THERE WAS COVERAGE of the Scottish Mountaineering Club's revised Corbett guidebook in these pages a couple of years ago (see TAC57 pp4-5, TAC58 p15), and leafing through the book the other night I similarly started pondering the SMC's selection - particularly their choice of "other" hills, those below Corbett height.
Part of the appeal of the Corbetts book is that it is fairly democratic in its geographical selection of entries. Much-loved hills from most corners of Scotland are included, including relatively diminutive peaks from the Lothians and the Campsies. The mountains of the Western Isles are also well represented, and it is difficult to argue with the majority of these choices - although the inclusion of some fairly dull lumps on Lewis and a couple of 300m-plus hills on Barra suggests that the editors and contributors were fairly charitable in appearing to give the larger islands at least one entry each. However, this apparent tokenism does not extent to Orkney and Shetland, which have a combined total of bugger all hills between them. This struck me as an interesting anomaly.
While none of the hills in the Northern Isles are especially high, this shouldn't preclude them from joining the "others" club. According to the Corbett guidebook's introduction, "The quality of an island hill [...] is not judged by height, but rather by its situation bounded by the limitless horizon of the sea." Moreover, the likes of Ward Hill in Orkney (481m) and Ronas Hill in Shetland (450m) are significantly higher than the Eigg and Barra hills that do make it into the book, and loftier than some other favoured entries from elsewhere in Scotland.
So, if height alone is not a requirement, is there anything north of Beinn Spionnaidh worth doing? Well, what about a round of the Hoy hills? Round-topped, steep-sided and dropping into the sea via high cliffs to the west, they dominate the view from much of Orkney, where the otherwise flat topography emphasises their stature. The Hoy hills are delightful, and a round departing from Rackwick, passing close to the Old Man of Hoy (taking in the view of St John's Head, highest seacliff in Scotland after St Kilda and Foula - more of which later) and bagging Cuilags and Ward Hill would surely make a worthy addition to the Corbetts guidebook.
Regarding Shetland, Ann Bowker and Rob Woodall have both demonstrated exceptional taste in praising the Marilyns of Noss and Foula in previous TACs. Shetland is hillier than Orkney, and there is good coastal and hill walking around Unst, Bressay, Noss and Northmavine, which hosts both Ronas Hill and the graceful brick-red parabola of the Lang Ayre, a candidate for the most awe-inspiring beach in Scotland (the many advocates of over-lauded Sandwood Bay please take note).
The best walking in Shetland is widely regarded to be on Foula, the most remote of the islands, specifically a round taking in the giant seacliff of the Kame (376m) and two Marilyns, the Sneug (418m) and the Noup (248m). I have never walked the hills of Foula, but others have. Woodall, for one, rates them alongside Blaven and Ben Nevis among his favourite Marilyns (TAC55 p13). Praise indeed.
Tom Weir (who, so I've heard, merits free beer - Ed.) writes approvingly about Foula in the SMC "Islands" guidebook, and the Hoy hills are described favourably in the same book. Given these warm words and the SMC's inclusive stance on "other hills", it seems strange that Foula and Hoy have not earned promotion from the ranks of the Islands book to the officer-class of the Corbetts guide.
Why is this? Do the Northern Isles miss out because they are not part of the wider Highland Gaidhealtachd? Is it inaccessibility - particularly in Foula's case - reinforced by a lack of high neighbouring hills to draw mountaineers to the area? Is it that scourge of the island walker, the bonxie, which nests on Foula and Hoy in large numbers?
Or it is because there is little in the way of hillwalking tradition in Orkney and Shetland: no early climbing clubs, no colourful characters, no tales of derring-do, and hence little to capture the imagination of the wider hillgoing community? Even the Islands guide devotes just a single chapter to Orkney and Shetland; Skye has eight chapters to itself while Lewis and Harris share two. Even allowing for the obvious quality and quantity of routes in the Cuillin, is there really as much walking around Sleat (which enjoys a chapter to itself) as on Orkney and Shetland combined? Rather, I suspect that Skye and - to a lesser extent - Lewis and Harris are traditional walking domains familiar to the SMC, while the Northern Isles are not.
In spite of this lack of promotion, there are signs that Orkney and Shetland are becoming more popular with the hillgoing public. Trail magazine recently published a route on the Hoy hills, articles on walking in Shetland have appeared in Trail and TGO in the last couple of years, and the Walk Shetland festival continues to go from strength to strength. All very encouraging, but just think what an entry or two in the Corbetts guidebook would do for hillwalking in the Northern Isles.
A contributor better versed than I in the art of confrontation might draw on Gordon Smith's observation (TAC60 p20) that the SMC is living in the past, noting that Shetland and Orkney were granted to Scotland by Denmark in 1468 and that the club might care to amend its Corbetts guidebook accordingly. However, as a great admirer of the SMC's walking guides, I will finish rather more respectfully, suggesting merely that when the time comes for the club to revise its quota of "other" Scottish hills, the editorial team might like to cast their collective eyes a little further north.
The Corbetts & Other Scottish Hills, edited by Rob Milne and Hamish Brown, 2002, ISBN 0 907521 71 1.
Ed. - It should be noted that John Rooke Corbett (1876-1949) visited both Shetland and Orkney. In the Rucksack Club Journal for 1920, he wrote: "In pursuit of my hobby of visiting the highest points of British counties, I set out from Scalloway one morning last June to seek the highest point of Shetland...", going on to describe an ascent of Ronas Hill ("as round as an egg and nearly as bare"), the summit being reached after midnight.
Similarly, in the 1921 RCJ, he wrote of an ascent of Ward Hill on Hoy. He appears to have given Foula a miss, however, noting that it "would require a longer absence from Manchester than I usually find practicable."
TAC 64 Index