Harold Raeburn

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Harold Andrew Raeburn (21 July 1865 – 21 December 1926) was a Scottish mountaineer.


Raeburn was born in 1865 at 12 Grange Loan, Edinburgh. His father William Raeburn, a brewer, married Jessie Ramsay in 1849. Harold Raeburn was their fourth son, and he grew up to enter his father's occupation as a brewer. He died in Edinburgh, on 21 December 1926, and was buried in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh.


Everest Expedition 1921. Raeburn – is standing on the right.


It is not documented how or why Raeburn began climbing as a sport, but his early enthusiasm in ornithology led him to climb or descend many steep faces, in search of nests and eggs. A collection of eggs by him is kept in the Natural Museum, Edinburgh. Living under Edinburgh's Salisbury Crags and possessing a wiry, athletic build he soon adapted to the vertical world of rock and ice.

As to his character, he very obviously possessed the necessary determination and drive of any ambitious and hard mountaineer; Lord Mackay provided a good description of Raeburn, writing that he was "... physically and mentally hard as nails, trained by solitary sea-cliff climbing after birds' haunts, he was certain, unyielding and concise in every movement, both mental and physical." Mackay went on to remark that Raeburn had a capacity of grip that was astonishing: "He was possessed of strong muscular fingers that could press firmly and in a straight downward contact upon the very smallest hold."[1]

Raeburn remained a bachelor all his life but he climbed with both men and women, including his sister Ruth, herself an expert climber, and Jane Inglis Clark, a founder of the Scottish Ladies Mountaineering Club. The (all-male) Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) was founded in 1889 and Raeburn joined in 1896. Within a few years he became its leading climber[citation needed] serving as Vice-President from 1909 to 1911 and later turning down the Presidency.[2] He recorded many classic routes throughout Scotland: there are several "Raeburn's Gullies" scattered across the land.

The west face of the Douglas Boulder below Ben Nevis, Highland Scotland. The left edge approximates to the line of Direct Route (215m Very Difficult) first climbed on 3 April 1896 by a party of four led by William Brown and including Raeburn – his first climb on Ben Nevis. The steep crest behind (left) is Raeburn's Arete (230m Severe), climbed on 30 June 1902 in the company of William and Jane Inglis Clark. The (almost) level Carn Mor Dearg Arete is on the skyline.

First ascents[edit]

On Ben Nevis in particular, he left a tremendous legacy[3] of high-quality routes; indeed, "of the 30 new routes on Nevis from 1896 to 1921, his name appears on exactly half."[1] These include a solo first ascent of Observatory Ridge (V.Diff.) in June 1901, Observatory Buttress (V.Diff.) solo in June 1902, his outstanding eponymous Arete (Severe) two days later on North-East Buttress with William and Jane Inglis Clark, and the first winter ascent of Green Gully (IV,4) in 1906. The latter ascent, with a Swiss alpinist called Eberhard Phildius, was barely recognised in a later guidebook, as he had not climbed the rocks of the Comb on the left, but had instead followed snow and ice in the gully. Indeed, Raeburn's ascent was completely forgotten by 1937, when J. H. B. Bell made the second winter ascent, thinking it was the first. Of Phildius himself little is known; he was almost certainly present in Fort William to meet up with another SMC member, the Rev. A. E. Robertson, as Phildius was involved in the Youth Christian Movement.

On Buachaille Etive Mòr in Glen Coe, Raeburn made the first three ascents of Crowberry Gully, including a wintry 1909 ascent, and the second ascent and first Scottish ascent of Crowberry Ridge Direct (1902), then the hardest rock climb in Scotland. His style of rock climbing was very muscular; he held himself close to the rock, while his particular attention to the exact times of ascents could frequently drive his companions to exasperation. There is a humorous reference to this: when one fellow SMC member climbed a new route left of Raeburn's Arete on Ben Nevis he called it "Newbigging’s 80-Minute Route", this being an echo of "Raeburn’s 18-Minute Route" climbed the previous year on the same buttress.

In Easter 1920, during the SMC Meet at Fort William, Raeburn made what perhaps his finest winter ascent in Scotland – the first of Observatory Ridge on Ben Nevis. With fellow members Mounsey and Goggs, and using a 100 ft rope, the three finished the route in just under six hours, with one long ice axe each and no crampons.


From 1902 Raeburn climbed without guides, and he joined the Alpine Club in 1904. In the Alps he recorded fine climbs, including the first British guideless ascent of the Zmutt ridge of the Matterhorn in 1906, the ascent of the north face of Monte Disgrazia in 1910 with his friend Willie Ling, the first solo traverse of the Meije, as well as first ascents in Norway and the Caucasus. He made two expeditions to the Caucasus, in 1913 and 1914. During the first his party made first ascents of five mountains, and attempted Ushba, being turned back by poor conditions. In 1914 four mountains were climbed, with Raeburn descending to learn that war had broken out.

World War I and after[edit]

Raeburn's book, Mountaineering Art was in manuscript when World War I began, and long, hard hours in an aeroplane factory for the next six years stopped all climbing. At 49, he was too old for the Royal Flying Corps. Following the end of the war, in 1919 Raeburn celebrated by returning to the Alps and made a solo traverse of the Meije ridges. His book was finally published in 1920, having been postponed due to the war. Also in 1920, Raeburn joined an expedition to Kanchenjunga, and he was mountaineering leader on the initial 1921 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition under the leadership of Colonel Charles Howard-Bury. He worked hard at organising and preparing the party while suffering from influenza. By the time the expedition reached Tibet dysentery had broken out. One member of the party died, and Raeburn himself had to be carried down, spending two months in hospital. Against common sense, he returned to the expedition, but he was by then exhausted and never recovered his former fitness. Declining health lead to his eventual death five years later.


His other sport was sailing, and he raced yachts in the Firth of Forth. With his brother John, he raced as a member of the Royal Forth Yachting Club, based in Granton. They were successful enough to win the club's Corinthian Cup three times. Being presented with the Cup, they in turn presented it back to the RFYC, who renamed it the Raeburn Trophy. This is the name under which it is still raced.


Raeburn was a keen ornithologist. His diaries on the sea birds of the Shetland Islands are lodged with the National Library of Scotland. For some years these diaries could not be found, but a recent search unearthed them. He was the first to describe the birds on Lyra Skerry [4]


The SMC Raeburn Hut, between Dalwhinnie and Newtonmore, was opened in 1988 and is named after him. There is a faint geographical connection here, as Raeburn was the first to explore the steep cliffs on nearby Creag Dubh, Newtonmore.

Raeburn's ice axe is one of two seals of office held by the president of the SMC.[5]


  1. ^ a b Crocket, Ken; Richardson, Simon (2009). Ben Nevis: Britain's Highest Mountain (second edition). Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-907233-10-4. 
  2. ^ Crocket, Ken; Richardson, Simon (2009). Ben Nevis: Britain's Highest Mountain (second edition). Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-907233-10-4. 
  3. ^ Richardson, Simon (2002). Ben Nevis: Rock and Ice Climbs. Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust. p. 318. ISBN 0-907521-73-8. 
  4. ^ Raeburn, H. 1891. The birds of Papa Stour, with an account of the Lyra Skerry. Zoologist (3rd series) 15: 126-135
  5. ^ Crocket, Ken; Richardson, Simon (2009). Ben Nevis: Britain's Highest Mountain (second edition). Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-907233-10-4. 

"SMC Pioneers: Harold Andrew Raeburn (1865–1926)". Scottish Mountaineering Club. 2007. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 

Some climbs on the Salisbury Crags by W. Inglis Clark, Scottish Mountaineering Journal, Volume 3, Number 3, September 1900 (available online).

Raeburn's account of the 1906 winter ascent of Green Gully with the Swiss climber Eberhard Phildius is reprinted in Wilson, K., Alcock, D. and Barry, J., Cold Climbs, Diadem Press, 1983.

A fictional short story by Ken Crocket describing Raeburn's first climb as a young schoolboy was published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal as "Raeburn's First Climb" (1988) (reprinted as "October Day" in One Step in the Clouds, Diadem Press, 1990, compiled by Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith, ISBN 0-906371-92-9).

Numerous references to Raeburn in Ken Crocket's "Mountaineering in Scotland - The Early Years", SMT, 2015.

External links[edit]