The Angry Corrie 42: Jul-Aug 1999

TAC 42 Index

The Munroist's Companion - Robin N Campbell

Scottish Mountaineering Trust 1999, viii+328pp, ISBN 0 907521 50 9, #16

Two views of the SMC's latest weighty tome - first the historical words discussed by Peter Drummond then the statistical data analysed by Alan Blanco

LIKE ALL the Scottish Mountaineering Trust's recent publications, this has a feel-good solidity to it: finely- illustrated covers, firmly bound, over 300 pages of text broken up by lots of clear black-and-white photos, maps and diagrams. It looks good value for #16. The rear cover suggests it to be in a trilogy with Munro's Tables and The Munros, for "this Companion deals with the origins, history and present state of Munro-bagging".

I initially fell into cheerful step with this companion, but on deeper acquaintance found it to be a rather stuffy volume with more than a hint of the tweedy atmosphere of the SMC's old guard. If that sounds a little in-your-face, what kind of tone is set by an opening para by contributor A G Cousins inviting the reader to "... fill your pipe, pour yourself a glass of malt, and come with me ..."? And what is one to make of the preface's remarks that: "I have excluded the writings of the swift, the multiply-completing [sic], the 277-in-one-gulpers, etc - for these are not typical Munroists". True. But Harold Raeburn, Bill Murray and Robin Smith were not typical rock and ice men, and would their writings be excluded from anthologies of Scottish mountaineering? I think not. Yet here is a book on the history of the Munros with nothing by the prolific Hamish Brown, whose Hamish's Mountain Walk was the Bible of a generation of Munro baggers. No bibliography lists the works of Brown, Caldwell, Moran or Townsend. Dempster's The Munro Phenomenon, which covers some ground common to Campbell's, has just passing references on p153 and p288. These Munroists don't belong here. Doesn't Campbell like the cut of these fellows' jibs? And not just the fellows - a mere footnote to a short sentence is the sole mention of Elizabeth Allan's 1995 book, Burn on the Hill, on second completer Ronald Burn.

Campbell's preface states that he seeks to provide some of the history and philosophy to Munro bagging that other books lack. However this book is certainly neither a history nor a philosophy, and is accurately sub-titled "An Anthology". Whilst Campbell himself contributes one or two serious historical items (such as "Munro and the Salvationist Tendency"), the book does not systematically set a historical context nor attempt explanations. Yes, I quite enjoyed his section introductions, for he has a light and often witty touch. He is also an accomplished practical joker, as demonstrated at the 1991 Munroists' gathering celebrating the Tables' centenary where he - with Munro as Banquo alongside - held the audience enchanted: photos of that jape are here. And I note that the picture captioned "[A E] Robertson modelling his newly purchased Wettermantel" on page 51 bears a striking resemblance to R N Campbell in shades.

So I cannot fault our guide's own style, rather his choice of hill company for this Companion. For he genuflects to the SMC's ancient and venerable even when their writings are, frankly, as dull as peatwater with few honourable exceptions. Munro himself, A E Robertson and Burn were uninspiring writers for the most part, yet Campbell nevertheless allows them considerable space in narratives that simply catalogue hills, events, times and heights without recourse to reflection. After struggling through the stylistic peat hag of Munro's work for instance, one wishes it was all in the crisp clear style of Tom Weir, whose biography of the man precedes a selection of Munro articles.

The next chapter is devoted to the first completer, A E Robertson, a man Campbell himself in his somewhat splenetic 1994 SMC Journal review of The First Munroist (TFM) described as "... a figure of modest historical significance" (my emphasis). Yet Campbell accords him 33 pages, a tenth of this book! In 1994 he berated TFM's authors for not having reproduced Robertson's Munro log in full; here he does reproduce it more fully (but with paraphrasing, in spite of earlier strictures), and I think many readers will find much of it tedious and in need of editing as was done by the authors of TFM. In TFM by contrast an attempt was made to weave the log into a history that set context and explanation.

Allow me, as one of TFM's co-authors, one example. On pp59-60 of the Companion, Campbell paraphrases part of AER's log dealing with a Sunday 29/5/1898 ascent of A'Mhaighdean, and then reproduces the entries relating to his mother's death a few days later, his return home and then to bagging a further week later. Campbell's added footnote comments merely that the ascent of the 29th is the only occasion when AER climbs on a Sunday. TFM p2 and pp18-19 devote paragraphs to the astonishing fact of a minister climbing on a Victorian Sabbath in the north-west Highlands, of the indication this and the swift return after bereavement gave of AER's burning desire to complete the Munros, and to his previous and subsequent Sabbath activities in relation to the hill. Biography, a form of history, can tell us more about a person than mere selections from a retrospective log.

Campbell also reproduces an article that TFM's authors did not find: a diary extract by J Logan Aikman recording his group's meeting with AER in the CIC hut. It catches quite well AER's patronising monologue, but after one page the point has been made, and by the extract's fourth page ennui becomes annoyance at the lack of editing. On the positive side, John Dow's 1933 article on "Munros, Beards and Weather" (also in the anthology A Century of Scottish Mountaineering) is a highly entertaining model of clarity to all future completers summarising their journey. And just one sentence in James Parker's "The Scottish Threes" crystallises the contradiction that many since have felt, when he speaks of: "... the tremendous monotony of some of the more uninteresting hills and [...] the great beauty of many of the regions into which the quest led me". One could say the same about the selection of articles in this book.

The reverence with which Robin Campbell treats the work of the SMC's reverends and ancients is the basic flaw: two-thirds of the SMC Journal articles selected are pre-1939 and many of the post-war selections actually hark back to those "golden days". It idolises the past, in particular the SMC's past. That's why the exploits of Munroists of the last quarter of the century are excluded. That's why women make no appearance in any of the many photos of the book, let alone in the text, in spite of their growing numbers in the lists: over 15% of 1990s completers are women, but you'd never know it from the collection of fine old buffers in the book! Even in the photos of active hill men, jackets and ties seem the order of the day: the picture of David Purchase makes him look (as well as sound) like a friendly bank manager. That's why, in the "Predicaments" chapter of eight articles, six pre-date the First World War, another recalls a 1925 Meet, and a 1980s article includes wind ensembles from several decades. Has no-one had a predicament in this half of the century? Or is it just that these now happen to ordinary Munroists who are not SMC members? Campbell tells us that the National Library deposits hold the writings of the hundreds of recent Munroists - could they not have revealed something new?

Even the chapter titled "The Modern Munroist" is given over exclusively to SMC Journal contributions by very senior Club members who appear to have done most of their Munros before the masses fanned out on to the hills. And while some of the veterans' writings are a delight (Ivan Waller's is charming), there is again no place for Hamish Brown, an SMC member in his seventh decade but clearly a young upstart having had the bad grace to do all the Munros in a oner - not the sort of chap for this Companions' Club.

What about the "philosophy"? Chapters 4 and 5 deal with matters tabular and definitional, and there are even some up-to-date items, including Purchase's piece on the modern obsession with classification, seeking to find an underlying mathematical truth. And Campbell's own magnum opus, the Variorum Table, is a breathtakingly detailed list of all Tops and separate Munros that are or were. I found this unreadable - my weakness, I know. By "philosophy" I'd looked for something exploring why people seem to need the framework of tables to go on the hill, and there's no answer here.

Should you buy it? Like all anthologies it'll be a curate's egg for readers, with at least something for everyone. Just bear in mind that Robin Campbell's vision of a Companion is restricted to a very narrow band within the SMC.


Sgurr Elite Mor and the Antisyzygy of the Munros

HAVING HAD the benefit of reading Peter Drummond's review before publication, I agree that A E Robertson's record of his Munros does make very tedious reading - although I don't suppose he intended his notes to be published. Robertson's account is so boring that a simple dated list of his Munros would be more revealing as well as more concise. Robin Campbell does well to drop the word "compleater", but still clings to the irritating "Salvationist" versus "Ultramontane" terminology, which was perhaps interesting and witty in 1892 but is now well past its sell-by date. And some appalling guff has managed to find its way into print, eg "scaling tops where literally almost foot hath never aforetime trod" (Robertson, p70); "and in every kind of weather do we ply the good shoe-leather" (Joseph Stott, p210). Campbell knows that some of this stuff is terrible (he even calls Stott's song "atrocious doggerel") yet he includes it anyway. Why? Perhaps it makes his own words sound better. Or perhaps not: "Clearly, in such a country no Antisyzygies are too Caledonian" (Campbell, p208). Absolutely, couldn't be clearer.

Anyway, having aired my own prejudices, it's time for a clinical assessment of Chapter 4, "Defining and Classifying", and Chapter 5, "The History of Munro's Tables", which together account for a third of the book. The first thing to say is that Campbell should be congratulated for compiling and publishing "A Variorum Table of the Munros and Tops". This 30-page table gives a summary of the five main editions of Munro's Tables: those of 1891, 1921, 1974, 1981 and 1997. For anyone who has ever wanted a copy of Munro's original 1891 Tables, Campbell's book is worth buying for this alone, as it has all the original data. The layout is different but in my opinion it's an improvement on Munro's original, which I find hard to follow - maybe due to the lack of grid refer- ences. All this data may appeal to only a minority of readers, but its inclusion gives the book real substance.

So much for the facts, what about the analysis? Sadly, this is where the book fails to deliver. Campbell's brief history of the published Tables is useful but gives little insight into recent changes. There are notes from Munro himself (1891), from Burn (1920), Dow (1949) and Inglis (1953), but nothing from the editors of recent revisions of the Tables. This is a big omission. I believe both Brown (1981 co-editor) and Bearhop (1997 editor) took the job seriously and carried out diligent research and consultation, yet there is nothing here to show how they approached the task or how they decided which summits to promote or delete. So the book compounds the impression that the SMC indulges in arbitrary tinkering with the Tables whenever it feels like it, and it is precisely this apparent arrogance that annoys the hell out of Munro baggers.

It also serves to undermine the value of the data. Why should we care about the whims of various editors over the years, when none of them appear to have gone about the task in any systematic way? For example, all Murdos (30m drop) are now Munro Tops, but unless this principle is made explicit, how can we know whether Beinn a'Chlachair East Top (first proposed by Ronald Burn in 1920, now known to have 29m drop) is a Munro Top? Do we have to wait another 15 years to find out? The book sheds no light on such matters, nor does it tells us anything about the bizarre promotion of Knight's Peak and Little Pap to Tops, or the even stranger Munro status of Stob na Broige rather than Stob na Doire. (Next time you're on Stob Coire Sgreamhach, look across to Buachaille Etive Mor and note the flattish Munro over- shadowed by a much higher and more shapely Top.)

Now I am not proposing that the SMC adopt a simple "drop" rule for determining Munro status, but it's very clear from the Variorum Table that some sort of order needs to be brought to the chaos. While every edition of Munro's Tables has improved on the previous one, they are all deeply flawed. Munro himself can be excused, as the maps he was working from were terrible and he had few second opinions to draw on. Campbell's book strongly implies that if Munro had had access to current maps and opinions then he would have made numerous amendments to his Tables. The SMC have therefore been right to revise them, but they keep botching the job. This is not just my opinion - it's also clear from reading the only substantial article in Chapter 4, in which David Purchase recommends a more systematic approach to the classification of mountains and tops, and presents a detailed case for the promotion of between five and nine more Tops to Munros and the deletion of one current Munro (Carn Ghluasaid). Personally I would not adopt Purchase's formula exactly, as I would give greater weight to absolute height, so that (for example) Stob Dearg on Ben Cruachan could be promoted (it's over 1100m high and is the most prominent peak visible from vast areas along the west coast). Yet I'm really past caring what formula the SMC uses to define Munros and Tops, as long as they choose something, anything, even if it's rigged to stay close to the original Tables. Perhaps they realise that if any explicit criteria were adopted then control of the Munros would pass into the public domain, open to anyone to assess, instead of staying within the privileged clutches of the SMC - and perhaps that is why they prefer to shroud the process in mystery.

As for the rest of Chapter 4, it's mostly harmless, with various SMC worthies making sensible but apparently futile suggestions for changes to the Munros, while Geoff Cohen outlines some "unsolved problems in Munroology". Cohen's piece is okay for 1979, but it really needs editorial comment on the subsequent solving of some of these problems, plus acknowledgement of dozens of weightier and wittier pieces in TAC on similar themes (the Sic Munroist, the Scottish Munro Centre, etc). This omission rather suggests that activities and articles only count if they're included in the SMC Journal.

So, I've found it difficult to judge these chapters without reflecting on the unsatisfactory nature of their subject matter. The rather sad conclusion is that the Munroists listed on the inside covers have been sold duff data, which is a pity as in some small way it downgrades their achievement. With all the changes over the years there are evidently numerous summits that have been climbed by some Munroists and not others. If someone who has climbed, say, Carn Ghluasaid but not Glas Leathad Mor on Ben Wyvis can be a Munroist (eg Robertson), then what about someone who has climbed both Glas Leathad Beag and Glas Leathad Mor but not Carn an Fhidhleir (eg Munro)? Campbell reckons there are "a grand total of 324 tops which have enjoyed the status of Munro in one or other version of the Tables." As far as we can tell from the book, Hugh Munro himself definitely climbed at least 315 of these, whereas the so-called first Munroist, A E Robertson, probably climbed less than 300, perhaps as few as 290. Of those Munros current in 1891 and in 1997, Munro missed one (Carn an Fhidhleir) and Robertson missed one (Ben Wyvis). Both missed the In Pinn, but this was not a Munro in 1891 (Robertson is believed to have climbed it some years after claiming to have completed the Munros). So to me the implication is clear - A E Robertson should not be regarded as the first Munroist. That honour should go to either Hugh Munro himself or to Ronald Burn. The evidence is all there in this book, just as there is plenty of evidence to justify further changes to the list of Munros. If the book helps bring about these changes it will have achieved far more than intended. Sadly, I suspect the Scottish Mountaineering Club is still held too strongly in the grip of tradition to react to the changes so clearly signalled by its own publication.

NB - What I really really wanted to know after reading the book was whatever happened to the "black boy" that Munro brought back from South Africa (page 44). Did he settle in Scotland, did he have a name, did he have children, and if so did they also call him "black boy"? Further research is surely needed.


TAC 42 Index