The Angry Corrie 73: Apr-Jun 2008 No. 73

Prime Minister's Questings

Mark Nixon

WITH THE PUBLICATION of Ronald Turnbull's The Life and Times of the Black Pig - A biography of Ben Macdui (Millrace Books, 2007), and its description of Queen Victoria's time on the mountain, I am reminded of the ascents of Ben Macdui made by one of her more notable subjects. William Ewart Gladstone was perhaps our greatest prime minister, and certainly our greatest prime minister of Scottish blood (with no apologies whatsoever to the present and immediately preceding incumbents). Although born in Liverpool three days before the end of 1809, Gladstone was of sound Scottish stock. His mother was the daughter of a former provost of Dingwall and his father was a Leith merchant. The family had moved to Liverpool to be at the heart of Britain's transatlantic trade activities. Sir John Gladstone made a substantial fortune - partly as a slave-owning sugar baron in Demerara - and moved his family out to Seaforth, a new suburb essentially built by him, with a grand new presbyterian church and school.

Sir John also purchased an estate in Scotland, Fasque near Fettercairn, to which William would make many visits over the years, sometimes for months on end - ah, the leisured life of a mid-Victorian politician! Indeed, it was during one of these visits that he first climbed Ben Macdui, aged 26 but already an MP of four years' standing. In his diary for 9 September 1836, he recorded:

9-71/2. [9am to 7:30pm] Up Ben Muickdhui: king of the Br. mountains. Fine: and a noble view from the top to the N. Strathspey, Moray Firth and Ross-shire: stepped into Invernessshire. This is 10 hours good work.

image from source document

He carefully set out in a table the timings and distances of the stages of the walk: 45 minutes to 'Cormutzie', an hour and 35 minutes to the Forester's Hut, a further hour to the foot of the main ascent, then two hours to the top (total five hours 20 minutes); the return stages took, in reverse order of course, one hour five minutes, one hour, one hour 20 minutes, and 46 minutes (total four hours 11 minutes). 'Cormutzie' appears to be Corriemulzie or Cormulzie, at NO111892. Colin Matthew's edition of Gladstone's diaries, on which this article is based, is one of the great pieces of recent scholarship, producing 14 massive volumes over 27 years. Unsurprisingly, the odd transcription error has slipped in, and this appears to be one of them.

Gladstone continued:

...and near 39 m. [minutes] on top. - a snowstorm ascending. We got praise from the guide for good travelling - he rode. Our stoppages altogether were 11/2 hours: of which 1 h. was rest. We were not much tired.

Not much tired! Gladstone reckoned this walk at 18 miles, so I suppose it wasn't much for a man of his famed physical prowess and stamina. His fondness for tree-chopping was to become legendary, and right up until his late 70s he would happily walk 20 or 30 miles a day. Nevertheless, his Ben Macdui ascent came in the middle of a substantial series of walks. His diary entry for the previous day recorded a 24-mile walk over Lochnagar:

...fog at the top. The precipices are awful enough. The Forest thoroughly satisfies [...] The trip of today might be done in 6 hours - 61/2 with ease. Very cold on top.

On the following day he travelled to Fasque, first by coach to Ballater

...then after a delay started across the hills without a guide and laden with brushes &c. to Lochlee Manse: 4h. 15 miles. Crossed Monthkeen.

('Crossed Monthkeen' could mean either via Mount Keen summit or - perhaps more likely - sticking to the old Mounth Keen path that skirts about 160m below the summit on the western side - Ed.)

He finished the journey with a 20-mile ride in a phaeton - a large open touring carriage.

IT WAS SAID that the young William loved Scotland, and Scotland loved the elder William, but it was not until 1880 that he finally became MP for a Scottish seat, Midlothian. (At various earlier times he had sat as member for Newark, Oxford University, South Lancashire and Greenwich.) In the 1880 general election - which saw him become prime minister for a second time - he also stood for, and won, Leeds. It was - and remains - legal to stand for more than one constituency, but only one seat can be taken, so Gladstone handed over Leeds to his son William Herbert.

WH (as he is called in the diary) had been conceived during his parents' honeymoon in August 1839, another Highland trip during which Gladstone crossed the Cairn o' Mount by horse, again climbed Lochnagar on foot (from Braemar), and also had days of 31 miles to 'Ben Aburd' (Beinn a'Bhuird) and 41 miles to Loch Avon by the Linn of Dee, 'Loch Etichan' and 'over the shoulder of Ben Main' (Beinn Mheadhoin), an outing completed in an impressively fast '11 hours of rather hard labour'. In poor weather, too: 'wrung my coat thoroughly soaked' was his diary-note with regard to arriving at the Shelter Stone.

In 1884, Gladstone was in Scotland for various social visits, an election campaign in his constituency, and to visit the Queen at Balmoral in his capacity as her PM. It was during this trip that he climbed Ben Macdui a second time, this time at the age of 74. Compared with 1836, he found the walk somewhat more difficult, although his enjoyment of it was undiminished.

In his diary for 11 September 1884 he wrote:

Off at 101/2 to the Derry, driving. Then a large party to the top of Beinna Muick Dhu. I went on foot and made out the 20 miles with some effort. 111/2 to 7.10. We had no distant view. Four or five walked; Helen [his daughter] among the very best [...] Ten hours in the open air. What a change from H of Commons life!

The party had left from Mar Lodge, where Gladstone and others were the guests of the Earl of Fife. Three days later, he wrote to WH:

On Thursday I managed Bein-na-muich Dhu from Lord Fife's shooting lodge, 20 miles there and back - half of what I used to do in years gone by.

Although the 1884 trip proved to be the last major hillwalking holiday enjoyed by Gladstone, the half-century between his two expeditions to Ben Macdui was filled with a love of the outdoors and a great deal of walking, both in Britain and on the continent (Italy being a preferred destination).

All of which leads naturally to this thought: we have had a fair few political baggers, including three recent parliamentarian Munroists, but what is the highest altitude reached on foot by a serving prime minister? I haven't yet found a record of 'the People's William' having made it up Ben Nevis, so is Gladstone's bag of Ben Macdui the record UK height for a PM? And have we had any prime ministerial Alpinists?

Adam Watson adds:

Corriemulzie would be 45 minutes from Braemar, and was the site of a former Mar Lodge. The Forester's Hut would mean deerforester, because Scots in the early 1800s used forest, forester and afforestation to mean deer-land (often treeless), deerstalker, and introducing deer on to a place that had none. Forest was a hunting area, like its equivalent fridh or frith in Gaelic, and the usage to mean woodland is an anglicisation.

The Forester's Hut was in lower Glen Derry, and was built by the Earl of Fife in the late 1700s as an advance base for deer shooting. It was a wooden hut about half a mile north of the current Derry Lodge, which at that time had not been built. The lodge probably would have been built by 1884, and Queen Victoria's visit to Ben Macdui (7 October 1859 - Ed.) might well mention it if it had existed then.

I think Gladstone's 1836 description points to his route having continued up Glen Derry and via Loch Etchachan, a longer route than the Sron Riach, and his times would tally with that. I think his reference to the Derry is just the common place name, still widely current locally, that the Derry is the general area around Derry Lodge and Luibeg and lower Glen Derry, not specific, eg the Derry Road and the Derry Gate are at the foot of Glen Lui.

And on the subject of a more modern prime minister, Alan Haworth, Lord Haworth of Fisherfield, secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party 1992-2004 and Munroist 2625, writes:

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I'm unaware of Tony Blair having climbed any mountains in the UK. But for several years (eight all told, I think) we walked together in the Pyrenees each summer. Mostly up to high huts - had a beer or two - and then down again, but twice while he was PM to actual mountain summits. The highest was the Pic de Néouvielle in the Néouvielle national park in the central French Pyrenees, 3090m, on 20/8/97, while on 25/8/01 we climbed Pimene, 2801m, near Gavarnie.

After coming down off the Pic de Néouvielle, which had required the use of ice axes on a small high glacier and scrambling above huge drops (on ground a bit like the Cuillin main ridge only the drop was much greater), the police officer in charge of the protection team - two British and two French Deuxième Bureau guys - said 'We never had this trouble with Mrs Thatcher'. We both enjoyed that moment.

I have to say Tony didn't really like being on the summit. He is very strong and brave but he doesn't have a head for heights and on the very top (a tiny airy summit - quite like Sgurr nan Gillean) he was very nervous and wouldn't stand upright. He preferred to have something to hold on to at no lower than waist height.

Ed. - It could well be that the UK height record for a serving post-Gladstone PM rests with a Tory grandee on a grouse moor. Does anyone know of any details from biographies of Baldwin, Eden or Macmillan, for instance?

Also, does any reader know the origin of the name Gladstone Knott, an outcrop at around 650m on the eastern side of Crinkle Crags above Isaac Gill? It doesn't seem likely that Gladstone made a speech here, as he famously did at the Gladstone Stone in Cwn Llan on the southern side of Snowdon. Perhaps Gladstone Knott takes its name from Gladstone's Finger, the pinnacle drawn by Alfred Wainwright as his frontispiece to The Southern Fells. This in turn might be an ironic naming, as Gladstone lost the first finger on his left hand when a gun exploded as he was loading it.

Actually, here's a really odd coincidence: the finger incident happened on 13 September 1842, and the Snowdon speech was made 50 years to the day afterwards, on 13 September 1892. Weird, or what?

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