The High Hills of Freedom
Footloose Scots will tell you there's no such thing as trespassing in the Highlands. And no one is more passionate about possessing these craggy, heather-painted mountains than the "compleaters" who summit the Munrosall 284 of them.
To bag, or not to bag: That is the question.
Alan DouglasAlan Douglas, a.k.a. “the Arch Lomondeer”
Buachaille Etive MórBaggers’s Banquet: Glen Coe’s Buachaille Etive Mór
ScotlandMap of Scotland by Mike Reagan
Charlie Campbell, Mike Lates, Highlands' Applecross Forest, Dave HewittRAMBLE ON: from left, super Munro-bagger Charlie Campbell near Glasgow; mountain guide Mike Lates on the Isle of Skye; an ancient wall in the Highlands’ Applecross Forest; Dave Hewitt, editor of The Angry Corrie
Inaccessible PinnacleTHE LAST MUNRO: the dreaded Inaccessible Pinnacle, on the Isle of Skye
Alan Douglas and I are sitting in the otherwise empty car park at Rowardennan, on the shores of Loch Lomond, in western Scotland, glumly watching raindrops splatter across his windshield. Up above us, shrouded in a not-so-wee bit of mist, is a giant haystack called Ben Lomond. As the southernmost of the so-called Munros—the 284 Scottish peaks higher than 3,000 feet—Ben Lomond endures the plodding boot steps of more than 30,000 hill walkers a year. But on this wet May day, there may be just two of us heading up—or no one at all.
Douglas, who’s invited me to climb the peak with him, leans forward to squint at the sky. “I don’t know,” he says. “On a normal day, I might not start if it was like this.”
Is my host serious? Or is he just offering me, a newcomer to the sport of Munro bagging, an easy out? I’ll never know, because suddenly, without any warning at all, the rain stops. Before it can change its mind, we hop out of the car, pull on our daypacks, and set off—not on the main path up Ben Lomond’s gentle southern shoulder but on a narrower one that approaches the peak via its less visited western flanks. “Twenty years ago there wasn’t any path here at all,” Douglas says as I pant along behind him. Then he laughs. “Actually, I suppose I’m partly to blame for it.”
A hawk-nosed 60-year-old from the nearby village of Killearn, Douglas first started climbing Ben Lomond as a teenager, back in the sixties. But it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that his career as “the Arch Lomondeer,” as a fellow hill walker once dubbed him, really began. In 1987, his employer, the Clydesdale Bank, was gobbled up by a larger bank, and Douglas, a computer-services manager, was slowly phased out.
What Douglas mostly does these days, it seems, is climb Ben Lomond—three or four times a week, sometimes even twice a day. When people ask him about it, he tells them he’s no different than a golfer who enjoys playing the same course over and over. “They always say, ‘Ah, but that’s different every time,’ ” he tells me. “Well, so it is with this.”
We toil on, cresting a little “top,” or subsidiary peak, called Ptarmigan, dropping down a few hundred feet to a spongy bog, and then heading back up into the mist. Only it’s not really toiling. It’s perfect walking country, this: hillsides carpeted with heather and fragrant yellow gorse, crunchy patches of last year’s bracken scattered here and there, springy soil underfoot.
The heather gives way to rock and then, surprisingly, snow. Above us, I can just make out the dim outline of Ben Lomond’s summit. It’s steep and, to the left, downright vertiginous, with big cliffs falling away into a deep corrie, or cirque—a typical feature of Scottish peaks, many of whose northern aspects were formed by glaciation.
Two hours out from the parking lot, we crest a little rise to find a tapered concrete pillar about four feet high. It’s a surveyor’s mark—a “trig point,” Douglas calls it—marking Ben Lomond’s 3,192-foot summit. We stand there peering out at the view of… nothing. Then, right on cue, the clouds tear open and we catch a couple of glimpses that, for me, seem to crystallize the dual essence of Scotland: to the south, emerald farm fields, silvery lochs, and the distant smudge of industrial Glasgow; and to the north, the Highlands, a wild landscape of snowcapped peaks, rugged moors, and, as far as I can see, no towns at all.
The clouds close in again. Douglas takes out a little gadget to measure the wind speed and temperature—21 miles per hour and three degrees Celsius, about 37 Fahrenheit—and jots them in a notebook, then starts down the main path in search of a windless lunch spot. A few steps later he stops and turns around.
“Och, I nearly forgot,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand. “Congratulations on your first Munro!”
“Thanks,” I say, feeling a sudden flush of pride. “And congratulations on your—well, how many Ben Lomonds is it?”
Douglas smiles shyly. “Well,” he says, “today would be my 1,317th.”
LIKE A LOT OF GREAT Scottish traditions—haggis, the bagpipes, the Loch Ness monster—Munro bagging is both silly and serious business. Silly because, well, who really cares how many Scottish mountains you’ve climbed—none of them are particularly big. And serious because, in Scotland, a lot of people actually do care.
“Many of us in this world are interested in systems, categories, and using lists to organize our lives,” says Dave Hewitt, editor of a hill-walking fanzine called The Angry Corrie, which scrupulously tracks the bagging of not only Munros but also Scottish Corbetts (hills of between 2,500 and 3,000 feet) and Grahams (hills of 2,000 to 2,500 feet), among others. “You can call it obsessive or whatever, but the lists provide a motivation and a framework for getting out, and what’s wrong with that?”
Hewitt wouldn’t have gotten an argument from Sir Hugh Munro, a gentleman adventurer who, in 1891, made a fateful contribution to the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal: “Tables giving all the Scottish Mountains exceeding 3,000 feet in height.” The 35-year-old had already climbed many of the features on his list—283 peaks (a figure since amended to 284) and 255 subsidiary tops (now 227)—and was intent on scaling them all. But he was beaten to the punch by another Scot, the Reverend A. E. Robertson, who after a campaign of more than ten years claimed his last Munro, Meall Dearg, in 1901.
Munro himself never quite got there, dying in 1919 with two Munros unclimbed. But over the next 60 years, about 40 others did, proudly taking their place on the Mountaineering Club’s official list of “compleaters.” Then, in 1974, an outdoor educator named Hamish Brown reeled off a 112-day, self-propelled “continuous round” of the Munros. His book Hamish’s Mountain Walk became a bestseller in Scotland and, coincidentally or not, was followed by a huge upsurge in the popularity of Munro bagging—one that has yet to crest.
If you go to the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Web site today, you’ll find more than 3,300 registered compleaters, a large number of them English and Dutch, along with a smattering of Americans. For many, the Munros are primarily a competitive challenge—one that can become extreme. Take Charlie Campbell, a part-time postman from Glasgow who, in the summer of 2000, ran, biked, and swam his way up the 284 Munros in the phenomenal time of 48 days and 12 hours. (The swimming came in handy for the sea crossings to the isles of Mull and Skye.) Or Edinburgh’s Steven Fallon, a computer programmer for the National Health Service who has completed an astonishing 12 rounds of the Munros at the tender age of 35.
But there’s another, often overlooked aspect of Munro bagging that, for me, is just as appealing: the idea that roaming around in the hills can be a political act. As in England, where “rambling” developed a keen following among the working class, the roots of Munro bagging—and for that matter, all Scottish climbing—go back to the Industrial Revolution and the nostalgia of Glasgow factory workers for the crags and campfires of their youth. Despite (or perhaps because of) the country’s feudal past—even today, just 350 people hold title to half the private land—the average Scot considers it his right to walk anywhere he pleases. “There’s still a heavy residue of that socialist instinct, and thankfully so,” Hewitt points out. “A lot of people here go out walking to express their freedom, the idea that the hills are ours.”
Scotland’s hills aren’t entirely mine, but I do have a small claim on them: Two hundred and fifty years ago, one of my forefathers, a devout Presbyterian named Walter Buchanan, emigrated from Stirlingshire to Pennsylvania. Though my family has always honored that heritage via the usual means—tartan boxer shorts and bathrobes and, of course, single-malt whisky—none of us ever got around to actually visiting the place. Then, 12 years ago, my sister met a Scottish strawberry farmer at a wedding in San Francisco—and married him.
The Scottish mountains surprised me the first time I saw them. They were bigger and more beautiful than I had expected, and something in their majestic contours—perhaps their soft cloaks of green—seemed to invite the casual climber onto their heights. Nor did there seem to be any incentive not to go: no signs, no fences. According to my brother-in-law, there was no such thing as criminal trespassing in Scotland.
A year later, my sister sent me a guide to the Munros for Christmas. Most were walk-ups, but a select few involved scrambling or tricky traverses, and one, the Isle of Skye’s Sgurr Dearg—also known as “the Inaccessible Pinnacle”—required a bit more. The “east ridge is narrow and remarkably exposed, with vertical drops on both sides and a disconcerting lack of really good handholds,” the guide reported. “If there is a wind blowing, the situation may seem to be precarious.” As I read on, a vague idea began to take shape. How many Munros could an inspired visitor climb in a week? If I were to start at my sister and brother-in-law’s farm, near Edinburgh, could I make it all the way to Skye? Would the notoriously fickle weather allow me a shot at Sgurr Dearg—and if so, could I handle it?
A Munro-bagging holiday doesn’t require much planning. I already had the guidebook and a pair of boots. I could have packed some camping gear, too—in Scotland you can pretty much camp anywhere. But why bivy in the rain if you could plunk down 20 pounds at one of the country’s ubiquitous B&Bs, take a good soak in a seven-foot bathtub, and load up on eggs and blood sausage in the morning? At the last minute I threw in a compass, for form’s sake, and I was ready to go.
DRIVING NORTH FROM BEN LOMOND, I wind through the Trossachs, a picturesque region of forested lochs and crags much romanticized in the writings of Sir Walter Scott. But for me the Highlands really begin a bit farther north, with the great wilderness of Rannoch Moor, a high, desolate wasteland of heathery tussocks and bogs. Here the road parallels the West Highland Way, a well-trod 95-mile hiking trail that runs from Glasgow to Fort William, at the foot of 4,406-foot Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.
The few small hotels along the way are clogged with “ramblers”—not really hill walkers but walkers, pure and simple. Checking out their anoraks and the dorky map pouches strung around their necks, I can’t help but feel a certain smug superiority—pretty much the same attitude, I am to discover, that climbers sling at Munro-baggers.
After Rannoch Moor, the road swings west and begins to drop down to the sea in the great green trough of Glen Coe. It’s Scotland’s version of Yosemite—no really big walls, but a triumphal avenue of glacially sculpted peaks and high, hidden valleys. I find a B&B in Ballachulish, on nearby Loch Leven, and in the morning return to the glen intent on bagging my second Munro, 3,773-foot Bidean nam Bian, Gaelic for “Pinnacle of the Hills.”
The terrain is much steeper than Ben Lomond’s, and by the time I reach the summit, it’s snowing hard, and the view I’m counting on is gone. Rather than retreat the way I’ve come, I decide to continue east along a ridge to another Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, “Peak of the Dreadful Corrie,” eventually glissading down a scree gully to the valley bottom. It’s a long day—eight hours, car to car—but one of the most exhilarating ridge walks I’ve ever done. Plus I’ve scored a bonus Munro!
That night in Fort William, I face a decision: Should I keep moving north or stay and attempt Ben Nevis, the biggest Munro of them all? I’m tempted—the Ben is just a straightforward five-mile plod by the so-called tourist path—but in the end I give it a miss. It will be a good candidate for my last Munro, I decide, should I ever attain the exquisite status that The Angry Corrie refers to as “M-minus-1.”
Just south of Loch Ness, I turn west off the main road to Inverness and begin the long, beautiful drive to Skye. The road runs over a stretch of moorland and drops into a narrow valley. Glen Shiel is a Munro-bagger’s paradise: All you have to do is climb up from one side of the road or the other and start ticking. Yet when I reach the trailhead for a peak called the Saddle—a unique Munro, in its lack of a Gaelic name—there’s just one other vehicle in the car park.
The Saddle is on my list because of a famous knife-edge called the Forcan Ridge—a classic, dramatically exposed route that I’m hoping will offer some psychological preparation for the terrors of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. As I approach it, I overtake a young couple with the telltale hill walker’s accessories, “hiking sticks,” strapped to their daypacks. They seem pleased to have the company, and I am, too—the ridge has a number of less-than-obvious passages and slippery downclimbs, and it helps to share the route-finding chores.
An hour later we’re on the summit, picnicking on a grassy slope near the trig point and soaking up the view. The Saddle, the woman proudly informs me, is her 87th Munro, and she plans to tick another before nightfall. Tomorrow she and her husband will do the South Glen Shiel Ridge, a 14-mile jaunt giving seven Munros, then cross the glen and tag the Five Sisters of Kintail on Sunday. If the weekend works out according to plan, she’ll be back at work Monday morning with 100 Munros in the bag. She looks at her husband and snorts. “You’re stuck on forty-something, aren’t you?”
He shrugs: “She’s goal-oriented, and I’m not.”
“I DON’T LIKE SKYE,” the proprietor of a shop in Fort William had told me. “We call it Little England, because the bloody Brits have taken over. They’re like some of your countrymen, I’m afraid—you hear them before you see them.”
Sure enough, Mike Lates, the guide I’ve been e-mailing about Skye’s legendary Black Cuillin Ridge, where ten of the most difficult Munros stand virtually side by side, turns out to be English—or, as he puts it, “a person of confused nationality.” Born in Bedfordshire, Lates spent his teenage years rock-climbing in Wales, and then moved to Skye at age 25. Before hanging out his shingle as a guide, he spent a couple of years working at one of Skye’s numerous salmon farms—one reason, he says, that he’s escaped the hostility that usually greets “incomers.”
“The In Pinn, eh?” Lates says when I stop by his cottage in the little village of Luib. “I don’t tend to be too patient with that—you really see hill-walking culture in all its glory.” He agrees to take me on one condition: Instead of trudging up the normal approach on the shoulder of Sgurr Dearg, we get a bit of sport by scaling the walls of Corrie Lagan. “That’s my mission in life, chief,” he says. “Converting hill walkers into proper mountain climbers.”
The next morning Lates and I make the 20-mile drive from Luib to Glen Brittle, trailhead for the southern end of the Black Cuillin Ridge. The Skye landscape is forlorn, bereft of trees and, for the most part, people. In the 19th century, it was a central site in one of Scotland’s saddest chapters—the Clearances, in which crofters, or tenant farmers, were forcibly exiled to make way for sheep. On Skye alone, some 34,000 people were packed onto ships, at times with only a day’s notice, and sent to North America.
We hike into Corrie Lagan under a gentle rain, then begin to climb steeper slopes toward a distinctive rock formation known in Gaelic as the Cioch, or “Tit.” An hour later, having roped up and topped out on it, we’re standing on the main crest of the Cuillin, a startlingly sheer, unvegetated massif and the only true alpine landscape in Britain. Following the ridge north, we encounter a severe “mauvais pas,” as Lates refers to it—a scary, sloping traverse with a nasty drop beneath, and no good place to put one’s hands. Lates tells me to stand up straight and trust my feet—the very opposite of the scrambler’s instinct to reach out and grab something. Passing safely, we trek across the airy, lunar summits of two Munros, Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, named after two 19th-century figures who pioneered climbing on Skye, Alexander Nicholson and John MacKenzie. Then it’s on to the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the 200-foot-high shark’s fin projecting from Sgurr Dearg.
When we get there, we’re greeted with a bizarre scene—a writhing alpine tableau as imagined by Brueghel. Nine or ten people, roped up and helmeted, are strung out along the razor-thin back of the fin, clinging to it in various states of alarm. At the base of the rock stand another 10 or 12 climbers, attended by their guides, waiting in line.
“My God, it’s tragic,” says Lates.
Growing impatient, he proposes a different line to the summit—a rock climb up South Crack, an obvious feature that splits the In Pinn’s south face. He leads the thing in about four minutes and keeps the rope tight as I claw my way up to join him.
“Yee-haw,” he says, somewhat perfunctorily. “Way to go, chief.”
We’ve jumped ahead of at least 15 people with our little stunt, but there are still half a dozen baggers in front of us, a fearful cluster facing the Munroist’s ultimate nightmare: the 60-foot abseil, or rappel, off the rock’s overhanging west face. One woman stalls repeatedly on the brink, her face entirely drained of color.
“Am I abseiling, or are you lowering me?” she whimpers to her guide.
“I’m lowering you,” the guide says, glancing back at Lates and rolling his eyes. “Now lean back and keep your feet between you and the rock.”
A minute later, a rangy guy in an orange jacket crawls up behind us and collapses on the summit, grinning with terror. “I don’t know what I’m doing up here in all this kit,” he says, tugging at his climbing harness. “I’m just a hill walker, and I’ll always be a hill walker.”
Down on the rocks below, an impromptu party breaks out, with Pinnacle survivors cheering their mates on. When the guy in the orange jacket finally makes it to the ground, the joy on his face is so palpable I can only assume that the long trick is over—Sgurr Dearg is his last Munro, number 284, the end of the line.
“Noooo, man, I’ve a fair few left,” he says. “But it’s downhill from here, isn’t it?”
IN THE MORNING I awake to find my thigh muscles in a state of gridlock, and both big toenails beginning to turn an ominous shade of purple. Much worse, though, is the hangover I’ve acquired courtesy of the Sconser Lodge Hotel, a Fawlty Towers–type establishment whose eccentric staff and roster of guests—some climbers, some not—insisted on celebrating my conquest of the In Pinn well into the wee-est of hours. Still, a Munro-bagger’s list is never complete—or at least mine isn’t. And so, slipping on a pair of very un-Scottish flip-flops, I climb into the car and head north.
Beyond Skye, the Highlands grow progressively wilder. My first stop is Liathach, a famously steep four-mile-long ridge that, according to the Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, “certainly does fire the heart of a man too long accustomed to rounded shapes and long slopes of grass.” It takes a while to fire mine—at first my objectives, Liathach’s two Munros, are completely invisible, as is everything else. But after an hour’s climb, I pop out of thick fog into an unexpected world of rocky pinnacles, bright sun, and blue sky. Scotland is nowhere to be seen; in its place, a gauzy white sea rolls away to the horizon.
A day later, I’m 50 miles north of Torridon, near Dundonnell, going for one final twofer, on a mountain called An Teallach, “the Forge.” It’s another airy ridge walk around a gaping glacial corrie—the finest such ridge, according to the guidebooks, outside of Skye. There’s fog again, but this time it doesn’t relent. I lose the trail repeatedly and then, on one of the forepeaks, get totally turned around and nearly walk off the back of the mountain before I remember the compass sitting in my pack.
What I’m looking for up here, beyond the two Munros, is a famous rock pillar called Lord Berkeley’s Seat, where one can supposedly sit and wiggle one’s toes over a thousand feet of air. It seems like an appropriately Byronic note on which to end my holiday. I traverse three increasingly steep and scary towers, made all the more slippery by the dense mist, but somehow I never find the seat.
The descent is painful, with my muscles now in full rebellion and long boggy passages threatening to suck my boots off. I keep my mind occupied by adding up the totals: seven climbing days, almost 30,000 vertical feet, 11 Munros, and two completely dead big toenails. True, Charlie Campbell, the speed-bagging-record holder, collected 52 Munros in the same space of time. But my totals aren’t bad for a first-timer. Eleven down, 273 to go.
Naturally the skies over An Teallach begin to clear just as I reach the car. As I drive south toward the strawberry farm, I keep glancing in the rearview mirror for one more look at the teetering spire of Lord Berkeley’s Seat. Someday, I realize, I’ll have to go back and climb An Teallach again. I’ve ticked it, all right, but I can’t quite cross it off the list.
Getting There: Only Continental Airlines flies direct to Scotland, offering year-round flights to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Newark for about $800 (800-231-0856, www.continental.com). Other U.S. carriers connect in London or Manchester. Or take the train from London’s Euston Station to Glasgow for five hours of rolling countryside; round-trip fares start at $170 (011-44-845-722-2333, www.virgintrains.co.uk).
Prime Time: Straddle the busy season by hitting the Highlands in either May and June or September and October. That way, you may avoid the fearsome midges (biting insects like no-see-ums) that swarm, like tourists, in humid July.
Getting Around: Car rental starts at around $350 per week for an economy-size vehicle. Alamo has 12 locations in Scotland, at major airports and in cities (011-44-870-400-4562, www.alamo.co.uk). First ScotRail’s above-average train service connects Highlands destinations (including Fort William, Inverness, and Rannoch) to Glasgow and Edinburgh, with multiple daily departures (011-44-845-755-0033, www.firstgroup.com/scotrail).
Bagging Munros: While Scotland’s peaks aren’t Himalayan in stature, a good day in the hills will leave you longing for a comfortable bed and a warm, inviting pub. Here’s a guide to where to eat, drink, and recharge for another day of bagging. LOCH LOMOND // The village of Drymen, near the southeastern corner of the lake, is a fine base for climbing Ben Lomond (the trailhead is ten miles north in Rowardennan). Stay at the Buchanan Arms Hotel, a dowdy but charming inn with 52 rooms, plus a swimming pool and fitness center (doubles, $282–$320, including breakfast; 011-44-1360-660-588, www.buchananarms.co.uk). For evening libations, check out the Clachan Inn, Scotland’s oldest licensed pub, with an attached B&B offering rooms from $40 (011-44-1360-660-824). GLEN COE // At the eastern entrance to Glen Coe is the 22-room Kingshouse Hotel, with a famous climbers’ bar featuring pub grub and hill-walking memorabilia (doubles, $96–$111; 011-44-1855-851-259, www.kingy.com). Nestled farther down the valley is the 23-room Clachaig Inn, the hangout spot for climbers and Munro-baggers (doubles, $63–$79; 011-44-1855-811-252, www.clachaig.com). If you’re feeling flush, splurge on one of 17 royally appointed rooms at Inverlochy Castle, a luxury country-house hotel on a 500-acre estate four miles north of Fort William (doubles, $602–$1,035; 011-44-1397-702-177, www.inverlochycastlehotel.com). For some of the Highlands’ best seafood, try the Crannog West Highland Seafood restaurant, overlooking Fort William’s Loch Linnhe (011-44-1397-705-589, www.oceanandoak.co.uk). ISLE OF SKYE // The hamlets of Sconser and Sligachan offer easy access to the Red and Black Cuillin. Try the Sconser Lodge Hotel, with eight rooms, a lively bar, and a traditional dining room (doubles, $150–$206; 011-44-1478-650-333, www.sconserlodge.co.uk), or the 22-room Sligachan Hotel, where you’ll find an impressive single-malt selection, a microbrewery, and fine Scottish fare at the Cairidh restaurant (doubles, $90; 011-44-1478-650-204, www.sligachan.co.uk). WESTER ROSS // Dozens of stunning pinnacles and Munros dominate the landscape between the small villages of Torridon and Dundonnell in this coastal region. Snooze in towered splendor at the Loch Torridon Country House Hotel, where many of the 19 bedrooms have views of the awe-inspiring Liathach Ridge (doubles, $285–$622, including breakfast; 011-44-1445-791-242, www.lochtorridonhotel.com). Located just a mile from the trailhead for An Teallach, the roadside Dundonnell Hotel, in Ross-shire, has a surprisingly good restaurant and 28 rooms (doubles, $122–$159, including breakfast; 011-44-1854-633-204, www.dundonnellhotel.com).
Guides: Skye Guides has ten years of instruction-and-guiding experience on Skye’s many peaks, including Sgurr Dearg, led by rock ace Mike Lates (011-44-1471-822-116, www.skyeguides.co.uk). Fort William–based West Coast Mountain Guides offers private guide services and both summer and winter courses on local peaks (011-44-1397-700-451, www.westcoast-mountainguides.co.uk).
Resources: The Munros: Scottish Mountaineering Club Hillwalkers’ Guide (1999) includes photos and route maps. A CD-ROM version is available for $74 (www.smc.org.uk). Tiso, a UK outdoor-store chain, can supply all hill-walking essentials.