Sir Hugh Munro: Celebrating the man in the mountains

Sir Hugh Munro, who died 100 years ago this week, is synonymous with Scotland's highest peaks and the efforts of climbers to scale the country's most challenging peaks. PIC: Scottish Mountaineering Club Image Archive.
Sir Hugh Munro, who died 100 years ago this week, is synonymous with Scotland's highest peaks and the efforts of climbers to scale the country's most challenging peaks. PIC: Scottish Mountaineering Club Image Archive.
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Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro, whose name is synonymous with Scotland’s highest mountains and the efforts of the most dedicated climbers to get to the top.

Here, Anne Butler, president of the Munro Society, looks at Sir Hugh’s remarkable legacy and how it continues to define climbing in Scotland today.

Men of the Narnain Howff. Picutre: JMCS.

Men of the Narnain Howff. Picutre: JMCS.

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro. The anniversary is being recognised by the Munro Society in the form of the Munro Legacy Exhibition at the AK Bell Library in Perth until 18 May and, following this, the exhibition will be on display in various other locations in Scotland.

The exhibition tells the story of Scotland’s mountains as a source of recreation from its 19th century beginnings to the present day and in particular the contribution of the man whose name is synonymous with the country’s highest mountains.

Early day pioneers as well as large scale panoramic mountain landscapes, artefacts of old equipment and clothing in contrast with their modern equivalents will feature in the exhibition.

The society has broadened the theme of the Munro Legacy by tracking what has happened since the birth of Munro’s Tables from the early pioneers, through the ensuing decades to the present.

Sir Hugh Munro. PIC: Scottish Mountaineering Club.

Sir Hugh Munro. PIC: Scottish Mountaineering Club.

For many, climbing all of Scotland’s 282 Munros is a lifetime achievement. But who was the man who gave his name to the list of hills in Scotland over 3,000ft?

Sir Hugh Munro was born in Eaton Place, London in 1856 and was educated in Crieff and latterly Winchester and Cambridge. After an early business, diplomatic and military career, he settled down to run the family estate of Lindertis near Kirriemuir. He was well travelled, making trips to Europe, Asia, North America and Africa.

Although not renowned for his technical climbing ability, he was an enthusiastic hillwalker, undertaking long expeditions into the hills, often in winter. His first recorded ascent of a 3,000ft mountain was on Ben Lawers in 1879. He was a founder member and third president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC).

In 1891, Munro was asked by the SMC to list the mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft. His “Tables, giving all the Scottish mountains exceeding 3,000ft in height”, were first published in the SMC Journal No. 6 in 1891. The list comprised 283 separate mountains (Munros) and 255 subsidiary tops, outliers to the main summits, but nonetheless felt by Munro to be worthy of inclusion (Munro Tops) and the list became known as “Munro’s Tables”.

Munro's Tables which list Scotland's highest mountains. PIC: The Munro Society.

Munro's Tables which list Scotland's highest mountains. PIC: The Munro Society.

Munro’s Tables are divided into 17 sections based on the natural geography of the Highlands. Munro used Ordnance Survey one-inch to the mile maps which only showed heights in contours marked at 250ft intervals and six-inch to the mile maps, which showed spot heights but did not include contours.

The maps were often inaccurate and incomplete. He also utilised Admiralty charts and an aneroid barometer to measure summit heights. Over the next 20 years, Munro worked to refine his list, constantly rechecking data and redefining summits. A second edition of the Tables was published in 1921 with further revisions in 1981, 1984, 1990 and 1997.

Munro did not manage to climb all the hills on his list. He died on 19 March, 1919 at Tarascon, France, during the post-war influenza epidemic whilst running a canteen for Allied forces. He died with three summits still unclimbed.

Once a person has climbed the 282 Munro summits listed in the current edition of Munro’s Tables they are said to have “completed” the Munros. The SMC maintain a list of all those who register their completion and become a Munroist.

In 1901 the Rev AE Robertson became the first person known to have climbed all the Munros. Another cleric, the Rev ARG Burn, followed in 1923 becoming the second person to climb the Munros and the first to climb the Munro Tops. Mrs Paddy Hirst became the first woman to complete the Munros in 1947.

During the early part of the 20th century, hillwalking was the preserve of the professional or privileged classes. Munro and his contemporaries often walked at night to avoid disturbing stalking or grouse shooting activities. Early pioneers such as Munro, Robertson and Burn walked exceptional distances, often on multi-day, cross country trips. They stopped overnight with families living in remote glens and relied heavily on the goodwill of Highland folk to put them up and feed them. They made extensive use of the rail network and mail buses and Robertson sometimes used a bicycle to reach remote hills.

During the economic depression of the 1930s, the writings of Alistair Borthwick, Tom Weir and Jock Nimblin opened the eyes of the working class to the great outdoors. Shortage of money led many to camp or to sleep rough in barns, ruined cottages, caves and that most ubiquitous of habitats, the “howff”’, with the best-known being found under the Narnain Boulders above Arrochar and the Shelter Stone in the Cairngorms. The Scottish Youth Hostels Association was formed in 1931. WH Murray’s book Mountaineering in Scotland, published in 1947, became an inspiration for many to start climbing. Car ownership, improved road access, availability of accommodation, lightweight equipment and increased leisure time, plus the relatively recent availability of guidebooks, online information, mapping software and GPS equipment have all contributed to the ease with which people are able to enjoy the hills. 1961 saw the launch of The Climber and Rambler magazine, the first publication dedicated to mountaineering. This was closely followed by the formation of the Mountain Bothies Association in 1965. There had been a long-standing tradition of unrestricted access to the hills in Scotland – “the right to roam”. However, this had no legal status until the adoption of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act (2003), which brought in a new statutory right of responsible access to areas that may have previously been out of bounds for sporting activities.

These factors combined to contribute to the increase in popularity of Munro bagging, though by 1970 only 100 people had completed the Munros. There then followed an explosion in Munroist numbers. The SMC’s list of those who register their completion shows an average of 200 people per year, with the total number now standing at almost 6,500, albeit many hillwalkers are known to have climbed all the Munros but have chosen not to register.

The Munro Society was formed in 2002 and is open to anyone who has climbed all the Munros. The society has established itself as an influential voice on matters pertaining to the Scottish mountains and it aims to be “an informed and authoritative body of opinion and influence on the protection of and access to the Munros and their mountain landscape and Scotland’s mountains in general”. Any Munroists are welcome to join the society at www.themunrosociety.com.

The Munro Society has recently published Scaling the Heights – Measuring Scotland’s Mountains, a book which tells the story of the birth of Munro’s Tables, subsequent revisions to the list of Munros and the work the society has done with its own Heightings Programme, which involved the re-surveying of hills whose heights were just below or above the 3,000ft level.

David Batty, then president of the Munro Society, was the driving force behind the concept of the exhibition. It is deeply regretted that his sudden death has robbed him of seeing his work’s completion.

The Munro Legacy Exhibition is at the AK Bell Library in Perth until 18 May.