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Ardgour <em>Picture: David Calder</em>

Ardgour Picture: David Calder

It was intended to be the last long ride of the summer – take the ferry from Corran across to Ardgour and follow the quiet road along Loch Linnhe, then turn up Loch Eil with the intention of catching the train back to Fort William at Glenfinnan. But somehow it didn’t work out quite like that.

The Corran Bunkhouse is a wonderful place to stay when planning a trip like this. It may call itself a “bunkhouse”, but it’s really a comfortable and quite sophisticated self-catering home-from-home. It can cater for up to 32 people in two connected buildings. How many bunkhouses can offer twin rooms with en-suite facilities?

We arrived to meet friends very late in the evening. The drive from Edinburgh takes over three hours and we had chosen to break the journey at the excellent Real Food Cafe at Tyndrum. Its lights are a welcome sight after a journey in driving rain. The coffee is great, their freshly made soups are superb and they serve some of the best fish and chips in the Highlands – all from sustainable sources, too.

The last to arrive at Corran, we only had a short while to catch up on news over a healthy dram before heading off for bed. At other times of year, you really need the midge blinds – the wee blighters seem able to get in through the smallest crack and bite you in awkward places. But this year, the threat seemed to have passed.

The group we were with is part of the Scottish Ski Club. When there is no snow on the slopes, we meet up every second or third week to become the Summer Walkers, bagging a Munro or a Corbett, a Graham (known as a McVean to the group in honour of one particular member), or even a “lump”. One brave soul cadged a ride across to Gruinard Island to bag its little summit.

Some of us choose to cycle, especially when there’s a really scenic route to follow. Ardgour is certainly one of the more scenic areas, looking across the loch to Ben Nevis, which on that day had a constantly changing canopy of cloud swirling around it. It was still mild, but a louring sky always carried with it the threat of rain.

The ferry was busy that day, so it was shuttling back and forward without any regard to the published timetable. Pedestrians and bikes go free, making it even a greater attraction for a true Scot! Almost all of the cars and trucks headed south, either for Strontian (where strontium was first discovered) or Lochaline and the crossing to Mull.

Very few vehicles turn north, making it a perfect cycle route. It was one we had taken before but had never completed the trip all to the way to the head of Loch Eil. We still haven’t. It had been a stressful summer and we quickly became distracted by all sorts of things, especially with our cameras at the ready. We even looked in on the local church, all decked out for a festival.

However, it was the wildlife which took most of our attention. There is a fish farm a short distance offshore: you cross the pipes which carry the feed to the cages making a curious rustling sound as it goes. It inevitably attracts predators of one kind or another. We spent about half an hour watching a couple of seals in the rocks a short distance out into the loch.

We could hear the cries of eagles high above our heads but never saw them. But we did pause to watch a buzzard catching the thermals and a short time later stopped when a heron landed on an outcrop. They are curious birds, so tall and elegant on land but rather ungainly in flight, their long legs trailing behind them.

We had ridden no more than five miles when we met one of our group returning from what turned out to have been a futile attempt to climb one of the hills. Now in her 70s, she walks the hills for pleasure rather than for exercise. Climbing a cloud-covered hill without the reward of a decent view from the top struck her as a pointless exercise. We all stopped for lunch, sitting on a convenient log looking out across a tree-lined bay.

As the first spots of rain struck our faces, we began to realise at this point that we had little chance of riding the rest of the journey we had planned. But we continued for a short time until reaching the path that leads up to Glen Cona. We turned our bikes down this track, a really attractive tree-lined route with a stream burbling alongside.

Once again we were distracted, this time by a huge stretch of bramble bushes, the fruit just ripe for the picking. Since we follow the country code and had packed away our sandwich bags, they became useful once again to collect some of the berries. As is so often the case, it was one for the bag, one for me… etc.

Satisfied, we continued only until we reached a loch in which the mountains were almost perfectly reflected, until the raindrops started to disturb the surface. Looking around, the shoulders of the hills were cloaked in shrouds of cloud, as if in mourning for the passing of summer. A robin settled in front of us. As the rain grew heavier, we headed back for the shelter of the trees.

The shower didn’t last long. But we wended our way back the way we had come, this time stopping to walk up an avenue of rowans to visit the ancient graveyard where the MacLeans of Ardgour had once been buried. Many of the gravestones have fallen, but it is still possible to make out some of the names of those whose bones lie there.

On our way across, one of the ferrymen had warned us to be careful as the last trip back would take place at about half past nine. We shouldn’t have worried. It wasn’t even five o’clock. Back to the bunkhouse to have a shower and an excellent dinner prepared by the leader of this trip. As for reaching the head of Loch Eil, there is always next year…

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<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>

Picture: Tessa Carroll

It’s now a week since the results of height surveys on three Highland hills – all just above or just below the 3,000-foot Munro mark – were announced. Last Tuesday wasn’t the most auspicious time for quirky press releases – such things need a quiet news day to get media traction, rather than coinciding with riots down south and chaos on the global financial markets.

The announcement did, however, receive a reasonable level of coverage – which makes it slightly odd that, a week on, no one seems sure what the results mean or where they leave the Munro-climbing world.

The three surveys – conducted in July by the Munro Society (TMS) – looked at two existing Munros and one hill just below the mark, a Corbett. All three hills are in the remote Fisherfield area in the north-western Highlands, and no one is arguing about Ruadh Stac Mor or Beinn Dearg Mor, which stayed solidly in their slots as a Munro and a Corbett respectively.

The debate – and the confusion – centres on Beinn a’Chlaidheimh, which before the announcement was reckoned to be 916 metres high. This made it a Munro by a couple of metres – the Munro mark is 914.4m in metric terms – but the surveyors, armed with differential GPS equipment, claimed it is 913.96m. If so, this leaves it a foot or so short of 3,000ft and means that – impressive lump of rock and grass though it is – the “hill of the sword” has no place in Hugh Munro’s grand old list.

The relevant people at the government mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey (OS), seem happy – they “processed” the result, according to TMS – and so, on the face of it, there ought to be no problem. Except it’s more complicated than that.

Despite the name, TMS neither maintains the list of Munros nor has any formal control over it. That honour rests with the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), of which Hugh Munro was a founder member and in whose journal, in 1891, the list first appeared. The SMC has continued to publish the list – latterly in a book called Munro’s Tables – and is showing no inclination to relinquish control.

And why should it? For all that there have been various controversial changes over the 120 years of the list’s existence, the SMC is generally regarded as having done a good job in keeping the list alive in its early, quiet decades, and then looking after it in the crazier modern period of guidebooks, easy access and so on. TMS, by contrast, has only been around since 2002.

The initial comment from the SMC, included in the Beinn a’Chlaidheimh press release, was non-committal: the club had been “notified of these survey results and has undertaken to consider the implications”. This would be done, it said, “when the Ordnance Survey update its map of the area”.

That was before two further public statements, one each from TMS and the SMC, over the past couple of days. TMS has had this to say: “The OS have informed us that: 1:25000 digital data is updated twice a year in May and October so the changes will be in the October 2011 refresh of 1:25000 raster data. 1:50000 digital data is updated once a year in June so the changes will be in the June 2012 refresh of 1:50000 raster data. From these dates onwards any custom maps ordered through the ‘OS Select’ service will show the new heights. Maps from the ‘Get A Map’ service may take a bit longer to update.”

This could be taken as a hint to the SMC: the 914m height will appear on an OS map in October, so as far as TMS is concerned it’s a done deal given that the list traditionally uses published map heights.

Then came the SMC’s own second statement, published today. While in essence merely repeating what was said last week, there is a subtle and sigificant difference in tone.

“Recent Survey of Beinn a’Chlaideimh (Fisherfield),” it begins. “The Scottish Mountaineering Club has been notified of the recent survey results produced by the Munro Society which indicate that this Munro (OS Sheet 19; NH 061 775, M280) may be at the marginal height of 913.96m. If confirmed, this would place it some 44cm under the necessary height for a Munro. Accordingly, and bearing in mind the marginality of these measurements, the SMC has undertaken to consider the implications for Munros and Corbetts Tables when the Ordnance Survey update their maps of the area.

“We need hardly add that anyone who walks the mountains and hills of Scotland out of a love for their ambience, will continue to appreciate this fine mountain, whether it be classified as a Munro or a Corbett. For the moment at least, Beinn a’Chlaideimh remains in Munro’s Tables®.”

Different people will make different things of that, but it’s worth noting three additions to the earlier statement: (a) the SMC’s use of the phrases “may be at the marginal height” and “the marginality of these measurements”, (b) the reminder that Beinn a’Chlaideimh is a fine hill whatever its status, and (c) the use of the registered trademark symbol. These could, in turn, be interpreted as (a) expressing some doubt over the claimed accuracy of the survey, (b) suggesting that ultimately it doesn’t really matter – and (c), with the trademark, reminding TMS and the hill-bagging world who actually calls the shots here.

While not quite a turf war between the SMC and TMS, there is clearly at least a polite difference of opinion – and unlike the last time a Munro demotion was proposed by TMS, in 2009, the SMC isn’t minded to simply nod it through.

For an assessment of TMS’s position, The Caledonian Mercury asked Lord Haworth of Fisherfield, who as Alan Haworth worked as secretary to the parliamentary Labour Party at Westminster. (He is destined to be forever confused with the former Conservative and Labour MP Alan Howarth, now Lord Howarth of Newport; even the section of acknowledgements in last week’s TMS surveyors’ report makes this error.)

Lord Haworth has a fine hill pedigree, being one of only three parliamentarians to have climbed all the Munros (the others being Chris Smith MP, now Lord Smith of Finsbury, and Murray Elder, now Lord Elder). He underwrote the costs of the recent TMS surveys and is in no doubt as to the validity of the results.

“I do feel somewhat rueful that the outcome is that Beinn a’Chlaidheimh reverts to being a Corbett,” he said yesterday, “and that the Fisherfield Six is going to have to be rebranded as the Fisherfield Five. But the fundamental objective has been, throughout all these heightings, to get a definitive measurement – in the name of accuracy. Using the latest and most sophisticated techniques.

“My hopes, which are a different matter entirely, were that Beinn Dearg Mor might be found to be high enough to be promoted to Munro status. Nothing would have given me more pleasure. Earlier, [in the 2009 surveys,] I had the same hope for Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe. But it wasn’t to be. I think these matters are definitively closed. And so, I think, is Beinn a’Chlaidheimh. If the OS change the heights on their maps to reflect our measurement of 913.96m – and they do accept the measurements as far as I am aware – then Beinn a’Chlaidheimh at 914m isn’t high enough to be a Munro, any more than Beinn Dearg [in Torridon] at 914m isn’t.”

Lord Haworth is already turning his thoughts to next summer’s TMS surveys. “I think there is one more hill with an outside chance – a very outside chance – of being promoted: Beinn Bhreac [912m, in the Tarf/Feshie hinterland]. It is a very obvious candidate for careful surveying. The surveyors know that and I am sure everyone else does. Nearby is Leathad an Taobhain – same height, seemingly, but with less chance of being wrong on account of having a trig point. Ideally, both should be resurveyed.

“We have already looked at The Fara [911m, above Loch Ericht] – and that was 2m lower. I am hopeful that these two hills in the wilds of the upper reaches of the Tarf will be next on the agenda – and that the Munro Society can afford to extend its surveying there in due course. But it won’t be this year; and it is not my decision. Neither was Fisherfield. I just offered to sponsor it – for fairly obvious reasons – if the Society wanted to do it. It is my way of ‘putting something back’. And now it is done.”

So the position with regard to Beinn a’Chlaidheimh appears to be that TMS thinks it’s all over bar the mapping, while the SMC remains cautious and perhaps even a little piqued about this intrusion on their traditional territory.

It is worth bearing in mind, lest the SMC be viewed as having dog-in-the-manger tendencies, that concerns exist about the surveyors’ high claims of accuracy and also the lack of any peer review-type revisit by another surveying team. With regard to accuracy, there is no doubt that the surveyors endeavoured to get the readings as precise as possible – their published calculations are remarkably diligent and detailed. The question is whether such precision is genuinely feasible given current technology and perennial up-a-high-hill uncertainties.

The surveyors claim to be confident within about 5cm either way – they are sure that the height of Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is in the range 913.91m to 914.01m. That is a bold claim; stand beneath a similar-sized hill, look up and ask yourself is it really possible to be sure of the height to within half the length of a Kit Kat?

The OS appears to be content that it is (although the missing link in all this is the OS’s internal assessment of the surveyors’ findings), whereas the SMC evidently has its doubts. Is it possible that these doubts will lead to some SMC members toddling off to Fisherfield between now and October and taking a look for themselves?

If they did – and the club, like TMS, isn’t lacking experienced hill-topography people and could also involve one of the professional surveying agencies – then they could be in a no-lose situation. If their survey produced much the same results as those obtained by TMS, then the SMC could happily confirm Beinn a’Chlaidheimh’s demotion while appearing to still be very much in control of the list.

If, however, the reading produced a slightly higher result, then the “second look” would be seen as both justified and sensible, with the SMC having resisted the hokey-cokeyism that would have come about had Beinn a’Chlaidheimh been struck off the list only to be quickly ushered back in again.

As yet, however, there is no indication that a second survey is being considered – so the polite TMS versus SMC standoff continues and the baggerati will have to contain their excitement before knowing what’s what with Beinn a’Chlaidheimh. It’s still there, fine, steep and fairly remote as ever, available to be climbed. And it’s still one of the 283 Munros as things stand, no matter what the new-survey fans might think. How long it will stay like that, though, remains to be seen.

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Beinn a’Chlaidheimh (right) from Lochan na Brathan <em>Picture: Nigel Brown</em>

Beinn a’Chlaidheimh (right) from Lochan na Brathan Picture: Nigel Brown

Some responses and reactions to Monday’s announcement that a survey by the Munro Society (TMS) has suggested that Beinn a’Chlaidheimh in Fisherfield is not 916 metres in height as currently mapped, but 913.96m.

Given that the threshold for Munro status is 3,000ft – which converts to 914.4m – this would appear to indicate that Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is below Munro height by 44cm (or 39cm, given that the surveyors claim a confidence interval of +/-5cm).

Whether or not any hill has a place in the list of the Munros is not, however, in the gift of TMS (founded 2002); it is decided by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (founded 1889 and publishers of the list since 1891). Thus far, the SMC’s stated line on the Beinn a’Chlaidheimh situation is that the club “has been notified of these survey results and has undertaken to consider the implications for Munro’s and Corbett’s tables when the Ordnance Survey [OS] update its map of the area.”

Here are a few thoughts on this from a variety of experienced hillgoers:

David Gibson, chief officer, Mountaineering Council of Scotland
Regardless of the measurement, I am sure our members would agree that Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is a fine mountain and well worth a visit due to its fantastic location and views of An Teallach and the other delights of the Fisherfield wilderness. We look forward to seeing the future publication of the SMC’s Munros and Corbetts tables for the official verdict.

Robin Howie, multiple Munroist and hillwalking columnist in the Scotsman
The recent announcement is an interesting one for the four parties involved: the SMC, self-styled arbitrators in all matters Munro; TMS, new to the game and arguably elitist in only permitting membership to those who have climbed all the current 283 Munros; the OS who have confirmed the new height, albeit using TMS as unpaid surveyors; and lastly and by no means least the ordinary hillwalker.

The SMC’s stance – of having “undertaken to consider the implications for Munro’s and Corbett’s tables when the Ordnance Survey update its map of the area” – is a curious one. The height is now known, so the delay smacks of not being sure what to do when usurped by the Johnny-come-lately TMS.

TMS are now seen by many as the driving force in matters Munro, albeit acting as unpaid advisers to the OS – which, along with other government bodies, is abrogating its duties by offloading some of its work to unpaid charities and other societies.

And finally the hillwalker will do as he has always done: ignore the shenanigans and vote with his feet. When a previous Corbett was promoted to Munro status they went there in their droves… regardless of the SMC.

It is to be hoped, however, that Beinn a’Chlaidheimh will be just as popular as ever – to those on a Corbett round and to those who regard the hill as one of the finest peaks in Fisherfield, regardless of its height. For myself, I have still to climb the hill on this my tenth Munro round… and that I look forward to.

Ralph Storer, author of The Ultimate Guide to the Munros
Who’d be a writer of guidebooks to the Munros? As if the vagaries of Scottish weather didn’t increasingly reduce the number of days suitable for on-the-ground research, and the increasing cost of reaching the Munros not eat into royalties, it now seems that we may be climbing the wrong mountains.

You’d think the height of a mountain would be more or less immutable over the lifespan of a guidebook, but it is becoming apparent that the list of Munros is a moveable feast. We’re used to SMC worthies tinkering with the Tables to “rationalise” them – but, when even a long-standing OS height measurement can’t be relied on, the guidebook fraternity is in deep peat.

To cap it all, the new surveys always seem to result in a height decrease. Is it too much to ask the surveyors to give us some new Munros so we at least have an excuse to stimulate sales by publishing new editions? Would bribery help?

Steven Fallon, professional mountain guide and completer of 14 rounds of Munros –
All very interesting. We’ve had two trips to Fisherfield already this year to bag what we call the “Fisherfield Big 6”. I’ll need to rename the trip the “Fisherfield Not-So-Big 5”!

What’s next? The 4,000ers? Surely either Carn Mor Dearg or Aonach Mor must be a contender to be demoted to just a mere Munro?

Nowt seems to be getting promoted – wouldn’t it be interesting if Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe in Knoydart was upped to Munro status?

Richard Webb, Munroist and experienced all-round hill man –
I would like to point out the difference between the SMC altering their list by changing hill/top designations and actually finding out the heights of hills in relation to 3,000ft. The hill in question has been shown by the best measurement possible to date – using skills and technology far in excess of someone in Southampton driving a photogrammetry machine – to be less than 3,000ft. The whole point of Munro’s tables is that the hill has to be above that level. If not, it’s out.

In the past, Beinn an Lochain and Beinn Teallach were changed without fuss, Beinn Teallach remarkably quickly, so I do not expect any problems this time. This does not mean a second opinion would not be valued, and that will probably come with time. I wonder if the same fuss would be made if a hill was admitted? Beinn Bhreac, perhaps.

This process is now coming to an end as [the surveyors] run out of candidates. There are those who want to stick to the original list. What is stopping them? Which original list? It was a work in progress. And this is not really relevant here as Beinn a’Chlaidheimh was not a Munro in the old lists and this is not a top/hill tinkering exercise.

Oh, and they should all get out more and enjoy other hills!

Changing top status is of course the sole responsibility of the SMC, whose silly fiddling is the reason I don’t really care about Munros. They still have the right to do it, though.

Elsewhere, bloggers on the subject include Chris Townsend and Heavy Whalley, while there have also been discussion threads on Walk Highlands, Scottish Hills, UKC and elsewhere. As yet, grough doesn’t appear to have anything on the story.

Generally, the SMC has remained tight-lipped apart from the initial formal statement, although the Herald did obtain a quote from Noel Williams (or “Noel William” as they styled him), who edits the SMC Journal: “Once the OS verifies the figures it really is a formality for the SMC to accept them.”

However, on being asked about this, Williams has indicated that he was speaking in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of the SMC, and did not intend to be quoted.

Incidentally, the surveyors from TMS measured Sgurr a’Choire-bheithe in 2009 and reckoned it to be 913.32m, roughly a metre short of 3,000ft.

Update 13 August: grough now has a piece on the situation.

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