The Angry Corrie 29: Nov-Dec 96


Book review - The Munros: Scotland's Highest Mountains

by Cameron McNeish

(228pp, ISBN 1 900455 13 7, #15), Colin Baxter Publications for Lomond Books, 1996

Reviewed by Val Hamilton

A new Munros book, just in time for Christmas. But what does it offer apart from an easy gift choice for those relatives who still refuse to buy you walking socks, however much you plead? Well, despite the Colin Baxter connection, this is not the glossy coffee table offering you might expect. The pictures, about half by CB, are okay, but few make you really stop and look. Compare and contrast the recently published The Best of Poucher's Scotland. And in fact this is not what the book sets out to be.

In his introduction, McNeish sets out clearly two aims, which I am going to quote in full (and you'll soon see why):

  1. To offer a choice of route up the mountains, and in particular, ways of combining several Munros together to make a satisfying day out. It would also serve the purpose of spreading the load on the hill, taking the more adventurous away from the popular honeypot routes.
  2. To form a good substantial read which can motivate and inspire people to go out and climb the hills in question. Many people climb the hills without actually getting to know them, climbing and descending by the shortest possible route. I hope this book will introduce them to different aspects of the hills' characters, in a more holistic way.

Starting with "spreading the load", we'll avoid the well-trodden argument that refraining from producing another book about these pressurised hills would have removed this requirement. So what new and exciting approaches does McNeish conjure up? Being one of the few non-mathematically bent contributors to TAC (and while on this subject could Murdo please be brought back to this earth from Fuller's?), I decided not to count how many of McNeish's routes were the same as those in the SMC Guide. From a quick scan, however, it would seem to be the vast majority, but this is slightly unfair as this impression is derived from the red lines on the "unique hill-shaded maps". Despite having been brought up on the not-unique hill-shaded Peak District one-inch map, I think these maps are one of the book's greatest weaknesses. At first glance they look quite attractive and catch the eye, but they take up a lot of space and serve the text very poorly. Even when several routes are described in the main text, only one route is shown on the map, often a there-and-back. There are numerous examples of this, one of the worst being Schiehallion. In the text McNeish expounds on the "disastrous erosion of the footpath" from the Braes of Foss car park. He therefore offers two alternative routes. But what does the map show? The trade route, "one of the most eroded footpaths in the Highlands".

Another puzzling case is that of the Mamores, where Kinlochleven is stated to be the ideal base, but the map shows only Glen Nevis: the south side of the Mamores does not exist and there's certainly no sign of Kinlochleven. Others which made me shout in horror were Beinn a'Bheithir (up to the pass, bag left and right) and Sgurr a'Mhaoraich. In these examples, though, other routes are described, but this isn't always the case. As someone who always tries to make even the walk to the shops a circular one, there-and-back just won't do: there has to be at least some lollipop element. For Beinn Eighe, he just goes up to Ruadh-stac Mor. On Lurg Mhor he returns by the same route, which may be quicker as he suggests, but if he had actually tried dropping down to the head of Loch Monar, he would have found there is a very good old path taking you back up to the Bealach Bhearnais. What has "quicker" got to do with it anyway?

There is however one exception to this. Although in both the full and brief route descriptions (this "planning information" is in a column at the side) McNeish just takes us up Ben Wyvis and leaves us there, the map shows the same circular route through bracken-filled bogs recommended in the SMC Guide, which I am convinced is a Bennet/Brown joke.

The book's second aim (remember that?) has several different aspects. First, "a good substantial read": since the initial impression is of large print and lots of white space, it doesn't feel substantial, and the piecemeal repetitive format doesn't lead to flowing text. So how about motivation and inspiration? Try these phrases at home: "a long trudge", "interminable slopes", "featureless areas". Do they motivate and inspire you to get out there and climb? The Cairnwell and Carn Aosda may be the "most depressing Munros in the country", but why not climb them from the Baddoch Burn and try very hard to look west not east?

McNeish is particularly scathing about my local hills, especially Ben Chonzie and the Glen Lochy summits. Yet the qualities of roundedness and space which he dismisses there are extolled with reference to his local hills, the Drumochter and Monadh Liath areas, about which he displays some genuine enthusiasm and passion.

There are also frequent signs of real baggery: "unfortunately, only two of the Five Sisters are Munros"; we're told twice that "most folk" climb Sgurr a'Mhaoraich and Gulvain in the same day. The shortest route up Ben Klibreck is recommended yet if you really want people to get to know that vast mountain, why not suggest crossing the Bealach Easach down to Loch Choire - a magical place - then climb the ridge to Meall Ailein, past the monument to the victims of a naval plane crash in 1955, and then eventually to the summit?

This is the sort of information, and more, that I would expect from a book which aims to give me a holistic insight into the mountains I am climbing. There are occasional snatches of what might have been: things I didn't know about the Clach Dearg of Ardvorlich House, or Duncan Ban MacIntyre and Achallader; explanation of the features of the Minigaig; sensible context on why Knoydart is now a wilderness. Yet overall, a marked contrast to a slim yellowed paperback I came across recently, The open road: a book for Glasgow wayfarers, by A MacGregor Scott, published in 1926. Each densely printed page is packed with literary and historical references providing breadth and depth about the walks covered. A real gem. Here, had there been just been one bit of extra information per hill, Claim Two would have had some justification.

So much for the author's stated aims: what about the publisher's blurb? It's not a good sign if the first phrase on the jacket is "most up-to-date": well it should be until the next one is published. Even so, the book has been overtaken by events such as the closure of Glen Tilt to cars, and I think it's a while since three-digit telephone numbers worked. There is however a concerted effort to use metric data, but I suspect McNeish was not totally at home with it - which would explain why Ben Nevis is described as "just over 300m higher" than Ben Macdui, and why he delights in the experience of a "4000m" glissade off An Teallach: must have been quite something!

The cover states "A royalty [30%? 10%? 1%?] from the sale of this book is donated to the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service." I am sure this will be particularly welcomed by the Skye team in view of statements like "Most hillwalkers take about 10-12 hours for the trip, from Gars-bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean."

I can't see how anyone who has read Butterfield's High Mountains of Britain and Ireland can claim that this book is "the most comprehensive guide to the Munros". The main thing it adds to the SMC Guide is Gaelic pronunciation, which I welcome of course, and it certainly mentions every bothy you can think of, even giving the grid reference of S****v*ll, despite the MBA's guideline agreement with the Outdoor Writers' Guild. Interesting, though, that the existence of one non-MBA bothy of great utility to baggers is not even hinted at, perhaps because of the very strongly worded plea by its owners against publicity. The MBA gentleperson's agreement approach doesn't seem to work.

At least there's no claim to be the most accurate guide, since as you might expect by now there's a fair smattering of typos, often repeated. The "Inn Pin" rears its familiar craggy head again but at least there's consistency, as it's called the "Innaccessible Pinnacle" too.

If this book had not had "Munros" in the title, would it have been published? I doubt it. Oh well, there goes my dreamed-of column in the TGO. I hope the Ed's is still safe.