The Angry Corrie 19: Jul-Sep 1994

Genuine Exclusive! - The Lost Donalds

Discovery is a funny thing. Whether you be Crick and Watson striving for the structure of DNA, a chess player suddenly noticing a possible sacrifice in the Scheveningen Sicilian, or someone waking one morning to find the postie's brown envelope contains a pools cheque for 38.07, the moment of revelation is always surprising. Sometimes - as in the case of Crick and Watson - the discovery is the culmination of months, years of dedicated work: 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration, that kind of thing. Creative discovery - be it in chess, the arts, wherever - is often more of a sudden flash: a non-linear, scales-falling-from-eyes process of which crossword-solving is perhaps the quintessential common example. And if you win the pools, inherit a fortune, find a tenner in the street, there is a sense of achievement which seems - not necessarily accurately - to have come after absolutely no input on your own part.

There are doubtless other ways of discovering things, but these are perhaps the three main categories. In each, there is often the sense of the discovery having sat there all along, just waiting to be noticed. This is well documented: in an Edgar Allen Poe story, The Purloined Letter, a long-searched-for missive is finally discovered in the most obvious of all places, the letter-rack, where it should be. And returning to the chess allusion, a famous early twentieth-century master, Dr Tartakower, once commented that "the mistakes are all there on the board, waiting to be made".

Discovery can be joyous, or grievous, or just plain matter-of-fact. It can also amuse - particularly when revisionist in nature, when suddenly correcting a long-held erroneous notion. Often this latter kind of discovery is the most striking of all: you, I, everyone has blithely believed ABC to be true all along, yet suddenly it's a case of our getting used to DEF instead.

So it was that two of your TAC faves - the editor himself along with hill-erudite Alan Blanco - set off one day early in May for a stroll-of-the-mill ascent of the fairly obscure 665m Perthshire peak, Uamh Bheag (pronounced something like Hoover bag). There was no untoward sense of anticipation, no idea that the history - or at least the literature - of Scottish hillclimbing was about to be changed, changed utterly. We were simply out for a half-day saunter which well suited both Blanco's insatiable appetite for new Marilyns (hills with a 150m reascent on all sides) and your editor's current need for gentle, grassy-sloped mounds to ease his recovery from a fractured pelvis. Nothing unusual at all. Yet Archimedes was preparing to clamber, singing, into his bath; the apple was about to crash down on Sir Isaac's head...

Having mentioned Marilyns, now is the time to discuss the way Scottish hills are organised into lists, or Tables. The rights and wrongs of this - the way people's whole attitude and approach to hillclimbing is governed by such lists - has been frequently debated in these pages, and it's not the intention here to further stoke that particular debate. Suffice it to say these lists exist, are referred to ubiquitously and, in the case of the Munros, have seeped into the common currency of Scots-speak. But what if - deep breath, prepare to utter heresy - what if one of these sacrosanct lists contains a serious error? What if we have been conned all along? What if we had, unquestioningly, accepted the result of the compiler's assumptions as gospel truth when, in fact, it's as reliable a source text as the Testament of Job?

For most walkers, the three main, synoptic lists (with Blanco's Marilyns only just catching on) are the SMC-governed Tables of Munros, Corbetts and Donalds. Munros, being in the primacy for most folk, occasionally undergo disputes over which hills or tops should or should not be "in". These are fairly technical debates: no-one questioned whether, when Ruadh Stac Mor and A'Mhaighdean were "discovered" to be over 3000ft, they should have been included. Of course they should. Similarly, only perhaps Irvine Butterfield persists in believing that Beinn an Lochain - now known to be well under the magic mark - should retain its place in the canon. The real nitpicking takes place over Brown and Donaldson's 1981 revisions - doubling, like DOS 6.0, the Munro capacity of Liathach and An Teallach whilst obliterating lots of eastern stuff. But this, ultimately, is only pedantry; few really care, most simply get on with climbing everything anyway.

Corbetts, perhaps through being perceived as "junior", have endured correspondingly less debate. A few reascent revisions - Sgor Mor, Beinn an Tuim etc - confusion over Mull's Beinn Talaidh (the OS say either 761m or 763m, the SMC split the difference and go for 762m), plus the ongoing, stupid inclusion of both, rather than just the one, of Gairbeinn and Corrieyairick Hill. But little else.

And then there are Donalds. Collated into a list by Percy of that ilk, these comprise "All hills in the Scottish Lowlands 2000ft in height and above". The very reasons many walkers swerve them - not in Highlands, never over 2800ft in height, rolling rather than rocking - make them difficult to segregate into hills and tops. The Corbett/Marilyn criterion of 500ft reascent doesn't really work here, so Percy Donald concocted a wacky - if endearing - formula involving fractional units of height and distance, with a separate Donald defined by 17 or more of these units.

These mathematical convolutions have, it seems, scared off the revisionists. In recent years the only change has been the switch of Carlin's Cairn from top to hill, upping the latter total to 87. Thus we have been handed down a small - in both senses - and under-frequented spread of hills comprising three main blocks - Galloway, Borders, Ochils - with the outliers of Windy Gyle, Cauldcleuch Head and Tinto thrown in for good measure.

This has always seemed a strange, quaint grouping - a lumpenproletariat of rejected Scottish hills. Even had old Percy defined his dividing-line not as the Highland Fault but as the Southern Upland one, the Ochils and Tinto would have been offski pronto, yet major groups such as Lammermuirs and Broughton Heights - less than 2000ft - would have still been out in the cold. The only way to ensure Donalds covered a wider cross-section of non-Highland hills (eg Campsies, Pentlands) was to drop the height requirement to, say, 1800ft. The only way, that was, until recently...

Back to the slopes of Uamh Bheag. It began with your editor wondering aloud where the Highland Fault ran hereabouts. Blanco responded with a joky remark about Uamh Bheag being a Donald really, to which the obvious response was that we must be north of the Fault, since Uamh Bheag wasn't a Donald. Then we both stopped, halfway up a steepish grassy slope, rain dripping down our necks, and gawped at each other as the cartographical semantics sank in. If Uamh Bheag was south, not north of the Fault, then it had to be a Donald! The apple had fallen.

There was, initially at least, doubt. The ordinary OS Sheet 57 gave no indication of geological faultlines, and even though we had a strong inkling that Glen Artney was one of those features which, like the Loch Lomond Inches a few miles further west, ran right along the Fault itself, we couldn't there and then be sure. That had to await a return home, and a frantic editorial opening up of a big British Geological Survey north sheet (Solid), followed, seconds later, by a phonecall across Glasgow with good news. Not only was the Highland Fault marked, but Uamh Bheag had a spot-height all to itself, some two kilometres southeast of the dotted line!

By this time we had already established, simply from the standard OS sheet, that if Uamh Bheag was a Donald, then the hill immediately to the east must be too. This, although 632m, wasn't properly named on Sheet 57 - but since crags just below the summit were labelled Creag Beinn nan Eun, the hill itself could justifiably go by the name of Beinn nan Eun. So now we had not one, but two new Donalds! (Plus a couple of tops: Meall Clachach, northwest of Uamh Bheag, and Beinn Odhar, west of Beinn nan Eun.)

In simple statistical terms, all this bumps the Donald totals up to 137 tops including 89 separate hills. But the shock value of the discovery will, for regular and devoted hillgoers, surely transcend mere figures. It's extraordinary that these hills have been completely overlooked for so many years. Extraordinary that many people have been on many Donalds without ever noticing (including your editor, who at the time had climbed all but two of the existing list, plus a load of repeats). Extraordinary that, whilst other 2000ft Highland hills come close to being Lowland - particularly Cat Law north of Kirriemuir and Meall nan Caorach east of the Sma' Glen - nobody has apparently ever taken out a geological map, looked at the Highland Fault, and said Wait a minute...

TAC's "first ascent" of Uamh Bheag (from the Bracklinn Falls road) was in cloudy conditions, but your editor has since returned to climb both new Donalds from Auchnashelloch, near the Glen Artney road-end. He can report that not only is the Highland/Lowland dichotomy extremely obvious on the ground, but views from the various tops are surely among the best on offer from any Donalds anywhere. Vorlich, Stuc a'Chroin, Lawers, Ledi and numerous other Highland bens all lie out there like killers in the sun, making the previous best ringside seats - from the distant Ochils - seem poor in comparison. The Donalds are also excellent in themselves. Readers not already familiar with them should of course make the effort personally, but suffice it to say that Meall Clachach carries a massive erratic right on its summit, Uamh Bheag is lovely and grassy almost all round, and the scraggy cliffs of Creag Beinn nan Eun and Am Beannan are on a par with anything similar in the Gairies of the Carsphairn hills. It also feels good to have a pair of Donalds with proper Gaelic names.

When it comes to topography, whilst the summit of Eun is in no doubt - a couple of sticks in a sea of peat-hags - the top of Uamh allows scope for the inevitable cartographical debate. The Landranger sheet gives a summit of 665m at gridref 691119, along with a 662m trig point at 696117. The highest point of this eastern shoulder is, however, slightly above the trig: the 1:25000 sheet gives a spot-height of 664m at 696119, while knocking down the main summit to 664m. Thus it seems highly likely - although not absolutely certain - that the summit is the 691119 point. This would be the best place for it: a neat cairn and a fine view all round.

We could go on, but there's no point: if you haven't already done so, go and climb these hills and see for yourselves. Three final points remain worth mentioning though. Firstly, it will be intriguing to see if the SMC do indeed revise their list at the next reprint. They certainly should - their names would be Ludd if they resisted the change - but such a traditionally conservative organisation might find it hard to swallow its pride and admit that a fairly major omission has been perpetuated over the years.

Secondly, your editor has long mused over the possibilities of what he has come to call the DCM walk - ie the climbing of a Donald, a Corbett and a Munro in a single day. Previously this had to have included an Ochil - say Ben Cleuch, followed by a traipse across Strathearn to Auchnafree Hill and Ben Chonzie, some thirty miles total. Now, of course, this has been drastically reduced: a Glen Artney circuit of Uamh Bheag, Ben Vorlich and Meall na Fearna would be little more than a longish summer tramp.

And thirdly, having been moved to finally "finish" his round of the "traditional" Donalds with Molls Cleuch Dod on July 2nd and a birthday ascent of Talla Cleuch Head on July 10th, your editor hereby stakes a claim to be the first person to have knowingly climbed all eighty-nine peaks of Scotland's most underrated list of hills...

TAC 19 Index