The Angry Corrie 52: Dec 2001 - Feb 2002

The War Against Terribleism

CURIOUSLY, TAC51 included two features which each prompted more immediate reader feedback than anything in the previous ten years of the magazine. One was John Burnett's appeal for information on Scotland's highest trees/houses/pubs etc, and a batch of responses to this appears on pp14-15. The other stimulating piece was what one reader described as the "forensic" analysis of Cameron McNeish's rather-too-familiar descriptions in his 1994 book The Corbett Almanac (see TAC51, pp8-11).

A selection of readers' letters on this is printed on page 19. Note that not one letter or email has come in defending McNeish: the tone of what is given here is pretty unanimous. Had there been any criticism/dissent, we would have published it. A couple of readers argued that the TAC51 piece was overlong (it ran to almost four pages in a small font size), and this is a fair point. However, what was the alternative? Keeping it down to two-and-a-bit pages (as was originally intended) would have meant losing a fair chunk of "evidence", and there would also have been the risk of providing an easy route for McNeish to brush off the case on the grounds of shallow research. So space was made for a tightly argued, extensive piece of analysis, and generally this has gone down well (although not in Newtonmore, one suspects). There was, it should be noted, no response at all from the man himself, not a squeak, although we've heard from a third party that he did see the TAC51 piece despite requesting that he not be sent the magazine.

Then, shortly after TAC51 appeared, McNeish suddenly found a second front opening up against his wide-and-fast attitude to fellow authors and the hillgoing public in general - and his reaction on this occasion was instructively different. He appeared on the 13/10/01 edition of BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programme, in which the presenter, Euan McIlwraith, broached the subject of some mysteriously under-explained changes to the heights of Munros. (When asked, the BBC said that the story had been based "on something on the internet".)

An obvious guess as to the source was that the new Explorer maps, now beginning to cover the Highlands, had produced wholesale height changes. There was nothing to support this on the OS website however, and no one had heard any rumours along these lines. Eventually Richard Webb pointed out that the notoriously variable central top of Beinn a'Chaorainn north of Loch Laggan had been increased from 1050m to 1052m, and this one height-change appears to have formed the basis of the story.

This wasn't explained on Out of Doors, but never mind. The item was mainly of interest for McNeish's comments on the Scottish Mountaineering Club and commercialism:

Euan McIlwraith: This week comes news that has rocked the mountains and could even topple the odd one or two. Because it would seem that the Ordnance Survey have decided to knock the occasional yard or so off the official heights of our mountains. Which means that many Munros aren't - and people like Cameron McNeish, the editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, says "Enough is enough".

Cameron McNeish: I think it's always very difficult when the Ordnance Survey come out and say "We've measured this wrongly", or "We've remeasured it and it's slightly higher than it was before", and we hear this sort of thing every couple of years with Mount Everest and K2 - you know, somebody comes out and says K2's actually higher than Everest, so you get a whole squad of people wanting to climb K2 then, and all sorts of expeditions, and then you find that that's not the case. And I think the same thing happens with Munros - to be honest I'm kind of cynical about the whole Munros thing, even though I've written books about it and you know climbing Munros is fantastic and Munrobagging's a wonderful pastime. But I think the last time, when the Scottish Mountaineering Club tinkered with all the Munro guides as a result of a resurvey by the Ordnance Survey, you know, as at the same time as they were wanting to sell a lot of guidebooks - all the old ones had almost gone...

EMcI: You cynic...

CMcN: Yeah, well, absolutely, and you know, I had to do the same myself, you know, to rewrite my own books. But it really makes ... it's a commercial thing I think is what I'm really saying, and it gets people out buying more books - and no, I'm not strictly blaming the Scottish Mountaineering Club, it was a resurvey after all. But I would like to go back to Munro's original list - if we're going to call them Munros, let's stick with the list that he came up with. It doesn't matter if Beinn a'Chaorachain [sic] is perhaps two metres higher than it was before, it doesn't make a great deal of difference. And the news reporter said it might make a difference in navigation - this particular mountain has quite a difficult ... the top of the corrie cornices in the winter and it's on a bend and sometimes people walk through the cornice. To be honest, two metres is not going to make a great difference in navigation, so my plea to the Ordnance Survey and to the SMC and everybody else is let's leave them alone, let people go and enjoy the mountains - it doesn't matter all that much. Munro's list is the important one - let's stick with that.

EMcI: Because it's almost like changing the football strip of the premier league clubs - you've got to go out and buy a new one.

CMcN: Ah well, you're as cynical as I am. I mean, yeah, that's exactly it. And I'm sure the Scottish Mountaineering Club would deny what I've suggested but I don't think there's any doubt about the fact that when you do change ten Munros, and you change them in the guidebook, people come out and buy the new guidebooks. So there is all that sort of commercialism, and I know not everybody likes that sort of commercialism, but my plea would be let's go back to Munro's list as they were and, you know, let's stick with that list. The man, he was a great man, he did us all a great service in doing that, let's stick with that.

A few observations:

  • The Munro Almanac, "written" by the Munro-cynic McNeish but uncannily similar to the SMC's work in the same field is believed to have sold in excess of 45,000 copies thus far. Goodness knows how many his larger-format book The Munros has sold, but for background on the price scam surrounding this, see TAC31, pp10-11.
  • A return to Hugh Munro's original 1891 list is by no means a new idea - see various of the comments in TAC33, for instance. But does McNeish realise that, along with a considerable number of other idiosyncrasies in this list, Munro initially didn't regard the "Inaccessible Peak" (as it then was) as a main summit? It was the "Ordnance Point" on the main body of Sgurr Dearg that was listed as the chief tickable top until the first revision in 1921. (See p201 of Robin Campbell's The Munroist's Companion for chapter/verse on this.) McNeish's suggestion that the In Pinn be deleted sits oddly with his 1991 letter to the SMC now lodged with the National Library of Scotland. Here he cites Cairn Gorm as his first-ever Munro, in August 1965, "followed the next week by the Innaccessible [sic] Pinnacle, a much more memorable experience." So it's a shame that he now wants it kicked out of the list.
  • The dodgy cornice on Beinn a'Chaorainn (if that's what McNeish was actually on about) is a red herring in this context. Yes, people have fallen through this with worrying regularity (see the introductory note and three-falls-in-an-hour saga on pp728-730 of the 1995 SMC Journal). But contrary to the point McNeish appeared to be trying to make on the radio, the recent height revision makes no difference to the location of the summit. This has been given as the central (of three) tops since the 1974 tables - indeed it had a previous spell at 1052m between 1974 and 1997. There was then a four-year period when it was mapped with a 1049m spot height (although accompanied by a 1050m contour ring), but at this time the south top was itself regarded as no higher than 1049m - see the footnote on page 37 of the current (1997) edition of Munro's Tables : "Observation on the ground suggests that the central peak is the highest point". (John Hinde, in his introduction to the 1995 SMC Journal accident list, offered a personal view that the south top was at that stage the Munro, but this was never borne out by the official listing.) So the addition of two or three metres to the height of the central top - if that is what the OS is suggesting - makes no difference to where walkers have to go to claim their Munro tick. This remains the central top.
  • In light of this (and with reference to his Everest / K2 analogy), McNeish seems to be suggesting that baggers should deliberately stop at the lower top of Beinn a'Chaorainn because (a) it was regarded as the main summit in 1891 and (b) an awkward dog-leg lies ahead. On that basis any number of "ascents" could be made where the top wasn't actually reached - Sgurr Dearg rather than the In Pinn, the last awkward bit of Stac Pollaidh, even Everest South Summit so as to not risk that nasty Hillary Step.

The main gripe about McNeish's radio interview concerned none of these things, however. Instead, it was the blatant slagging of the SMC for making money out of self-generated Munro revisions: "...the last time, when the Scottish Mountaineering Club tinkered with all the Munro guides as a result of a resurvey by the Ordnance Survey ... as at the same time as they were wanting to sell a lot of guidebooks - all the old ones had almost gone...". And this from someone whose own books are, to put it as generously as possible, blatant cover versions of existing SMC material. The words hand, bite and feed come to mind.

Now TAC has had its share of harsh words to say about the SMC over the years (mainly along the lines that its innermost sanctum is inhabited by a disproportionate number of crusty old fossils who regard themselves as a cut above the great unwashed). But it's common knowledge that the SMC channels the bulk of its earnings from book sales etc into the charitable Scottish Mountaineering Trust, which in turns regularly dishes out funds to all manner of hill-related projects - eg see p741 of the current SMCJ.

Ken Crocket - a leading SMC moderniser and good friend of TAC - is the current SMC president. He also holds down a column on the Scotland Online website, alongside that by TAC's editor, and it was here that he chose to react to McNeish's radio outburst in hearteningly strident terms. The whole piece can be found at the snappily titled =58988&news_type_id=640, but it's worth picking out this tasty morsel: "It's tough at the top Cameron, though I have been hearing persistent rumours that perhaps he may not have actually visited all the tops. There are other stories too, of the remarkable similarities his written walk descriptions have to those published in SMC guides."

Whereas McNeish had made no attempt to threaten, sue or crawl with regard to the plagiarism piece in TAC51, he was on the phone to Crocket quicker than a descent of the An Stac screes. Grovelling apology was the chosen mode (evidently he's shit-scared of being sued by the club), and the SMC's main man duly warned TGO's finest in no uncertain terms as to his future conduct. A promise to apologise in print was also extracted, and this duly appeared in the December issue of TGO. It was rather half-baked however, and was "cheekily" (as one observer put it) split across two different bits of the magazine (see TGO Dec, pages 6 and 13). "Following representations from the SMC Cameron wishes to apologise for any suggestion he made that commercial motives were the prime purpose of any reclassification of Munros and Corbetts." The snippet went on to detail the good works of the SMT over the past decade, eg 235,000 donated to footpath work, 22,000 to MRTs, etc. Whether McNeish will also go back on Out of Doors to apologise remains uncertain. He perhaps should: apologies ought really to inhabit the same medium as the initial error. (There was amusement in hearing him gratuitously praise the SMT during an unrelated radio discussion about access on 28 Nov.) It will also be interesting to see whether TGO publishes any letters about all this, or prefers to move swiftly on.

As if all that wasn't enough for the poor beleaguered celebrity climber, there has been yet another set-to in which he appears to have lost friends and failed to influence people. McNeish had been long booked to open the Boots Across Scotland safety day in Stirling on 22 Sept (which an impressive 800 people duly attended). But a month before the event, and just two days before the publicity material went to press, McNeish pulled out, claiming he was double-booked with a trade fair in Harrogate. He wasn't due a fee for the Stirling gig - only expenses and a gift, as Boots is, like the SMT, a charity - so it's no surprise that Boots insiders have been using phrases such as "he stitched us up" and "we think he had a better offer". In the event, Hamish MacInnes stood in at short notice and was reckoned a better catch than the man who couldn't come.

So come on Cameron, defend your corner! The offer of right-to-reply space in TAC still stands. You're a writer - have your say.

TAC 52 Index