lesser peaks besides. Living as he did prior to the age of Victorian reductionism, he was not particularly interested in the height of the hills he climbed, or in listing them. Unlike Munro, he successfully ascended the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye.
The peaks of the Cuillin on Skye were undoubtedly McTavish's favourite hills. The southerly peak(625m) of Bla Bheinn remains un-named and it has recently been suggested that the peak to be officially renamed Sgurr MhicTammas, in homage to the man.


Poet in Residence said...

loved this
"the twa Rabbies" in "the fleshpots and dives of Glasgow" - now Dominic there's a door

Poet in Residence said...

from Bill Bryson's Made in America: "an old friend found Thomas Paine in a tavern...unconscious, dressed in tatters, and bearing the most disagreeable smell...his nails had not been cut for years...this great man who had dined with Washington, Jay and Jefferson ... a central figure in two revolutions...died broken and forgotten...Wm Cobbett stole his bones...died before he could find a resting place for them...they were carted off by a rag-and-bone merchant..."
Presumably Thomas Paine ended up being turned into glue and other substances. C'est la Vie.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I have never heard of this chap; he isn;t related to that lady you sometimes speak of (and who's name I have momentarily forgotten). If he really did exist that all I can say is I am glad the hills are called Munro's - they would sound pretty silly called Mctavishes.

Dominic Rivron said...

PiR: Pleased you enjoyed it! Interesting if tragic background to Tom Paine. Thanks: I didn't know much about his life.

WG: You've got me scratching my head wondering who the lady I speak of is. Serves me right for making you wonder if McTavish really existed. ;)

Poet in Residence said...

I'll try and remember to recover my Ben Nevis book next time I'm in the cabin the Alps. I'm sure a larger than life character like MacTavish will be mentioned in it somewhere.

Poet in Residence said...

Och aye, bet you've photographed Nessie too, haven't you...!

Dominic Rivron said...

PiR: Funny you should say that. Less "och aye" and more "o ie", though. Check out this.

Poet in Residence said...

I posted a remark about the dust speck on your Box Brownie but it has disappeared into hyperspace...
but ther reason I'm here again is to read more of McTavish's journals - a kind McPepys diary are they?
I should now sign off,
(if only because the verification code is 'motion')
but I won't,
after all I'm a bard a la Dylan T.