The Angry Corrie 1: May 1991

Opinions... examines the causes and consequences of the Munrobagging Big Bang


During the coming weeks & months, TAC hopes to focus on many differing & divergent aspects of hillwalking. Themes will hopefully emerge over time & with contributions from fresh & previously unheard voices. But we need to start somewhere, so to set the ball rolling we'll begin by looking at the one issue which currently buzzes in your editor's bunnet more than any other: the commercialisation of hillwalking, & particularly the way this relates to the present obsession, both in print & on the hills themselves, with the pseudo-sport of Munrobagging. First, though, a glance at the broader picture.

Up until a decade & a half ago, perhaps even a little later, hillwalking was still very much a backwater activity. The number of active participants would appear to have been steady for quite some time, little or nothing was in print save for the work of popular specialists such as Seton Gordon & Frank Fraser Darling (and everyone went chugging about with their dogeared copy of Poucher's Scottish Peaks - its routes daubed onto hillpictures in thick white roadpainter's lines); the Highlands still had a fairly primitive roadsystem; all manner of obscure glens could be driven up with only a quiet word in the factor's ear; and very few people gave a damn about the exact heights of the hills, apart from a few mid-period Munro zealots whose day was to be just around the corner.

Now, in 1991, all that has changed. An ever increasing number of outdoor activists swarm north into the Highlands every weekend, summer or winter; each & every bookshop displays a rack weighed down with guidebooks, coffeetable tomes, expedition narratives & the like; improved roadsystems & wider carownership has allowed the hills to be "opened up"; almost all the old "private access" routes have reverted to their literal state - due simply to pressure & demand; and for a huge proportion of hillgoers, particularly those coming up from down south, the 3000' contour has become some kind of a Plimsoll line, below which any hill is lost in the great ocean of non-Munro obscurity.

These changes are self-evident, & to many - particularly the indigenous hillgoing population, those who are quite content just to potter about much as they ever did - profoundly worrying. Future space will be devoted to looking at the different aspects and facets of these changes, but we'll start with Munrobagging - and a little basic background that will be common knowledge to many. In the late 19th century, Sir Hugh Munro of Lindertis set out to remedy the cartographical vagaries of the Highlands by proving that there were more than the estimated 30 or so peaks of over 3000' in height. This his accomplished by means of strong legs, expeditionary fervour & an aneroid barometer. His resultant list showed there to be the best part of 300 of the hills in question, ranging far & wide across the Highlands - although, significantly, absent from certain large areas such as Moidart/Ardgour, Gaick-Tromie, most of the islands & all of Galloway & the Borders. Once the list existed, it was perfectly understandable that people should attempt to complete all the ascents - a feat which, oddly, escaped Munro himself. Two bearded clergymen came first, in the early part of the 20th century, soon to be followed by a steady stream of likeminded pilgrims, most of whom were taking 20 years or more to complete the "round" of what were now colloquially known as "Munros". By the end of World War II 8 people had completed the list, & by 1970 this figure had reached 100. So far so good; things were ticking over nicely, with a gradual, to-be-expccted speed-up due to the "opening up" of the Highlands mentioned above. Then, in 1974, came the single most significant event. Hamish Brown, an outdoor activities instructor from Fife, boldly undertook to climb all 279 Munros in a single 112 day expedition, using only pedestrianism & cycling as his means of transport. This had been attempted before, but no-one had quite matched Brown's logistical canniness & extensive prior knowledge - & no-one had previously succeeded. Brown quickly detailed his deeds in the most notable Scottish hillbook of recent years, Hamish's Mountain Walk, and suddenly everybody was, as they say, doing it. From there being 130 Munroists by 1974, by the end of 1990 there were at least 770, with many having now completed two or more rounds. At present, the trend is still increasing exponentially, such that the SMC Journal is considering ending its practice of detailing all known completions.

Various people have completed one-off rounds similar to Brown's, with Martin Moran, in 1984/85, succceding in a single winter (albeit using transport between peaks), whilst 1985-6 saw Craig Caldwell going round both Munros & Corbetts (i.e. the next category down: those peaks between 2500' & 2999'). More recently the fellrunners have been at it, & the shortest time for completion is now down to something around 70 days. These are the notable names, the extremists if you like, but far more significant in everyday terms is the vast army of Munrobaggers venturing out to their required peaks once a week, & for whom the target time is nowadays something between 5 & 10 years. They are so widespread, so ubiquitous, that it is now safe to assume that should one meet a dozen walkers on a Munro somewhere, at least 50%, possibly more, are bagging. For further evidence of this, simply compare & contrast the number of walkers (& the corresponding absence of wildlife) on a Munro with that on an adjoining hill which commits the cardinal sin of failing to reach the required contour. Neither does the sometimes-heard argument hold water that people climb the bigger hills precisely bccause they are bigger & therefore offer better views. Even on the driechest of days, Munro car-laybys will be more full than those for "lesser" hills which are nevertheless giving of their views.

Whilst no-one is saying there is anything intrinsically wrong with climbing Munros (heaven help me if there is - I've been up over 500 of the damn things!), the nub of the argument lies in the distinction between those for whom the Munros provide a basic framework for more general climbing - i.e. those who would have no qualms about going up lower things or venturing into Munro-free zones - & those for whom it is an absolute be all & end-all, for whom even Munros are to be climbed once & once only, & who dismissively speak of visiting lower peaks "once finished", or "when I've retired". Believe me, these people do exist in abundance!

The split between bagger & nonbagger tends to be seen as something of a north-south divide, & there is understandable truth in this. Those driving up from Bournemouth & Leicester every second weekend obviously need some kind of framework or target, & the Munros provide one that is just hard enough, just timeconsumingly awkward enough. Conversely, if one lives in the Central Belt or further north, hills can be climbed willynilly & there is not the same pressure on use of leisure time. However, it is precisely this situation which contributes to so many English deaths on our hills: drive 500 miles or more with only 36 Munros to go & with the intention of ticking off Bidean, & you will perforce set off up Bidean even if the weather is absolute shite. A ten-hour drive to a tearoom? No way! Except that you can't continually treat the Scottish hills with that kind of contempt & expect to get away with it indefinitely.

There are linguistic & attitudinal corollaries too, which normally barely warrant a mention but which shed considerable light on the basic bagging mentality. Consider the language of the game: talk of "doing" the Munros - as though one could ever be done with any hill; of "completing" the set - as though one's interaction with the Highlands could be displayed on a livingroom shelf like a run of Wisdens or so many pieces of Wedgewood. These possessive, almost materialistic attitudes cause considerable disquiet amongst run-of-the-mill hillgoers, who will occasionally be drawn into expressing a mixture of wry amusement & deep concern at the extent to which their love of the hills has, as they see it, been railroaded. Bagging & its associated attitudes are increasingly, & rightly, being perceived as impinging on topical areas such as conservation & access. Why oh why are 90% of walkers in the Munro areas whilst only a remnant wander elsewhere? (Some even hint at a conspiracy theory - confine the minions to the tourist paths in order to keep the "unspoilt" areas quiet.) The whole basic mentality seems, to many, to be wholly inappropriate in the context of the Scottish hills - quite apart from the way it channels newcomers down stiflingly narrow routes just when they should be encouraged to spread their wings & widen their experience.

Publications too. You read little of the above kind of arguments; the issues are very rarely aired. And your editor knows, through harsh experience, the difficulties of getting a non-Munro book into print at the present time. For 3 months of his life he walked along the main east-west watershed of Scotland, from the Border to Cape Wrath: an antithesis to Munrology if ever there was, with the route defined by the shape of the land rather than the ultimately arbitrary heights of the hills. Having written this up & repeatedly packed it off to publishers, he has then had to try & deduce whether the "unmarketable" tag with which it returned each time was simply a consequence of poor quality writing, or whether "market" equals Munro full stop. Certainly seeing some of the other things to have recently found their way into print does nothing to convince him that the latter is in no way a factor.

But enough sour grapes. To summarise, it would seem that with the drastic increase of numbers going to the hill (itself no bad thing of course), there has come an equally drastic seachange in attitude. Maybe, ultimately, the more mindless & blinkered exponents of bagging can be discounted as fundamentalist eccentrics treading their own solitary & isolationist path to whatever kind of self-understanding it is that they are looking for, whilst the overall mass of those pursuing this decidedly odd form of an otherwise fairly understandable pastime can simply be assigned as minor casualties of that great imponderable, the "pace & pressure of modern living".

Whatever the causes, the outcome - more & more baggers, many of them now "graduating" to the Corbetts having tired of the Munros - are always going to be with us. At least, that is, until the entire exercise starts being perceived as rather futile, whereupon the zealots will look elsewhere for their kicks & allow the mass of Scottish hillgoers to revert to slightly less frenetic behaviour patterns. Ultimately, though, the hills themselves might have the last laugh - as they always tend to do. Given that the Greenhouse Effect is supposedly about to push the sealevel higher by a few feet at least, it won't be long before we start chalking off the more marginal Munros. First Beinn Teallach, then Beinn a'Chlaidheimh, then the Bhasteir Tooth...

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