In praise of… Munros: how climbing Scotland’s majestic mountains is good for the soul

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The 282 mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet offer a multitude of challenges for climbers - and it all depends on the weather

In praise of... is a weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

When our travel editor approached me to write about the pleasures of hillwalking in Scotland, she quite understandably pitched it on the theme of ‘Munro-bagging’. If you believe much of what you read, Munros (mountains of 3,000 ft / 914m or over) are there to be bagged, to be ticked off the big old list created by Sir Hugh Munro way back in 1891.

Or are they? I would argue, as many have before me, that there’s something reductive about the cult of Munro-bagging. It makes it sound like collecting evidence from a crime scene, rather than escaping the daily travails for a slice of outdoor adventure. Yet thousands of walkers devote themselves to the goal, diligently travelling around Scotland to conquer every one of the 282 peaks.

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I don’t want to be too critical of the craze. Anything that encourages people to discover Scotland’s wild and windswept landscapes can only be a good thing, and it’s not like many of the walks are suffering too much from over-tourism - although the more popular paths have to be regularly upgraded to counter erosion.

The view from Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig SinclairThe view from Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair
The view from Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair | The view from Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair

Munro-bagging is also undeniably popular, with around 8,000 climbers having claimed to have done them all, and many more well on the way. The ultra runner Donnie Campbell even set a new record of summiting all of them in the frankly ridiculous timeframe of just 31 days and 23 hours, running 883 miles and cycling 896 miles to cover the distance between the peaks - a feat that makes me tired just writing it down.

Yet the pitch was specifically about Munros, so I need to stick to it. That means I can’t recommend climbing the vertiginous and thrilling Stac Pollaidh (612m / 2,008 ft), the cheekily named Pap of Glencoe (742m / 2,434 ft) or any of the fine peaks in the Pentlands, Ochils or Southern Uplands. None of these qualify for Munro status, so they’re of no interest to us here. No, we’re talking about big mountain country, the serious high rises of the Cairngorms and Cuillins, of Tyndum and Torridon.

And just because Munros on paper may seem like minnows when compared to their cousins in the Alps or the Pyrenees, many of which are four or five times their scale, they should never be taken on lightly. Scotland’s unique and exposed climate, often buffeted by Atlantic and Arctic weather systems, means that conquering a Munro is no mean feat, and in the winter months they can prove deadly to even the most experienced and well-prepared climbers. Yes, sometimes it can all be quite straightforward and leisurely on a fine spring or summer’s day, but this is Scotland: these kinds of days are few and far between, and any ascent requires a good degree of fitness, solid map-reading skills and suitable footwear, clothes and equipment.

Staying safe while climbing

If you’ve never climbed a Munro before, I recommend checking out the invaluable WalkHighlands website. As well as detailed route guides with user comments, they also have a useful page on staying safe. If you’re thinking of tackling a Munro in winter, the risks are a lot greater - again, check out the WalkHighlands page on winter skills.

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The magic of Munros

News on the march: NationalWorld journalists ascend Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig SinclairNews on the march: NationalWorld journalists ascend Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair
News on the march: NationalWorld journalists ascend Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair | News on the march: NationalWorld journalists ascend Ben Lawers. Photo: Craig Sinclair

So why would anyone in their right mind want to put themselves through the punishment of slogging up a big lump of rock? Rather than listing off the obvious reasons - mental wellbeing, physical fitness, a sense of camaraderie and achievement - I want to tell a few stories of my own Munro experiences. As a disclaimer, I do not pretend to be an accomplished mountaineer - not by a long shot - and my Munro tick list only stretches to around 20 - that word ‘around’ probably reveals something about my attitude to Munro-bagging.

What I remember clearly is sitting near the summit eating my sandwich, and thinking I’d never really heard or experienced real ‘silence’ until that point

My first experience of climbing a Munro came relatively late in life, in my early 20s. It was my Dad who persuaded me to join him for a day trip up to Ben Lawers. We got lucky: I think it was a weekday so the path was quiet, and the sky was cloudless. What I remember clearly is sitting near the summit eating my sandwich, and thinking that I’d never really heard or experienced real ‘silence’ until that point. You just don’t get the same type of silence anywhere else that you get at the top of a Munro when the wind drops - sometimes just broken by a distant skylark or a solitary crow. I’ve since been back to take Ben Lawers a couple more times (pro tip: the car park is situated almost halfway up its 4,000ft height).

'Nothing prepared me for the views at the summit'

Nick at An Teallach: a view that looks as it it was transplanted from the Himalayas (Photo: Nick Mitchell)Nick at An Teallach: a view that looks as it it was transplanted from the Himalayas (Photo: Nick Mitchell)
Nick at An Teallach: a view that looks as it it was transplanted from the Himalayas (Photo: Nick Mitchell) | Nick Mitchell

My favourite Munro so far was definitely An Teallach. It’s right up in the North West, a short drive from Ullapool, and while it’s a long, tiring walk up from the banks of Little Loch Broom, nothing prepared me for the views at the top. You emerge onto the summit of Bidein a'Ghlas Thuill, and before you is a scene that looks like it’s been transplanted straight from the Himalayas. The sight of Sgùrr Fiona and the Corrag Buidhe pinnacles is like nothing else in this part of the world, and An Teallach has often been described as the most impressive mountain in Scotland. We were lucky enough to have a warm, clear July day in which to drink in the views.

I don’t want to mislead readers into thinking that all Munro experiences are like this. More often than not, I’ve climbed Munros on changeable or overcast days, when you can barely see 100 ft in front of you, never mind gazing out on vistas of other peaks 50 miles away.

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A case in point: In 2017 my wife and I took on Gleouraich in a remote corner of Scotland near Invergarry. After passing through what the guidebook described as a tunnel of “intimidating rhododendron” (which became a running joke on the walk), we soon realised that the weather was turning against us. We made the summit, up in the clouds, but we got soaked to our skin, and instead of trying to continue to the second Munro of Spidean Mialach, we decided to cut our losses and descend, heading off the path - never a good idea. This led us to a boggy landscape intersected with small but deep rivers, and we had to spend an hour or two zig-zagging and leaping burns to get back to the car, like two miserable drowned rats.

But with the benefit of hindsight, that’s what makes those perfect days all the more memorable. With Munros, as if with boxes of chocolates in saccharine films, you’re never sure what you’re going to get. And as I’ve found several times, climbing the same mountain a second time can make for a completely different and unique experience.

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