Behind an RSGS lecture ticket from 1913 lies the story of a world-class climber and a brilliant chemist who made the first neon display tubes

Ticket to Collie’s lecture (RSGS Collections)


In one of the books of Ephemera in the RSGS archives is a ticket to a lecture by Professor J Norman Collie.  The lecture, entitled ‘Explorations in the Canadian Rockies’ and illustrated with lantern views, took place on Thursday 20th February 1913 at the Synod Hall in Edinburgh. 

Collie’s name may be unfamiliar to us now, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s he was renowned not just as a highly experienced climber but also as a pioneering chemist.  In addition, according to his friends, he was an expert on Chinese and Japanese art, an authority on fine wines and cigars, a collector of rare books and a connoisseur of precious stones.  Writing in The Alpine Journal, climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young revealed that Collie’s rooms in Gower Street, London, ‘were piled high with variegated treasures, in seeming chaos.’


J Norman Collie

Born on 10th September 1859 in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, John Norman Collie was the son of John Collie, who was descended from an Aberdeen family, and Selina Mary Winkworth, whose maternal family came from Kent.  When he was still a child, Collie’s family moved to Glassel in Deeside, where he enjoyed an outdoor life of hill-walking and fishing.   He attended Charterhouse School and Clifton College before going on to University College, Bristol, to study chemistry.

Collie’s lecturer at University College, Professor E A Letts, took Collie with him as an assistant when he moved to Queen’s College, Belfast as Chair of Chemistry.  Collie then spent a year at Würzburg University in Germany, emerging with a PhD in 1884.  One of Collie’s more unusual accomplishments was as a glass-blower:  not, on the face of it, a skill that has much to do with chemistry, but in Germany his fellow students were astonished at his ability to create complex glass apparatus for use in his experiments.  One of his later students observed with interest that Collie ‘invariably did his glass-blowing with his lighted pipe in his mouth.’

After teaching science for three years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Collie was invited by the renowned chemist Sir William Ramsay to join him as his assistant at University College, London.  During the last decade of the 19th century, Ramsay conducted ground-breaking research into the rare gases.  In his laboratory, argon, helium, krypton, xenon and neon were isolated, and glowed with an array of colours in glass discharge tubes as electrical currents were passed through them.   These tubes, constructed by Collie, were the forerunners of neon lamps.


Collie in his laboratory, watching neon glowing in a glass discharge tube


In 1895, Collie was visiting Würzburg when Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the penetrating power of x-rays.  Röntgen produced a ‘shadow photograph’ of his wife’s left hand, showing the underlying bones quite clearly.  When Collie returned to London, he used the same technique to photograph several objects, including a fish and a snake.  In February 1896, he obtained a clear image of a woman’s thumb that had a needle embedded in it.  This is believed to be the first x-ray photograph taken for surgical purposes.


Collie was appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry at University College, London, but an acquaintance once remarked that he was only a chemist in his spare time.  His childhood in the Highlands had given him a love of the mountains, and at the end of each University term he took himself back there with a haste that frustrated Ramsay, who would have preferred to carry on working.  (In fact, Ramsay’s other assistants, Morris Travers and Alexander Kellas*, were equally fanatical about climbing, and disappeared with just as much alacrity every holiday.) 


Once in the mountains, Collie was not content with following the established routes.  In March 1894, with two fellow climbers, he made the first ascent (and first winter ascent) of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis;  this 2,000-foot climb is considered Alpine in terms of difficulty, because of its length and exposure.  On Skye, Collie made the acquaintance of John Mackenzie, a gillie and mountain guide, and together they climbed extensively in the Cuillins.  Collie was the first to discover and then climb the Cioch, a vertiginous lump of rock on the face of Sron na Ciche.  The names of Collie and Mackenzie are still remembered in Sgùrr Thormaid (Norman’s Peak), and in Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich (MacKenzie's Peak). 


Collie (left) with John Mackenzie

Moving on to Europe, Collie joined forces with other formidable climbers, among them Albert F Mummery, Geoffrey Hastings and Cecil Slingsby;  his achievements included the first north-south traverse of the Aiguille du Grépon, a serrated knife-blade of a ridge in the French Alps.  Although climbers’ huts were available, in general Collie and his friends preferred to roll out their sleeping bags under the night sky.  He wrote:  ‘There are few more pleasurable sensations than to be comfortable and warm under the lee of some great boulder, watching the stars as they slowly move westward;  or to sit by a camp fire after the sun has set, and to recall all the enjoyment of the climb just finished.’ 


Collie’s travels in the Himalayas were short-lived, with tragic consequences.  In 1895, with Mummery and Hastings, he took part in the first ever attempt on Nanga Parbat (and the first attempt on any 8,000-metre peak) but withdrew when Mummery and two Gurkha companions, Ragobir and Goman Singh, were killed.  In his book, ‘Climbing on the Himalaya and Other Mountain Ranges’, Collie describes how he and Hastings searched for the lost climbers until frequent avalanches forced them to turn back.  Collie was devastated by the loss, and never returned to the Himalayas.


But Collie’s lecture to RSGS was on the subject of the Canadian Rockies, and it was in this vast region of forests, rivers, glaciers and soaring peaks that he found new exhilaration.  He climbed and named Mount Athabasca, and from its summit he and fellow climber Hermann Woolley gazed in awe at the Columbia Icefield.  Collie wrote:  ‘The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers.  A new world was spread at our feet:  to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed, and unclimbed peaks.’


Mount Athabasca (left peak and centre ridge) and Mount Andromeda

Columbia Icefield

Returning to the Rocky Mountains many times, Collie made a total of 21 first ascents, including Mount Victoria which he named after Britain’s reigning monarch.  He particularly wanted to find - and climb - two mountains called Brown and Hooker, which had been described by the Scottish botanist David Douglas in 1827, and were reputed to tower above all their neighbours at over 16,000 feet.  But Douglas was mistaken in his calculations, and Collie concluded that these great mountains simply didn’t exist. 

Collie and his pipe were not easily parted:  friends observed that he ‘would often light his pipe as a preliminary to attempting a stiff rock problem,’ and his tall, distinguished figure, topped with a battered deerstalker hat, gave rise to suggestions that he inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes.  And, like Doyle himself, Collie was attracted by the deeper, more mystical elements of the landscapes he was exploring.  Climbing with John Mackenzie on Skye, he would often fall silent when they reached a summit and presently remark that the good spirit of the mountain had been their unseen companion that day.


On Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms, however, the mountain spirit accompanying Collie was anything but benevolent.  In 1925, while speaking to a gathering of The Cairngorm Club (of which he was Honorary President), Collie recounted an unsettling experience during a winter ascent.  He was alone, and had just left the summit cairn behind when he heard heavy footsteps crunching behind him in the snow.   From their frequency, it seemed as if the person was taking strides three or four times the length of his own.  He could see nothing through the mist, but the sound continued to follow him.  Seized with inexplicable terror, Collie took to his heels and ran headlong down the mountain, not stopping until he was almost at the Rothiemurchus Forest, some four or five miles away.  


Collie’s account caused something of a sensation.  He was widely respected as a scientist of acute observational powers, and those who knew him well had no reason to doubt his story.  Other people came forward to share similar experiences, and in the decades that followed, the ‘Big Grey Man’ (Am Fear Liath Mòr) of Ben Macdui continued to spook a succession of seasoned climbers, both around the summit and on its approach tracks.  


In later life, Collie habitually spent every year, from spring until late autumn, at the Sligachan Hotel on Skye.  At an age when he could no longer climb the challenging peaks, he enjoyed his pipe while looking out towards Glamaig and Loch Sligachan.   A visiting climber remembered that he was shy and reserved with strangers, but on closer acquaintance became ‘one of the most interesting and delightful of men.’  


Concluding a paper published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1913, Collie described his feelings on coming down from the Canadian Rockies after an expedition of several weeks.  He wrote:  We should soon have to change the camp life for that of the hotel, and our small world was to be ended for the time being.  But if one has once wandered in such a land one is always hearing the call to come back again;  the sombre forests, the rushing rivers, the beautiful quiet lakes, and the snow-white mountains, they all call and call again, and the memories of ones friends on the trail and the free life rise up, and back one has to go to those valleys amongst the mountains and wander once more.

Bronze sculpture of Collie and John Mackenzie at Sligachan, by Stephen Tinney


*   More information about Alexander Kellas can be found in this blog post:



A Fellow of the Royal Society, Collie was elected President of The Alpine Club in 1920.  He sat on the Committee of Scottish Mountaineering Club, and was Chairman of the Mount Everest Committee in 1923.



Reference and quotes:


J Norman Collie, Climbing on the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges, 1902

J Norman Collie, Climbs and Exploration in the Canadian Rockies, 1913

Ian R Mitchell & George R Rodway, Prelude to Everest:  Alexander Kellas, Himalayan Mountaineer, 2011

J Norman Collie, Climbing in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, The Alpine Journal, 1899

J Norman Collie, Exploration in the Rocky Mountains North of the Yellowhead Pass, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1913

Hugh D Welsh, obituary, The Cairngorm Club Journal, 1942-43

Prof E C C Baly, obituary, The Royal Society Journal, 1943

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, obituary, The Alpine Journal, 1943

Prof Alwyn Davies, J Norman Collie, the inventive chemist, Science Progress, 2014