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John Mackenzie Mountaineer

  • Name  : Mackenzie
  • Born  : 1856
  • Died  : 1933
  • Category  : Mountaineers
  • Finest Moment : Many first ascents in the Cuillins of Skye including the first ascent of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (1887), the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap (1891), Banachdich Gully & King's Cave Chimney (1898), the Cioch (1906, and named by Mackenzie). First professional mountain guide to work in Britain.

John Mackenzie was born at Sconser on the Isle of Skye, in a crofter's cottage. This small crofting community is three miles from Sligachan, the centre for many years of mountaineers and other visitors to the island.

When he was ten, Mackenzie climbed Sgurr nan Gillean; aged 14 he was with a Mr Tribe on the first recorded ascent of Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh. In 1874, with Alexander Nicolson, he made the first ascent of Sgurr Dubh. Mackenzie was then 18. Four years later, the Pilkington brothers climbed the astonishing rock feature now called the Innaccessible Pinnacle, by its long and easier West Ridge. Mackenzie was seemingly present and was invited to join them but declined. With hindsight he may have been content to wait until he could climb it under his own steam. This event certainly seems to have been a catalyst for Mackenzie, who was probably the anonymous shepherd who repeated the ascent alone in 1881. He was also on the ascent of the harder short side. In fact, he was on virtually every significant ascent in Skye for over 50 years. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that along the way he had become a professional guide, the first native Scot to do so.

All who knew and climbed with him were in agreement that he was "a most loveable, charming, and delightful companion". He had, wrote one later historian, "the characteristics of the Highlander; the courtesy joined to self-respect that are the heritage of the clans." Strong-featured and tanned by the Skye weather (good and bad!), his working clothes were the loose tweed jacket and knickerbockers with a stalker's cap. Add a beard, whiskers and moustache and you had Mackenzie.

Mackenzie's greatest client and later life-long friend was Norman Collie. Together they were a formidable team. Collie has been described by one biographer as one of the four greatest mountaineers of his time, while Mackenzie's unrivalled knowledge of the Cuillin in all weathers meant that almost any expedition was bound to end in success. Mackenzie never climbed outside of Britain; he was content with his Cuillin, his croft and almost as important, his fishing.

The friendship between Collie and Mackenzie lasted from 1886 until the guide's death in 1933. In these class-conscious days it was very unusual for someone of Collie's class to develop a friendship outside of his own circle but then the mountains have a bonding effect and both Collie and Mackenzie were possessed of a deep humanity. Collie also had a deep friendship with a Canadian similar to Mackenzie, Fred Stephens, a trail guide and packer.

Together they were the first to climb another unique piece of rock on Skye - the Cioch. This rock pinnacle juts out from the cliffs of Sron na Ciche but it was only when Collie spotted its shadow one day from the coire that the search for a route to its summit started. Collie and Mackenzie were successful in 1906.

Mackenzie has a Cuillin peak named after him - Sgurr Mhic Coinnich, Mackenzie's Peak. In 1887 he was a member of the first ascent party. His friend Collie also had a peak named after him - Sgurr Thormaid - Norman's Peak. The main reason why the Cuillin peaks are almost unique in this respect, with several being named after climbers, is that they were climbed at a very late stage due to their obvious difficulties.

When he died in 1933, aged 76, Norman Collie wrote his obituary in the pages of the SMC Journal. Collie is said by many to have been deeply affected by his death. He finished the obituary with the following paragraph: "There was only one John, simple-minded, most lovable, and without guile. May he rest quietly in the little graveyard at Struan." The grave remains there to this day and next to it lies that of his greatest client and life-long friend Norman Collie. It is a small, well-sheltered corner, lying just off the road that jinks and twists its way round Loch Harport. Those sheep nimble enough to squeeze through gaps in the old wall crop the grass in peace.

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