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SMC

<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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Beinn a'Chlaidheimh – a Munro? <em>Picture: David Brown</em>

Beinn a'Chlaidheimh – a Munro? Picture: David Brown

The results of the July hill-height surveys by the Munro Society (TMS) have now been published. Three hills were surveyed on 4, 6 and 8 July – all in the remote Fisherfield area and all either just above or just below the 3,000-foot / 914.4-metre line that defines qualification for the list of Munros.

The surveys were conducted by John Barnard, Graham Jackson and Myrddyn Phillips of G & J Surveys, along with a supporting team of fellow TMS members, with sponsorship provided by Lord Haworth of Fisherfield. The new heights were then processed by the Ordnance Survey (OS).

Ruadh Stac Mor had an existing OS height of 918m, with its summit marked by a trig point. The precise height of the flush bracket was given by the OS as 918.65m and TMS surveyors measured it at 918.67m. So in terms of both its mapped height and hill-list status, there is no change: it remains a 918m Munro.

Beinn Dearg Mor, previously regarded as a 910m Corbett, was surveyed as 906.28m. So again its status remains the same – it’s still a Corbett. Exactly when the OS changes the mapped height from 910m to 906m remains to be seen.

Beinn a’Chlaidheimh was mapped as 916m and listed as a Munro. The surveyors came up with a figure of 913.96m, which would – if accepted by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) – see its status change from Munro to Corbett, making it one of three 914m Corbetts along with Foinaven in Sutherland and Beinn Dearg in Torridon.

However, the SMC – which publishes the list of Munros and ultimately decides what is and isn’t in – asked TMS to include the following statement in its press release: “The Scottish Mountaineering 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 update its map of the area.”

What now happens with regard to Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is unclear. There is evidence that it is below 3,000ft (913.96m converts to about 2,998 feet 6 inches), but in an unusual move the SMC has decided not to immediately accept the change – whereas they did immediately remove Munro status from Sgurr nan Ceannaichean when it was reduced from 915m to 913m in a similar survey in 2009.

How long this consideration period might be and what form it will take remains to be seen. For now, though, Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is still a Munro, albeit one with a curious status.

As regards the other two hills, there was never much chance of Ruadh Stac Mor losing the 3m or 4m that would bring it close to the critical line, given that its summit is marked by a ground-survey trig point. The new figure, just 2cm higher, is effectively identical to the old one as it is within the 10cm margin for error.

The Beinn Dearg Mor height-loss of around 4m is interesting, as it – along with the figure for Beinn a’Chlaidheimh – continues a trend of height-loss that began with TMS’s survey of Foinaven in 2007 (down from 914m to 911m) and was also evident in the 2009 surveys. Could there now be enough of a trend to suggest that a considerable number of OS aerial-survey heights are on the high side by this kind of margin? Probably not, but – assuming the methodology used by G & J Surveys to be valid – it does seem to reinforce the idea that resurveys generally reduce heights rather than adding to them.

As for the technical side of things, the press release from TMS says that “Summit positions were identified using a Leica NA730 Professional Automatic level tripod system and a 1m extendable E-staff. Absolute heights were measured using a Leica Geosystems 530 GPS receiver which locks on to 12 satellites and receives two signals from each satellite, thus reducing inaccuracies from atmospheric conditions.”

A spokesperson from TMS said: “In measuring the heights of mountains just below and just above 3,000ft (914.4m), we believe we are following in the tradition of accurate measurement established by Sir Hugh Munro who first produced the Munro’s Tables in 1891. Munro and his friends relied on aneroid barometers, the technology of the time; in 2011 we use satellite technology to achieve yet greater accuracy, but we seek the same objective. Munro never set down complete criteria for Munro status before his death in 1919, but it has always been accepted that 3,000ft (914.4m) was the primary requirement.”

More background can be found in yesterday’s preview piece.

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Ruadh Stac Mor – looking safe as a Munro <em>Picture: Ken Stewart</em>

Ruadh Stac Mor – looking safe as a Munro Picture: Ken Stewart

Tomorrow morning will be noteworthy for anyone with an interest in the Munros – the list of 3,000-foot Scottish hills first published in 1891 by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, courtesy of the esteemed Hugh Thomas Munro – as the makeup of the list could be about to change for the second time in two years.

Munro-climbing – or Munrobagging as it has become known – is the pastime where people work their way round all the hills in the list until they eventually qualify as a Munroist, someone who has climbed them all. This can take decades – there have been cases of people taking more than 60 years – or it can be done remarkably quickly, as with Stephen Pyke, who walked, ran, cycled and canoed his way round the full set inside 40 days last year.

Quite what constitutes that “full set” has long been a matter of debate, however – hence the significance of tomorrow’s announcement. Surveyors John Barnard and Graham Jackson, supported by fellow members of the Munro Society (TMS) and sponsored by Lord Haworth of Fisherfield (himself a Munroist – he finished with Ben More on Mull in 2001, on the exact centenary of the first-ever completion), spent several days in July measuring the heights of three hills in the remote Fisherfield area between Ullapool and Poolewe. It is the results of these surveys that will be announced on Tuesday – and while it could mean no change in terms of the list of Munros, there could be one, two or three alterations – in which case there is sure to be a certain amount of controversy and complaining.

At present, there are 283 Munros, and 220 Corbetts – these being the next category down, hills between 2,500ft and 2,999ft (or 762 metres and 914 metres – the mix of imperial and metric units has long added to the confusion and merriment of Munro measurement). The hills surveyed in July were Ruadh Stac Mor, a 918m Munro usually climbed in conjunction with the more celebrated A’Mhaighdean; Beinn a’Chlaidheimh, a ridgy, twin-topped 916m Munro at the north-eastern end of the Fisherfield range; and Beinn Dearg Mor, at 910m one of the highest Corbetts, standing across the river from the popular overnight halt of Shenavall bothy.

So, that’s the cast list. What’s the likely outcome? The first thing to say is that each of the hills has a different chance of changing status. Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is most “at risk”, simply because its present height is closest to the critical mark. A precise imperial-to-metric conversion gives 3,000ft – the Munro threshold – as 914.4m (or 914 metres 40 centimetres). Beinn a’Chlaidheimh could currently be 915.5m rounded up to 916m, which means it’s in hanging-on-by-fingernails territory in terms of its Munro status.

Ruadh Stac Mor is currently a couple of metres higher than Beinn a’Chlaidheimh – and in the resurveying game two metres counts for a lot. As for Beinn Dearg Mor, its present 910m height – even if this actually represents 910.5m – still leaves it needing to find an extra 3.9m from somewhere to become a Munro.

There are other factors in play – including, crucially, how the existing Ordnance Survey (OS) heights were obtained. Although to the casual map-glancer a height is a height is a height, the OS has long used two different methods: ground surveys and aerial surveys. Ground surveys – standing at the point in question and measuring using old-fashioned trigonometrical methods – is considerably more accurate, in margin-for-error terms, than a photographic air survey. On the large-scale 1:25,000 Explorer maps, ground-survey heights are shown in black, while aerial-survey heights are orangey-brown.

The OS height for Ruadh Stac Mor was obtained by ground survey: there is a triangulation pillar, or trig point, on or very close to the top. The other two are aerial surveys. So the current 918m for Ruadh Stac Mor looks pretty solid. While it might change by a metre or so, having four metres lopped off would be remarkable, and any significant change is likely to be an increase, courtesy of an overtopping boulder or outcrop.

As for the process whereby these things happen, until 2007 changes tended only to occur when a revised OS map showed a new summit spot-height. If such a change took a hill across the Munro/Corbett boundary, then either the OS would notify the SMC directly, or some keen-eyed map-reader or Munrobagger would mention it to the SMC, who would in turn have it verified by the OS. That, for instance, is how the Loch Laggan-side hill Beinn Teallach became a Munro in the mid-1980s: a hillgoer named Richard Webb spotted that the map height had changed from 913m to 915m, mentioned this to Hamish Brown of the SMC, and in due course Beinn Teallach found its way into the list of Munros.

In recent years, however, the OS has shown less inclination to engage in upland surveys, plus the accuracy and availability of high-grade GPS equipment has increased. This has led to Barnard and Jackson – who are very adept practitioners without being full-blown professional surveyors – obtaining new heights for a wide variety of hills in Wales, England and Scotland. Not all these hills have been high or even popular walking destinations, and quite often the survey results have merely confirmed the existing hill-list status, perhaps with a small alteration in height. On occasion, however, they have come up with results that captured wider public interest – for instance when Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia was deemed to have nudged up from 999m to 1,000m.

In these situations, Barnard and Jackson have had their results ratified by the OS, and then – in the case of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean – by the SMC. It’s a more complicated process than used to be the case, in other words. And given that Munro-related changes have knock-on effects in the guidebook, hill-guiding and B&B industries, as well as on hill-path erosion, this process needs to be subjected to close scrutiny. While there has been general acceptance of the results thus far, not everyone is entirely at ease with the claimed accuracy of a “maximum estimated error of +/-0.1m”. While there is no suggestion of lack of diligence on the part of the surveyors, nailing the height of a 900m hill to the nearest 10cm remains a bold claim.

There are also those who would feel happier were a second visit – ideally by a completely different surveying team – to be made to the hills in question, on the old scientific principle that results ought to be replicable before being really accepted. That ought to be feasible with the borderline Munros – we’re not talking about sending probes to Jupiter, after all – but it hasn’t yet happened.

And there are more people – quite a wide constituency, even among active Munrobaggers – who think that the whole thing is a bit silly, that the list should be left as it is without these outbreaks of tinkering and meddling, whether from TMS surveying teams or the SMC itself.

So much for the theory and analysis. Time for a bit of old-fashioned speculation. Tomorrow’s possible changes – with “change” taken to mean hill-list status-change rather than slight height-alteration – effectively come down to three possibilities: A – no change; B – one change; C – more than one change. At risk of ending up with egg on face, C can be almost ruled out, as it would require at least one of the two outside bets – Ruadh Stac Mor and Beinn Dearg Mor – to cross the line. Given that Ruadh Stac Mor appears to be a complete no-no, that would mean Beinn Dearg Mor and Beinn a’Chlaidheimh swapping places in status terms. Likely? Not very.

As for A, this is quite possible – except that your correspondent has put his ear to the ground and dutifully listened for online chatter and gossip over the past few weeks… and has heard several hints that a change is a-coming. In some cases the talk mentioned hills not even in the current survey – a case of Chinese whispers applied to the Munros – but there has been a consistent suggestion of a change.

Were that to be the case, then Beinn a’Chlaidheimh looks massively more likely to be demoted than Beinn Dearg Mor being given a leg-up. Not just because the current height of Beinn a’Chlaidheimh is closer to the 3,000ft mark than that of its near-neighbour, but also because it would involve a decrease in height – and hill-shrinkage, if it can be called that, has been a steady theme of all the surveys carried out by TMS.

In 2007, in conjunction with professional surveying company CMCR, TMS looked at the two highest Corbetts, Foinaven in Sutherland and Beinn Dearg in Torridon. Both started as 914m, just below the critical mark, but Foinaven ended up at 911m, while Beinn Dearg was given an ultra-precise figure of 913.675m, meaning it remained a 914m non-Munro.

The 2009 surveys – conducted by the Barnard/Jackson/TMS team – looked at four hills, of which only one showed any increase in height, and then only by a metre (Ben Vane above Loch Lomond stayed as a Munro and crept up from 915m to 916m).

There does appear to be a trend here, of resurveyed heights being the same as, or lower than, the previous ones. In 2009, your correspondent correctly predicted one demotion, but got the wrong hill (opting for Ben Vane – oops – rather than Sgurr nan Ceannaichean). This time, the CalMerc Munro-tinkering prediction is that Ruadh Stac Mor and Beinn Dearg Mor will stay as they are in status terms, but Beinn a’Chlaidheimh will henceforth have a quieter life, being deemed below the 3,000ft mark.

If so – and assuming the SMC accepts any changes, which is not guaranteed – this would leave only 282 Munros and mean that getting round them all would, for the second time in two years, become a little less strenuous.

This is all pre-match analysis, however. For the actual announcement, check in with the Munro Society at 9am tomorrow morning, where all (at least until the next set of surveys and rejiggings) will be revealed.

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Looking down on the head of Loch Avon <em>Picture: Callum Black</em>

Looking down on the head of Loch Avon Picture: Callum Black

Sunday
Late morning was as good a time as any to brave the 100-mile drive up the A9, and by 2pm I was starting up the strange hill that is Creag Meagaidh. It was tackled from Moy, to the south, rather than the trade route from Aberarder via the Window, which I’d done a couple of times previously.

The Moy approach was a different game entirely, both in terms of people-quietness and lower-ground squelchy roughness (the two might well be connected).

Ralph Storer, in his Ultimate Guide to the Munros series, writes that “an ATV track proves useful for a while” – but in my case it proved useful for about 30 seconds before vanishing in the summer-growth jungle.

The first 45 minutes, until across the Moy Burn and starting up the much steeper and easier southwestern slope of the outlier An Cearcallach, wasn’t much fun – but things improved markedly from there, with a steady anticlockwise plod round the various tops to the main summit, then down the south ridge with its wall before another dose of tropical purgatory at the bottom.

Despite the warm-bordering-on-hot weather and clear skies, I didn’t meet anyone – the Aberarder car park had been packed, and a few walkers could be seen across on the main rim, but all had gone by the time I got there. I did however see what at first I took to be a higher-than-usual dipper, but later realised was a ring ouzel, at 1,000 metres in the plateau-edge burn above Coire Choille-rais.

Creag Meagaidh is a decidedly odd hill. It’s mightily impressive to look at, with corries all over the place – in which regard it’s a Highland version of Cadair Idris, both hills being geological Catherine Wheels, with ridges spiralling off in odd directions. But even up top, despite the height of over 1,100 metres, the going isn’t as good as might be expected: springy moss rather than firm gravels or boulders.

Standing halfway along the Laggan road, it suffers an identity crisis like no other Scottish hill – part western ridge system, part eastern plateau, without really fitting either format. It’s a hill version of Alan Ross’s celebrated witticism about the New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis: “Funny sort of name, Cunis: neither one thing nor the other…”.

Monday
Overnighted with friends Helen and Bill Cook in Kingussie, then headed for real gravel-and-boulder country: the Cairngorms. A plan to meet another friend on top of Braeriach fell through when he texted to tell of being tied down with family duties in Pitlochry, so I took the chance to fill a few gaps in my central Cairngorms CV.

Having lived in Aberdeen, and having done a fair bit of Strathspey-based walking in subsequent years, these are hills I’ve been in and on a lot. But there are always omissions, and today – again in fine weather, although with a steady south-east breeze that picked up for a spell mid-afternoon – it made sense to chalk off a couple of them.

First came the Goat Track – the walking route out of the back of Coire an t-Sneachda that manages to be both direct and sneaky at the same time. The corrie floor is a great boulder-strewn place with a lovely lochan, and the exit route is only at all steep for 50 metres or so – I was sitting at the plateau-rim cairn in little over an hour from the top car park, with a couple of stops en route. In winter it’s grade II, but in summer it’s just a walk with a couple of metres of damp-but-juggy almost-scrambling at a slabby section halfway up the steep bit.

A local friend told later of a mountain rescue contact having mentioned that he recommended a helmet for the Goat Track, and it does indeed go tight in beneath the verticalities. But despite my increasing keenness for helmets in rough, loose corries, I didn’t feel I was taking any untoward risks by being bare-headed (well, baseball-cap-headed). Perhaps I simply trust Cairngorms granite more than I do Cuillin gabbro and basalt.

Then across to Ben Macdui (what a stroll the path now is – at least as far as Lochan Buidhe – compared with three decades ago), and so down upper Coire Etchachan for lunch on Beinn Mheadhoin, very much the middle hill of its name. This was only my second ascent, the first having been on a youthful full-of-bagging-energy trip with a friend when we walked in from Braemar, camped by moonlight in Glen Derry, then did the odd combination of Derry Cairngorm (via an alarmingly loose gully on its north-eastern top), Beinn Mheadhoin and Bynack More. I contrived to fall in at the Fords of Avon both times.

Both that day and this were dry, and the summit tor was easy enough – but in the wet Beinn Mheadhoin could well be the most technically awkward mainland Munro, given the friction-reliant nature of even easy granite scrambling. In ice it would be a serious undertaking, requiring crampons, axe and nerve – it’s worth recalling that this was the only 1,000-metre summit not reached by Mike Cawthorne during the winter round recounted in his fine book Hell of a Journey. (“Attempting to scale the ice-plating and reach the true summit was out of the question.”)

And so down on an easy diagonal line to the Loch Avon shore path, round the head of the loch via the stepping-stone beaches – all tremendous country, and I had seen no one since the Etchachan outflow – and so up the path on the east side of the Allt Coire Raibeirt, again new to me. This – like the Goat Track – has a reputation for unnerving people, as the steep lower 150 metres is blocky and eroded in places. Easy enough in ascent in summer – although it’s interesting that as far back as 1975, the esteemed Adam Watson advised walkers, in his SMC Cairngorms guidebook, to “take care as the steepest part of the path has eroded badly and is loose”.

What was striking was its directness in good summer conditions. I was starting to feel distinctly puggled, but from the Loch Avon beaches to the summit of Cairn Gorm – around 500 metres of ascent and 2.5km distance – took under an hour of walking time, courtesy of the steep ground low down and the firm, dry, un-Meagaidh-like terrain higher up.

Tuesday
Out with my host Bill for a scoot round the pair of Feshie Munros before the weather broke. In training for the Dent Blanche at the end of July, Bill needed a decent yomp, so we went up by the Allt Ruadh path system, then over Meall Tionail and Meall Buidhe. Sgor Gaoith – how many hills have such a great downward view? – was reached just as conditions started to clear and improve, contrary to what we had been expecting all the way up.

Bill got his proper legstretch on the crossing to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, as on the Moine Mhor section between Carn Ban Mor and the plateau track he opted for a direct line rather than follow the path, and we only met the track where it crossed the Eidart feeder, the Caochan Dubh. Because I stuck to the path slightly longer before realising what he was up to, I was about a minute behind him right the way across and couldn’t close it despite trying quite hard – and he’s 11 years older than me.

Then came a close-quarters dotterel sighting as we left the Mullach, followed by lunch in one of the gully-top clefts above Coire Garbhlach, from where the scree-and-heather view across to Meall Dubhag always reminds me of Grasmoor.

At the Achlean road-end, as the forecast rain finally arrived, we chatted with a group of knackered-but-happy Duke of Edinburgh’s Award trainees – the second time I’d seen them or their colleagues, there having been a couple of groups on Macdui. At the car park itself was a minibus – presumably theirs – with Ampleforth Abbey written on the side. This prompted a thought: Ampleforth is one of the great Roman Catholic schools, so how come its pupils can receive a DoE award but then be denied the chance of a hassle-free marriage into the Duke’s family, due to the Act of Settlement?

Wednesday
A day of rest, recuperation and general zonking. Even half a decade ago I could have happily managed another outing immediately after three routine-length hill days bookended by two 100-mile drives – but not now.

Not for the first time I’m struck by the extraordinary effort and energy of Stephen Pyke’s 39-day Munro round, which ended just over a year ago. Plenty of Spyke’s individual days were beyond my own scope in standalone terms (Beinn a’Bheithir followed by all the Mamores, for instance), but the stringing together of them, day on day without a break, is what really stands out. And he’s only four years younger than me. Scary and very, very impressive.

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The view from Helvellyn <em>Picture: Gary Rogers</em>

The view from Helvellyn Picture: Gary Rogers

There is no obvious reason why the spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise should have an altitude ceiling, but news of a café having been established at almost 950 metres on the third-highest peak in England was always likely to prompt discussion.

Actually, “café” overstates it somewhat, as what brothers David and Owen Holmes from Bristol have been doing on the summit plateau of Helvellyn is to sell bacon rolls, biscuits and “a range of hot and cold drinks” from beneath a tarpaulin windbreak. It’s not exactly the Striding Edge branch of Starbucks.

“It’s been quite busy,” David Holmes told Sky News. “We are just going to see whether it stays like this but we’re hoping it will get busier especially in August.” The pair are camping at the foot of the hill and – somewhat in the manner of the winter felltop assessors (although they take turns, week about) – plan to go up each day “to run their fledgling project” as the Sky report put it.

“As a temporary development it can carry on for 28 days without permission,” said a Lake District National Park Authority spokesman in the grough report of the story. “If the guys intended carrying on longer than that they would be advised to talk to our planners about any future planning permission requirements.”

Could such a thing happen in Scotland – while complying with planning and retail legalities and also in terms of fending off the likely outcry from the “wild land” brigade? The most legitimate comparison, in land-management terms, would be with national park hills north of the border – say were an ad hoc café to be established high on either Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms or on Ben Lomond in the area controlled by the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs authority. At the time of writing, it hasn’t been possible to obtain a comment from either administration – but David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS), did offer his thoughts.

“Perhaps I can understand this happening in the Lake District,” said Gibson, “where over-worked mountain rescue teams have more than their fair share of folk to deal with who are ill-equipped and inexperienced and consequently rely on others to get them out of difficulties.

“If this happened on Ben Macdui we would expect and advise mountaineers to be totally self-reliant in the personal nutrition department as in other matters relating to their activities in the Scottish mountains. I’ve seen the pictures of the Helvellyn café and honestly can’t imagine any of our members preferring to rely on a couple of guys with a stove under a tarp, which might be there when you get to the summit, or might have been blown off the plateau into the Lairig Ghru in the meantime.”

Then there is the question of the quality or otherwise of food on offer at any such establishment. Although from the pictures there don’t appear to be any of the celebrated Cumberland sausages from Waberthwaite on offer on Helvellyn, bridies on Ben Macdui or locally sourced salmon on Ben Lomond might be the way to go.

”We’re not experts on nutrition,” said Gibson, “and we wouldn’t wish to comment either way on the nutritional value of bacon – butties of course being a favourite of many mountaineers, and bacon a main ingredient in so many of Maw Broon’s recipes – but we would continue to advise mountaineers to ‘take ample food and drink for each member of your group and always take reserve supplies; simple high energy foods are best as are hot drinks in cold wet weather’, which means pretty much most of the time.” Gibson recommends that walkers and climbers should consult the MCofS safety and skills guidelines for more advice on such matters.

Refreshments on or close to high UK summits are not new, of course. At present there is the café and “unique shopping experience” just a few strides from the summit of Snowdon, and from 1893 to 1904 there was not just refreshment but also accommodation available in the summit observatory on Ben Nevis. Even after this formally closed, there was occasional provision for another decade or so: “One of the rooms at the summit observatory was opened during the summer months for the refreshment of visitors,” wrote Ken Crocket and Simon Richardson in Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain. “This continued until 1916, with a previous observer, James Millar, acting as keeper.”

A closer comparison, however, might be with the tearoom that used to stand close to the summit of Cadair Idris, not just because of the type of fare on offer, but also because it was – like the current Helvellyn enterprise – run by two brothers. (Precise details are hard to find, but it appears they were named David and Robert Pugh.)

“When I first climbed Cadair Idris (about 1954) the building was ruinous,” said Dewi Jones of Clwb Dringo said when asked about this in 1997. “But about ten years later I used to occasionally meet a man who was one of two brothers who ran the café before the war. They tried starting up again when demobbed from the RAF, but the tourists were not around and [they] soon gave up.

“He did tell me how to find the spring where they got water and in those days there was quite a bit of guttering in place making the water easy to collect. Today the spring is still flowing but the guttering is long gone.”

In terms of the low-tech approach of the Holmes brothers on Helvellyn, an even closer analogy might be with the wee girls who – for a couple of summers in recent memory – offered juice and biscuits for a small fee to walkers at the Invergeldie/Coishavachan car park in Glen Lednock, the start and finish point for the easiest way up Ben Chonzie. This catering arrangement seems to have been entirely unofficial, but it served to stave off a few hunger pangs for departing or returning walkers. It also gave the local kids something constructive to do in the school holidays and showed considerable inventiveness in terms of responding to a potential market.

The summit of Helvellyn can be as busy as Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond and Ben Chonzie combined on a fine summer Saturday, so the Holmes brothers are unlikely to run short of customers for as long as they are allowed to ply their Munro-height trade. Whether they end up on The Apprentice or Dragons’ Den – or in the ecological bad books – remains to be seen, however.

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The view from Helvellyn <em>Picture: Gary Rogers</em>

The view from Helvellyn Picture: Gary Rogers

There is no obvious reason why the spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise should have an altitude ceiling, but news of a café having been established at almost 950 metres on the third-highest peak in England was always likely to prompt discussion.

Actually, “café” overstates it somewhat, as what brothers David and Owen Holmes from Bristol have been doing on the summit plateau of Helvellyn is to sell bacon rolls, biscuits and “a range of hot and cold drinks” from beneath a tarpaulin windbreak. It’s not exactly the Striding Edge branch of Starbucks.

“It’s been quite busy,” David Holmes told Sky News. “We are just going to see whether it stays like this but we’re hoping it will get busier especially in August.” The pair are camping at the foot of the hill and – somewhat in the manner of the winter felltop assessors (although they take turns, week about) – plan to go up each day “to run their fledgling project” as the Sky report put it.

“As a temporary development it can carry on for 28 days without permission,” said a Lake District National Park Authority spokesman in the grough report of the story. “If the guys intended carrying on longer than that they would be advised to talk to our planners about any future planning permission requirements.”

Could such a thing happen in Scotland – while complying with planning and retail legalities and also in terms of fending off the likely outcry from the “wild land” brigade? The most legitimate comparison, in land-management terms, would be with national park hills north of the border – say were an ad hoc café to be established high on either Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms or on Ben Lomond in the area controlled by the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs authority. At the time of writing, it hasn’t been possible to obtain a comment from either administration – but David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS), did offer his thoughts.

“Perhaps I can understand this happening in the Lake District,” said Gibson, “where over-worked mountain rescue teams have more than their fair share of folk to deal with who are ill-equipped and inexperienced and consequently rely on others to get them out of difficulties.

“If this happened on Ben Macdui we would expect and advise mountaineers to be totally self-reliant in the personal nutrition department as in other matters relating to their activities in the Scottish mountains. I’ve seen the pictures of the Helvellyn café and honestly can’t imagine any of our members preferring to rely on a couple of guys with a stove under a tarp, which might be there when you get to the summit, or might have been blown off the plateau into the Lairig Ghru in the meantime.”

Then there is the question of the quality or otherwise of food on offer at any such establishment. Although from the pictures there don’t appear to be any of the celebrated Cumberland sausages from Waberthwaite on offer on Helvellyn, bridies on Ben Macdui or locally sourced salmon on Ben Lomond might be the way to go.

”We’re not experts on nutrition,” said Gibson, “and we wouldn’t wish to comment either way on the nutritional value of bacon – butties of course being a favourite of many mountaineers, and bacon a main ingredient in so many of Maw Broon’s recipes – but we would continue to advise mountaineers to ‘take ample food and drink for each member of your group and always take reserve supplies; simple high energy foods are best as are hot drinks in cold wet weather’, which means pretty much most of the time.” Gibson recommends that walkers and climbers should consult the MCofS safety and skills guidelines for more advice on such matters.

Refreshments on or close to high UK summits are not new, of course. At present there is the café and “unique shopping experience” just a few strides from the summit of Snowdon, and from 1893 to 1904 there was not just refreshment but also accommodation available in the summit observatory on Ben Nevis. Even after this formally closed, there was occasional provision for another decade or so: “One of the rooms at the summit observatory was opened during the summer months for the refreshment of visitors,” wrote Ken Crocket and Simon Richardson in Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain. “This continued until 1916, with a previous observer, James Millar, acting as keeper.”

A closer comparison, however, might be with the tearoom that used to stand close to the summit of Cadair Idris, not just because of the type of fare on offer, but also because it was – like the current Helvellyn enterprise – run by two brothers. (Precise details are hard to find, but it appears they were named David and Robert Pugh.)

“When I first climbed Cadair Idris (about 1954) the building was ruinous,” said Dewi Jones of Clwb Dringo said when asked about this in 1997. “But about ten years later I used to occasionally meet a man who was one of two brothers who ran the café before the war. They tried starting up again when demobbed from the RAF, but the tourists were not around and [they] soon gave up.

“He did tell me how to find the spring where they got water and in those days there was quite a bit of guttering in place making the water easy to collect. Today the spring is still flowing but the guttering is long gone.”

In terms of the low-tech approach of the Holmes brothers on Helvellyn, an even closer analogy might be with the wee girls who – for a couple of summers in recent memory – offered juice and biscuits for a small fee to walkers at the Invergeldie/Coishavachan car park in Glen Lednock, the start and finish point for the easiest way up Ben Chonzie. This catering arrangement seems to have been entirely unofficial, but it served to stave off a few hunger pangs for departing or returning walkers. It also gave the local kids something constructive to do in the school holidays and showed considerable inventiveness in terms of responding to a potential market.

The summit of Helvellyn can be as busy as Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond and Ben Chonzie combined on a fine summer Saturday, so the Holmes brothers are unlikely to run short of customers for as long as they are allowed to ply their Munro-height trade. Whether they end up on The Apprentice or Dragons’ Den – or in the ecological bad books – remains to be seen, however.

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scotcon2Scottish Conservatives are pledging a £10m Cancer Drugs Fund so drugs available south of the border are also available in Scotland.

Speaking from Ayr, where she was joined by local candidate John Scott, Annabel Goldie, Scottish Conservative Leader, said:

“Scottish Conservatives believe that it is unacceptable there are expensive cancer drugs, recommended by doctors, available to patients in England and Wales, which are not available in Scotland.

“The action taken by the UK Government in setting up a Cancer Drugs Fund has been warmly received by cancer sufferers, their families and campaign groups in England and Wales. We believe it is time to take action in Scotland. That is why Scottish Conservatives are proposing a Scottish Cancer Drugs Fund of up to £10m per year to help provide the expensive drugs that prolong life.

“The SMC will continue to recommend NHS funding for drugs which are regarded as clinical and cost effective, but this additional funding will help cancer patients access the vital drugs their clinicians think they need.

“Scots cancer sufferers must be given all the help possible, not put in a worse position than their counterparts south of the border.”

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

David McLetchie, Scottish Conservative Campaign Manager for the Scottish Parliament election, said yesterday that the first word out of Ed Miliband’s mouth in Scotland should be ‘sorry’, for landing us with Labour’s legacy of debt:

“If Ed Miliband really cares about Scotland the first word out of his mouth should be ‘sorry’ for landing us with Labour’s legacy of debt.

“Labour brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. Labour doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history. The UK is spending £120 million every single day just to pay off the interest on Labour’s debt. This is Labour’s legacy.

“Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were Gordon Brown’s chief economic advisers and the architects of this economic mess. The sad thing is that having burdened our children and grandchildren with debt, and undermined our economy, Labour offers nothing but opportunistic attacks.

Labour maxed out the national credit card and, just like a credit card debt, the longer you leave it the worse it gets. If we don’t take steps now to live within our means then we’ll end up paying higher taxes and face deeper cuts in the future. Labour’s approach would mean less growth, less investment and fewer jobs.

“Ed Miliband refuses to accept that Labour overspent before the boom turned to bust. For him, sorry seems to be the hardest word. His visit today confirms that Scotland is not safe in Labour’s hands.”