J. Norman Collie, FRS, lived from 10 September 1859 to 1 November 1942. He was an eminent scientist and a pioneering mountaineer. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
J. Norman Collie was born and brought up in England. He gained his PhD in chemistry at the University of Wurzburg in Germany in 1884. He then spent three years teaching at Cheltenham Ladies College before gaining a research post at University College London. He became Professor of Organic Chemistry at UCL in 1896, and in 1913 was promoted to become Dean of Chemistry, a post he held until 1928. His research opened the way to the use of x-rays in medicine, and he developed the first neon lamp. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In the climbing world he pioneered many climbs on the Isle of Skye and in the Alps, and, in 1895, he was part of the first ever attempt on an 8000m peak in the Himalayas, Nanga Parbat. He later went on to make 21 first ascents in the Canadian Rockies. In many ways, however, Collie is best remembered because of a speech he made in late 1925 to the 27th Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen. During his speech he related an experience he had while alone on the summit of Ben Macdui (as the name is now spelled) in the Cairngorms, 34 years earlier in 1891:
"I was returning from the cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I said to myself, "This is all nonsense". I listened and heard it again, but could see nothing in the mist. As I walked on and the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it, I do not know, but there is something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui and I will not go back there again by myself I know."
Professor Collie's comments caused a sensation and attracted a great deal of press coverage, especially because they had been made by such an eminent man of science. Suddenly other respectable and responsible climbers and hillwalkers started to acknowledge that they, too, had had similar experiences on Ben Macdui but had not broadcast them before for fear of ridicule. What Collie described has since come to be known as Am Fear Liath Mòr, or "The Big Grey Man": and it remains one of the mysteries of Scotland's mountains. J. Norman Collie continued to visit Scotland whenever he could. In October 1942 he spent a day fishing at Storr Lochs on Skye's Trotternish Peninsula. While fishing he fell into the loch, and he subsequently developed pneumonia and died. He was buried on Skye. He is remembered in the names of Mount Collie in Canada and Sgurr Thormaid ("Norman's Peak") on Skye.