The Angry Corrie 23: May-Jul 1995

Dr Ben MacDoohey, of The Angry University, answers your Hillwalking Queries

I have completed a round of the Munros, the Furth, the Corbetts and the Donalds, and so I'm now at a bit of a loose end. However, I've heard of something called MacLeod's Tables. Can you tell me what these are and where I might obtain a copy?
- Anne Castile

Dinsdale MacLeod's Tables of Mountains which Bear an Amusing Resemblance to Everyday Objects was published for the first and only time in 1892, just one year after Sir Hugh Munro's rather more famous Tables. This may represent the first example of bandwagon publishing, with which we are so well acquainted today.

MacLeod himself claimed to be an illegitimate descendant of the MacLeods of Dunvegan, though this was strenuously and publicly denied by his parents, on many occasions. (Thirty years after his death, it is still a term of Dinsdale MacLeod's will that a Father's Day card be delivered to Dunvegan Castle each year.)

Victorian society did not welcome MacLeod's efforts, particularly the chapter dealing with Bosoms and the Male Parts. It is said that Queen Victoria's romance with Dark Lochnagar came to an abrupt end when she discovered what Meikle Pap actually meant. With the Royal Seal of Disapproval upon them, the Tables sank without trace. So many copies were publicly burned in the pulpit by Presbyterian ministers, it is doubtful if any survive today.

MacLeod is now remembered only in his native Skye, where the two flat-topped Healabhal peaks across the bay from Dunvegan have been renamed MacLeod's Tables in memory of his ill-fated book. (Plans to rename the Old Man of Storr were abandoned in the face of strong opposition from the Tourist Board.)

Can you settle a bothy argument? Why are the hills around Drumochter known as the A9 Munros?
- Craig Magee

These fine peaks are known more correctly as the fheighenain Munros, from an archaic Gaelic word. The meaning of the word is a little obscure, but it is often taken to mean debatable land. This would be the land on the border between Badenoch and Atholl, where many a clan dispute must have taken place in bygone days. (An alternative interpretation, pass of the big distillery, is now condemned by serious Gaelic scholars.)

Samuel Johnson, passing this way in 1773, recorded in his diary: This day, through desolate Anine valley. Informed by surly local Scotchman of mountains nearby, but clouds too thick for sight of same.

The abbreviation A9 seems much more recent. It pops up, apparently independently, in several hillwalking journals of the early 1970s. It is believed to have been coined in conscious imitation of K9, the robotic dog then featuring in the television series Doctor Who.

Incidentally, the road which passes between these peaks has now been christened The A9 in their honour.

If you're so smart, answer one simple question. How come there are 277 Munros?
- Tom Bowie

I'm glad you asked that. Although your tone is a little sarcastic, your question strikes right to the heart of deep matters of philosophy which occupy the finest mathematical minds of today.

As early as 300 BC, Aristarchus of Samos put forward what has become known as The Principle of Numerical Utility. In simple terms (as I believe you require), what this says is that there is no reason for a number unless it counts something. Only by a connection to the real Universe can numbers, as it were, justify their existence.

As science and mathematics progressed, so Aristarchus' Principle began to seem more and more convincing. More and more numbers achieved reality by becoming relevant to the real world of physics and mathematics. For instance, 1836 is the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. 276 is the smallest number whose aliquot series does not converge. 275 is the number of millilitres in a small bottle of Beck's. And so on.

By the late 1950s, a purpose had been found for every number less than 1,039,435,111. Every number, that was, except 277. The apparent pointlessness of 277 became a philosophical scandal. Bertrand Russell suggested that it should simply be omitted from counting, so that the number line progressed from 276 directly to 278. The 1960s saw Richard Feynman's famous $10 bet with Murray Gell-Mann: That there are 277 of some damn thing out there.

So it was that the mathematico-philosophical community heaved a collective sigh of relief when, in 1984, a young man on holiday in Fersit discovered Beinn Teallach, the 277th Munro, whilst perusing his new 1:25000 OS map.

In answer to your question, then: There are 277 Munros because all the other numbers were used up.

And what of the young man in Fersit? Alas, the scientific community has lost track of him. Mr Webb, if you are reading this, please contact the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences urgently. The Nobel Committee wishes to speak to you.

Ed. - A fine answer, but the Doctor fails to add that the number 277 has, since 1984, become somewhat oversubscribed. Nine years passed without any rival bids, then ace cricketer Brian Lara scored a famous 277 for the West Indies versus Australia at Sydney. This though proved to be a mere warm-up for his real claim - over numbers 375 (previously the K"chel Number for Mozart's Serenade No.11 in E flat major) and 501 (formerly a brand of jeans and something to do with darts). But just when 277 looked safely in the hands of Munroists once again, a startling new bid has come from the world of Scottish hills itself! The amount of lottery cash designated to buy and fund Mar Lodge has been widely reported as 10 million, but only the classier and more numerate papers have told the true story: that the full amount was a serendipitous 10.277 million!

TAC 23 Index