Liz Smith MSP ties up some unfinished Munrobagging business on Slioch

Liz Smith and friends on Slioch last Sunday
Liz Smith and friends on Slioch last Sunday

Congratulations to Liz Smith, who climbed Slioch last Sunday, the first day of July, and in so doing completed a round of the Munros. Becoming a Munroist might be markedly easier than it was a few decades ago, and the total of listed finishers has recently passed the 5,000 mark, but it is always an achievement worthy of note. Tackling the famous old list of hills – 283 of them at present – is different for everyone and invariably requires a huge amount of physical graft and weather-endurance.

For the former teacher from Madderty in Strathearn (and former member of the Scottish Ladies’ cricket team), the completion is even more noteworthy as it places her in a surprisingly small number of parliamentarians who have climbed all the Munros – she is a Conservative list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.

It is impossible to ever be sure about these kind of stats and facts, as there is no compulsion to sign up for the “official” list of Munroists started by Eric Maxwell of the Grampian Club and for the past 40-odd years maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club – and the shadowy number of undeclared Munroists could well be between 500 and 1,000 at present. But until last Sunday the parliamentary peakbaggers’ subcommittee, if it can be called that, appeared to comprise just three people, and to have an inbuilt Labour majority.

Chris Smith (Lord Smith of Finsbury since 2005), the secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the 1997 Labour administration at Westminster, completed a round of Munros on Sgurr nan Coireachan above Glenfinnan on 27 May 1989.

Alan Haworth (Lord Haworth of Fisherfield since 2004), the former secretary of the parliamentary Labour party at Westminster, then did the same on Ben More Mull, 28 September 2001 – the exact centenary of the first-ever Munro completion by the Reverend Archibald Eneas Robertson.

And Murray Elder (Lord Elder since 1999), a former special adviser to Donald Dewar at the Scottish Office, completed his round on 9 June 2007 on Beinn Sgritheall, despite having had a heart transplant in 1988.

So now, with one final touch of a summit cairn, this little club of three male Labour Westminsterites has acquired a female Tory Holyroodian. It is worth noting that no more than 20 per cent of Munroists are female – although this is a higher proportion than in various more obscure hill categories. We are in the world of boys and lists here, after all.

It took Liz Smith 30 years to progress from first Munro to last. “When I first climbed Ben Nevis back in 1982,” she said, “I had no thought whatsoever of doing all the Munros – but, over time, especially during my teaching career, the ambition grew on me.

“I have had the privilege to climb in the company of some wonderful colleagues and young people, and I have also had the privilege to see some of the most outstanding scenery in the world, both of which make bagging Munros a very special experience – just so long as the well-known Scottish mist doesn’t get in the way.

“The Munros are a very special feature of Scotland – so too are all the volunteers who provide such wonderful support when we are out on the hills.”

This interest in the volunteer-support side of hill-going and outdoor activity generally led to her raising more than £7,000 ahead of the final ascent for various mountain rescue teams, the Mountain Bothies Association, the John Muir Trust and the RNLI – and Smith says she intends to raise more “as I plan my next outdoor adventure”.

Of course just four people is far too small a sample to draw any real conclusions or to detect any trends, but a couple of thoughts come to mind in terms of last Sunday’s happy event on the big bold hill above Loch Maree. One is surely obvious: it is good to see the parliamentary base of Munroists being broadened – especially as one of the sillier and more persistent assumptions about such things is that a love of the hills is somehow synonymous with left/liberal leanings. Sure, there might be a slight majority in that direction insofar as one could ever tell (try asking someone’s political affiliation when meeting them on a hilltop and see how far you get), and the mass trespasses and sundry land disputes of yore have retained their political edge and folklore status down the decades.

It’s also the case that the published literature leans that way and some of the climbing and walking clubs have radical socialist roots, but hill-going – and hill-loving – is and has to be a broad church which transcends party politics. If someone spends 30 years tackling the Munros, or goes climbing, or skiing, or simply potters about in the rougher bits of the uplands on a regular basis, it is because they love the hills in all their complexity and all their simplicity – and other issues and opinions tend to be very much secondary. Hill-going, in all its forms, brings together people of vastly divergent mindsets and backgrounds and helps them to find common ground. “Big tent politics” feels like an appropriate phrase in this context.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Hugh Munro himself not only failed – just – to complete the list which he created, but was also an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for Kirkcaldy Burghs in the inconclusive 1885 general election – for the Conservative party. So there is an argument to be made that Liz Smith was tidying up some unfinished business on Slioch.

The other thought is that no one, thus far, appears to have done the Munros and then turned to politics – it has always been the other way around. There hasn’t as yet been a professional climber, mountaineer or guidebook writer arriving in any of the various debating chambers, along the lines of, say, Pete Wishart’s switch from the world of music to that of politics. We’ve had Henry McLeish MSP but not Cameron McNeish MSP; we have Lord Coe but not Lord Hamish MacInnes of Glen Coe. Such people doubtless prefer to be out in the open air rather than confined in what passes these days for smoke-filled rooms – and who can blame them? – but their presence, along with others from the “real world”, would add considerably to the breadth of knowledge and experience in parliament. Something to be considered for an eventual Scottish revising chamber, perhaps?

Anyway, that’s all rather general and theoretical. To get back to last weekend’s achievement in Wester Ross, it’s good to see that Liz Smith struck lucky with clear skies and decent views – a great many of her Munroist predecessors have fallen foul of “completion weather”, where a pre-planned finale coincides with “the well-known Scottish mist” or worse. She was especially lucky given her fine choice of hill – standalone western Munros are often saved for such events, and Slioch is among the most popular in chums-and-champagne terms. This was the 98th known Munro completion there and the true figure could well be 120 or higher. It is the seventh-most popular last Munro, pretty much neck-and-neck with Ben Hope in that regard.

“I was always attracted by the magnificent grandeur of Slioch in what is one of my favourite areas of Scotland,” Smith said after last Sunday’s ascent, “and so that it is why I kept it till last.”

Quite how long we will now have to wait for a Munroist from the Lib Dem, Green or – a curious omission, this – SNP benches remains to be seen. Several of Smith’s 128 MSP colleagues must surely have ticked off a reasonable number of the hills – perhaps the presiding officer could maintain a current-status list, to sit alongside attendance records, declarations of interest and such things? Just so long as no one starts trying to claim crampons from Nevisport or Cuillin guide-hire on their parliamentary expenses…

Update, 8 July – While writing this I had a nagging thought that another MSP had climbed all the Munros – but couldn’t find any evidence to support this. Then, rummaging through old files a couple of days later, I found a note about Murray Tosh having completed a round on Ben Hope on 17 July 2002 – almost exactly ten years before Liz Smith finished her round. I think I’d forgotten this – or had become muddled – due to two of the people concerned having Murray as a first name. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Murray Tosh was an MSP from 1999 to 2007 for the South of Scotland and then for the West of Scotland, and served as a deputy presiding officer from 2001 – so he could have been the very person to maintain a tally of members’ Munro totals.

He is number 2788 on the list of Munroists – apologies for having omitted him from the original musings. I don’t think there has been another Munroist at Holyrood or in the Commons or the Lords – but if anyone knows otherwise, please do say so in the comments.

(There is, incidentally, a George Galloway on the list – no.1390, completed on Seana Bhraigh, 3 April 1995. Also a Gordon Brown – no.1800, completed on Sgurr a’Mhaim, 21 June 1997. But not the indefatigable cat-imitator or the former prime minister, respectively.)

  • Stravaiger

    Dave, I think your estimate of 500-1000 Munroists lurking without intent of declaring their achievement is WAY too low. I personally know of 5 such people and I don’t have a big circle of hill-walking friends. 

    • Dave_Hewitt

      You could well be right – I was erring on the side of caution. I’ve done a lot of research on this over recent years and know of just over 350 unlisted Munroists as things stand. I think that’s nowhere near the real number, but I’m wary of saying it’s more than 20% above the list – ie around 1,000 on top of 5,000 just now – without any hard evidence. Pretty confident it’s a minimum of 10%, though, ie at least 150 over the 350 definites that I know of.

      It’s a difficult thing to research, partly because unlisted Munroists often aren’t keen on “owning up” to a writer/researcher (fair enough), even one who isn’t in the SMC and who promises not to sneak them into the list against their wishes. There’s also the complication that people quite often decide to go in the list belatedly, sometimes decades after completion, so that needs to be watched in terms of then taking them out of the unlisted stats.

      Incidentally, one aspect to all this – about which I intend to write more in due course – is that the unlisted list, if I can call it that, has a markedly higher proportion of women than does the actual list. Last time I properly checked, a couple of years ago, 18% of listed Munroists were female, whereas the admittedly much smaller sample of 350 unlisted Munroists is 25% female. Quite why this might be is unclear.

      • I can come up with one obvious theory for why women might be less likely to go on the list: reluctance to have anything to do with a club which has only allowed women to join since 1990, and whose membership is still (according to their website) at least 98% male.

        • Dave_Hewitt

          I would say that’s a tempting theory (one which I floated myself a couple of years ago in The Angry Corrie), and it could well be true at least to an extent. But it’s hard to find any definite proof – I’ve asked several unlisted Munroist women why they’re not on the list and not one of them has mentioned the SMC or any male-only factor. And conversely, I know several stridently feminist women
          who have no time for male-only orgs but who are on the list of Munroists.

          It’s a small sample I’ve asked, for sure, but thus far it hasn’t supported the theory at all. What does tend to get said – by both unlisted men and women – is that the sheer number of people on the list is now making it rather pointless and silly. There’s no sign of the list being stopped, however – this was discussed at both 100 and 1,000, but with the open-ended, no-space-constraints nature of online recording it could well go on for pretty much ever.

          Re the women/unlisted thing, to my eyes just about the only undoubted fact is that the proportion of women completing hill lists – regardless of which list and regardless of whether they then choose to submit their name to the listkeeper – is considerably smaller than that of men. I’m not sure that there’s any hill list where the proportion of women is above 25%. Clearly this is well below the overall gender balance (49M, 51F is the UK latest split, I think), and it also appears to be below the overall proportion of women on the hill. Obviously this is impossible to ever really measure, but it came up in a discussion after a talk I gave to the Glasgow Glenmore Club (which has fairly high proportion of women members) and the feeling in the room seemed to be that the ratio of women to men seen on the hill is maybe around one third : two thirds. Almost certainly higher than the 20:80 that tends to be the script re completion lists.

          I’ll dig out some stats on male:female proportions across various hill lists and write an piece on this sometime soon – it’s an interesting and complex area.