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‘Petticoats & Pinnacles’ Exhibition at the National Library of Scotland

There is no sport like mountaineering. It is the overcoming of difficulties, the mental climbing, as well as the physical, that give it zest. The troubles of life seem to fade away in the presence of the everlasting hills. We may go out tired and worn in mind and body; we return renewed and restored: health re-established and friendships strengthened. It is possible for all to learn the lessons that the hills can teach, and to enjoy the blessings they can bring…” – Jane Inglis Clark from ‘Pictures and Memories’, 1938.

This week we climb to incredible heights with some amazing women in Scottish history with a virtual visit to the National Library of Scotland. So, strap your boots on tightly, and join us we as we explore their current exhibition, ‘Petticoats & Pinnacles: Scotland’s pioneering mountain women’.

I felt a strong kinship with the women we feature in this week’s article as I, while not a rock climber, also love the outdoors, nature, and hiking (although we do have rock climbers in the family and have written posts about two local climbing facilities- the EICA and alien rock & bloc).

Climbing fun at alien rock.

We are truly privileged to live in such a beautiful country as Scotland- with its extraordinary landscapes that include breathtaking mountains, lochs, and forests. Perhaps now more than ever, we can appreciate the idea of heading out to nature to find ways to recharge and take care of our overall well-being. When not enjoying walks around Edinburgh, one of our favourite local places to get away from the hustle and bustle is in the Pentland Hills.

Views of Edinburgh from the Pentland Hills

For today’s adventure we are heading to even higher elevations. It’s an incredible feeling to “follow your heart to the mountains” and there were some extraordinary Scottish women literally blazing the trail as far back as the 1800s. They epitomised our catchphrase- ‘Explore & Discover’- and I can only hope to learn from their historic experiences.

The National Library of Scotland points out how limited the historical record is regarding the pioneering women who took to the mountains. This is due to various reasons, but mainly because of the gender ideologies that were held at the time. Hiking and climbing mountains were not deemed suitable activities for women at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. Furthermore, the idea of women travelling alone without a companion was thought inappropriate. As a result, they had to overcome many barriers and obstacles to do what they loved- simply because they were women. They were often questioned why they would want to leave their families behind – even while men were doing the same activities but whose motives were never questioned. Despite the societal restrictions, these brave women forged ahead.

As we begin our journey’s ascent, I want to make it clear that some of these women were quite privileged as they had the resources and finances to travel. I say this not to take away from their accomplishments, but to highlight that many other women of this time were not able to achieve such freedom, let alone travel. Related to that, there was one woman who recognised this and specifically wrote with that audience in mind.

Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming- known as Eka to her friends and family- was born in 1837 in Altyre, Scotland. She was ‘bit by the travel bug’ when she visited India in 1869, where she went deep into the Himalayas. She continued her travels and made trips to Fiji, New Zealand, Tahiti, Samoa, China, and Yosemite in California in the United States. According to the National Library, she was only supposed to stay three days in Yosemite, but was so enthralled by her surroundings, she ended up staying three months. She commented, “truly these California Alps hold treasures of delight for lovers of all beautiful nature, who on their parts can bring strength and energy for mountaineering- a sure foot, a steady hand and any amount of endurance”. Eka was a prolific watercolour artist and painted the views of Yosemite; she showed her works in the valley’s first exhibition.

The Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Rock & Falls by Constance Gordon Cumming, 1878

In fact, she painted every day throughout her travels as well as wrote journals and letters. The results of that work were books she wrote about her trips which she illustrated with her own paintings. According to the National Library, “aware of her own privilege, Eka wanted to record parts of the world for people who would never see them for themselves”. I am a strong advocate of books and art as both can transport the reader/viewer on incredible adventures, and I’m grateful that Eka took the time to record her historic travels.

As we continue our ascent, I think we should pause for a moment as we gather the energy for the rest of our journey. And, while we are situating ourselves, let’s take a moment to truly appreciate what the logistical experience must have been like for these pioneering women. Earlier, I spoke of gender ideologies and expectations. These restrictions affected all aspects of the women’s experiences including their clothing and equipment. Women were expected to wear long skirts at the time- clothing that was not at all practical for hiking and certainly not mountain climbing! Therefore, they would often hitch up their skirts and fasten them to be shorter.

It's fascinating to look at the photo below of two women climbing on Salisbury Crags in 1929 as part of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club. Look at those skirts- it must have been quite treacherous to try to maneuver in them! The Club was founded in 1908 and one of the founding members was Jane Inglis Clark (1859-1950).

The National Library of Scotland highlights the important role that Jane (pictured below) played in developing climbing in Scotland- specifically for women. What I found particularly inspiring about her was that “much of her rock climbing was undertaken during her forties and fifties”. She is a true inspiration for those of us in that age group, and I’ll try to remember her accomplishments when I start to think I’m too old to start something new.

For women brave enough (and often when they were out of site of the public), they would wear boys’ tweed breeches (the only thing available to them as trousers for women weren’t common until after World War II). I think Jane Duncan’s (who I discuss more below) thoughts on the matter best captured the mood of these women at the time when she said, “one of the joys of the expedition was getting away from dress with its worries as distinguished from mere clothes, and many a time after returning to civilization I longed to be in the desert again, where the crows and the goats did not care what I wore”. I certainly can’t blame these remarkable women for the desire to get away from society and explore opportunities of freedom and relaxation. As we begin our descent down the mountain, let’s find out a bit more about Jane- another groundbreaking Scottish woman.

Jane Duncan was born in Glasgow in 1848 and was inspired by books she read of travels other women were undertaking. The National Library of Scotland discusses that, “as a middle-aged woman it was shocking for her to set off ‘alone’ through the Karakoram Mountains [a mountain range that spans the borders of China, India, and Pakistan] ….Jane was the first Western woman to travel through the high Chang La pass (5,360m above sea level) in Ladakh”. Now, the Library clarifies that Jane wasn’t exactly travelling alone as she had guides and porters with her. Nevertheless, it was an historic accomplishment for a woman to travel the world at the end of the 1800s/beginning of the 1900s without her family or friends.

Well, we’ve reached base camp and that’s going to do it for this week’s virtual exploration. I found the stories of these amazing women inspirational, and I hope you have as well. Of course, I’ve only highlighted some of my favourites. Therefore, if you’re visiting Edinburgh, I encourage you to go see the exhibition in-person to get the full experience. You will learn more history, stories, and there are fascinating artefacts to see including vintage climbing equipment. It is on display until the 28th of May 2022. Head to the National Library’s website for the most-up-to-date information to best plan your visit.

Hopefully you can take further inspiration from the women featured in this article, and head outside to enjoy the solace and rejuvenation of nature near you. Of course, if you visit Scotland- there are endless opportunities to explore all the country has to offer. And, if you come to Edinburgh, why not enjoy the fresh air on a walking tour with Sami (our human tour guide) and Sawyer (our Golden Retriever tour guide). Our Wee Golden Walk I tour ends near Holyrood Park which is one of Sawyer’s favourite places to run around and enjoy beautiful settings right in the city. Additionally, our Wee Golden Walk II ends on picturesque Calton Hill which provides some of the most breathtaking views of Edinburgh.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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