Updated: Dec 13, 2022
“I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountain for knocking from me the shackles of conventionality.” – Lizzie le Blond
The history of women’s mountaineering is unavoidably linked to the struggle for equality. In the 1800s, it was generally accepted that women were inferior to men – weaker, less intelligent, less adventurous, simply less able – and it was assumed that they would partake in more gentle leisure pursuits. Women have had to overcome immense societal barriers and attitudes simply to justify spending time in the great outdoors. Hiking was seen as “unmotherly” and entirely unnatural and pointless at a time when women were expected to exist simply to find a husband and provide him with children – and often the fiercest critics were other women. Hiking alone? Dangerous and unladylike. Hiking with a male guide? Scandalous! And don’t get them started on the “frightful” attire…
The Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club (LSCC) was founded in 1908, at a time when women were still campaigning for the vote – and indeed, many female climbers and prominent members of the Club were suffragettes themselves. For them, mountaineering was another form of emancipation and empowerment. Irish climber Lizzie le Blond – the “foremost female mountaineer of her age” and one of the first to complete mountain traverses without a male chaperone – provided us with our opening quote, one which I’m sure reflected the thoughts of many women of the time: “I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountains for knocking from me the shackles of conventionality.” (1900)
Though women proved themselves just as capable as men, some male climbers took it as an insult to their masculinity that their achievements were being replicated by the “weaker sex” (and they were doing it in skirts!) Étienne Bruhl wrote in 1929: 'The Grépon has disappeared. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that is 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.' Despite attitudes like this, the early female pioneers continued to pursue their passion for mountaineering – and of course, this brought them to the crags and ridges of Glencoe and Lochaber.
Jane Inglis Clark discovered rock climbing relatively late in life but found that she was a natural. She took part in six first ascents on Ben Nevis between 1897-1904, along with her husband and other prominent climbers of the day, and was part of the second party to climb ‘Abraham’s Route’ on Crowberry Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor - said to be the most difficult climb in Britain at that time. Barred from the all-male Scottish Mountaineering Club, Clark founded the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club in 1908 along with her daughter Mabel and fellow climber Lucy Smith. They often trained on Salisbury Crags on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Jane and her husband William also funded the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut at the North Face of Ben Nevis in memory of their son, who died in the First World War.
“The troubles of life seem to fade away in the presence of the everlasting hills.” – Jane Inglis Clark
LSCC membership continued to grow, and women were discovering new climbing routes all across Scotland. Club member Esmé Speakman made several first ascents of rock climbs in Glencoe, including ‘January Jigsaw’ in 1940 - a tough route on the Rannoch Wall of Buachaille Etive Mor.
The LSCC began leasing Blackrock Cottage at the foot of Meall a’ Bhuiridh in 1947, and it has been the Club’s home ever since – a haven for female hikers. Though many members had been skiing on the Scottish hills for years beforehand, when the Glencoe Ski Centre (the first in Scotland!) opened just behind the cottage in 1956, the Club began organising formal skiing weekends. Thus, the same women who forged a trail for female mountaineering also became leading pioneers of Scottish skiing.
One of these was Myrtle Simpson, who trained as a radiographer in Edinburgh and took her first job in the Belford Hospital in Fort William in the early 1950s. She learned to ski on the golf course in Spean Bridge and spent all her free time in the Lochaber hills. At the hospital, she was mentored by surgeon Donald Duff, a climbing legend and inventor of mountain rescue equipment, including the Duff stretcher. Half a century after Jane Inglis Clark proved her mettle on multiple first ascents of Ben Nevis, there was still opposition to women taking part in climbing expeditions, yet Myrtle’s connection to Duff led to her being accepted by the local climbers and she often guided clients up Tower Ridge. Myrtle later ascended virgin peaks in New Zealand and Peru, and was the first woman to ski across Greenland. She was awarded the Polar Medal in 2017.
These are just a few of the stories of female pioneers in the Scottish hills, but there will be countless others lost to history simply because women’s achievements were so rarely recorded. Possibly the earliest mention of a woman hillwalking was made by travel writer Mary Ann Hanway in c1770, who wrote of a young local who walked up Ben Lomond, yet for the next hundred years or so there is barely a mention of women in the recorded history of mountaineering in Scotland.
This is also a matter of privilege: many of the women involved in early mountaineering were able to do so because they came from moneyed backgrounds and had the leisure time and resources to travel and enjoy hobbies, then write books about their experiences. This is not to take away from their achievements of course - there was still a certain stigma attached to female hikers, and many of those wealthy enough to spend their leisure time as they wished were under pressure from society to conform. However, for many other women in Scotland – particularly in rural areas – walking the mountains will simply have been a part of their everyday lives.
Nowadays, women are so much better represented in outdoor pursuits, and female participation in activities such as rock-climbing, hillwalking and trail-running is rising year on year. The LSCC celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008 (by scaling the Buachaille in period clothing) and now has around 120 members. Locally, Girls on Hills offer women-only mountain training and guided walks/runs, while Beinn Nibheis in Fort William is the first technical outdoor shop created for and run by women – inspired by those amazing women who blazed a trail for female mountaineers in Scotland.
I feel very lucky to have access to the hills and the freedom to enjoy them, particularly as a solo walker, and it is all thanks to these early female pioneers who overcame the limitations imposed on them by society and pushed the boundaries of traditional gender roles in order to open up the mountains for generations of women to come.