What is a Munro?
In the simplest of definitions, a Munro is a mountain in Scotland higher than 3,000′ above sea level. However, the full answer is just a bit more complex. Just think of some of the long ridgelines linking several summits, like the Cuillin of Skye, or the grand massifs of the Grampians. Which of those peaks actually count?
The definition from the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), the organisation which maintains the official list is a Munro is “distinct Scottish peak of 3,000′ (914.4 metres) and over, of sufficient separation from their neighbouring peaks”. So what does sufficient separation really mean? To be honest, that’s all down to Sir Hugh Munro, who compiled the original list for the SMC journal back in 1891. That list was a work in progress at the time of his death, and didn’t actually contain a precise definition of what he meant by the phrase.
Who was Munro?
Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet of Lindertis, was an avid hillwalker and one of the founding members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1889. He was tasked by the SMC to compile a list of the mountains in Scotland, which became known as Munro’s Tables. Before he began the work, it was widely thought there were only around 30 or so proper mountains, those over the magic height of 3,000′ (914.4 metres). So it was to great surprise in mountaineering circles when the published catalogue had nearly 300 distinct entries.
Using his own experience as a mountaineer, the work was carried out by surveys on the ground in combination with detailed study of the best available mapping at the time, the Ordnance Survey six inches to a mile and inch to mile maps (now obsolete scales, replaced by 1:10,000 and 1:50,000 sometime in the 1950s). Munro never actually compleated* his own list; saving Carn Cloich-Mhuillin in the Cairngorms to be his last, and adding a couple of revisions to the table in the months before his death in 1919, during the post-war influenza pandemic.
*archaic spelling of complete is intentional. Because tradition.
Where are the Munros?
With improvements in mapping technology and techniques for measuring mountains the original Munro’s Tables have been revised several times. The current list is comprised of 282 Munros, with an additional 227 Munro Tops ( these are summits high enough to be considered Munros, but with “insufficient separation” from their parent peak).
Mountaineer and mathematician Frank Bonsall made attempts to define what constituted a separate peak in the 1970s, based on Naismith’s Rule. Familiar to many seasoned hillwalkers, and all of us who participated in the Duke of Edinburgh Award in their youth, the magic maths of Naismith’s Rule is a calculated estimate of the time required to walk from one point to another taking into account horizontal distances and height gained. Bonsall defined “sufficient separation” as 30 minutes of walking, and found good consensus with Munro’s original work; he believed that from the list at the time, seven Munros did not meet the required status, and a further twelve tops needed promotion.
The latest update to the list, at the time of writing, was as recently as August 2020, when the western top of Beinn a’Chroin was substituted with the eastern top, which was found to be slightly higher in the latest geospatial survey of the region.
The Munros are scattered across Central and Northern Scotland. The highest Munro is Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis), located near Fort William. At 1,345 metres (4,411′) high, the summit is the highest point in the British and Irish Isles, though the next five highest are found in the Cairngorms mountain range. The Cairngorms National Park holds 55 Munros within it’s boundary, and 21 are found in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. And there are two islands with Munros; Skye, with 12 Munros, and Mull, with 1.
The excellent interactive map and hill lists on mountain guide and multi-compleatist Steve Fallon’s website is a great place to start discovering the Munros.
What is Munro Bagging?
Some hillwalkers set themselves the challenge of reaching the top of all 282 Munros on the SMC list, an activity that’s become known as Munro bagging. The first person to have been credited with a compleat round of the Munros was Rev. A.E. Robertson in 1901. Since then, just shy of 7,000 individuals have bagged a compleat round of the Munros, and earned the right to be known as a Munroist.
Munro bagging takes a considerable amount of time** and effort, covering a diverse range of mountains over a variety of landscapes, from Mount Keen in the east to Sgùrr na Banachdaich in the west, Ben Hope in the north to Ben Lomond in the south. On average, it takes something around two decades to tick off all the entries on the list. Using the most commonly taken routes, a Munroist will have walked nearly 3,000km (1,864 miles), over twice the distance walking from Land’s End to John o’Groats, with around 168,000 metres (551,181′) of ascent, equivalent to 19 ascents of Everest.
** Unless you’re Donnie Campbell, who currently holds the record for the fastest continuous round, taking just 31 days, 23 hours, and 2 minutes to compleat.
Most of the Munros are baggable by walkers, though some mountain routes can feature a bad step, which requires a little bit of scrambling to pass, using your hands to assist your ascent or descent. And one, the infamous Inaccessible Pinnacle (Inn Pinn) on Sgùrr Dearg in Skye, requires rock climbing ability to scale the final 50 metres to the top, with an abseil to return to less lofty heights.
Why bag Munros?
Because they’re there.
Why not, I suppose? As a hobby hillwalker or someone in need of a challenge to undertake, there’s several reasons why Munro bagging might appeal:
- Spending time outdoors in a natural setting and undertaking physical exercise in the fresh air is also known to have benefits to our mental wellbeing, and can us give the time and space to put events in our lives into perspective. Hillwalking can contribute to a life-long health and fitness regime.
- Checking off your summits or filling out a logbook gives a real sense of achievement, and also satisfies the desire many of us have to collect things.
- Bagging the Munros encourages us to explore the upland areas of Scotland and travel to the farthest-flung corners of the country, places that perhaps we wouldn’t have visited otherwise. And I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know about or understand a place, it’s very hard to care about it’s protection.
- Over time, Munro bagging develops your resilience and self-reliance, as you become more comfortable in the hills, improve your navigation skills and gain more knowledge about mountain environments. This article by Ash Routen explain why that’s an essential skill for any adventure.
If you’ve discovered a real passion for the mountains of Scotland, and knowing more about the forces that formed and shaped the landscapes we’re familiar with today, take a look at the Mountain Building in Scotland free course from the Open University. I completed it over the start of winter as a project for the dark evenings, and I’d really recommend it.
What else is out there?
Well, in addition to the 282 Munros in Scotland, and the 227 additional Munro Tops, there’s a few more hill collections out there to get your teeth into.
- The Furths are the peaks of 3,000′ (914.4m) or higher that lie outwith Scotland, in the rest of the United Kingdom and in Ireland. There’s currently 34 mountains recognised as Furths; 6 in England, 14 in Wales, and 13 in Ireland.
- Corbetts are Scottish mountains between 2,500′ (762m) and 3,000′ (914.4m) with a prominence of at least 500′ (152.4m). There are considered to be 222 Corbetts, and a further 454 Corbett Tops.
- Grahams are peaks in Scotland between 2,000′ (610m) and 2,499′ (762m), with a drop of 150 metres (490′) all round. Formerly known as Elsies (LC’s, lesser Corbetts), their name was adopted in the 1990s, and the total currently stands at 995 Grahams and Graham Tops.
- Donalds are hills in the Scottish Lowlands over 2,000′ (610m), with greater than 100′ (30.5m) prominence. Some Donalds are also Corbetts, and others are also Grahams, then there’s the new Donalds…
- And over the border, the Wainwrights are the 214 hills and mountains, known locally as fells, in the Cumbrian Lake District which feature in Arthur Wainwrights’s classic series of Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.