The Angry Corrie 69: Nov 2006-Feb 2007

New bottle, old wine (The Munros guidebook)

The Munros, edited by Donald Bennet and Rab Anderson

Scottish Mountaineering Club, 2006, ISBN 0 907521 94 0, £20

Review: Ian R Mitchell

When I first bit the bullet and decided to "compleat" my Munros in 1984, the only guide available to the 3000ft peaks in Scotland first tabulated by Hugh Munro was the Scottish Mountaineering Club's Munro's Tables, published in 1981. This was an unpretentious little book which consisted of a bare list, arranged geographically, of all the - then - 276 Munros, without any route descriptions and illustrated by simple, hand-drawn area maps and a few black-and-white photographs. It was a simple tick-list, leaving the aspiring Munrobagger to find his or her way to and up the mountains in question.

Such lack of sophistication did not survive the exponential explosion in the numbers of people on Scottish mountains in the 1980s, and 1985 saw the appearance of the SMC's The Munros, edited by Donald Bennet. Gone was the simple listing of peaks - each was now covered by a full-page route description and a colour photograph, with its own individual hand-drawn map. The phenomenal - and probably unexpected - success of this publication led to it being reprinted, a new edition appearing in 1991, then a third in 1999 which caused great, but welcome, controversy, by including the several new Munros added to the list in the 1997 revision of the Munro's Tables book itself. The present volume, a revised edition of the third edition, is published on the twenty-first anniversary of the first. The Munros has therefore come of age.

Having avoided controversy by not undertaking any further revision of the tables, there still being 284 Munros, what has the SMC changed in this volume? Well, the quality of production has attained new heights. The colour photographs are superb, both the new ones and some old favourites dating back even to 1985 which have benefited from the application of modern technology. The maps, though still hand-drawn, are much more detailed and user-useful. The index has been improved, and the order of the mountains in each section changed to fit with the sequence in which they are usually climbed. This is a guidebook, with little room for historical and social information. It would however have benefited from suggestions for further reading about the Scottish mountains. The page devoted to a VisitScotland advert might have been better used to this effect, in an effort to widen the sometimes narrow interests of the Munrobagger.

But what about the content? The owner of the 1985 guidebook will soon realise that most of the contributions here, though not all, are by the authors in that original volume. Indeed, many of 2006's route descriptions are virtual reprints of what was said in 1985. That might be no great mischief had they all been updated. Mountains themselves don't change much, and where geology has had its impact this is recorded, for example the large rockfall on Am Basteir which makes this Skye peak a much more serious proposition than formerly. However, there are indications that this is not entirely the case in relation to human impact on the mountains. In a reference to the Tarf bothy, the current edition says (p110): "This old shooting lodge is now in a ruined state, but one room is still weatherproof." This is a verbatim quotation from 1985, and was true then. Since 1985, however, various Mountain Bothies Association work parties have made the Tarf bothy a splendid shelter.

image from source document

The Tarf case caused me to wonder if this had been repeated in other areas. I checked on the book's footpath descriptions for the last three Munros I had climbed, for my current second round. The 1985 book announced that "From this point [the bridge over the Abhainn an Torrain Duibh] the route to Am Faochagach is trackless", which was still true in 1988 when I first climbed it. On my last trip, this year, there was a well-worn Munrobaggers' path right to the summit ridge - yet the outdated phrase is reused in the 2006 guide.

Meall nan Tarmachan had no path in 1985 when the SMC book recommended climbing "up easy grassy slopes to reach the broad SSE ridge." Apart from not using the word "easy" and substituting south for SSE, the same phrase describes the ascent today, despite the National Trust for Scotland having constructed a well-made path from the start of the walk to the very summit. The Devil's Point in the Cairngorms was indeed approached "along a well worn path" round the base of Carn a'Mhaim in 1985. To repeat the phrase in 2006 is to appear ignorant of the marvellously engineered new path that now leads thence from Derry Lodge.

Admittedly my methodology was not scientific, based on three cases out of almost 300 mountains, but are these three merely coincidences? Or are they indicative of a possibility that some of the less-frequented Munros are not getting the checks on their paths that they might? Should some of the SMC's guidebook writers, at least on the evidence of this volume, be getting out a bit more? Or should the Old Guard indeed be superannuated, and an entire rewrite be given to a new generation? After 21 years, we should not be too dazzled by the gorgeous pictures in The Munros to realise that we are reading much of the same text we read in 1985.

That was then, this is now.

Ed. - Three additional observations about The Munros:

- The "Stalking, Shooting & Lambing" section in the Notes (p3) includes the following: "There is no stalking anywhere on Sundays, although requests to avoid disturbing deer on the hills may still be made." This is true in the sense that a few estates do try to discourage walkers and climbers on the Sabbath, but no previous edition of The Munros said this, nor does the current (2002) Corbetts companion have it. Even the Hillphones section in the new book (p276) observes merely that "There is no stag stalking on Sundays."

The new guidebook isn't the only place where the SMC/SMT has inserted this comment: the same form of words appears in its 2005 Scottish Rock Climbs (p14). Hence it seems to be deliberate policy, arguably somewhat anomalous in light of the current Scottish access law. Many walkers and climbers will surely regard this as a curious - and rather worrying - line for the SMC to be taking.

- Also in the Notes, on p2, Munro Tops are defined as "summit heights 3,000ft (914.4m) and higher with a drop of at least 98.4ft (30m)". Again this is new to this edition, although it's not a new concept: a Scottish 3000ft summit with 30m drop has been known, since the first TACit Table was published in 1995, as a Murdo. Munro Tops have traditionally (and perfectly reasonably in this writer's opinion) lacked any drop or separation definition, just as do Munros themselves. Currently, according to the 1997 edition of Munro's Tables, there are 227 subsidiary Munro Tops (511 Tops total minus the 284 main Munros), but as 66 of these have less than 30m drop this "new" SMC definition would reduce their number to 161 and see off summits as diverse as Little Pap and the Bhasteir Tooth. Yet the maps provided throughout the Munros guidebook show Munro Tops as normal - there are 227 white triangles including the Pap, the Tooth and all their low-drop friends. As Mr Gaye once said, What's going on?

- And on the copyright page there is this, also new: "SMC (r) and Munro's Tables (r) are registered trade marks of the Scottish Mountaineering Club". Blimey. Where might this lead? Is the SMC about to start asking book, magazine and website publishers for formal acknowledgement and/or a fee every time they make mention of either the club or, even more absurdly, the list of Munros?

TAC 69 Index