The Angry Corrie 58: Jul-Sep 2003

It's that hill again... (Foinaven)

I AM NOT SURE how to say this, but I fear that the Foinaven controversy may have returned. As you probably remember, there was a flurry of activity in the early 1990s when an Ordnance Survey 1:10000 sheet mapped Ganu Mor, the main summit, as 914 metres - a jump from the previous 908m. Now 914.4m is a very significant height in Scotland, and should a hill reach this level, aka 3000 feet, it will sprout paths. Munro fever duly struck the far northwest and the Rhiconich Hotel went on a marketing offensive, cashing in on the strange phenomenon whereby an extremely fine hill became "interesting" overnight. Even today, a decade on, labels Foinaven as a Munro in its gazetteer.

In the way that goldrushes do, the hype fizzled out in the face of the reality that 914m does not (necessarily) equate to 3000ft. In the absence of a vital decimal point, it was probable that Foinaven was a 2999ft hill. The OS didn't give a height in feet, and the margin for error does not allow for meaningful use of decimal points, so Foinaven was "safe", at least for the time being. Apart from Streetmap, all current listings of Foinaven treat it as a Corbett: the 1997 SMC Tables gives 914m without any imperial height, while Alan Dawson's 1999 Corbett Tops booklet gives 914m and 2999ft.

Easter 2003, and in the face of probable redundancy I headed for the remaining wanted Sutherland Corbetts while I still had diesel money. Good Friday was a scorcher and I made heavy going of Foinaven's steep slopes - thank goodness the approach bogs were dry. It was at the summit of Ceann Garbh (902m, Landranger 9/313514) that I first became aware that neighbouring Ganu Mor had two cairned summits with a slight dip between them.

Another walker, like me from Shropshire, just beat me to the summits and settled at the easternmost cairn. My first impressions were that the westernmost summit was the higher, and that it looked very worn for a Corbett. Watching my altimeter carefully, I joined the lunching walker at the eastern cairn, a better viewpoint. The trend on the altimeter was that the eastern cairn was lower. Absolute heights are lost in the margin of error of the instrument, but the one-metre resolution should show a trend up or down.

Over lunch, the history of the hill was discussed and I had a good look at the latest 1:50000 map. It was hopelessly wrong, showing just the one 914m summit at 9/317507, the east top. The west top, at 9/315507, whatever its height, was missing. I desperately hoped that this was an OS cock-up, that the spot height was simply in the wrong place and should have been in the missing western ring contour. After lunch, I carefully walked back over to the west top. Again my eyes and altimeter agreed: the west top was probably the higher of the two. If this is true, and if the east cairn really is 914m, then we have a new Munro. If.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Having "found" a Munro before and having also had a share in the credit of moving another, I get quite a buzz out of the notoriety of being a Munrofinder General. On the other hand, this is Foinaven: do I really want to hurt it? The day when I bought the map that elevated Beinn Teallach and I showed it to Hamish Brown, he said of the Torridon Beinn Dearg (another 914m Corbett) that it was "far too good a hill to be thrown to the dogs". That was in 1984, and there are many more dogs now. Hamish's comment applies equally to Foinaven, already showing wear from its near-miss status.

On the way home from Sutherland, I saw the new 1:25000 map, Explorer 445, for the first time. This backed up the on-the-ground observation, showing two 910m contour rings as opposed to the Landranger's one. The western ring was large, while there was just a tiny ring around the eastern 914m spot height. This was an unusual recontouring on an Explorer and showed the summit shape precisely. What it did not show however was a spot height on the western top - so this could still be anywhere from 910m to 914m and Foinaven could still be safe from the dogs.

My impression, made during nearly an hour on the summit and before having seen Explorer 445, was that the west top is the higher by at least two metres. Alan Dawson tells me he is equally sure that the east top is the higher of the two, and has suggested that the west cairn is the old 908m spot, now reckoned to be 911m. However, the 908m spot used to be mapped at the same place as the current 914m, slightly undermining this hypothesis. Against the west cairn being a Munro it can be argued that the saddle between the tops is shown as 909m maximum, and on the ground it appears unlikely that the west cairn stands 6m above the low point.

The OS are saying nothing at the moment - are they aware of the sensitivity of the situation? It's no use getting a consensus of visitors as to the highest point, because it's emotionally loaded: say the "right" answer and you get another Munro. As for votes with feet, from looking at the wear and tear around the two cairns it's obvious that most visitors have been satisfied with just the western cairn.

Personally I am convinced that the western cairn is the summit, whatever its height. The 914m spot height on the eastern summit could so easily be a typo, the hill's overall height slapped over the old spot rather than in the correct place. We need to be sure that the eastern top is, as the map suggests, 914m, and once certain of this then levelling gear could be used to work out if the western cairn is relatively higher or lower.

Richard Webb

Ed. - Along with all this, the analysis of Chris Crocker (TAC36, p14) should also be borne in mind: that there is a maximum error of +/-2ft for OS ground-surveyed heights and +/-3.3m for aerially plotted heights. Hence Foinaven could well be a Munro even if its high point has been surveyed as 914m - Chris calculates a probability of 36% for this - or could still be a Corbett even were the height to be mapped as, say, 915m. Also relevant is a letter to the SMC's Bill Brooker in 1990, in which the OS said (a) that their Foinaven height is given to the nearest metre, (b) it falls within the range 913.8m to 915.2m, and (c) they were unable to check whether the published 914m height was rounded up or down or if the location had moved, as they no longer had the relevant photography.

Chris Crocker notes that the range of error 913.8m to 915.2m implies the published 914m measurement was rounded down from 914.5m, the mid-point of the range, as in OS practice a point-five measurement "may be rounded either up or down". And 914.5m is above the 3000ft level. It's also worth noting that, on the available cartographic evidence, Foinaven is a more legitimate candidate for a place in Munro's Tables than is the currently listed and highly dubious Knight's Peak.

Anyway, as Richard Webb says, Foinaven is a fine hill, Munro status or no Munro status, dogs or no dogs.

TAC 58 Index