Category Archives: Walking

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.”

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

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.

CCCP 2022: Kingussie

After a gap of two years during which the Covid pandemic prevented the Crow Craigies Climbing Party assembling in our usual force, we were back together again, this time in Kingussie.

Despite the looming presence of the Cairngorm plateau nearby, I managed to spend my time without ever creeping over the 3000-foot contour—I arrived nursing a slight weird knee injury, and by the time I’d ramped up my hill activities to the point where I would have felt confident embarking on the high tops, worsening weather kept me (and the rest of the CCCP) low for the rest of the week.

As usual, we sometimes separated to pursue different agendas, but here, in dark blue, are the five routes I followed during our time in Kingussie—nibbling away around the margins of the Cairngorms and Monadhliaths:

Kingussie routes overview
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But, before all that, we stopped on the A9 on our way north, to take in a short ascent above Loch Garry.

Meall na Leitreach (NN 640702, 777m)

8 kilometres
450 metres of ascent

Meall na Leitreach route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

We nudged our cars into a flat area just before the railway level-crossing, next to some large, yellow and inexplicable railway machinery. Our route took us across the railway and round the buildings of Dalnaspidal Lodge, before turning left on to a prominent vehicle track (very muddy in its lower reaches) that took us all the way to the top of the hill. This established something of a theme for the week—several of our hills were served by vehicle tracks, to the extent we began to get a little disorientated and resentful if we ended up doing our own route-finding.

Ascending Meall na Leitreach
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Ascending Meall na Leitreach
Summit of Meall na Leitreach
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Summit of Meall na Leitreach
Dalnaspidal and Pass of Drumochter from shoulder of Meall na Leitreach
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Dalnaspidal and Pass of Drumochter from shoulder of Meall na Leitreach

Meall na Leitreach proved to be a splendid viewpoint, which was another theme for the week—many of our hills were high enough, and set far enough back from the main plateaux, to provide long views in many directions.

The panorama below extends from the Cairngorm plateau at left to the Glen Lyon Horseshoe at right. Between the two extremes, Beinn a’ Ghlo, Mount Blair, Ben Vrackie and Schiehallion are all prominent. Sweeping south, beyond the edge of the panorama, we could easily pick out the Lawers range, Stob Binnein and Ben More, Ben Dorain, the Cruachan ridge, the Black Mount, and Ben Alder.

Easterly panorama from Meall na Leitreach
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Meall na Fhreiceadain (NH 725071, 878m)

18 kilometres
710 metres of ascent

Carn an Fhreiceadain route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

For our first day in Kingussie, we did something that has become a bit of a tradition for these trips—we climbed something directly from the house. In this case, we walked uphill through the golf course and then followed a broad, well-graded vehicle track all the way to the top of Carn an Fhreiceadain. (If you examine the map closely, you’ll be able to pick out the point at which, deep in conversation, we turned right too early and had to make a short cross-country detour to get back on-line. This wouldn’t be the last wrong turn of our week—it seems to be paradoxically easier to go astray when walking along a track than when climbing the open hillside.)

Ascending Carn an Fhreiceadain
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Ascending Carn an Fhreiceadain

At the top, there’s a rather shapely cairn that doesn’t mark the summit. The triangulation pillar, a little farther on, was surrounded by a drystone windbreak that pointed in exactly the wrong direction for the easterly wind on the day. So we headed a short distance to the west to drop down in the lee of a rocky outcrop, only to discover that it concealed a rather splendid (albeit roofless) howff.

Cairn on Carn an Fhreiceadain
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Cairn on Carn an Fhreiceadain
Howff near summit of Carn an Fhreiceadain
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Howff near summit of Carn an Fhreiceadain
Summit of Carn an Fhreiceadain, Beinn Bhreac in distance
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Summit of Carn an Fhreiceadain, Beinn Bhreac in distance, howff is behind rocks at extreme left of frame

After a bite to eat, two of our party headed off westwards to take in some larger hills, while the other pair, including me and my weird knee, strolled east to Beinn Bhreac and then south along more motorway tracks. About halfway down, we encountered a fancy little building. We peered inside, to discover that it contained a dozen or so chairs arrayed around a large circular table with a central Lazy-Susan turntable. The shooting parties who are ferried around the hill on the vehicle tracks obviously enjoy a lunch that consists of more than a soggy sandwich and a flask of coffee.

Shooting/Stalking "bothy" below Beinn Bhreac
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Shooting/stalking “bothy” below Beinn Bhreac

Shortly after getting back to our house, I received a text message from the other half of our party on the summit of A’ Chailleach, giving me a rough timing for the prearranged pick-up at the car-park in Glen Banchor, clarification of the number of chicken breasts to be purchased at the supermarket, and instructions to “Bring Irn Bru!” (Honestly, we run these things like a military operation.)

Carn Dearg Mor (NN 823911, 857m)

23 kilometres
670 metres of ascent

Carn Dearg Mor route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The weird knee was still behaving itself, so I was happy to push the distance up a little more on our third outing. This took us down Glen Feshie from the car-park north of Achlean, and then across the river at the new bridge (the old bridge, farther south, was swept away in 2019) and on to the tarmac road to Glenfeshie Lodge. We were aiming to get up on to the vehicle track that curves around the north end of the Carn Dearg Mor ridge. A direct line across the open hillside between two patches of forestry looked do-able on the map, but proved to be lumpy and heathery on the ground, so we contented ourselves with making a zig-zag instead.

There’s yet another vehicle track running along the spine of the ridge, starting below Carn Dearg Beag, but (horrors!) we actually needed to find our way across a kilometre or so of tussocky and boggy open ground to reach it. After which it was a fairly easy stroll to reach another fine viewpoint, looking across the cleft of the glen towards the summits of the Cairngorm plateau. Along the way, our walk was enlivened by what looked like a couple of F-15E Strike Eagles chasing each other around the hill at low level, though I wouldn’t swear to that identification.

New bridge on the Feshie
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New bridge on the Feshie
Bog-trotting on approach to Carn Dearg Mor, Glen Feshie
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Bog-trotting on approach to Carn Dearg Mor
Summit ridge of Carn Dearg Mor, Glen Feshie
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Summit ridge of Carn Dearg Mor
Extreme exertion of Carn Dearg Beag, Glen Feshie
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Resting from our labours on the return across Carn Dearg Beag

Gairbeinn (NN 460985, 895m)
Geal Charn (NN 444988, 876m)
Corrieyairack Hill (NN 429995, 892m)

17 kilometres
800 metres of ascent

Corrieyairack route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

The following day, we ventured out to traverse a ridge entirely unmarked by vehicle tracks. But, almost by way of compensation, we returned to the car along the remains of a centuries-old military road—one of a network of routes constructed by General Wade in the early eighteenth century, as a means of moving English troops around quickly in the face of the Jacobite uprisings.

We parked at the road-end near Melgarve, and followed the rough track farther up the glen. Our plan had been to strike off on to the open hillside at a little stream marked on the map as the Caochan Ban … but we managed to march right past it, deep in conversation. The hint that we might actually need to be on the alert was there in the name—caochan is defined in the Faclair Beag Gaelic dictionary as a “streamlet (esp. those running through bogs, often hidden from view)”. Checking the location on our return journey revealed that the watercourse was indeed almost invisible—appearing as little more than a puddle in the road, and otherwise hidden between incised banks until we were right on top of it. Misgivings accumulated at a merely subconscious level until we arrived at the bridge over the much larger Allt a’ Mhill Ghairbh, at which point we realized we were now west of the little lumps of Meall Garbh Beag and Meall Garbh Mor.

Oh well. There was little point in going back, and the line on to Gairbeinn across the grassy hillside was easy enough, though steep in its upper part and subject to a succession of false summits before we could finally sit down for a bite to eat.

Climbing steeply on Gairbeinn
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Oh no! Straight up with no track!

Then we followed the line of a couple of old fences into the dip below Geal Charn, before choosing a diagonal line to cross its summit and rejoin the fence line. A little bit of zig-zagging on steep ground got us down into the next col, and then it was an easy reascent to reach Corrieyairack Hill, pausing along the way to admire the engineered zig-zags of Wade’s road, while attempting to ignore the massive row of pylons which now march through the Corrieyairack Pass.

Corrieyairack Hill from Geal Charn
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Corrieyairack Hill from Geal Charn
Corrieyairack Pass from the approach to Corrieyairack Hill
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Corrieyairack Pass from the approach to Corrieyairack Hill

Corrieyairack Hill and Gairbeinn were once thought to be of the same height, and within the range that qualified for inclusion in J. Rooke Corbett’s hill list. Unfortunately, they are connected by a ridge that never falls low enough to make each a separate Corbett in its own right, so until 1997 they were listed as “twin Corbetts”. Then the inevitable happened, and a resurvey of the area showed that one was lower than the other—so Corrieyairack lost its Corbett status, leaving Gairbeinn as the only Corbett on the ridge. (If all this is Greek to you, you can find out about Corbett’s tables and their inclusion criteria in my post Scottish Hill Lists: The Classics.) And as if that weren’t embarrassing enough, in 1999 it transpired that the highest point of Corrieyairack Hill wasn’t actually where everyone thought it was, on a fine viewpoint with a tiny cairn at NN 428997, but at on an undistinguished lump at NN 429995 which everyone had been walking around up to that point. If you look at the track on my map, above, you’ll see that the CCCP walked out to take in the demoted (but still nicer) old summit before having a seat on the new, but distinctly rubbish, real summit.

The "old" summit of Corrieyairack Hill
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The “old” summit of Corrieyairack Hill

While we were there we were treated to a repetitive wailing noise wafting up from somewhere in the vicinity of Loch an Aonaich Odhair to the east. It certainly sounded like a diver to me, and my best bet is that is was a black-throated diver (known as the black-throated loon in North America). Here’s what it sounded like:

And then we walked off down a grassy shoulder towards the pass and the military road, surrounded by the reproachful alarm calls of golden plovers.

The Corrieyairack zig-zags
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Descending the Corrieyairack zig-zags

Meall na h-Aisre (NH 515000, 862m)

18 kilometres
650 metres of ascent

Meall na h-Aisre route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Another day, another vehicle track. This time, we parked next to the lovely old Wade bridge at Garva, then walked along the track that services the huge electricity pylons that carry cables across the Corrieyairack Pass.

Garva Bridge
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Garva Bridge

Just before the electricity substation, a new track turns right, climbing slowly into the Coire Iain Oig, and then on to the shoulder of our chosen hill, Meall na h-Aisre. This seems to be a service road for a power cable that comes over from the huge windfarm in the headwaters of the River Killin, on the far side of the hill.

It seemed like a good route for a quick up and down before the rain came in, forecast for three o’clock. Unfortunately, the cloud settled on the hill and started dropping water almost as soon as we set out, a state of affairs which then persisted until we returned to the car in a somewhat soggy state. The only way we could sit down and eat under shelter was to crawl under the metal bridge over the Allt Coire Iain Oig, trying our best to ignore the yellow tape marking where the high-voltage cable crosses under the streambed.

Bridge on the Allt Coire Iain Oig, below Meall na h-Aisre
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Bridge on the Allt Coire Iain Oig
Sheltering under the bridge on the Allt Coire Iain Oig, below Meall na h-Aisre
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Lunch under the bridge
Electricity cable under the bed of Allt Coire Iain Oig
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Then we pressed on upwards, eventually reaching the end of the track at a turning circle at almost 800 metres altitude, and just a few hundred metres west of the summit of Meall na h-Aisre.

Service road summit below Meall na h-Aisre
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Service road summit below Meall na h-Aisre

After which it was just a matter of walking uphill in poor visibility, following a line of fence-posts, to the wet and misty summit.

Summit of Meall na h-Aisre
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Summit of Meall na h-Aisre

We made a pretty quick turnaround and trotted back down towards the track to retrace our steps. We’d only just dropped out of the cloud when I spotted this little fellow of to my left, holding very, very still and hoping he was invisible.

Hare on Meall na h-Aisre
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Meall a’ Bhuachaille (NH 990115, 810m)
Creagan Gorm (NH 978120, 732m)
Creag a’ Chaillich (NH 968127, 711m)
Craiggowrie (NH 962134, 687m)

19 kilometres
800 metres of ascent

Meall a' Bhuachaille route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

For my last day with the group (the others stayed on one more day) I’d hoped to get up on the plateau and make a circuit of the Northern Corries. However, the mountain weather forecast predicted the high tops would in cloud for most of the day, so instead we elected to walk the ridge above Loch Morlich.

We parked at Glenmore, and walked up past An Lochan Uaine to Ryvoan bothy. Nowadays, An Lochan Uaine seems to be mainly known in English translation, as The Green Lochan. As we stood on its tiny beach and admired its green-tinted waters, an earnest young man advised us not to go in swimming “because it’s full of leeches”. Knowing that the medical leech (Hirudo medicinalis, the one that attaches itself to humans) is vanishingly rare on the Scottish mainland, we took that one with a pinch of salt. But it transpires that the lochan does contain a population of horse leeches, Haemopis sanguisuga. That sounds like an even worse prospect, until you discover that, despite their name, they eat larvae, worms and snails and can’t actually latch on to mammalian skin at all. So apart from a wave of the heebie-jeebies, swimmers in An Lochan Uaine are safe from leeches. (However, during a long hot summer, you might encounter a sign warning of potential danger from a blue-green algae bloom.)

The Green Lochan, Glenmore
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The Green Lochan
Ryvoan bothy
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Ryvoan bothy

Behind Ryvoan, a beautifully engineered but absolutely infuriating path climbs the hillside. I hate to be churlish, given the amount of work that has gone into creating what is effectively a long flight of stone stairs, but the steps are the wrong height for me—too shallow for a single step, but too high to ascend two at a time comfortably.

Ascending Meall a' Bhuachaille
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Ascending Meall a’ Bhuachaille

Eventually, after a lot of stumbling and cursing (from me, at least), we arrived on the broad summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and settled into the lee of the shelter cairn for an early lunch in the sunshine.

Summit of Meall a' Bhuachaille
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Summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille

Our onward route undulated over three summits with craggy names—Creagan Gorm, Creag a’ Chaillich and Craiggowrie—but none of the steep ground that gives the hills their names impeded our line of travel along the ridge.

Descending Meall a' Bhuachaille towards Creagan Gorm
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Descending Meall a’ Bhuachaille towards Creagan Gorm

To the south, the Cairngorm plateau remained shrouded in cloud, with a banner of rain falling into Glen Avon. The panorama below looks back from Creagan Gorm, with Meall a’ Bhuachaille at left and Loch Morlich in the centre.

Northern corries and Loch Morlich from Creagan Gorm
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Eventually, we walked off the far side of Craiggowrie and descended into the Queen’s Forest above Loch Morlich, at which point I managed to sink up to my knees in a boggy sump, to the immoderate amusement of my companions.

Descending towards Queen's Forest from Craiggowrie
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Descending towards Queen’s Forest from Craiggowrie

After I’d extricated myself, if was just a matter of finding our way down through forest tracks and back to the road. On the way we passed through the Badaguish Outdoor Centre—a manicured array of lodge-style dwellings and camping pods which was eerily uninhabited and silent.

Click to enlarge

We mused that this odd cluster of buildings surrounded by forest might make a suitable location for a remake of The Prisoner. There was even a deeply strange wooden owl mounted on a post beside the access road, which brought to mind the rotating surveillance statues that featured in the TV series.

Guardian owl at Badaguish
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The Tarmachan Ridge

Meall nan Tarmachan SE Top (NN 589385, 922m)
Meall nan Tarmachan (NN 585390, 1044m)
Meall Garbh (NN578383, 1027m)
Beinn nan Eachan (NN 570383, 1000m)
Creag na Caillich (NN 562377, 914m)

14.8 kilometres
850m of ascent

Tarmachan route
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Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Some days even I give up on trying to come up with new ways to climb old hills, and just go out and walk a classic route. So this is one of those days—an anticlockwise circuit of the pleasantly lumpy Tarmachan Ridge above Loch Tay. The fact that I haven’t been this way for a while is well demonstrated by the route plan I left with the Boon Companion before departing, which claimed that I would be setting off from the Visitor Centre below Ben Lawers—which turns out to have been demolished (and the site restored to its natural state) a decade ago. But no-one told me.

So I started out from the new car park (sans Visitor Centre), a little to the south of the old site, and followed the signposts, which shepherded me out on to the hillside along a well-worn path. This gave me a glimpse of the dam on Lochan na Lairige as I climbed westwards:

Lochan na Lairige dam, above Loch Tay
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After passing an odd piece of industrial wreckage, in the form of a ruined metal tower and its wooden base, the path turns north to head up towards an unnamed south-easterly outlier of Meall nan Tarmachan.

Metal and wooden debris below Meall nan Tarmachan
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Path to Meall nan Tarmachan
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From the outlying summit, there’s a steep descent, then a stile to cross, and a steep pull up on to Tarmachan proper, with a fine view east towards Ben Lawers (in cloud, below), and westwards along the winding Tarmachan ridge.

Ben Lawers in cloud from Meall nan Tarmachan
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Tarmachan ridge from Meall nan Tarmachan
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(Tarmachan, by the way, is Gaelic for “ptarmigan”, though there were none of the birds in evidence. The mysterious p at the start of the English spelling of the bird’s name is a piece of pseudo-etymological fixer-uppery originally perpetrated by Robert Sibbald in has natural-history text Scotia Illustrata (1684). He seems to have imagined the name was Greek in origin.)

Meall Garbh was the next objective. Its name means “rough lump”, and it’s the craggy object in cloud-shadow at left of frame, above. The path continued along the ridge, leading me easily down to the lochans in the col, and then more steeply upwards. Ahead of me, I could see a couple apparently making rather heavy weather of the last rocky section below the summit. They were scrabbling around with walking poles that had been set to a convenient length for level walking, but which were actively counterproductive for anyone trying to ascend a 1:1 gradient consisting of chunky boulders. There’s some sort of corollary to the old wisdom about ice-axes, here. It’s commonly said that people often venture too far on to steep ground before thinking to get their ice-axes off their packs and into their hands. The inverse seems to be true of some walking-pole users, who get themselves into an awkward fankle on steep ground when they’d be better off stowing the poles on their packs and freeing up their hands.

I resisted sharing this wisdom with them, however. They stepped politely aside to let me overtake them, and I gave them a cheery greeting, to which they responded with gloomy silence. Oh well.

Beyond the tiny summit of Meall Garbh, the ridge becomes narrow and airy for a while.

Narrow section of Tarmachan ridge west of Meall Garbh
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Then it kind of disappears ahead, and you begin to wonder how on earth the path is going to get down to the next col, which now seems to be almost vertically below. There’s a turn, and a steep descent, and then a madly eroded section that descends through steep rocks with some disconcerting exposure to the left.

Here’s the view down to the path in the col from just above the awkward bit:

Short scramble descending to col west of Meall Garbh
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There is, reputedly, a path that circumvents all this unpleasantness to the right—I confess to not noticing where it branched off on the ridge, but spotted it when it rejoined the main path, just above the col.

Then up again towards Beinn nan Eachan, which is, incongruously, the “mountain of horses”. I stepped up off the path on to a little grassy knoll that provided a nice spot for lunch, as well as a fine viewpoint back towards Meall Garbh and the perils just survived:

Meall Garbh from east top of Beinn nan Eachan
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If you enlarge the picture, you should be able to make out how the main path seems to seek unerringly towards the nasty craggy stuff. I suspect this started out as quite an easy descent, preferable to the steep grassy slope to the north (left as you look at the picture), but decades of erosion have transformed it into a slightly awkward scramble. I waited with a mixture of interest and apprehension to see what would befall the pole-wielding pair on this route, but they never appeared.

I paused to take a picture of the distant peaks of Stob Binnein and Ben More, still sporting their last remnants of snow, before crossing my own little patch of snow on the ascent of Eachan.

Stob Binnein and Ben More from Tarmachan Ridge
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Snow on the path to Beinn nan Eachan
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The oddly eroded summit with its tiny cairn gave me a view of my final hill of the day, Creag na Caillich, “crag of the old woman”.

Creag na Caillich from Beinn nan Eachan
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It’s certainly craggy enough. Perhaps the old woman owned the horses. Poor Caillich is an innocent victim of the culture of hill tabulation, which I introduced in a previous post. My 1:50000 Ordnance Survey map gives its height as 916m, which is a tad over 3005 feet. That height earned it an entry in the last edition of Munro’s Tables (1997), as a “Munro Top”. But in 2015 it was resurveyed, establishing a new, more precise height of 914.3m—tragically four inches short of the magical 3000-foot criterion. The 2021 edition of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Munros guide therefore dismisses it with the phrase: “many people will now miss it out”.

Well, that says more about “many people” than it does about the hill, so I went and climbed it. On the way, I made note of a path descending southeast into Coire Fionn-Lairige from the lowest point in the col, which I designated as my return route.

The grassy summit of Creag na Caillich gave me a fine view down to the head of Loch Tay:

Loch Tay from Creag na Caillich
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It’s possible, apparently, to continue the traverse down the ridge that you can see at right of frame above, and to follow a path that sweeps west and then east again to circumvent the final crags and link up with the end of a long vehicle track that serves a succession of little dams on the streams of Coire Fionn-Lairige—the folks at OpenStreetMap have certainly plotted such a thing (their data are used in my map at the head of this post), but I can’t vouch for it, because I headed back to the col to pick up the path I’d noted previously.

Which I promptly lost after only a few hundred metres. For what it’s worth, OpenStreetMap suggests that I went right across boggy ground while the path went left. But no matter—Coire Fionn-Lairige was easy grassy walking, and I chose a line that directly descended the steeper upper reaches, and then traversed gently southeast across the lower slopes using the low mound of Meall Liath as my marker.

Crossing Coire Fionn-Lairige towards Meall Liath
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This brought me out on the aforementioned dams track. Then it was just a matter of marching a couple of miles in the afternoon sunshine, while enjoying the views of the ridge I’d just traversed.

Meall nan Tarmachan from the dams track
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Glen Prosen: Driesh From The East

Hill of Strone (NO 288729, 850m)
Driesh (NO 271735, 947m)

18.3 kilometres
890 metres of ascent

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

Driesh is usually climbed along with it neighbour to the west, Mayar. Most people seem to come in from Glen Doll in the north, a route I’ve previously described, but the longer approach from Glen Prosen in the south has its merits, which I’ve also written about. Having also approached Mayar across the plateau to its west, I thought I might restore some sort of cosmic balance by walking to Driesh along the ridge to its east.

Previous wandering in the area revealed upper Glen Prosen to have been hard hit by Storm Arwen earlier in the year, with many trees down, some damaging property and others obstructing tracks in the Glenclova Forest.

Storm damage in Glen Prosen
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Windfallen trees in Glenclova Forest, Glen Prosen
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The track from the road-end beyond Glenprosen Lodge, leading up by the Burn of Farchal and emerging at the Dead Water, has been cleared. But, at the time of this trip, my planned approach along the track running north from Cramie was blocked by windfall on a broad front just south of the stile and gate below Cairn Inks.

So Plan B was to head east from Cramie along the track to Craigiemeg, then turn north over the open moor immediately after emerging from the forest. Here, there’s a 4×4 track, just two parallel grooves in the heather and unmarked on any map I’ve seen, which runs parallel to the forest fence to serve the grouse butts on Mount Bouie.

There’s room for a couple of cars at the road-end, and also a flat bit of ground between road and river just short of Glenprosen Lodge, which has something of the aspect of a parking area (there’s a waste bin) but which also seems to fulfil a function as a turning area for large vehicles (the semicircular ruts of large tyres were evident). So I tucked my car well to the side and clear of the ruts.

(At this point, I’ll intrude a little premonitory and explanatory note on toponyms for non-Scots, to reduce the number of linguistic diversions in my walk report, which is already unusually crammed with interesting place-names. There are two Shanks and two Snecks coming up. A shank, in a topographic context, is a sloping ridge descending from a hill summit; and a sneck is a steep-sided col between two hills.)

My route began at the entrance to Cramie farm, where I was briefly distracted by a sign on the gate:

Approach to Cramie, Glen Prosen
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At first I parsed “Caution Walkers” as an instruction for walkers to be cautious of some unnamed peril, but then decided it was a directive aimed at drivers, warning them to be alert for walkers on the track. Or so I hoped.

I turned right at Cramie (the left turn goes up the hill until it eventually encounters the swathe of windfallen trees previously mentioned), passed a telephone mast, went through a gate, and then turned uphill next to the deer-fence that protects the Glenclova forestry. (Why this patch of forest in Glen Prosen is named after the next glen to the north is a mystery I have yet to solve.)

After a steep pull up a grassy slope, I picked up the 4×4 track, and marched north along one of the slots in the heather left by the vehicle wheels. As I rounded the corner on Craigiemeg Hill, I was able to get a view into Glen Clova through the gap between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns—the distant crags, by my estimation, are the cliffs above Loch Brandy, along which I’ve previously walked.

Craigs of Loch Brandy visible between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns, Glen Prosen
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Cairn of Barns has nothing to do with farm buildings—in Scots, the barns in this context are large rocks. Cairn Inks is something of a puzzle, however, since the Scots word inks refers to water-meadows—shoreline pastures that are intermittently flooded by the spring tides. Watson hazards that the name might originally have been Carn Ing, invoking an old Gaelic word ing meaning (among other things) “neck of land”. And my view of the Craigs of Loch Brandy in the photograph above is indeed permitted by the low neck of land between Cairn Inks and Cairn of Barns. So it all hangs together.

There’s a natural law that, whenever one encounters a truly stout and well-maintained deer-fence in the Scottish Highlands, there will be deer inside it. And, sure enough, I soon scared up a couple of roe deer on the forest side of the fence. A couple of buzzards drifted over to see what I was up to, and then a pair of ravens came by, seeming to scold me with their flight calls.


Just before the ascent of Mount Bouie, I crossed a little lump with the intriguing name of West Mackermack; there’s an East Mackermack nearby. Mackermack is probably muc earranach, “area for pigs”, which gives a hint of what land-use must have been like in the days before the moorland became a managed duoculture of heather and grouse. And Mount Bouie gives another clue—it’s monadh buidhe, “yellow hill”, implying that it was once covered in grass, rather than the solid covering of heather it now sports for the benefit of the grouse and the people who shoot them.

After descending Bouie and crossing the unimpressive Sneck of Inks, I finally reached the northeast corner of the deer-fence, and a view of Hill of Strone in the distance.

Hill of Strone from top of Glenclova Forest deer fence, Glen Prosen
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Another, lower fence continues up the hill to the ridge-line, and I elected to slip westwards over the little wooden section in my picture, so that I could be on the same side of the fence as Hill of Strone. I needn’t have bothered, though, since I found a gate in the fence higher on the hill, of interesting construction.

Sliding gate on Cairn Inks, Glen Prosen
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I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a sliding wooden gate before. (In the photograph I’ve opened it slightly to check that it actually worked the way I thought it did, but I closed it again afterwards.)

From Cairn Inks, I was able to look down on the storm-induced carnage among the trees below. Here’s a view of the huge area of windfall that blocks the eastern track through the forestry:

Windfallen trees in Glenclova Forest, seen from Cairn Inks
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There’s a path along the ridge-line between Cairn Inks and Hill of Strone:

Approach to Hill of Strone from Cairn Inks
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This provides easy walking, with views back down into Prosen on the left, and the more dramatically steep-side Clova to the right. In the image below, you can see the grey bulk of Lochnagar on the skyline, with the cleft of upper Glen Clova in the centre, and the bulges of Craig Mellon and Cairn Broadlands peeping out from behind the foreground crags of Corlowie (coire loaigh, “corrie of the calves”) at left. I’ve visited both Mellon and Broadlands on a previous excursion, and have also written about my walk along the northern rim of upper Glen Clova.

Upper Glen Clova and Lochnagar from Cairn Inks ridge
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After a short pull uphill, I reached the rounded summit of Hill of Strone. (In topographic terms, Gaelic sron, “nose”, indicates the end of a promontory of land. I’m guessing the sron that gave Hill of Strone its name is the southward ridge now called the Shank of Strone.) This gave me a view across to Driesh, which retained a crescent of snow on the rim of an unnamed shallow corrie.

Driesh from Hill of Strone
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It looks like more easy strolling in the photograph, but tucked away between Strone and Driesh is the cleft of the Sneck of Farchal, above Corrie Farchal in Glen Clova:

Sneck of Farchal from Hill of Strone
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Watson translates Corrie Farchal as coire faireachail, “corrie of watching”, and certainly the upper reaches of the corrie, below the Sneck, would be a good vantage point, looking out over the junction of Glen Doll with Glen Clova.

The pull out of the Sneck on to Driesh was madly steep for a short distance, and then it lay back on to the long, easy-angled shoulder visible at left of my photograph, which took me to Driesh’s crowded cairn.

Driesh summit cairn
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In many visits, I’ve only ever had the summit to myself in the foulest of foul weather, or the poorest of visibility.

After lunch at the cairn, I walked a little east of south until I picked up a view of the Shank of Driesh below, my route back down into Prosen:

Shank of Driesh and Glen Prosen
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You can see the prominent vehicle track that runs along the Shank. My old OS 1:25000 shows this trending around the west side of the shallow Corrie of Lick, whereas my aim was to keep to the east, heading towards Cairn Baddoch (the wooded summit in the middle distance above Prosen, in my photograph). I cast around for a path that appeared on my map, but was not evident on the ground, and then headed off cross-country, picking my way along fairly easy routes created by recent muir-burn, only to discover that the track I was aiming for, shown by the OS on the shoulder of Cairn Baddoch, didn’t exist either. So I descended through more muir-burn until I reached a decent track on the east side of the Burn of Lick. Looking uphill, I could see that it quite obviously linked to the track on the west side of Corrie of Lick—if I’d descended a little farther before striking off cross-country, I’d have found it. (If you check the map at the head of this post, you’ll see the current arrangement of tracks, as well as my pointless eastward excursion through the heather.)

Then it was just an easy descent in the sunshine, accompanied by the strange, burbling calls of curlews in the glen below:

Descending into Glen Prosen towards Glenclova Forest
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Scottish Hill Lists: The Classics

Cover of 1953 edition of Munro's Tables

If you’ve spent any time at all reading The Oikofuge, you’ll have gathered that I’m quite interested in hills—climbing them, looking at other hills from their summits, understanding their names and their place in history, landscape and land-use. What you won’t have seen me mention very often is the plethora of classifications that have been imposed on the Scottish hills over the years, starting with Sir Hugh Munro’s table of 3000-footers published in 1891, and culminating in the ongoing GPS-assisted activities of the good people over at the Database of British and Irish Hills.

It’s not that I’m uninterested in these tabulations, or the various parameters they’re based on. I have, after all, actually prepared a (long-obsolete) set of mountain tables all of my own. And the maps that accompany my various walk reports show the summits colour-coded according to their classification—you can find the key to the colours used in the FAQ section of the blog. And a glance at my annual CCCP reports will reveal a definite tendency to clamber up any 3000-footer that happens to be nearby, that being something of a raison d’être for the Crow Craigies Climbing Party.

But I don’t structure my walking activities around trying to “complete” any particular hill list—indeed, it’s only in the last few years I’ve attempted to reconstruct a list of all the summits I’ve visited in fifty years of hill-walking. And that process has led me to think a bit more about hill-lists in general, and how they came to exist. So I thought I’d write something about that. For this post, I’m going to start with the classics—the three Scottish hill-lists that dominated the mental landscape of hillwalkers back in the 1970s when I was first venturing out on to the summits.


Like the others in this trio, Munro’s list first appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, and has been curated by the Scottish Mountaineering Club ever since. His “Tables Giving All The Scottish Mountains Exceeding 3,000 Feet In Height” [SMCJ 1(6): 276-314] lists 538 Scottish “tops” that exceed the height limit. Munro then innocently instigated a century-long argument by separately enumerating those peaks he felt could “fairly be reckoned distinct mountains”. These were the 283 summits that came to be designated “Munros” in his honour; the remaining 255 tops on his list would then become the “Munro Tops”.

Munro worked on revising his list in the light of new mapping, and the SMC planned to issue his Revised Tables as part of their new General Guide-Book. This eventually saw the light of day in 1921, issued in instalments after a delay necessitated by the First World War—and, unfortunately, after Munro’s death in 1919. This list, consisting of 276 Munros and 267 Munro Tops, is perhaps the closest we can get to the “historical” Munros—Munro’s list largely devoid of input from other hands.

Unfortunately, Munro left no guidance on how he had decided whether one of his “tops” counted as a “mountain”. He certainly seems to have considered that large jagged mountains, like Beinn Eighe or An Teallach, could consist of only one “mountain” summit (the highest point) together with several mere “tops”; while he tended to scatter the “mountain” designation rather more profligately on rolling plateau land, like the Monadlaiths. This apparently unequal distribution of “mountains” relative to the difficulty of ascent would be the source of many later arguments, and I’ll come back to that when I write about the occasionally vexed topic of table revisions, in a later post. (There will be charts.)


Munro’s 3000-footers are restricted entirely to the Scottish Highlands, and that may have been the inspiration for Percy Donald’s publication in 1935 of “Tables Giving All Hills In The Scottish Lowlands 2,000 Feet And Above” [SMCJ 20(120): 415-438]. This was a list of the highest summits in the Lowlands and Southern Uplands, thereby complementing Munro’s Highland-centric list.

After the pattern of Munro, Donald provided a list of 133 “tops”, and further classified 86 of these tops as “hills”. Unlike Munro, he attempted to provide some formal reasoning for his selection. But, again after the pattern of Munro, a degree of personal choice was permitted to creep in. His list of “tops” comprised:

All elevations [over 2000 feet] with a drop of 100 feet on all sides and elevations of sufficient topographical merit with a drop of between 100 feet and 50 feet on all sides.

Donald here introduces the idea of “drop”—the vertical distance between a hill’s summit and the highest connecting col. This is nowadays frequently called “topographic prominence”, and has become a key concept in modern hill lists. It can be formally defined as the summit’s height above the lowest contour which encircles the summit without enclosing any higher summit. But Donald then muddies the waters by making a subjective judgement with regard to the “topographical merit” of those 2000-foot eminences with drops in the 50-to-100-foot range.

In order to decide which of his “tops” were also “hills”, Donald gathered his tops together into groups, and nominated the highest of each group to be the “hill”, and the remainder to be “subsidiary tops” of that hill. His method of defining a group of tops is generally referred to by the SMC and other commentators as a “complicated formula”, but regular readers of The Oikofuge will no doubt recognize it as being a really simple formula. Donald measured the horizontal distance between adjacent tops along their connecting ridge, and measured the drop of the lower top by counting 50-foot contours between its col and summit. Each twelfth of a mile horizontally, and each 50-foot interval vertically, constituted one “unit”, and a “hill” could lay claim only to such subsidiary tops as fell within 17 units of its summit. As far as I can tell, Donald didn’t offer a justification for this particular formula, but it’s evident that his 17 units translate to about half-an-hour’s walking for someone setting a slightly more leisurely pace than the one stipulated by Naismith’s Rule. His “hills” are now called “Donalds” in his honour, and the subsidiary tops are “Donald Tops”. (In an appendix to his main tables, Donald also listed fifteen summits enclosed by isolated loops of 2000-foot contour, which are sometimes referred to as Minor Tops, but are of largely historical interest for reasons I’ll mention when I write about the revision history of these tables.)


The final member of the classic table trio (or triptych, as the SMC would no doubt style it) arrived in 1952, with the publication of J. Rooke Corbett’s awkwardly entitled “List Of Scottish Mountains 2,500 Feet And Under 3,000 Feet In Height” [SMCJ 25(143): 45-52]. To a considerable extent, this was a continuation of Corbett’s work tabulating the hills of England and Wales that rise to more than 2500 feet—a list he referred to as the “Twenty-Fives”, and had published in the Rucksack Club Journal in 1911.

Sadly, Corbett had died in 1949, and his tables were passed on to the SMC by his sister. The SMC appears to have been initially somewhat bemused, to judge from the foreword written by John Dow, who describes Corbett’s list of 219 summits as “incomplete”, stating that:

[…] reference to the maps—e.g., 1-in. Ordnance Sheets 42, 43, 49, etc.—makes it clear that numerous heights of equal “merit” to those listed have not been shown.

However, it soon became clear to the SMC that Corbett had in fact completed his tables—the apparent omissions were because he had, like Donald, applied a “drop threshold” below which summits failed to qualify for inclusion. Unlike Donald, he had not then applied any further, subjective judgements. When Corbett’s tables were republished in 1953, Dow’s revised foreword stated:

There was no indication in Corbett’s papers as to the criterion he adopted in listing the heights [ie, summits] included, but it seems clear that his only test was a re-ascent of 500 feet on all sides to every point admitted, no account being taken of distance or difficulty. No detailed check has been made, but the 500 feet qualification has obviously been exhaustively applied and rigidly adhered to […]

It is left as an exercise for the interested reader to figure out how this criterion could be deemed to have been “rigidly adhered to” in the absence of a “detailed check”, but a topographic prominence of 500 feet has been a stipulated qualification for Corbett-hood ever since.

These three tables were brought to together in a single publication in 1953: Munro’s Tables And Other Tables Of Lesser Heights on the cover, but more grandly styled Munro’s Tables Of The 3000-Feet Mountains Of Scotland, And Other Tables Of Lesser Heights on the title page. Its cover features at the head of this post.* It went through numerous editions and revisions over the course of the next four decades, until the most recent edition, in 1997, changed the title to the less judgemental Munro’s Tables And Other Tables Of Lower Hills. No matter: almost everyone refers to the publications as just “Munro’s Tables”.

A plot of the Munros, Corbetts and Donalds (according to the current lists) reveals some interesting features of their distribution:

Geographical distribution of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds
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The Munros (in red) are confined by the nature of Scottish topography to the region north of the Highland Boundary Fault. Most are on the mainland, but two of the Inner Hebrides (Skye and Mull) host Munros. And we can see how Donald’s decision to confine his own tables to the Lowlands and Southern Uplands creates a complementary distribution of Donalds (in orange). Corbetts (in yellow) are spread all across Scotland—fringing the Munros in the north, reaching into several more islands, and mingling with the Donalds in the south. And because Donald set no upper limit to the height of his hills, there is in fact an overlap between the Corbetts and the Donalds—seven Donalds reach above 2500 feet with sufficient prominence to also qualify as Corbetts.

It’s informative, too, to plot the same hills on two axes according to their height and prominence:

Height-prominence chart of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds
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In the absence of large areas of ground below sea level in Scotland, no hill can have a prominence greater than its summit’s height above sea level; and the only summits with prominence equal to their height are the highest points of islands. So I’ve plotted the Island Line on my chart, and labelled the three Munros and four Corbetts that lie on it.

The Corbetts cluster neatly, bounded by the 3000-foot contour above, the 2500-foot contour below, the Island Line to the right, and 500-foot prominence to the left. The Donalds sprawl a bit more—bounded by the 2000-foot contour below, but spilling into Corbett territory above, with seven orange triangles superimposed on the corresponding yellow Corbett plots. The Donalds all lie to the right of Donald’s 100-foot prominence cut-off; the Donald Tops (all bar one) lie to the right of his 50-foot lower limit. The reason for that anomalous Donald Top of negligible prominence will be explained (or at least, elucidated) when I write about later revisions to the tables.

Finally, the modern Munros list appears fairly well-behaved, too, with all the Munro Tops having prominences less than 500 feet, while the Munros themselves have prominences greater than 100 feet. This was not always so—it’s a product of later table revisions. And there’s another anomaly on the chart, in the form of a single Munro with negligible prominence. That something else I’ll explain in a later post on this topic.

Note: My data source for this post is the Database of British and Irish Hills v17.2, obtained from the DoBIH downloads page.

Resources: The original tables are slightly awkward to get at, being buried in large pdf scans of various volumes of the SMC Journal. And, once got at, the tables of Munro and Donald turn out to be difficult to read, the former having been printed in landscape orientation, the latter as double-page spreads. I’ve therefore prepared a little compendium of the relevant publications for these three sets of tables, rotating Munro’s landscape pages and merging Donald’s double pages for ease of consultation. The result is available on the Internet Archive here, to browse or download.

* It’s easy to be misled by the colophon that appears at the start of every edition of “Munro’s Tables” claiming a first edition in 1891, and two subsequent editions in 1921 and 1933. These dates refer to the first three publications of Hugh Munro’s tables, initially in the SMCJ and then in the two editions of the SMC’s General Guide-Book. The single publication commonly referred to as “Munro’s Tables”, containing the tables prepared by Munro, Corbett and Donald, didn’t (indeed couldn’t) come into existence until 1953, and I’m not sure why the SMC tries to push its publication history back into a time before the works of Donald and Corbett even existed.

This can lead to curious behaviour from walkers intent on “bagging” both Corbetts and Donalds. I once met a man on White Coomb who told me, in solemn tones, that he had been “forced” to climb the hill twice, because it was “once for the Donald and once for the Corbett”.

Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Cover of "The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen" By Syd Scroggie

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.
It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out.

That’s a young Syd Scroggie, standing on the summit of Ben Macdui one day in 1942. I chose this particular quote because it’s a companion of sorts to the quote with which I opened my review of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain (1977). Both quotations mark the start of a long love affair with the Cairngorm massif; both describe striking visual experiences. But Scroggie’s lines are made particularly poignant by the knowledge that, when the lines were first published, in 1989, Scroggie had been blind for more than forty years.

Scroggie began his explorations of his beloved Cairngorm Mountains before the Second World War, and was able to fit in the occasional visit during his army training, which took place near Aviemore. He latterly served in the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment that fought in the Allied invasion of Italy. Two weeks before the end of the war, he trod on a “shoe mine” (the German Schützenmine-42), losing a lower leg and the sight in both eyes. After rehabilitating under the care of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), Scroggie went on to study at Oxford, learning Greek and Latin in Braille, before returning to his native Dundee to take up a job as a switchboard operator at one of the city’s major employers of the time, N.C.R. Works.

Then, in 1955, came the fateful moment when his friend Les Bowman proposed a trip to a remote bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms: “Young Scrog, let’s do a trip to Corrour.”

The idea was staggering, of my setting out and returning as a disabled person to the locality which more than any other for me is symbolic of the hills.

Scroggie’s response was, “You bet.”

And so he walked the eight miles in along the rough track by Derry Lodge and the boggy path beyond, his hand upon Bowman’s shoulder. His feelings can well be imagined—here’s how he recorded them in a moving piece of poetry:

The gods thus spoke, the gods of hill and glen:
This is our man, we know his face of old,
He has but slept, behold he comes again.

Scroggie lived about a mile north of my childhood home, and his place of work was a mile to the southwest, so he was a familiar sight for me in those days, striding along with his stick and his one white eye. And I met him once, during the seventies, in the hills above Glen Clova where he airily described the view to me from memory. He had a very characteristic pattern of speech—deprived of visual feedback from the facial expression and posture of the person he addressed, he delivered his thoughts in long, rattling paragraphs, punctuated by pauses to permit responses. You can observe him in conversation with Tom Weir in this classic episode of Weir’s Way, broadcast in 1987:

And I offered you that video because I was going to write that, in The Cairngorms: Scene & Unseen (1989), Scroggie wrote exactly how he spoke. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps no surprise—while the ever-undaunted Scroggie may well have mastered the art of longhand writing or typing while blind, it’s perhaps more likely that he dictated his memoir. But however the words got to the paper, the experience of reading them is exactly like sitting on a rock by a loch and hearing Scroggie speak—funny, clever and discursive, suffused with a deep love of the hills and the people who go there, anecdote heaped dizzyingly on anecdote until all chronology is lost, and the reader no longer remembers or cares whether Scroggie was sighted or unsighted at the time of the events he describes.

Recently republished by the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this is unfortunately the only piece of Scroggie’s writing currently in print. A number of slim booklets are documented by the University of Dundee, and Amazon seems to know of something entitled The Modern Ferla More (1963)*. His poetry collection Give Me The Hills (1978) is now vanishingly rare and I’ve yet to lay my hands on a copy, but there’s a decent sampling of his verse stirred into this memoir.

Scroggie ranges widely through his memories. There are stories here of wartime service, and of his son’s supernatural imaginings in Lower Geldie Lodge, and he’s not above gleefully relaying a good story borrowed from a friend. But in the main this is a narrative of “bothy culture” in the Cairngorms spanning (roughly) the decades between 1940 and 1980—of nights spent chatting and drinking whisky by the light of a bog-wood fire. Some of Scroggie’s bothies are gone now, like the Sinclair Hut; some are now inaccessible, like Derry Lodge; and some have a new lease of life, like Corrour, though Scroggie did not approve of its post-war restoration:

Then the bothy had been friendly and hospitable, and somehow mysterious in its ruin and dilapidation, pregnant with a sense of impending romance and adventure. […] Now [it] had a more clinical air, as if the planners had moved in, and though it was obviously wind and weather tight, and would remain so for decades, it had lost much of its character in the process.

And there are many stories here of the legendary Bob Scott and his bothy at Luibeg. (There’s still a bothy with Scott’s name on it, though it stands farther downstream than the original, below the confluence of the Luibeg and Derry Burns.)

As well as evocations of the Cairngorm scenery, and character sketches of people encountered among the hills, Scroggie also offers some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, beautifully told. One of my favourites is one he relays from his friend Les Bowman, who served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa during the war. One night, an unfounded rumour swept through his unit, that the German army was about to descend on their desert camp, intent on “slaughtering them to the last sapper.” As Scroggie and Bowman tell the story, panic immediately reigned, while the Commanding Officer was reduced to “darting about to and fro” and “gibbering with fear”. When pressed for a plan, the CO instructed his men to “Make for Algiers.”

It was a case of omne ignotum pro magnifico if ever there was one. ‘How’ll we get there, sir?’ The response to the CO’s suggestion—for it was a suggestion rather than a command—took the form less of a lusty shout than a concerted wail from the sappers who could see their chance of ever getting home diminishing in a kind of geometrical progression as minute succeeded minute in the confusion of affairs. There are moments of inspiration which come to every man, based on memories long buried under piles of succeeding experience, and something new stirred in the CO’s mind, paralysed though it was by conflicting emotions, which seemed to have in it the solvent of all their terrors—the perfect answer to the unparalleled exigencies of their situation.
Pale, distraught and pyjama-clad […] the CO made a dramatic gesture vaguely in the direction of Timbuktu, where Jupiter was a conspicuous object in the sky, gazing down with planetary indifference at a warring world below. […] ‘Follow the North Star,’ he cried.

Scroggie was in his sixties when writing this memoir, and like many hillgoers of a Certain Age (ahem) rather wished that things would just stay as they were—he preferred the comfort of a Primus stove to the newfangled gas, and would apparently rather crouch in a leaking hovel rather than countenance any rebuilding work on his remote bothies. He wasn’t that keen on tourists clogging up his favourite glens, and I think would probably have been reduced to tears of frustration if he’d lived to witness the mess now created in Glen Brittle by too many visitors encountering too little infrastructure. He reserves his particular ire, however, for the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

Here he is, in full polemical flow, on the former establishment:

… this is a place dedicated to teaching people everything about the hills except what really counts. It is a kind of fascist training establishment from which intakes emerge to conquer the hills and in so doing, according to the theory, conquer themselves. Absent is the poetry, the philosophy, the metaphysics, the dreamy dwam, if you like, which are proper to the wooing of the hills. A cowering Macdhui, an alarmed Braeriach and a scandalised Cairn Lochain find themselves subject instead to a kind of criminal assault. Glenmore Lodge, in short, represents a machination of the Devil by which he seeks to corrupt the last refuge of sanity with notions proper only to the general lunacy which surrounds it.

(Come on Scroggie, stop beating about the bush and say what you really think … )

I believe it’s evident that here, and in other places, Scroggie is caught up with creating a dramatic effect. Elsewhere, for instance, shortly after an impassioned plea to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall in order to exclude tourists, he undermines his own position by commending two English visitors who were, he felt, clear exceptions to his own black-and-white rule. But there’s also a deep and heartfelt cry in there—he fears that the hills are becoming arenas for feats of mental or physical endurance, for “challenges”, rather than places to love and contemplate. Scroggie would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Nan Shepherd’s observation (in The Living Mountain):

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Shepherd and Scroggie are then, I think, unlikely soulmates—the one alarmingly delicate in many ways, the other tough as old boots; one full of lyrical mysticism, the other pragmatic and forthright to a fault; but both possessed by a deep need to be in the mountains, as a source of calm and solace.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of Scroggie’s poetry, which will resonate, I’m sure, with any hill-lover conscious of advancing years:

I will attempt the Capel Track,
Old, stiff and retrograde,
And get some pal to push me on
Should resolution fade.
For I must see black Meikle Pap
Against a starry sky,
And watch the dawn from Lochnagar
Once more before I die.

* “Ferla More” is undoubtedly a reference to the legendary Fear Liath Mor (“Big Grey Man”) of Ben Macdui—a supernatural creature said to haunt the slopes of that mountain. In Scene & Unseen Scroggie rather revels in the concept of “spookiness”, and evinces a keen interested in the Big Grey Man.
Your Reviewer confesses to a certain sympathy with Scroggie’s viewpoint on this. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is nowadays one of the tick boxes completed by many applicants to Medical School, and I once made a point, during a day of interviews, of asking each award-bearing applicant what they’d taken away from the scheme. I heard a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief, of developing character, of rising to challenges and overcoming adversity; one even talked about “pushing on through misery”. Not one of them mentioned developing a love of the outdoor environment; several quite obviously now hated it with a passion.