Category Archives: Walking

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs”

"Doing The Dubhs" illustration

[The letter] h is one of the most common letters on any page of Gaelic, and as a result has become the victim of its own popularity. In pseudo- or pidgin Gaelic it is used by many who do not know the language well and feel that the liberal insertion of a few examples of h will give a more authentic flavour to their Gaelic.

George McLennan A Gaelic Alphabet (2009)

I recently wrote about the linguistic phenomenon of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, using a puzzle poem by Lionel Hinxman (from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897) as my jumping-off point. You can find that poem, and discussion, here.

Reading that poem brought to mind another piece of poetry, about “Doing the Dubhs”, also published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, in which Gaelic hill names were pressed into use as substitutes for English words. Eventually I discovered I had four copies of this poem on my bookshelves, in two different versions—and it was one of these versions that brought to mind McLennan’s words, quoted at the head of this post.

I’ll let you read the poem in a minute, but first a couple of examples of what McLennan is talking about.

The one I’m reminded of most often comes from an organization based not too far from where I live: the Cairn O’ Mohr winery. (“Care No More.” Geddit?) There’s obviously a reference to a famous Scottish road in there, the Cairn o’ Mount, but there’s really no apparent justification for that ectopic “h”, other than as an attempt to “Gaelic up” the company’s name in the way McLennan describes. But anyone who knows any Gaelic will recognize that the “h” is in the wrong place to form any plausible Gaelic word. Then there’s the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. In Gaelic this is Rùm, though the meaning is unclear. What it certainly isn’t is “Rhum”, a name concocted by its one-time owner, Sir George Bullough, reportedly because he didn’t like to be associated with the apparent reference to an alcoholic beverage. Again, the “h” just looks Gaelic, provided you don’t know any Gaelic, and the Nature Conservancy Council (who acquired the island from the Bullough family), eventually reverted the spelling to “Rum” in 1991.

Another common example is the “h” in skean dhu, the common English version of Gaelic sgian-dubh, “black knife”—which is the (now) decorative short knife worn in the stocking-top of a person wearing formal Highland dress. The “h” in “dhu” serves no useful purpose in conveying the sound of the original dubh, “black” (which is close to “doo”)—again, it’s just there to make the English look a bit Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this spelling comes from Sir Walter Scott (he wrote “skene-dhu”), so we know who to blame. And in this case it’s actively counterproductive, because in Gaelic the “h” would alter the sound of the “d”, making “dhu” sound like “ghoo”.

Which brings me, seamlessly, to the two versions of the famous “Doing the Dubhs” poem. The most commonly quoted version appears in my copy of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s regional guide, Island of Skye (2nd ed., 1948), and their Climber’s Guide to the Cullin of Skye (1958), as well as in Hamish MacInnes’s mountain-rescue memoir, Call-Out (1973). It goes as follows:

Said Maylard to Solly, one day in Glen Brittle,
“All serious climbing, I vote, is a bore;
Just for once I Dubh Beag you’ll agree to do little,
And, as less we can’t do, let’s go straight to Dubh Mor.”

So now, when they seek but a day’s relaxation,
With no thought in the world but of viewing the views,
And regarding the mountains in mute adoration,
They call it not “climbing” but “doing the Dubhs.”

Gaelic “Dubh Mor” is doing duty for English “do more”, while “Dubh Beag” is filling in for “do beg”. The former makes a reasonable fit between the Gaelic and English, but the latter relies on a common pronunciation in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic—in Scottish Gaelic dubh beag sound more like “do bake”.

So that’s the bilingual wordplay dealt with. But unless you know your way around the Skye Cuillin, there’s a bit of background required before I go on to discuss the other version of the poem. “The Dubhs” to which the poem refers are three summits along a ridge that extends eastwards from the main Cuillin ridge towards Loch Coruisk—the summits are, from west to east: Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (“Black Peak of the Two Mountains”); Sgùrr Dubh Mòr (“Big Black Peak”) which is the highest point; and Sgùrr Dubh Beag (“Little Black Peak”). Here they are on the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet of 1903:

Sgurr Dubh ridge, OS 6-inch 1903
Click to enlarge

(Notice, in passing, that the cartographer has mistakenly placed the diacritical mark intended for the “u” in “Sgùrr Dubh Mòr” over the “g”.)

“Doing the Dubhs” generally means making a traverse of this ridge, which is by no means an easy undertaking. But my link also reports that:

Doing the Dubhs’ is a paraphrase born from the Isle of Skye that translates roughly as ‘having one of the best days possible in UK hills’.

This seems to refer back to the “day’s relaxation” of the poem.

For a full explanation we need to move on to the second version of the poem, which appears in The Munroist’s Companion (1999) by Robin N. Campbell.

Campbell provides a publication history for the poem, tracing its origin to the reverse of the menu card for the Scottish Mountaineer Club’s annual dinner in 1905, and deduces that the poem, though unattributed on publication, is perhaps the work of William Douglas, a pillar of the SMC in its early days. He also reproduces the cartoon that graces the head of this post, presumably from the same source. And he gives us a title, which takes the form of a quotation attributed to A. Ernest Maylard, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club:

“We Had Always Wanted To Do The Dubhs” – A.E. Maylard

Maylard, of course, features in the first line of the poem. His companion, “Solly”, is no doubt Godfrey A. Solly, a notable climber of the day. And the inspiration for the poem is, Campbell tells us, an article Maylard wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1905, entitled “Only a Beautiful Day on the Hills”. This was something notable in the SMCJ of the time, which dealt largely with new routes and daring adventures—Maylard chose to write about a day:

[…] with no further objective than to enjoy ourselves, and with just that charming sense of inertia that is felt when nothing special has to be accomplished.

It’s by no means lacking in physical activity—it involves a snowy ascent of Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. But it also involves quite a bit of strolling and sitting and enjoying the scenery—the essence of “doing the Dubhs”, according to the poem.

But now (finally), I can get to the aspect of Campbell’s version that brought to mind McLennan’s observation about the intrusive, pseudo-Gaelic “h”—because the version of the poem reproduced by Campbell talks about “Dubh Bheag” and “Dubh Mhor”. Now, Campbell is a careful editor, who elsewhere in his book comments in negative terms about the Ordnance Survey’s distortion of Gaelic hill names; so I assume he has faithfully transcribed the spelling in the original version. In support of that assumption, we can note that Maylard, in his original article, also writes of “Sgurr Dubh Mhor”. (The Ordnance Survey seems to be blameless on this occasion, as my image taken from their contemporary mapping shows, above.) And, lest you imagine that this is merely a century-old variant, you can still find “Sgurr Dubh Mhor” on the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s own website, as well as scattered around the internet in walk reports and photo captions.

But that variant spelling is a tragedy for the poem. While “Dubh Mor” and “Dubh Beag” are reasonable stand-ins for “do more” and “do beg”, “Dubh Mhor” and “Dubh Bheag” are most definitely not—the intruded “h” shifts their Gaelic pronunciation to “do vore” and “do vake”.

There’s also the problem that, while mhòr and bheag are perfectly good Gaelic adjectives (they’re the lenited forms of mòr and beag), they do violence to Gaelic grammar when applied to the noun sgùrr.

Gaelic uses lenition (the “weakening” of an initial consonant, usually by adding an “h”) as a grammatical marker. In particular, with relevance to the naming of hills, adjectives are lenited after nouns with female gender, but not after those with male gender—and sgùrr is a masculine noun. So Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is the correct form. To see appropriate lenition, we must look for hill names that use feminine nouns like beinn and creag. We can, for instance, see both dubh and mòr being appropriately lenited in the name of Creag Dhubh Mhòr.

So it should be easy enough to figure out when the adjectives in a hill name can be appropriately lenited with an “h”, and when it’s just pseudo-Gaelic. If the hill is a beinn or a creag or a stùc (all female), then lenite away; but if it’s a sgùrr, a tom, a càrn, a meall or a stob (all male), then don’t.

Unfortunately, while this can serve as a useful rule of thumb, it’s far from infallible. Look, for instance, at Beinn Dearg (“red mountain”). It’s a common name—I’ve linked to just one of the many hills in Scotland called Beinn Dearg. But a modern Gael, asked to translate “red mountain” into Scottish Gaelic, would probably offer the lenited form: beinn dhearg. And yet I search in vain for a Beinn Dhearg in the Ordnance Survey database that comes with my Anquet Outdoor Map Navigator software.

What’s going on? It turns out that Scottish Gaelic used to have a fairly wide-ranging pronunciation rule, the “homo-organic rule”, which blocked lenition under some circumstances. This has largely faded from modern Gaelic, the last survivor of the rule being that a noun ending in “n” blocks lenition of a following adjective beginning with “d” or “t”. This is still stated in modern Gaelic grammar books, like my copy of Olaf Klöcker’s Concise Grammar: Scottish Gaelic (2015), but there’s evidence that many modern Gaelic speakers aren’t actually following the rule. However, Gaelic placenames, which are centuries old, generally abide by it. In this case, because the terminal “n” in “Beinn” and the initial “d” in “Dearg” are both pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the back of teeth, the one sound slides into the other easily, and lenition was consistently blocked in Gaelic at the time when these landscape features were being assigned names by the Gaels.*

There’s a fine example of blocked and unblocked lenition quite close to the Dubhs, in the form of Beinn Dearg Mhòr. There you can see how the homo-organic rule blocks the lenition of “d” after “n”, but not of “m” after “g”.

So is that it all sorted, then? Are lenition and the homo-organic rule all we need to know, to decide whether we should insert that pesky “h”? Sadly, no. There are many departures from these rules. For instance, there’s a fully unlenited Beinn Dearg Mòr out there, sitting incongruously right next to a half-lenited Beinn Dearg Bheag. I’ve no idea what that’s about—perhaps it reflects some peculiarity of local pronunciation, or is just one of the Ordnance Survey’s notorious errors of transcription. And sgòrr, a variant of sgùrr that is listed as a masculine noun in modern Gaelic dictionaries, frequently turn up accompanied by lenited adjectives, as if it were feminine—for instance Sgòrr Dhearg and its neighbour Sgòrr Bhan.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has explanations for these.

* The sgian-dubh I mentioned at the start of this post is another example of blocked lenition preserved into modern usage—a so-called “frozen form”. Sgian is a feminine noun, so if you took a knife and painted it black, a modern Gael would call it sgian dhubh. The old, lenition-blocked name sgian-dubh now applies solely to the decorative stocking-top item. (Which, so the story goes, was named dubh in a figurative sense, because it was originally a concealed weapon. The Gaels are said to have used dubh, “black”, in the same metaphorical way that English sometimes uses “dark”—the Victorians labelled the regions of Africa that were yet to be seen by Europeans “Darkest Africa”, for instance; and the “dark side of the moon” was so named because it is hidden from view, not because of any imagined lack of sunlight.)

Loch Faskally Circuit

19 kilometres
410 metres of ascent

Loch Faskally route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Ever since I made my ascent of Ben Vrackie from the west, I’ve been hankering to use the Pitlochry Path Network to make a circuit of the waterways between Pitlochry and Killiecrankie. So this one is devoid of hills but replete with rivers and bridges.

I parked at the car park below the visitor centre at the Pitlochry hydroelectric dam, and walked across the dam to reach the south shore of Loch Faskally. Here’s the view looking back along the dam to the visitor centre:

Faskally dam, looking towards Visitor Centre
Click to enlarge

And looking east below the dam, to the “salmon ladder” that lets migrating fish make their way upstream into the upper Tummel and Garry rivers:

Fish ladder, Faskally dam
Click to enlarge

My father used to also migrate regularly to the Pitlochry Dam—it was a feature of autumn in our house that we’d make a pilgrimage to the dam to watch the salmon leaping their way up through the “steps” of the ladder.

At the far end of the dam, I turned west and started to make my way along the narrow, muddy trail that wends along the shore of Loch Faskally.

South Loch Faskally path
Click to enlarge

Faskally didn’t exist until the 1950s, when the dam was built across the River Tummel, flooding an area of low-lying fields and woodland on either side of the Tummel. As far as I can see, looking at the old pre-dam maps, the only building lost was a fairly substantial property called Dallreach, on low ground west of Fonab Castle.

The lochside path continues for six or seven hundred metres, and then pops out at the roadside at Balmore. Beyond that point I had a bit of road-walking to do, on a narrow ribbon of tarmac that, potentially, could take me almost all the way to Tummel Bridge.

The road soon makes a right-angle bend to the west, and passes under the south end of the modern bridge that carries the A9 across the loch. I made a brief diversion to take a look at the Clunie Bridge, a footbridge that accompanies the road bridge, at a lower level:

Clunie Bridge, Loch Faskally
Click to enlarge

It provides the potential for a fine short walking loop around lower Loch Faskally. I walked out into the middle of the span for a view into the middle reach of Faskally:

Loch Faskally from the Clunie Bridge
Click to enlarge

And then I headed back to the road again. I’d be getting a better view of the Clunie Bridge when I came back down the far side of the loch.

It’s a very quiet road—I encountered only two vehicles. One was a Highway Maintenance lorry, and the other an honest-to-god chauffeur-driven Range Rover. (Either that, or the driver, resplendent in peaked cap, white shirt and black tie, was on his way to some sort of nautical-themed funeral.) As it turns north and rises, it opens up views into the upper part of Faskally.

The Faskally-Tummel minor road
Click to enlarge
Upper loch Faskally from the Faskally-Tummel road
Click to enlarge

Eventually I arrived at the entrance to the Clunie Power Station, a vaguely Soviet-looking monumental arch:

Clunie power station entry, River Tummel
Click to enlarge

That horseshoe-shaped archway is actually a section of the long tunnel that brings water down from Loch Tummel and into the power station.

From here, I followed the road west again, along the south side of the River Tummel, though the view of the river itself was largely obscured by trees. My Tummel crossing point was the very slightly wobbly Coronation Bridge:

Coronation Bridge, River Tummel
Click to enlarge

The coronation in question is that of George V, making the bridge a good 110 years old, so I wasn’t tempted to bounce up and down in the centre.

Walking back along the north side of the Tummel, I made a small diversion to take in another royal memorial:

Victoria obelisk, River Tummel
Click to enlarge

It’s a rather dull little obelisk, erected to memorialize a visit to this spot by Queen Victoria in 1844. She’d come, I presume, to take a look at the Linn of Tummel*, a waterfall just upstream from the obelisk:

Linn of Tummel
Click to enlarge

On, then, along a path that turned north along the west side of the River Garry, and soon passed under the Garry Bridge, which carries the B8019, from Rannoch Station, across the river to join the A9.

Bungee jump platform below Garry Bridge
Click to enlarge

The curious structure on the underside of the span is the jumping-off point for a bungee jump into the gorge.

(Attentive readers of the blog will recall the conversation that concluded my ascent of Ben Vrackie, with the young woman who was keen to know if I’d “done the bungee jump”. Yep, this is that bungee jump.)

A little way north of the Garry Bridge is yet another footbridge, which again would have let me cross the river and make a shorter loop if I’d wanted to.

Footbridge over River Garry, Pass of Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge

OpenStreetMap shows a path continuing up the west side of the river at this point, but I instead walked up to the car park next to the Garry Bridge, and turned on to the little ribbon of tarmac that passes over the shoulder of Craig Fonvuick and then descends towards Killiecrankie.

I thought this might give me some longer views than would be available deep in the gorge, and that proved to be the case. I was able to admire the complicated summits of Beinn a’ Ghlo, still shrouded in snow:

Beinn a' Ghlo from Tenandry-Fonvuick road
Click to enlarge

The road passes through the little settlement of Tenandry, which sounds to me like it should be a thing, rather than a place—an obscure mediaeval law of inheritance, perhaps; or one of the apparently infinite number of subdivisions of sexuality so cherished by Generation Z.

But it’s a place, and pretty one, consisting of a church, the church manse, a church cottage, and one other house. I forgot to take a photograph of it, so here it is in Google Maps street view:

The road eventually led me steeply down to the bridge at Killiecrankie, where I crossed the Garry and began my return down the east side of the loch. A signpost to Pitlochry next to the village hall took me on to a muddy little footpath that at first ran along the north side of the road, and then crossed it to descend into the steep-sided Pass of Killiecrankie. Here, I made another little diversion to visit another water feature—the Soldier’s Leap.

Soldier's Leap, Pass of Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge

A government soldier, fleeing the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689) with a Jacobite Highlander hot on his heels, later claimed to have leapt 18 feet across the river—allegedly from the boulder in the low middle of my photograph above.

When I got home after my walk, I discovered that I’d apparently leapt the gap myself, too. With its view of the GPS constellation limited by the steep sides of the gorge, my GPS receiver briefly lost track of where I was, just as I stopped to view the Soldier’s Leap. You can see the artefactual jump across the river in my recorded track (the magenta line) below:

GPS track error at the Soldier's Leap, Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge

Then I pressed on southwards, beside the lovely arches of the railway viaduct, and then through mixed forest beside the river bank.

Railway viaduct, Pass of Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge
Pass of Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge

Just as I drew level with the eastern end of the footbridge across the Garry, I happened on this object beside the path:

Milestone, Pass of Killiecrankie
Click to enlarge

It’s an old milestone, signposting (now illegible) distances to Tummel Bridge and Blair Atholl. I puzzled for a long time why there was a milestone beside a muddy footpath in the depths of the Pass of Killiecrankie, but eventually realized that, before the opening of the modern Garry bridge, soaring across the gorge above my head, the old road from Tummel Bridge used to descend into the gorge, cross the river more or less where the footbridge is now, and then ascend under the railway line to join the old A9. For about fifty metres between its descent and ascent, it ran along the east bank of the river—which is why the milestone is there, as a reminder of a long-vanished road.

My path then took me in a long curve around the grounds of Faskally House, eventually bringing me out on the House’s long tarmac driveway. The drive also serves an extensive cluster of buildings, which signage identified as the Scottish Government’s Marine Scotland Directorate. At the time I felt they’d placed themselves at an inconvenient distance from the sea, but it turns out Marine Scotland is housed in several locations across Scotland, and I was looking at one of their Freshwater Laboratories.

The laboratories sit at the head of a wide, shallow embayment which, in the days before the reservoir filled, was a field attached to Faskally House. When I visited it, there was a slow circular current in the bay, presumably driven by the flow of water coming down from the confluence of the Tummel and Garry just upstream. You can see below how a disc of floating debris has been penned by the rotary flow, like a tiny Sargasso Sea:

Debris trapped in an eddy at Faskally House
Click to enlarge

I walked down the driveway for a while, and then dived into the little network of paths around Loch Dunmore, aiming to emerge on the loch-shore somewhere near the east end of the Clunie footbridge. It all went swimmingly for a while, before my path seemed to simply terminate at a waymarker post. At first I thought I was going to be forced unpleasantly on to the hard shoulder of the A924, but I could actually see the loch from the point at which I’d lost the path, so instead I just descended steeply through the trees, climbed over a fence, and stumbled out at a little viewpoint from which I could admire the span of the Clunie Bridge.

Clunie Bridge, Loch Faskally
Click to enlarge

From there, a path took me under the road bridge to emerge at the Pitlochry Boating Station.

As I approached I’d been hearing the call of a moorhen (which always sounds to me like someone vigorously rubbing wet glass), but at the little dock I was greeted by no more than a rather lazy group of mallards, and a Mystery Duck I can’t identify.

Ducks at the boathouse, Loch Faskally
Click to enlarge

From there, it was back on tarmac for a short distance, to circumvent the loch-shore grounds of the (extremely well situated) Green Park Hotel, before heading downhill on the pavements of a small residential area to eventually reach a loch-shore path that took me the last few hundred metres to my car. And, incidentally, to the Visitor Centre. Where I had a rather nice tuna and mayo sandwich.

Winter birch trees, Loch Faskally
Click to enlarge

* You’ll find rather a lot of misinformation relating to the Linn of Tummel, both on local information boards and on-line.
First, there’s the story that the word linn refers to the pool below the falls, rather than to the falls themselves, because in Scottish Gaelic linne means “deep pool”. But this is just a common etymological fallacy—Scottish English is under no obligation to adhere to the Gaelic meaning, even if linn does indeed derive from linne. (The Oxford English Dictionary points out that Old English hlynn means “torrent”, and of course Scottish English derives much more of its vocabulary from archaic English than it does from Gaelic.) But whatever the etymology, the relevant entry in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language contains many illustrative quotations in which linn is obviously synonymous with “waterfall”.
Second, and building on this misconception that a linn is necessarily a pool, is the claim that the phrase “Linn of Tummel” is of recent origin, replacing “Falls of Tummel” only when the Faskally dam raised the local water level, reducing the height of the falls and creating the pool evident today. But this is demonstrably not so—for example, the Caledonian Mercury of 8 January 1827 advertised the sale of the estate of Fincastle, in Atholl, including the “right to a third of the salmon fishing in the Linn or Falls of Tummel.” Whatever the estate agents meant by “Linn”, it obviously wasn’t anything to do with the building of the Faskally dam, a century later.

Clipping from the Caledonian Mercury of 8 January 1827

Simon Ingram: The Black Ridge

Cover of The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram

I stood in the rain at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle’s east edge, that ‘easy edge’, looking up at it, trembling a little. True, I was overawed by its history, its odd and discomfiting form, its dizzying position — but I think I was basically just very scared. In the part of your brain where your reflexive fear lives, self preservation — for no other reason than continued existence — is hard-wired into you. And everything about the Inaccessible Pinnacle was in those wires, and tinkering.

That’s the mood in which Simon Ingram embarked on a climb of Skye’s famous “In Pinn”—a fifty-metre high flake of basalt protruding from just below the summit of Sgurr Dearg, so that the highest point of the flake is slightly higher than the summit of the mountain itself. The roped rock climb on which he was about to embark is graded “Moderate”, and there’s nowadays no easier grade. But the two 30m pitches along the sloping edge of the pinnacle are wildly exposed, with plunging views down into steep-sided corries on either side. And most people who embark on this particular rock climb are not rock-climbers—they’re hill-walkers who are attempting to climb all the hills listed in Munro’s Tables of 3000-foot Scottish summits. And to complete that list they have to get up the In Pinn, because of the thoroughly inconvenient way it overtops the relatively easily accessible summit of Sgurr Dearg.

Here’s a view of what Ingram was taking on, with a couple of climbers visible on the “easy edge”. Ingram would be standing close to the point at which a small group is assembled at lower right:

Inaccessible Pinnacle, Skye
Click to enlarge

So lots of people are “very scared” when climbing the In Pinn—something I find bemusing and impressive in equal measure. Why on earth would you embark on a leisure-time project that frightened the willies out of you, particularly one requiring coordination and attention, both of which are notoriously degraded by fear? And yet people do it—and despite their fear most of them get to the top and also manage to coordinate well enough to abseil off the near-vertical western end, which features on the book’s cover at the head of this post. So I’m somewhat in awe of the grit and determination on show, while baffled at the motivation.*

Ingram’s motivation didn’t come from trying to gain a tick in a table, however. His climb was part of a long-term attempt to get to know the unique Cuillin range of mountains on Skye, which is what this book is about—hence the awkward subtitle, “Amongst The Cullin Of Skye”, which has the feel of a compromise reached by committee.

I’ve written about Ingram before, when I reviewed his previous book, Between The Sunset And The Sea (2015), in which Ingram described his experience of climbing sixteen classic British hills, using that experience as a narrative hook to usher in expositions on the history (and natural history) of his chosen hills. He has a great ear for intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed that part of the book immensely, while fretting a little about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s emotional response to some of his days out in the hills.

With The Black Ridge (2021) Ingram does the same thing, but with a tight focus on the various peaks of the Cuillin range. To some extent, then, it’s a counterpart to Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), which I recently reviewed.

Ingram casts his net wide for subjects more-or-less linked to the Cuillin—in the early chapters there are dissertations on geology, the Ice Ages, Scottish history and prehistory, the saga of James Macpherson and the alleged poetry of Ossian, the Scottish travels and opinions of Samuel Johnson, the fragile botany of the high peaks, Scottish folklore, and the etymology of the name Cuillin. Depending on your existing knowledge and interests, you may find some passages less engaging than others, but there are always intriguing titbits—I didn’t know, for instance, that there may have been active glaciers in the Cairngorms as late as the eighteenth century. And Ingram often manages to tell you stuff that you do know already, but in a new, vivid and memorable way. For instance, here he is on the supercontinent cycle:

Like much of geological theory, the understanding of the processes involved in this is pretty recent; there are Beatles records that pre-date anything approaching a clear view of how this most colossal of geological events works.

And he’s funny. Here’s his take on reading climbing reports from old editions of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal:

They are typically great fun, not least because the writers seem to inhabit some kind of P.G. Wodehouse parallel universe, full of chipper old socks braving inadequate lodgings, sharing ropes, ruminating over whether things will ‘go’ or not, and watching Hastings—there’s always a Hastings—overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle or being a good-enough sport to fall to their death without taking the pipe tobacco with them. (This last point is of course an exaggeration—none of these chaps would be silly enough to trust the entire supply of pipe tobacco to one person.)

(I find myself wondering who made the decision to use non-gendered pronouns in that passage. “His” and “him” would have precisely reflected the realities of the era Ingram is lampooning—women were finally admitted to the Scottish Mountaineering Club as recently as 1990.)

Later sections concentrate on the climbing history of the Cuillin—the range is remarkable in Britain for the fact that in many cases we know the names of the people who (probably!) made the first ascents of its various summits; some, like Sgurr Alasdair, are even named after the first recorded ascender. Prominent among the characters introduced are Norman Collie and the guide John MacKenzie, whose statues now stand near the Sligachan bridge, gazing towards their beloved Cuillin. There are plenty more characters in Ingram’s history, but this famous pairing lets him introduce the concept of the Cuillin guide—a person employed by ordinary hill-walkers to keep them safe in the complicated, demanding, and occasionally frightening terrain of the Cullin ridge.

Ingram’s chosen guide for his own Cuillin adventures is Matt Barratt of Skye Adventure, who comes out of Ingram’s stories very well, and presumably is now getting a little extra business as a result. He previously assisted in the making of Danny MacAskill’s jaw-dropping mountain-bike-along-the-Cullin film, The Ridge, which must also have boosted business. (Although it has nothing to do with Ingram’s book, if you haven’t seen The Ridge, please just click on my link, turn up the sound, and invest eight minutes in seeing something remarkable which will also give you a real sense of the vertiginous exposure the Cuillin offers, and why mere mortals might just need the assistance of a guide. I’ll wait here. Take your time.)

Ingram’s exploration of the Cuillin doesn’t go as planned. Unusually, he goes straight for an attempt at a full traverse (two days following the crest of the ridge), but is forced off by bad weather. He then decides to become more acquainted with individual peaks before attempting the traverse again. So he talks us through his ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and a walk up on to the ridge at Bruach na Frithe, one of the few approaches easily manageable by simple pedestrians. It’s all going swimmingly, and another attempt at the traverse is booked, only for Ingram to sustain a serious injury after a stumble while walking in Coire Lagan.

Ingram describes this event very well—the fall itself, the aftermath, the cheery practicality of the Mountain Rescue Service:

‘I’m supposed to be doing the ridge tomorrow,’ I say heavily.
I hear a chuckle, and someone else says, ‘Well, guess what. But you know, you’re not dead and you don’t have a broken neck. You’re lucky.’

Expectations are modified, at least temporarily, and Ingram finally returns after a long period of recovery to make a short but classic circuit of Sgurr nan Gillean with a watchful Matt Barratt.

The descriptions of the mountain scenery are excellent. Here’s Ingram on the seaward view from the south end of the ridge:

Climbing in a curve ahead, the ridge sliced the scene in two. To the left, the flank of the mountain fell in an unbroken slope precipitously to the sea. There were the [S]mall [I]sles, lined up in a trio along the horizon: Eigg an upturned rowboat, Canna distant and adrift, both flanking Rum, muscular and mountain-bristled, in shadowy anchor on a painfully bright sea. The whole was a tapestry of shadow, scaly silver and steel. Where the sun broke the cloud, it threw scalding puddles of light on the surface.

Anyone who has looked out to sea towards the Small Isles on a day of broken cloud will recognize that view.

There’s plenty more good stuff like that throughout the book, but I chose that passage in particular because it also illustrates a minor but prevalent niggle—the book could have done with some better proof-reading. I capitalized “Small Isles” for you, because that’s their name; the text calls them “the small isles”. And then there’s that out-of-place piece of American English, rowboat. (And elsewhere there are a couple of gottens.) Scottish readers will be vexed to see their third national drink dubbed Tennant’s lager—it’s Tennent’s. And convivial conversation in Scots is crack; it’s the Irish who enjoy craic.

And for pity’s sake, WHY IS THERE NO MAP?

But setting such carping aside, I very much enjoyed this book—for its striking evocations of landscapes with which I’m familiar, for its wealth of anecdote and information, and its dry humour.

* In case you’re wondering: No, I’m very much not a rock-climber. Yes, I have climbed the In Pinn. But I did it specifically because I wanted to climb the In Pinn. So I looked forward to it with cheerful anticipation, enjoyed myself while doing it, and would quite like to do it again.
Cullin is a singular noun, designating the whole seven-mile length of the Cuillin ridge. So “amongst the Cuillin” is a downright strange construction, like describing one’s travels “amongst Scotland” or “amongst London”. If he was intent on using “amongst”, Ingram would have been better to use the commonly heard plural form, Cuillins, which treats the singular ridge as being composed of multiple peaks. But Cuillin has become a shibboleth among Scottish hillwalkers, a way of advertising one’s membership of the in-group. The defence offered for this prescriptive usage is that, because the original Gaelic An Cuiltheann is singular, the English version should be rendered as singular, too. This is an etymological fallacy operating at the nonsensical level of the injunction against splitting infinitives, but if Ingram wants to sell his book to his target audience, he’s probably stuck with the singular Cullin.
However, should you ever happen to say “Cuillins”, and find yourself challenged on the usage, you should direct your challenger to the example of Sorley MacLean—a native Gaelic speaker, a resident of Skye, a hillwalker, and something of an expert on hill nomenclature. Here he is on The Munro Show (1991), discussing his love of the (plural) Cuillins:

MacLean knew very well that words adopted into English are under no obligation to follow the usage of their original language.
Middle English crack, “conversation”, persists in Scottish English. The OED tells us that the word was borrowed from Scottish English into Irish English, and thence into Irish Gaelic as craic.

(Be the first)

Scottish Hill Lists: The Donald Revisions

Cover of 1953 edition of Munro's Tables

This is the second in my planned series of posts dealing with the revision history of the three “classic” tables of Scottish hills—the Munros, Donalds and Corbetts, which I introduced in an earlier post. I also introduced the idea of topographic prominence, and a way of charting these hill tables in two dimensions by plotting height against prominence. If any of this is strange to you, I refer you back to the original post via my link above, for a quick tutorial.

Last time, I dealt with the Corbetts (hills between 2500 and 3000 feet in height, with a prominence of at least 500 feet), and pointed out a number of ways in which new topographic data can lead to a hill either being deleted from, or added to, a set of tables.

This time, it’s the turn of the Donalds, lowland hills higher than 2000 feet. In contrast to Corbett’s tables, which have pretty simple and strictly numerical entry criteria, Donald’s tables feature a combination of rather more complicated topographic criteria with some value judgements, sorting the tabulated summits into two major categories—“Tops” and “Hills”:

“Tops”—All elevations with a drop of 100 feet on all sides and elevations of sufficient topographic merit with a drop of between 100 feet and 50 feet on all sides.
“Hills”—Groupings of “tops” into “hills” except where inapplicable on topographical grounds, is on the basis that “tops” are not more than 17 units from the main top of the “hill” to which they belong, where a unit is either 1/12 mile measured along the connecting ridge or one 50-feet contour between the lower “top” and its connecting col.

(Donald’s “drop on all sides” is the equivalent of modern “prominence”, the term I use in my charts below.) Donald’s rules seeks to reflect something about the shape of the landscape—allowing a single high summit, the “hill”, to dominate a fairly tight cluster of lower “tops”. The criteria given above mean that the summit of a “top” can’t be more than 1⅓ miles (2.15 km) from its parent “hill”.

In modern discussions of these tables, the “hills” have come to be referred to as “Donalds”, while the “tops” are called “Donald Tops”. The tables, as originally published, contained 86 Donalds and 47 Donald Tops. Donald also listed five English hills, close to the Scottish border, which fulfilled his criteria, but he did not assign them numerical entries in the tables. And, in an appendix, he added 15 summits:

[…] not meriting inclusion as tops, but all enclosed by an isolated 2,000-feet contour. These have been included in order that the table may be a complete record of every separate area of ground reaching the 2,000-feet level.

These locations have sometimes been referred to as “Minor Tops”, and that marginal category has actually been the main focus for such revisions as have been made, the remainder of Donald’s tabulation being surprisingly resistant to major change. Indeed, the Donalds remained entirely unrevised for 45 years, through multiple editions of Munro’s Tables.

Then, in the editions of 1981 and 1984, the availability of better mapping led to a considerable expansion to the list of Minor Tops, from 15 to 28—this despite the promotion of three Minor Tops (Keoch Rig, Conscleuch Head, and the south-west top of Windlestraw Law) to full Top status. These three were presumably selected on the basis of “sufficient topographic merit”, since they all have prominences between 50 and 100 feet.

The 1980s editions also ushered in a decade of confusion on the double-humped ridge of Black Law—creating a rather dubious Top on its north-east summit in 1981, to complement the existing Donald on the south-west summit; then switching the Donald and Top around in 1984, as the north-east summit proved to be higher than the south-west … only to have the Top deleted again in 1997, on the grounds (presumably) that its 36-foot prominence falls far short of Donald’s minimum criterion. So Black Law appears twice on my Donalds chart, with one summit marked as deleted and the other appearing as an addition. (A similar, later, migration of the Donald summit of Meikle Millyea is also marked. This was long anticipated, but not confirmed to the SMC’s satisfaction until 2015.)

Height-Prominence plot of original Donalds list, with revisions
Click to enlarge
Height-Prominence plot of original Donald Tops list, with revisions
Click to enlarge

The 1984 edition is also responsible for the only “promotion” of a Donald Top—Carlin’s Cairn.

Donald would have counted no less than seven fifty-foot contours on the ascent of Carlin’s Cairn, shown below on the one-inch mapping of 1926.

Ordnance Survey one-inch mapping of Corserine and Carlin's Cairn (1920s)
Click to enlarge

This whopping prominence, half again higher than any of the other Donald Tops in the original tables (see my plot of the Tops, above), means that Carlin’s Cairn meets Donald’s 17-unit criterion only because it’s less than a mile from nearby (and higher) Corserine. Donald was presumably swayed towards making it a Top rather than a Donald because it’s quite evidently part of the northern ridge of Corserine; but the 1984 Tables editor presumably felt that the comparatively large re-ascent from the col made the 17-unit rule “inapplicable on topographic grounds”, and so bumped Carlin’s Cairn to full Donald status.

Two significant revisions occurred in the 1997 Munro’s Tables. The first was the abandonment of the Minor Tops—they were either promoted to full Donald Top status, if merited, or deleted. Only one, Notman Law, survived the cull. (At the same time, Donald’s unnumbered list of five English summits was also dropped.)

The second revision was altogether more dramatic—the inclusion of a whole new and previously unsuspected group of Donalds and Tops. The discovery of these “Lost Donalds” on the south side of Glen Artney was first reported in The Angry Corrie, in 1994. Although Donald never clearly described what he meant by “the Scottish Lowlands” when he published his tables, it’s clear from the lists themselves that they document the 2000-footers of the Central Belt and Southern Uplands. The northern edge of this lowland area is commonly understood to be the Highland Boundary Fault (HBF). And this fault runs along Glen Artney, placing the 2000-foot hills on its southern side squarely in the Lowlands. You can check this for yourself on the Geological Survey of Great Britain (Scotland) Sheet 39W—Artney and the HBF lie in the top left corner and the new Donalds (Uamh Bheag and Beinn nan Eun) and associated Tops (Meall Clachach and Beinn Odhar) are visible in the Ordnance Survey mapping below the geological overlay. All are labelled on my charts.

Finally, there’s the vexatious (to me, at least) matter of Auchope Cairn and Cairn Hill West Top. The first of these two Tops was introduced by Donald, and discarded in 1997. The second appeared as a numbered Top in 1981 and is still with us. As my chart above shows, both fail to meet Donald’s 50-foot threshold prominence for inclusion, scoring 30 feet and a laughable 16 feet, respectively. Both are, also, much farther than the 17-unit threshold from the nearest Donald summit, at Windy Gyle; even The Cheviot, which featured as an unnumbered summit in Donald’s original tables, is not close enough to these two hills to play “Donald” to their “Top”. A map of the current Donalds and Tops makes their bizarre status in this regard clear:

Map of Donalds and Donald Tops
Click to enlarge

According to the 17-unit rule, the Donald Tops (open triangles) all lie within 1⅓ miles of their parent Donalds (filled triangles), forming dense clusters … except for Cairn Hill West Top, which sits in splendid isolation on the Scottish/English border. (Auchope Cairn is not marked, but lies only 700m north-west of CHWT, and would be superimposed upon it if plotted on my map.) Here’s the one-inch map of 1927, annotated with the position of Cairn Hill West Top (hereafter, CHWT):

Ordnance Survey one-inch mapping of The Cheviot border region (1920s)
Click to enlarge

So what’s going on? It appears that Donald was keen to include some indication of the highest point on the Scotland/England border, and Auchope Cairn was the closest named summit to that point. (There was a reluctance, in the early days of hill-tabulation, to include summits that were unnamed on Ordnance Survey maps.) The actual highest point was on the rounded shoulder of Cairn Hill, which has now been dubbed Cairn Hill West Top. This was marked by a 2422-foot spot-height on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map to which Donald would have referred; but that height had been inferred by sighting from a triangulation point about 800 feet to the south-west, with an altitude of 2419 feet.

So Donald provided Auchope Cairn with a rather gnomic footnote:

The highest point on the Union Boundary is (2,419) 2,422.

This footnote persisted until 1981, when the point was promoted to Top status under the newly minted name “Cairn Hill—West Top”. It was provided with a footnote that read:

The highest point on the Union Boundary. Not named on either O.S. or Bartholemew maps.

Auchope Cairn limped on in tandem to CHWT until it was finally deleted in 1997, presumably as surplus to requirements, leaving CHWT as an isolated anomaly—essentially a footnote with ideas above its station.

Note: My data source for this post is the Database of British and Irish Hills v17.2, combined with “The Donalds 1953-2021” dataset (version 3), both obtained from the DoBIH downloads page.

(Be the first)

Ochils: Glen of Sorrow Circuit

King’s Seat Hill (NS 933999, 648m)
Andrew Gannel Hill (NN 918006, 670m)
Skythorn Hill (NN 926013, 601m)
Cairnmorris Hill (NN 933016, 606m)
Tarmangie Hill (NN 943013 645m)
Whitewisp Hill (NN 955013 643m)

14 kilometers
930 metres of ascent

Glen of Sorrow route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

I mentioned the Glen of Sorrow when I wrote about my circuit of Glen Sherup, and promised I’d write more about it on another occasion. So, this is the occasion.

The Glen Sherup circuit fired me with enthusiasm to continue a series of clockwise circuits in the Ochils, each one bordering a previous circuit, so that I can conclude my walk by crossing previously visited hills in the reverse direction. This one borders on both my Glen Sherup circuit and, at its northern end, some hills I traversed when I made my approach to Ben Cleuch from the north. The only “new” hill this time is King’s Seat Hill, but its traverse occupies the whole outward side of my loop.

So the idea this time was to follow the watersheds of the Burn of Sorrow, which flows through the green cleft of the Glen of Sorrow. Downstream, in the Dollar Glen, the Burn of Sorrow merges with the Burn of Care. And in The Ochils: Placenames, History, Tradition (1995) Angus Watson tells us that Castle Campbell, at the confluence of the Sorrow and Care, was once Castle Gloom (there’s still a Gloom Hill nearby). And there’s a folk-etymology linking the name Dollar to dolour, “pain”. This is all splendidly gothic, and is attached to a legend that the daughter of an early King of Scots was once immured at Castle Gloom after falling in love with an inappropriate suitor. Sadly, having intrigued us with all this, Watson immediately pours cold water on the whole thing. He offers Gaelic glom, “chasm”, as a suitable etymology for “Gloom”, given the steep sides of the Dollar Glen; he links “Dollar” itself to a Pictish word dol, “valley”; and he points out that the Sorrow and Care were often less glamorously known as the Wester and Easter Burn in the nineteenth century.

I parked in the Dollar Glen car park, a little short of Castle Campbell, and on the south side of Gloom Hill, and popped across the road to descend steeply into the leafy ravine of the Dollar Glen. This proved to be a tactical error—the path to the damaged Long Bridge was still blocked off on the east side of the glen, so I had to make a little detour south, to cross the Dollar Burn at a lower bridge.

Dollar Glen
Click to enlarge

As you can see above, the burn itself is not a challenge to cross—it’s the ridiculously steep and overgrown banks that are the problem.

Then I followed the path on the western side of the burn steeply upwards, and eventually out on to the open hillside, where a good path took me up on to the little knob of Bank Hill, which has an improbably large cairn.

Bank Hill cairn, King's Seat Hill beyond, Ochils
Click to enlarge

Peeping into sight beyond the cairn, you can see my first objective of the day, King’s Seat Hill. (Like the King’s Seat in the Sidlaws, no-one seems to know which king, if any, was associated with it.)

The path weaves around a little through a succession of lumps and low ridges, and then it’s just a steady grind up the hill. We were having a heatwave—which is to say, the temperature was forecast to exceed the local heatwave threshold for three successive days. Those who live closer to the equator than Scotland (or far from moderating maritime climatic influences), will be amused to learn that the Scottish heatwave threshold is 25 degrees Celsius. But it’s not what this place is used to, and it’s potentially damaging in terms of drought and wildfire risk, as well as the risk to pale Scottish hillwalkers toiling upwards. So I was only mildly surprised to meet a man descending the hill towards me, clad only in a hat, boots and a pair of royal blue Y-fronts.

A small cairn eventually pops into view on the sky-line, giving the unwary a little lift of excitement, and a moment in which to imagine that they’ve got up the hill faster than expected … and then the real top comes into view beyond it, still some way off. But any surge of self-pity is soon obliterated on reading the memorial plaque affixed to the cairn:

Spitfire Memorial, King's Seat Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

On 16 January 1943, three Spitfires from the Operational Training Unit at Grangemouth were on a formation-flying exercise but were diverted to land at Perth because of bad weather. In poor visibility, all three flew into the ground near the summit of King’s Seat Hill. Two pilots, one American and one Canadian, were killed. The third, an Australian, broke both legs but managed to crawl down the hill in the snow to be rescued two days later by a local farmer. You can read a little more about the incident here. The cairn sits at an altitude of about 570m, close to the spot where the Spitfires crashed, just 80 metres below the summit of King’s Seat Hill.

I find it’s an odd feeling, making the last pull up from the cairn to the summit, reflecting on how close those pilots came to getting over the hill, which was probably the highest ground along their flight-path.

There’s a nice big shelter cairn at the top, which was playing host to three ravens when I arrived, all mucking around in the westerly wind, hovering and wheeling, apparently just for the sheer joy of it. The true summit is a little farther on, beyond a pretty little summit pool, and gave me a view of my next destination, Andrew Gannel Hill. In the photograph below its summit is bang in the centre of frame, with Ben Cleuch looming behind it to the left.

Andrew Gannel Hill and Ben Cleuch from King's Seat Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

(I wrote about who, if anyone, Andrew Gannel might be when I made my previous visit to the hill.)

At the bottom of the dip below Andrew Gannel, I found I had to climb over a fence, which, so far in my exploration of the Ochils, is an unusual experience. Then it was a fairly easy ascent to reach the grassy summit.

Glen of Sorrow, flanked by Tarmangie Hill and King's Seat Hill, from Andrew Gannel Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

The view above looks down the length of the Glen of Sorrow, with Tarmangie and Whitewisp on the left, and the bulk of King’s Seat Hill on the right.

From this point, I was skirting the headwaters of the Burn of Sorrow, the Maddy Moss, at first following a faint path downhill, then crossing to the north side of the boundary fence to traverse Skythorn Hill and reach Cairnmorris Hill. In the view below, the peak poking above the forestry is Innerdownie Hill, which I crossed during my Glen Sherup circuit, but wouldn’t be visiting this time.

Innerdownie from Cairnmorris Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

From the top of Cairnmorris I headed straight downhill through trackless grass to reach the gate in the col below Tarmangie Hill, glancing south from time to time to admire the green whaleback of King’s Seat Hill.

King's Seat Hill from south side of Cairnmorris Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

As I was approaching the summit of Tarmangie, I noticed a familiar figure climbing over the stile on the sky-line, and then descending towards me. It was an old friend from the days of The Angry Corrie, and something of an Ochils Old Hand. We stood and chatted for a while, exchange route plans, and then carried on with our respective days—but this chance meeting was going to mean that our lives would intersect again amusingly, quite soon.

From Tarmangie, I carried on across the high moor towards Whitewisp Hill. Last time I was here, during my Glen Sherup circuit, the air had been alive with skylarks, but now they seemed to be having a quiet day off—I had to content myself with the alarm calls of shy meadow pipits instead.

From Whitewisp, my plan was to drop down into the glen over Saddle Hill. The Ordnance Survey mapping shows no path here, but the Harvey’s Ochils map depicts an intermittent path, and OpenStreetMap (whose contributors, admittedly, tend towards an optimistic interpretation of the word “path”) showed a link all the way down from the summit of Whitewisp to the highest bridge over the Burn of Sorrow.

And it certainly started off well, with an obvious visible line along the spine of Saddle Hill:

Saddle Hill and Dollar from Whitewisp Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

I trotted merrily down this, and then began the steep descent directly towards Castle Campbell, visible in the distance below. Actually, a very steep descent, in parts. I soon reached a point at which the path was going down so steeply, with an alarming boulder at the bottom to punish any loss of balance, that I had turned sideways and was about to step tentatively down on to my first stance … when the phone in the top pocket of my rucksack, just behind my head, made a loud bingle-ta-BING! noise as it received an incoming text. I briefly levitated (or so it seemed at the time), then recovered my balance and permitted myself a few harsh words at the phone’s expense before resuming my sidling descent towards more level ground below.

Once safely there, I paused to yank out the phone to check my messages. The chime had been to announce the arrival of a text from my friend, the Old Ochils Hand, telling me:

Meant to say, from Saddle Hill the path that jinks back L to sheepfold is better than one down nose. Head towards castle for 2 mins then L at junc.

Oh, that path.

But now, with the castle in sight at the bottom of a gentle slope with a clearly visible path, my troubles were over.

Dollar and Castle Campbell from Saddle Hill, Ochils
Click to enlarge

Well, not. The path sort of disappeared at roughly the spot the good people at OpenStreetMap told me it was going to turn right and descend towards the burn and the bridge. There seemed to be an obvious grassy line descending between two banks of bracken, so I followed this for a while, only to find myself on steepening, densely overgrown ground. Note: On a later trip to the far side of the Burn of Sorrow, I was able to look across at my route here, and identify where I’d gone wrong. When I was deposited at the head of the gully, I should have turned hard right and sought out a line that traversed and descended towards the bridge. Here’s the annotated view from the far side:

the final section of the descent from Saddle Hill to Dollar Glen
Click to enlarge

So I clambered back up the way I’d come, and then noticed a narrow slot disappearing into the shoulder-high bracken in approximately the right direction. The fact you can’t actually see it in the photograph below serves to illustrate what a marginal route it was.

Castle Campbell and Gloom Hill, Dollar beyond
Click to enlarge

Anyway, off I went. The “path” was a bit intermittent, and something fairly large was grunting and moving around in there at one point, but eventually I was spat out down a steep embankment, in a slightly dishevelled state, directly on to the tarmac of the narrow road serving the castle. And directly in front of an elderly pair of tourists, one of whom emitted a sort of croaking yelp as I leapt, Cato-like, from concealment.

From there, a short walk got me back to the car. During which, I passed the gate and sign directing walkers out on to the open hillside along a track that leads up to the sheepfold at Craiginnan—yes, the same sheepfold reached by the Saddle Hill path that “jinks back L towards sheepfold”. Just thought I’d mention that.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 2

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

Last time, I introduced the concept of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, which I abbreviated “HG” to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic (“SG”). I did so in the context of a comic poem entitled “The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue“, which appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897, probably written by the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. It’s a sort of puzzle poem, in which Gaelic hill names are rhymed with English words that have been spelled to match the Gaelic—serving to obscure the English meanings unless the reader knows the customary Hillwalkers’ Gaelic pronunciation of the hill names.

This time, I’m going to decode Hinxman’s poem a couplet at a time, revealing the “hidden” English words, and discussing the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic and Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. As a reference for the correct Gaelic pronunciation (or, at least, one dialectic version of the correct pronunciation) I’ll add, where possible, links from each hill name to the corresponding page on the Walkhighlands website, where a Gaelic speaker pronounces and translates the names.

So here we go:

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snow,

This is Beinn an Dòthaidh, the last word of which sounds like “doh-hay” in SG, but usually more like “doughy” in HG. However Hinxman, in omitting the Gaelic definite article “an”, seems to be invoking a recorded local pronunciation, “ben doe”—see, for instance, Frank Alcock’s article, “A Matter of Look”, in the Fell and Rock Journal of 1972.

And nothing will stay him
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;

This is most probably Sgùrr a’ Mhàim, which was listed as “Sgòr a’ Mhaim” in the first version of Munro’s Tables. There seems to be no reason to omit the Gaelic article “a’” on this occasion, apart from scansion. This is often “skoor uh viym” in HG, which is a good approximation to the SG heard in my link, but one also hears an English interpretation put on the “ai” diphthong, giving “skoor uh vame”, as in Hinxman’s rhyme. (See, for instance, the cheerfully titled “Give Gaelic a Go!” section of the Forestry Commission’s guide Explore The Glens Around Fort William.)

If he’s long in the leg he
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,

The HG “craig meg-ee” is a pretty good match for the SG pronunciation of Creag Meagaidh.

Or, job that is harder,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.

This is a convoluted one. The abbreviation of “corrie” seems to be for scansion. The beautiful corrie east of Creag Meagaidh was recorded as Coire Ard Dhoire on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map of 1870, meaning “corrie of the high copse”, which would be pronounced in SG as something like “corr-yuh art ghorr-yuh”. But it seems that the local pronunciation had condensed the Gaelic, because the OS Name Book originally transcribed the corrie’s name as “Ardair”, which was then edited to read “Ard Dhoire”, presumably on etymological grounds. By 1903, the OS had plumped for “Ardair”, and it’s been that way ever since. You can hear a Gael pronounce “Ardair” on Walkhighlands’ page for the hill Stob Poite Coire Àrdair, which overlooks the corrie. Notice that the person speaking the name uses a “sibilant r” in the pronunciation of “rd”, turning “Àrdair” into “ars-tuhr”. But HG avoids this complication, and makes the corrie sound like “ardour”.
The “posts” are an array of gullies on the south-west face of the corrie wall, which is often called the Post Face, and the rim of this face has been labelled Puist Coire Àrdair (“Posts of Corrie Ardair”) by the Ordnance Survey.

He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest way

The SG pronunciation of Beinn Eighe gives it a second syllable, with the final “e” being pronounced as a short neutral vowel. English rarely has such a sound at the end of a word, so HG omits it, giving Hinxman his rhyme with “way”.

If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blue.

The “bh” is silent in SG Sgùrr Dubh, and in HG.

Very grand is the view he
Will get from Meall Buidhe,

The SG pronunciation of Meall Buidhe finishes with another of those short neutral vowels, making buidhe sound like “boo-yuh”. HG on this occasion errs on the side of over-emphasizing the terminal vowel, producing “boo-ee”.

But more will he see
From Bruach na Frithe.

There’s another of those terminal neutral vowels to Bruach na Frithe, and the “th” has an “h” sound—so “free-hih” in SG. HG ignores these subtleties, making frithe into “free”.

Then for sport that is royal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,

“Beinn Laoghal” was used on the OS six-inch map of 1878; by 1908 this had become Ben Loyal. The old form seems to have been an attempt to produce a Gaelic etymology for what was originally a Norse name (though the exact Norse meaning is debated). In SG the name is rendered Beinn Laghail, and you can hear it pronounced in my Walkhighlands link. The HG pronunciation accords with the modern spelling.

And surely will strive
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,

The “mh” at the end of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, is pronounced “v”, and a silent “dh” separates two vowel sounds in chlaidheimh. So SG sounds like chly-iv. HG tends to merge the two syllables, leaning towards “clive”.

And gaze from afar
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.

The OS was rendering this hill as both Beinn Airidh Charr and Beinn Airidh a’ Char (one “r”) on maps available to Hinxman, who appears to have gone for a hybrid version in order to get the rhyme with “afar” while being able to distort the spelling. The OS subsequently settled on Beinn Airidh Charr until some time after the Second World War, when they shifted to the current spelling, Beinn Airigh Charr.

To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an hour,

This seems to be a typographical error for Stob Ghabhar. Hinxman here uses the classic HG pronunciation of ghabhar as “gow-er”, invoking a hard “g”, a silent “bh” and rounding the first “a”. Some HG speakers choose to retain the “bh”, saying “gav-er”. Interestingly, the Gaelic speaker at Walkhighlands pronounces ghabhar is if it were ghobhar (“goer”, but with a fricative initial “g”)—acknowledging, I think, its derivation from gobhar, “goat”.

But considerably less
The ascent of Carn Eas.

No Walkhighlands pronunciation for this Top of Ben Avon, but the SG pronunciation of eas, “waterfall”, can be heard at the Faclair Beag Gaelic dictionary—click the loudspeaker icon next to the top entry on the left in my link. It’s closer to “ace” than Hinxman’s HG version, “ess”.

Now one cannot conceal
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol

Hinxman had bad timing, here. “Sgriol” was the phonetic transcription used by OS maps of the time, but this was later revised to Gaelic Beinn Sgritheall, which would have allowed him a more elaborate spelling of “conceal”. The SG pronunciation gives the “th” an “h” sound— “skree-hal”. HG tends to ignore this, producing “skree-uhl” or even “skreel”.

Are hardly as sheer
As the crags of Carn Bheur,

Another change of spelling by the Ordnance Survey. This was Càrn Bheur on Hinxman’s maps, but changed to Càrn Bheadhair by 1902. There seems to be some doubt as to whether this name derives from Gaelic beur, “pinnacle”, or beithir, “serpent”. Despite its steep crags, this isn’t a prominent enough summit to have a Walkhighlands entry. The lenited Gaelic bheur would be pronounce “vee-uhr”. I’ve never heard the name of this hill pronounced in HG, but Hinxman’s “veer” would be a normal enough evolution.

Nor can one maintain
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin

Another apparent typographical error—the OS has always rendered this Beinn Mheadhoin (though very old maps sometimes mark it as “Ben Mean”). In SG it is “vee-un” or “vee-an”, but HG has worn it down to “vane”.* (Indeed, there’s a Ben Vane in Arrochar with the same Gaelic derivation.)

Surpasses the view he
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

An easy one to finish on. This hill is now more commonly known by its Anglicized spelling, Ben Lui, which reflects its pronunciation.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* I was once sternly “corrected” on my pronunciation of Beinn Mheadhoin, by two worthies with posh Morningside accents who were sitting outside Derry Lodge as I passed by.
“Oooh, you’re walking exceedingly quickly,” called one, in rounded tones that would not have disgraced Miss Jean Brodie. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
I told them, giving Mheadhoin its two-syllable Scottish Gaelic pronunciation. They smiled patronizingly: “You mean Vane,” they assured me.
As I walked off without replying, one said loudly to the other: “He won’t last another mile, going at that rate.”

(Be the first)

Scottish Hill Lists: The Corbett Revisions

Cover of 1953 edition of Munro's Tables

In a previous post, I wrote about the three “classic” Scottish hills lists—the Munros (1891), Donalds (1935) and Corbetts (1952), and how these were brought together, in a publication commonly referred to as Munro’s Tables, by the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1953.

As a way of displaying the topographic data for these hills, I also introduced the idea of plotting each summit’s height above sea level against its prominence, a measure of its height above the surrounding terrain.

Height-prominence chart of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds
Click to enlarge

For more about the classic lists, the concept of prominence, and the design of the chart above, please refer back to my previous post.

It was inevitable that the classic tables would be overtaken by improved cartography, since they were based on early topographic surveys that have now been much improved upon. And although the idea of freezing these tables into historical documents has been discussed, particularly in the early days of Hugh Munro’s table of 3000-footers, there was also a countervailing idea that the compilers themselves would have embraced any changes imposed by improved cartography—Munro, for instance, continued to update his own tables throughout his life. So the SMC has “maintained” the tables, by sporadically publishing revised versions of Munro’s Tables and the associated guidebooks. (The pace of revision has slackened off in recent decades, as Ordnance Survey mapping has become more definitive, and the remaining “problem” hills have been subjected to careful survey with Differential GPS.)

What I’m going to do in this post (and two more) is to discuss the process of revision that has taken place. I’m going to do it in reverse chronological order, starting with the Corbetts and finishing with the Munros.

The Corbetts are a nice simple list to start with, since they’re based on well-defined criteria—a height between 2500 and 3000 feet, and a prominence of greater than 500 feet—so they occupy a very precise area of my height-prominence chart.

What I’ve done below is to plot Corbett’s original list of summits, but with the height and prominence we know they have today. Any original summits that are no longer part of the current tables are marked with a black cross; any summits in the current tables which were not listed by Corbett are marked with a red plus sign:

Height-Prominence plot of original Corbett list, with revisions
Click to enlarge

There are three obvious ways that Corbetts can end up being added to, or removed from, the tables. Firstly, a survey can show that a Corbett actually attains a height of more than 3000 feet, moving it into the “Munro” territory of the chart; or a hill previously considered to be a Munro can turn out to be lower than 3000 feet, potentially qualifying as a Corbett. So I’ve marked examples of hills that have crossed the 3000-foot divide since Corbett’s original compilation. Ruadh Stac Mor officially graduated to Munro status in 1974; Beinn Teallach in 1990. Beinn an Lochain moved the other way in 1974.

Secondly, we can have similar transitions at the 2500-foot limit of the Corbetts. Again, I’ve marked examples—Cook’s Cairn was “demoted” in 1990; Beinn na h-Uamha graduated to Corbett status as recently as 2016.

Thirdly, hills can make the transition in or out of Corbett status if a survey carries them across the 500-foot prominence line. This has been a relatively common way in which we’ve lost and gained Corbetts, primarily because prominence has been historically harder to pin down, since the Ordnance Survey understandably devoted more attention to finding the altitude of summits than defining the lowest point of cols. The transitions at this boundary are too many to label clearly, but you can easily see the cluster of crosses and pluses on either side of the 500-foot prominence line. Most of these transitions occurred in the 1981 and 1984 editions of the Tables, in the light of improved mapping.

But what about those deletions that have extremely low prominence? The deletion I’ve marked as “Sgurr nan Eugallt (East Top)” has a prominence of only 87 feet. Surely the Ordnance Survey could never have mapped that as exceeding 500 feet?

Here’s the mapping situation when Corbett was compiling his list—below is the relevant bit of the Ordnance Survey’s one-inch “Popular” edition, published around 1950:

One-inch "Popular" map of Sgurr nan Eugallt c.1950
Click to enlarge

You can see that the summit of Sgurr nan Eugallt, as labelled, is surrounded by a loop of 2900-foot contour—this is the summit that Corbett originally listed in his tables, with a height of 2933 feet.* But to the northwest there’s a broad rounded dome, also surrounded by a loop of 2900-foot contour, to which no-one seems to have paid any attention for fifty years. Corbett’s original summit appeared in every edition of Munro’s Tables up to the most recent, in 1997. But then in 2002 the second edition of the SMC’s guide-book The Corbetts & Other Scottish Hills suddenly pointed out:

Note that the true summit lies 600 metres or so NW along the undulating ridge.

According to more recent surveys, that broad rounded dome turns out to rise to 898 metres (2946 feet), whereas Corbett’s original summit comes in at only 895 metres (2936 feet). So the name Sgurr nan Eugallt has now been moved to a new home 600 metres northwest, while Corbett’s original summit is relegated to being merely “Sgurr nan Eugallt (East Top)”, with its prominence measured only from the nearby col. I’ve marked both summits in my chart. The pair Meall Coire nan Saobhaidh and Meall na h-Eilde have undergone a similar transition, with the former originally being considered the higher of a pair of two neighbouring lumps, but the honour moving to the latter in 1981.

So the Corbetts illustrate five potential ways in which a new topographic survey can change a hill’s status—too high, too low, insufficiently prominent, more prominent than previously thought, and turning out to be lower than a nearby summit to which the honour is transferred.

But my chart doesn’t capture the full complexity of the revision history of the Corbetts—some summits have made double transitions. For example, Corbett originally listed Sgurr nan Ceannaichean with a height of 2986 feet. Then in 1981 it was bumped to Munro status, with a listed height of 915 metres (3002 feet), only to be demoted again in 2009 when a more accurate survey revealed a height of 2997 feet.

Whereas Beinn Talaidh on Mull has made the opposite journey. In 1952 the Ordnance Survey showed it falling short of Corbett’s lower threshold by just four feet. In 1981 it popped up in the revised Corbetts list, with a note clarifying that:

Highest point lies 25 metres south west of the [triangulation] pillar and is 2502 ft.

But by the 1997 revision it had fallen off the Corbetts list again, with a height of just 761 metres (2497 feet).

So that’s the Corbetts— which were a nice, well-defined group to start with, illustrating most of the considerations that drive table revisions. Next time I’ll deal with the Donalds, which are complicated by being divided into two categories, Hills and Tops.

Note: My data source for this post is the Database of British and Irish Hills v17.2, combined with “The Corbetts 1953-2016” dataset (version 4), both obtained from the DoBIH downloads page.

* You’ll see that the one-inch map I’ve reproduced is inconsistently marked. The height “2933” appears to refer to a spot-height in the col, rather than to the summit marked Sgurr nan Eugallt, but this spot-height lies below the 2900-foot contour. Larger-scale maps (to which Corbett would have referred) clearly place the 2933-foot spot-height at NG 931044, on the summit originally marked as Sgurr nan Eugallt, with the col dropping to 2894 feet at NG 928046. Interestingly, the old six-inch map of 1902, which shows spot-heights but no contours, plots a spot-height of 2941 feet at NG 927048, on what we now understand to be the “real” summit of Sgurr nan Eugallt! So either Corbett missed this, or it was not present on the maps he consulted.

OS six-inch map of Sgurr nan Eugallt, 1902
Click to enlarge
(Be the first)

Ochils: Glen Sherup Circuit

Innerdownie (NN 966031, 610m)
Whitewisp Hill (NN 955013 643m)
Tarmangie Hill (NN 943013 645m)
Ben Shee (NN 952039, 516m)

16 kilometres
675 metres of ascent

Glen Sherup route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

On my previous visit to the Ochils, when I walked in to Ben Cleuch from the north, I looked down on Glen Sherup from Ben Shee and thought that another enjoyable circuit could be made along its flanking ridges.

So this time I parked in the car park at the point where the Glensherup Burn flows into the River Devon, and took the track that heads southwest towards the Glensherup Reservoir. This track curves around Black Hill and then doubles back on itself below the splendidly named Gled’s Nose. (Gled is an old Scots name for the red kite—perhaps, under the current blanket of forestry, the ridge resembles a kite’s beak.) In the picture below, Gled’s Nose is on the right, and the track has curved around far enough to have me looking back across Glen Devon, to the prominent lump of Ben Thrush, in the distance.

Ben Thrush from Innerdownie track, Glen Sherup
Click to enlarge

There’s a short-cut up on to the ridge of Innerdownie, which leaves the track just as it curves to the left on the side of Lamb Hill. It starts almost invisibly by diving into the trees at NN 971039, runs high along the steep north bank of Back Burn, and then pops out on to the open hillside via a stile at NN 974036. It’s a real shove through forestry in places, though, and if (like me) you are significantly allergic to pine needles you may well chose to walk a slightly greater distance, following the nice open route through the trees which is marked by a pile of stones to the right of the track at NN 974040.

Turn-off to Innerdownie on Lamb Hill, Glen Sherup
Click to enlarge

The top end of this path emerges at a gate, from which I followed another path uphill towards the summit of Innerdownie, seen below in the distance above the conveniently placed bench.

Innerdownie from the northeast approach
Click to enlarge

From the summit of Innerdownie I could look across Glen Sherup towards my final hill of the day, Ben Shee, and also along the ridge towards my next two hills, at the head of the glen—Whitewisp Hill and Tarmangie Hill. Below, Whitewisp is the round green lump at left, while Tarmangie is the conical summit in the middle, grey with cleared forestry.

Whitewisp Hill and Tarmangie Hill from Innerdownie
Click to enlarge

Angus Watson offers Gaelic origins for the names Innerdownie and Tarmangie, both of which feel a little strained, but suggests that Whitewisp refers to either a “wisp” of late-season snow retained by the hill, or a pale patch of pasture grass high on its southern side.

As I strolled along next to the wall (and later, fence) that runs along the ridge, I was accompanied by a succession of wheatears, which fluttered just far enough ahead to make photography both tempting and nearly impossible, but which kept me occupied until I reached the gate just below the summit of Whitewisp—here seen looking back towards Innerdownie:

Looking back to Innerdownie from just below summit of Whitewisp Hill
Click to enlarge

From Whitewisp’s undistinguished cairn, I had a view along the broad moorland ridge towards Tarmangie, seen below in the middle distance with the green lumps of Ben Cleuch, The Law, and Andrew Gannel Hill looming to its left:

Looking towards Tarmangie Hill from Whitewisp Hill
Click to enlarge

The walk to Tarmangie was enlivened by skylarks. It seemed like two or three were blasting out their songs at any given time:

Just short of the summit of Tarmangie, I jinked through a conveniently placed gate, from the south to the north of the boundary fence, so that I could visit the little outlying cairn that gives a good view down Glen Sherup:

Looking down Glen Sherup from outlying cairn on Tarmangie Hill
Click to enlarge

The true summit is a short distance to the southwest, at a corner in the fence-line, which is equipped with a handy stile.

I stuck to the north side of the fence, and descended westwards towards the col below Cairnmorris Hill. On the way down, I passed a man ascending on the far side of the fence, who shouted something to me that I couldn’t hear because of the wind. I looked quizzical, walked a little closer, and he repeated himself: “It’s quite windy today!” Yes, it was.

In the col, water drains either north to Glensherup Burn or south into the marvellously named Burn of Sorrow, of which I’ll write more in another walk report. There’s a gate in the col, and a grassy track rising diagonally across the slope of Cairnmorris Hill beyond:

Head of Glen Sherup, looking towards Cairnmorris Hill
Click to enlarge

The track rises as the ridge-line of Cairnmorris descends through Scad Hill towards Mailer’s Knowe, so that I eventually emerged on to the track running downhill towards Ben Shee:

Track towards Ben Shee from Scad Hill
Click to enlarge

Ben Shee is the little lump in cloud shadow in the middle distance. So now I was retracing the outward route I’d followed on my previous circuit over Ben Cleuch.

A long, slow descent followed by a short, steep ascent got me to the summit of Ben Shee, and a view down on to the Lower Glendevon Reservoir:

Lower Glendevon Reservoir from Ben Shee
Click to enlarge

I followed the path that leads across the top of Ben Shee, which took me on to the track that winds down The Shank towards Glen Devon. Where I was soon surrounded by a cloud of butterflies. Eventually I found a few that were prepared to sit still long enough to be photographed and identified:

Ringlet butterflies on descent from Ben Shee
Click to enlarge

These are Ringlets, and the origin of the name is pretty evident.

The track emerges at a gate on to the open hillside, and I turned immediately right to follow a path that descends steeply to the ribbon of tarmac servicing the Glensherup dam and its associated buildings.

Rather than walk down to the road (where I’d have to brave a few hundred metres of speeding traffic before reaching my car park), I turned up towards the reservoir.

Glensherup Reservoir
Click to enlarge

From this point, I was able to stroll across the top of the dam, climb a short (but steep and heavily eroded) zig-zag path through the trees, and emerge on to the track below Black Hill which had been my outward route, about a kilometre from the car.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 1

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

The pronunciation of Gaelic hill names is fraught with difficulty for the non-Gael. One problem is the striking way in which some consonants are not pronounced at all. This is the Gaelic phenomenon of lenition, in which the addition of an “h” to a consonant changes and softens its pronunciation. Some lenited consonants, particularly “dh” and “gh”, have a tendency to disappear entirely when they appear towards the end of a word. More vexingly, when “bh” appears in a similar position it is sometimes pronounced (as “v”), and sometimes omitted—and the practice varies not only between words, but between dialects of Gaelic. So you can hear the second-person plural pronoun sibh pronounced “shiv”, “sheev” or “shoe”, for instance.* The “mh” pair is also sounded as a “v”, but rarely disappears; “th”, on the other hand, can either vanish or sound like “h”.

Then there are the vowels, which sometimes appear in clusters unfamiliar to English speakers, which sometimes indicate sounds not present in English, which are sometimes used to alter the quality of neighbouring consonants in unfamiliar ways, and which tend to reduce to short, simple sounds towards the end of a word—either a short neutral vowel or a short “ih” sound.

This tendency for consonants to disappear and vowels to collapse as one nears the end of a Gaelic word led one early (English-speaking) writer to remark:

[T]he terminations, where they exist, are so much curtailed, and in practice slurred over and cheated of their proper value in such a fashion, that for the common purposes of social communication they scarcely seem to exist.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 4th Edition (1875)

Monoglot English speakers, confronted with disconcerting Gaelic orthography, tend to pass through three distinct stages in their Scottish hillwalking lives. First, there’s the nervous pointing at the map phase (“We’ll climb … um … this one here”). Then there’s the treat it like it’s English phase, usually delivered in an apologetic mumble (“Have you been up, um, Sgurr Nan Keith-Ream-Han?”). Then there’s the slow acquisition of “standard” Anglicized versions of the hill names, either from walking guides or other walkers. But Hillwalkers’ Gaelic (which I’ll abbreviate “HG”) is often some distance from the original Scottish Gaelic (“SG”)—there’s a strong tendency to bend Gaelic vowel sounds towards English norms, to ignore unfamiliar Gaelic colouring of the consonants, and to either drop or overemphasize short terminal vowels—Gaelic has a lot of words that end with an unstressed schwa vowel (like a little “uh”); English, very few.

So HG is a rendering of SG in which the vowels and consonants are made to sound more like English (often influenced by the English-speaker’s interpretation of the Gaelic spelling). Have a listen below, for instance, to Sorley MacLean’s Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Aonach Eagach in an episode of The Munro Show, and then wait for a few seconds to hear Muriel Gray’s rendering of the same name in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. (Then turn the video off again, or you’ll go mad. Seriously.)

MacLean says /ɯːnəx ekəx/, starting with an unrounded vowel that doesn’t occur in English, using short neutral vowels in the second syllables of each word, and employing a soft “k” sound for the “g”; but Gray says /anax iɡax/, which is the standard HG pronunciation—simple Scottish front “a” sounds throughout, apart from an “ee” at the start of eagach where MacLean has an “ay”, followed by a hard “g” instead of his “k”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about this—it’s just what always happens to foreign words when they’re imported into another language. And any Scottish hillwalker who was ill-advised enough to claim to have traversed the “oenuch aykuch” would find themselves swiftly put right: “Do you mean the annach eegach?”

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic was essentially invented in two stages—first by Ordnance Survey surveyors, who sought out a few locals (often literate landowners and ministers) and then did their best to transcribe what they heard into their regional Name Books; then by a succession of Victorian climbers and walkers, who reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement about the “standard” names of the things they climbed.

I was prompted to write about all this when I happened on a poem in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal for 1897 (Vol.4 p.238), which I reproduce here on the assumption that it’s long out of copyright, and in any case freely available from the SMC’s own website. While being entertaining and/or puzzling in its own right, it can also tell us a lot about the difference between Hillwalkers’ Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.

The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue

Oh, a terrible tongue is the tongue of the Gael,
And the names of his mountains make Southrons turn pale;
It’s ill to pronounce them, to spell them is worse,
And they’re not very easy to hitch into verse.

A mountain’s a mountain in England, but when
The climber’s in Scotland, it may be a Beinn,
A Creag or a Meall, a Spidean, a Sgòr,
A Carn or a Monadh, a Stac, or a Torr.

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snothaidh,
And nothing will staim
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
If he’s long in the leagaidh
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
Or, job that is hardhoire,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest weighe
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blubh.
Very grand is the vuidhe
Will get from Meall Buidhe,
But more will he sithe
From Bruach na Frithe.
Then for sport that is raoghal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
And surely will straidheimh
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
And gaze from afarr
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an abhar,
But considerably leas
The ascent of Carn Eas.
Now one cannot conciol
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Are hardly as sheur
As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Nor can one mainteadhoin
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Surpasses the vaoigh
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

And besides the above there are dozens which I’m
Unable at present to put into rhyme;
Whilst most of these hills, it’s no libel to say,
Are easier climbed than pronounced, any day!


I’m grateful to Dave Hewitt for identifying “L.W.H.” as (most likely) the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. (His middle name was “Wordsworth”, which seems almost appropriate.)

Next time, I’ll go through the middle part of the poem a couplet at a time, elucidating the various hills, Gaelic names and linguistic acrobatics involved.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* This tendency to pronounce a terminal “bh” as “oo” explains why the hill with the Gaelic name Beinn Mheanbh is commonly known as Ben Venue.

Patrick Baker: The Cairngorms—A Secret History

Cover of The Cairngorms: A Secret History, by Patrick Baker

The view had a massive visual scale. It felt cinematic: an epic horizon like the opening credits of a David Lean film. A path scrolled out ahead of me, eventually fading into the middle distance. Across the plateau I could see other tors emerging from the mist: dark, maritime shapes, spectral galleons held up on the rolling levels of the land.

That’s Patrick Baker, describing the view from the highest point of the Ben Avon plateau. If you haven’t been there yourself, you may yet be able to judge the evocativeness of his nautical metaphor by taking a look at this photograph of the summit plateau, albeit one taken on a clear day, rather than in the misty conditions Baker describes.

Baker clearly has a passion for the outdoors, having previously written a guidebook to walking in the Ochils, Campsie Fells and Lomond Hills. In The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), he visits remote locations on and around the Cairngorm plateau which have a human story to tell. He followed this up with The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories (2020), which does the same thing in a rather more diffuse way, covering the whole of Scotland. I may write about that one in the future, but for now I want to concentrate on his volume dealing with the Cairngorms, as a sort of companion to my recent reviews of Nan Shepherd and Syd Scroggie’s Cairngorm memoirs.

In eight chapters, Baker sets himself the task of exploring eight features of the Cairngorms—some natural, some artificial. In seven of the chapters he finds human stories in the landscape, as well as reasons to talk about the geology and natural history of the area.

The first chapter, “Ghost River”, deals with a walk to the source of the river Dee, high on the plateau below Braeriach. Along the way, Baker writes about the abandoned settlements along the route: Dubrach, Tonnagaoithe, Dalvorar and Tomnamoine. (There’s another, Creag Phadruig, which the Ordnance Survey doesn’t name on its maps, and which Baker doesn’t mention.) This is his cue to talk about the depopulation of the Highlands in general, and the Highland Clearances in particular. Farther on, he climbs the Lairig Ghru and then into the Garbh Coire, where he visits the remote Garbh Coire Refuge (which has been largely rebuilt since he was there), and then climbs to the plateau and the Wells of Dee, seeping out of the ground in a grassy patch on Einich Cairn, ludicrously high on the mountain.

“Landseer’s Bothy” moves to upper Glen Feshie, and a story that was more recently discussed in the second episode of Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland’s Rivers (2021)—the romance between the Duchess of Bedford, Georgina Russell, and the painter Edwin Landseer, which took place at a group of remote (but luxuriously appointed) “rustic huts” at the head of the glen.* Baker visits the Ruighe-aiteachain bothy in upper Glen Feshie, and the nearby chimney-stack which is all that remains of the Duchess’s original accommodation.

“The Lost Shelter” sees Baker visit the sites of a number of high-altitude shelters in the Cairngorms which have been demolished. And he writes about the debate that led to this decision—were lives actually being lost because people stayed at altitude in foul weather and poor visibility, making a futile search for one these small, remote shelters, rather than making an immediate retreat from high ground? And we get the stories behind Jean’s Hut in Coire an Lochain; the Curran Bothy, on the plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui; the disintegrating El Alamein Refuge, reputedly built in the wrong place by the 51st Highland Division; and its companion, the St Valery Refuge, perched on Stag Rocks above Loch Avon.

“Final Flight” deals with high-ground aircraft wrecks, in particular Baker’s search for the remains of the Airspeed Oxford 1 that came down on the north end of Beinn a’ Bhuird in 1945—there is now a memorial plaque at the site. The remoteness of the site also gives Baker a cue to discuss the slow development of mountain rescue services, through cooperation between local volunteers and the Royal Air Force. Baker’s first attempt to visit the site ends in a failure, but he evokes the anxieties of failed route-finding in thick cloud very well:

I searched for answers in the visible landscape: subtle variations in gradient and slope that I hoped would match the contours on my map. There were no clues, no obvious signs. In the clouds the terrain seemed limitless, anonymous—a continuing, terrifying unknown. I would never find the Oxford in such conditions, I knew that. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was to find the way home.

“Cairngorm Stone” tells the story of the titular gemstone—a variety of smoky quartz found in the Cairngorms. This is what takes Baker to the plateau of Ben Avon, described in my opening quotation, where the ground is still pocked with old excavations.

The next chapter is “The Big Grey Man”, which is the English translation of Am Fear Liath Mor—the Gaelic name of a large spectral form said to haunt the slopes of Ben Macdui. Baker opens his chapter with the old story of Professor Norman Collie’s famous panic in the mists of Macdui in the late nineteenth century. This gives him a chance to discuss the eery sensations recurringly reported by explorers in trying circumstances, including the hallucinatory extra presence of the “Third Man”. It also gives him the chance to approach Macdui from an unconventional direction (the horrible path up Strath Nethy to Loch Avon), to spend a night at the Shelter Stone, and to describe the truly extraordinary experience of Eric Langmuir at the head of Loch Avon in 1962, when the entire scree slope started to avalanche above him and his party.

“The Cat’s Den” takes Baker to the Rothiemurchus Forest, in search of a cave that was reputedly once the refuge of a local outlaw, Sandy Grant. It also leads him to write about the rare and elusive residents of the forest, the pine marten and European wildcat. And to riff about nature writing and writers. The end of the chapter brings a hugely satisfying double success.

Finally, “The Ravine” sees him walking in from Tomintoul to the Ailnack Gorge. Along the way he talks about the geology and botany of the area, as well as writing an appreciation of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain, which I’ve written about previously.

It’s all very satisfying stuff. Baker writes evocatively about his own journeys, and knowledgeably about the human and natural history of the landscape. He also has a good ear for anecdotes and relevant quotations, so be warned—readers of this book are liable to finish it with at least another three books added to their reading list from the “References and Sources” section at the back.

* Landseer produced a painting entitled “Duchess of Bedford’s Hut, Glenfeshie”, which is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The building certainly features a timber and turf portico, but the interior furnishings, visible through the open door, seem rather less primitive.

(Be the first)