Bill Ewen – a Cairngorm inspiration

With a tally of nine new routes to his name, Bill Ewen’s contribution to the climbing heritage of the Cairngorms was certainly not negligible but may not seem at first glance to be that notable.

But look harder and you find his contribution and influence greater than a simple list of first ascents indicates, even if that includes some classic Lochnagar routes.

My notice was drawn to Bill Ewen by expatriate Aberdeen climber George Adams, who cited him as an inspiration to his own climbing career, which involved a number of classic Cairngorm routes in the 1950s and involvement in the early development of rock climbing in South Australia, where he has remained active in climbing, skiing and trekking.

I still have hopes of persuading George to tell his own life story here, but in the meantime he has supplied a lot of information about Bill Ewen.

George was a pupil at Aberdeen’s Demonstration School – and not too promising a one either, suffering from dyslexia and a speech impediment. But of all his teachers, he recalled Mr Ewen, the technical classes master.

“Mr Ewen had a large glass case fixed to the wall which contained photographs of mountains with white lines running up the front of the cliffs. As a student sitting in a classroom I wondered what it could mean; it was a number of years later that I realised that the mountain was Lochnagar and the lines were probably the first ascents that he had done.”

George’s first taste of the countryside came through the school when he attended a summer camp, where Bill Ewen led a group to the top of Bennachie.

“I don’t really remember the walk up the hill, I have a vague recollection of scrambling up rocks to the summit. I felt I was standing on a round coffee table with huge drops all around, the valley below was a carpet of autumn colours brown green yellow and purple. In the distance a river sparkled in the morning light, a bird hovered nearby, and I could feel the sun’s rays streaming from a bright blue sky. My heart was pounding and adrenalin and endorphins bounced through my body.

“It was a wonderful experience which I still cherish today. Although I didn’t realise it then I had fallen in love with nature the environment and the mountains and over the last 60 years I have managed to travel and climb ski and trek in different parts of the world.

“I worked at different jobs including being a coppersmith’s plumber, mechanical service engineer, climbing and ski instructor and started a outdoor retail store and a travel agency.

“I was also involved in the early development of climbing in South Australia.

“But if I had not attended the Demonstration School and met such an inspiring teacher as Mr Ewen I would still be living in a grey world.”

So who was Bill Ewen?

A native of Ballater, he shone at school and studied English and Latin at Aberdeen University. After a first teaching job at Inverallochy, he became a teacher at the Demonstration School, where he stayed for his whole teaching career, ending up as the school’s last headmaster and glorying under the nickname of Tarzan.

He had started climbing as a youngster and fell in with Roy Symmers, with whom he made some significant new ascents on Lochnagar.

Ewen was once quoted as saying: “We found we suited each other – Symmers was tall with a long reach, but disliked operating in narrow chimneys etc, where long legs could be something of a handicap. They suited me. We did not set out to become expert rock climbers; our practice was to avoid difficulty where possible, our aim first to be able to tackle any Scottish mountain. I felt more confident with Symmers than with anyone else – why I don’t know.”

Symmers’ wife recalled in 1987 that: Bill was a small bunch of muscle and beautiful balance, Roy was long and strong. He (Roy) said they supplied each other’s deficiencies but there was more to it than that – you could trust Bill with your life on a rope.”

In August of 1930 the pair made their debut with a summer ascent of Giant’s Head Chimney, said by Greg Strange in his excellent ‘The Cairngorms: 100 Years of Mountaineering’ to be the most important new route on the mountain for more than 20 years.

They followed it up within the week by climbing Parallel A Gully, with Symmers sporting a pair of tennis shoes – the first recorded instance of such footwear on Cairngorm granite.

Over the next four years the team returned to Lochnagar on numerous occasions, making several new routes, including the much prized first winter ascent of Raeburn’s Gully in December 1932, with Ewen returning the next day to climb Pinnacle Gully 2 (which he had made the first ascent of in summer) with Sandy Clark.

Bill’s run of new routes – he was involved in nine first ascents, all on Lochnagar – came to an end in 1934 but he continued to climb – and walk and ski, for it was all part of ‘going to the hills’.

It was about this time he took over the editorship of the Cairngorm Club Journal.

He had been a committee member between 1931 and 1934 – and was to serve two other periods, as well as two years from 1947-49 as Vice President – but his longest stint of duty was as editor of the journal, which he steered from 1934 to 1953.

His journals were highly acclaimed, and retirement was said to mark the end of an era, but he had already left a significant mark in a wider sphere, for towards the end of the 1940s the Scottish Mountaineering Club had invited him to revise the third edition of Sir Henry Alexander’s classic ‘Guide to the Cairngorms’

This involved visiting areas where existing information seemed scanty, adding fresh photographs and checking a huge amount of material on new routes, for the new guide, published in 1950, contained details of all known climbs in the Cairngorms.

(Incidentally, according to Strange, it was Ewen who was responsible for dissuading the first ascensionists of the first route on Creagan a Choire Etchachan from naming their route Grandes Jorasses. He reckoned it a bit on the radical side and accepted the more fitting Pioneer Route instead, although it was later renamed Cambridge Route.)

Ewen’s influence was felt on the ground as well as in the literature of the Cairngorms. He took little credit at the time, but his Cairngorm Club obituary stated that he played a vital role in many of the club’s projects during its golden period.

George Taylor’s is the name usually credited to these civil engineering projects the club was so involved in, but his obituary credited Ewen as “a full partner in that particular construction firm”.

The renovation of Corrour Bothy, the construction of the Parker Memorial Bridge over the Luibeg, and the works to Derry Lodge and Muir Cottage as the club’s successive ‘gites’ in the hills all bore his stamp – literally – for as well as being involved in the planning stages he was a skilled craftsman and became foreman joiner on the various building projects.

That he was never Club President was down to his own choice, for he was asked several times. He did, though, agree to accept Honorary Membership in 1966.

Throughout his life he had an active interest in many sports.

He skied, in an era when there were no ski centres or chairlifts and skiing was regarded as an extension of mountaineering. He would take long walks into the hills around Glen Gairn, The Lecht,  Carn Tuirc, Morven and Carn Leuchan on the east side of Glen Muick in the search for suitable snow, always looking for another gully to ski.  In fact his then future wife Louie claimed her introduction to skiing in 1936 was to go with him, carrying her skis, to the summit of Lochnagar and ski down again.

From his youth he developed an abiding interest in shooting and fishing and played both hockey and cricket at school level and beyond. He also played badminton when he taught at the Demonstration School.

As a boy and as a young teacher he was also involved in Scouting, and introduced boxing to the boys.

Yet through all the climbing and sports, he was a man who enjoyed both academic and artistic pursuits. As a teacher he developed his drawing and calligraphy skills to create pictures and maps as teaching aids, and at about the age of fifty he started to paint as a hobby, becoming proficient in both water-colours and oils.

And, of course, as much as he was remembered as a climber and Cairngorm Club stalwart, Bill Ewen was a teacher and headmaster, inspiring generations of children (whether into education or the hills!) and also being highly regarded by his fellow teachers. And, if some of the children recalled him as being an occasionally fearsome figure in the classroom, others, such as George Adams remember him as the man who helped set the course of their lives.


This entry was posted in History, People and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Bill Ewen – a Cairngorm inspiration

  1. George Adams says:

    Well done you are truly a wordsmith.

  2. derek58 says:

    Hi Neil,

    a great piece and wonderful timing. We did Parallel A yesterday ( ‘B’ was too thin). Standing on the penultimate belay, surrounded by old and rusty well placed pegs, I did wonder if any of those had been placed by the original pioneers ! The old routes always have the best history.


    • Hi Derek, I’m jealous – a great day to have been out ice climbing and I was stuck in the office. 😦 Ewen and Symmers did the first summer ascent, not winter, and I think pitons were a no go area in British climbing at that time (remember, Bell was a wee bit abashed about his on Eagle Ridge much later). But it’s true – there’s some history in these old routes and you wonder who placed some of those old pitons and what adventures they were having.

  3. Sinbad says:

    Superb Neil, keep the stories coming.It’s great to read the exploits of earlier climbers.

  4. Pete says:

    that was a beautiful piece of writing Neil.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.