Tuesday 14 August 2012

Professor Norman Collie: character profile

Part of a series of articles on the characters of The Only Genuine Jones. For other articles in the series, please click here.


J. Norman Collie was born in 1859 and is therefore one of the older generation of climbers portrayed in my book; certainly not middle-aged in 1897, but he began climbing in a culture different to the one just starting to emerge at the turn of the century. He achieved a tremendous amount in his life. By profession, he was Professor of Organic Chemistry at University College, London, and much of the research he conducted there was ground-breaking (including experiments that would lead to the first use of x-rays for medical purposes). He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896.

In his private life, Collie nurtured a long love of the hills, in common with most of my other characters. He was one of the most accomplished mountaineers of the era, and while he was born too late to participate in the golden age of Alpine exploration himself, he drew inspiration from his heroic predecessors and continued the work they started. He admired men like James Forbes and Edward Whymper: explorers and pioneers, who climbed mountains to discover and learn, not just for the sake of climbing itself.

Collie was a true explorer at heart and, in addition to his many climbs in the Alps, he was one of the first British mountaineers to attempt a Himalayan peak: Nanga Parbat in 1895. The expedition ended in disaster when his companion, Mummery, and two Gurkhas (Ragobir and Goman Singh) were killed in an avalanche. Himalayan mountaineering continued to excite interest in British climbers (particularly Aleister Crowley and Oscar Eckenstein in the immediately following years) but from that point onward Collie concentrated his efforts on exploring the Canadian Rockies and his own native mountains.

It's nice to think that, while Collie was one of the world's most experienced 'greater ranges' mountaineer, he derived so much pleasure from climbing closer to home. Although best known for his many first ascents in Skye, Collie traveled broadly in the Lake District, Wales, and Scotland, and had friends at every mountain inn. He nurtured new climbers and had a reputation for being wise, fair, and tolerant. As a consequence he was widely loved.

Collie retired to the Isle of Skye and spent his last days at the Sligachan Hotel. He died in 1942 after a long and peaceful old age in the shadows of the peaks he had explored in his youth.


Collie is a supporting character in my book without a major role, yet I have tried my best to portray him in character with the real man. The changes I've made have been slight. While Collie was certainly a bold explorer and not a conservative man, he was also an establishment figure and in his later years he often spoke out against the new ways of mountaineering. I have portrayed him as being slightly on the traditionalist side of the fence, yet his fair and balanced nature means he is able to appreciate the other perspective and he has sympathies with the 'progressive' new climbers.

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