03 August, 2014

The Munros

by Krister Andrén

Whichever route is chosen for the End-to-End journey, it will pass not very far from some or several Munros. The definition of this term is mountains in Scotland that are at least 3,000 feet (approximately 914 metres) high.

The person behind the name was Sir Hugh Thomas Munro, 4th Baronet of Lindertis. Born in London in 1856 but brought up on the family estate of Lindertis near Kirriemuir in Angus, he became a passionate mountaineer and also travelled extensively abroad. Despite being active in politics he failed to become an MP. At the outbreak of the First World War he was too old for active military service but did volunteer work with the Red Cross in Malta and also in France. After the war, during the influenza pandemic (the Spanish flu), he caught the infection, which developed into pneumonia and he died in 1919 at the age of 63.

Sir Hugh would no doubt have been surprised and, perhaps, also pleased, if he had known that his surname is today being used as a generic noun. His name lives on because he published a list, later known as the Munros Tables, of the mountains according to the above definition in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal in 1891.

This fascinated a lot of people and stimulated, and still does, hillwalkers to “bag” some or all of the Munros. There is even a term for this affliction – munroitis. More than 5,000 persons are now registered by the Scottish Mountaineering Club as having “compleated” the list.

The first person to climb all the original Munros may have been the Rev. A.E. Robertson, in 1901. The first continuous trip was made in 1974 by Hamish Brown, one of Britain´s great walkers and mountaineers. His journey lasted 112 days and he used a bicycle for transport, and ferries to the Hebrides. And, yes, he has also walked JOGLE, in 1979, and not by the shortest route; he visited several of the Munros, the Four Peaks of Britain and even traversed Ireland during his journey! And then there are, of course, the record breakers. The current record holder seems to be Stephen Pyke. He made his self-propelled round in 2010 and it took him 39 days, 9 hours and 6 minutes. He did not use any motorized transport, only a bicycle and a canoe.

The original Munros Tables list 283 summits, which Sir Hugh regarded as separate mountains, and 256 subsidiary tops. Unfortunately, except for the minimum height, Sir Hugh did not specify distinct topographic criteria for a peak to qualify as a Munro and this has given rise to some debate.

The Munros Tables have been changed several times. Recently, new height data caused a further revision. A few peaks have been demoted from Munro status and a few have been added and the current number of Munros is 282. The old methods of height measurement seem to have been surprisingly accurate. Land surveying in the period we are talking about, around 1890, was a complex and painstaking process, requiring a car-load or, perhaps, a horse-drawn carriage, of technical paraphernalia, such as pedometers, pace measuring chains, plane tables, calibrated brass plates, tripods, plumb lines, telescopic sights, barometers, theodolites, triangulation instruments, current maps etc. – and the knowledge to use them.

Sir Hugh´s main source of information was the Ordnance Survey´s maps of Scotland, one-inch and six-inch to the mile. The one-inch map showed contour lines but only at 250 feet intervals. He must have spent a great number of days poring over the maps, in addition to going on many expeditions in Scotland. Sir Hugh conferred frequently with fellow hillwalkers, who often carried aneroid barometers, which work on the principle that air pressure lessens with increasing altitude at a measurable rate. Air pressure is also affected by temperature changes and it required an experienced person to obtain accurate results.

During the End-to-End journey one has the option of adding one or more of the Munros to one´s list of achievements. As for myself, I had, during my homework, identified Schiehallion as one of the most accessible Munros and it was close to my route. On 8 November, 1996, I was walking on the B846 towards Tummel Bridge and saw the geometric cone of Schiehallion about four miles to the west. I have to confess that I decided to leave it alone, mainly because it would have cost me another day and I saw little point in “bagging” an easy Munro and further damaging the already heavily eroded footpath to the top. At least I had said hello to a Munro, even if from a distance.

I was never keen on hillwalking but it would certainly have been nice to have summited Mount Everest, preferably without using supplemental oxygen, which purists regard as unsporting. My only, very modest, mountain experience was on 8 August, 1979, when I went up Mount Hekla, the highest mountain in Iceland. Hekla is 4,892 feet (1,491 metres) in height, and thus towers over the highest Munro, Ben Nevis, which is 4,409 feet (1,344 metres) and also has the distinction of being the highest mountain in the British Isles.

Climbing Hekla does not require any mountaineering skills but a reasonable degree of fitness. The ascent is scenic but, occasionally, unpleasant because of the sulphurous fumes and the gurgling sounds from the underground. In medieval times Hekla was thought, not unreasonably, to be a gateway to hell and a meeting place for witches. While at the highest point, I kicked loose the then peak, a piece of lava the size and shape of a grey, porous skullcap. It weighs 1,751 grams and now rests on one of my bookshelves. Hekla is an active volcano and seems to have an eruption every ten years or so (1970, 1980, 1981, 1991, 2000).

But I am straying from the topic. Let us get back to Scotland. Many of the Munros have fascinating names, some of which are quite a mouthful. What about the following examples?

Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich
Bidein a´ Choire Sheasgaich
Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain
Carn a´ Coire Bhoidheach
Meall nan Ceapraichean
Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan
Inaccessible Pinnacle

The latter peak, which rises from the summit of Sgùrr Deargh on the Isle of Skye, has the reputation of being the most difficult Munro but, despite the name, it can be reached by rock climbing.

There are also other classification schemes in Scotland - the Corbetts, peaks between 2,500–3,000 feet (762-914 metres) and the Grahams, 2,000-2,500 feet (610-762 metres). And, believe it or not, there are also the Marilyns, with a wink to Marilyn Monroe (?), who, sadly, died prematurely in 1962. Marilyns are hills or mountains in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or Isle of Man that are at least 492 feet (150 metres) high.

Sir Hugh had, no doubt, intended to visit all his peaks but he saved a few for later enjoyment. One of the peaks he did not get around to, was the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Death intervened. If anyone ever deserved a full “bag”, surely it would have been Sir Hugh. For a delightful picture of him in his state-of-the-art mountaineering outfit, held by the Scottish Mountaineering Club Archives, click here.

Recommended further reading:

The Munros by Cameron McNeish
(ISBN 0 947782 50 8)
This book, which is well-researched (the author has made the full round) and has many maps and dramatic photographs, will be helpful to anyone planning an expedition to the Munros and it is also suitable for the armchair traveller.

The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain by Christopher Monger
(ISBN 0 552 14327 8)
This book has nothing directly to do with the Munros but it is a delightful novel about whether a particular protuberance in the Welsh terrain is a hill or a mountain and gives interesting insights into land surveying about one hundred years ago and also, perhaps, into the Welsh soul. It was filmed in 1995 – the book, not the soul.

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