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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