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.


Munros

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 “Table Giving All The Scottish Mountains Exceeding 3,000 Feet In Height” [SMCJ 1(6): 276-313] 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.)


Donalds

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): 415-38]. 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.)


Corbetts

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]. 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
Click to enlarge

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
Click to enlarge

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 my next post on this topic.


* 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”.

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