Throughout my early walking and climbing days I visited the summits of a number of, depending on your viewpoint, mountains or hills. Not necessarily because I wanted to claim that I’d been there but more as an integral part of a day’s outing. I probably knew most of the names of the hills in question but paid little attention to their precise altitude or, more particularly, to the fact that height in any way defined the status of the hill in question. Indeed, as rock climbing became the be all and end all of my mountain visits, a number of hills, notably Scafell and Buchaille Etive Mor, were climbed, but the actual summits were not visited. The fact that I had reached the top of Pinnacle Face or Rannoch Wall was sufficient and I could see little point in plodding the necessary hundreds of feet to the top. After all, anyone climbing on the Borrowdale Crags would have no earthly reason to visit Glaramara merely because it was the actual top of the hill they were climbing on. Only on the likes of the Black Cuillin of Skye would I feel it necessary to reach the absolute top in order to claim that I had properly climbed the mountain. Otherwise any old cairn would do.
The change came during a family holiday on Rum. While the rest of the party went to visit the soon to be released sea eagles, I decided to traverse the Rum Cuillin. Whereas by no means as spectacular as its Skye counterpart, it is possible by searching out difficulties to put together quite a decent scramble. Eventually I reached the summit of Askival, stopped and looked around. Hamish Brown in his Cicerone guide comments on the commanding view - “the Skye Cuillin and Red Hills to the north while the roll call of mainland lies eastwards: Kintail, Knoydart, Mora, Moidart – to Ardnamurchan Point …. No inland mountain view can rival this western combination of sky, sea and blue peaks.” No doubt the view formed a meaningful pattern to Brown but to me it was chaos, a landscape of summits randomly piled one on another. This, I suppose, was my Damascene moment. If as Chaos Theory suggests there are, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, underlying patterns, then what I was looking at demanded at least a degree of investigation.
Although, at the time, I had no conscious plan, it must have been at this moment that I decided that a degree of investigation meant coming to grips with the full nature and extent of the Highlands of Scotland. And, as books about the mountains of Scotland were in those days few and far between, the obvious point of reference was the Tables of Sir Hugh Munro which before they became my vademecum. Now, when I visited, for example, the Cairngorms, it seemed sensible while I was up there to make a point of visiting every protuberance no matter how insignificant and as the publisher had been so thoughtful as to leave a space for ‘User’s Notes’, it would appear churlish not to jot down one or two details of the ascent. So, like so many before me, Munro Bagging had caught me unawares.
But even this was not entirely satisfactory. Munro for convenience had divided his hills into sections, but geography doesn’t really work like that. Moreover, this sense of fragmentation was reinforced by my approach which was to drive up to a convenient centre, climb a hill or two, then drive home. I knew where Sgurr na Ciche or Ben Cruachan was in isolation, but had no idea how they related to each other. The “underlying pattern” was still as much of a mystery to me as it had been on the top of Askival. To solve the problem, I abandoned the car and took to public transport. At the time Scotrail offered a Railrover ticket which allowed you as many journeys as you could manage in a week. In addition, Caledonian MacBrayne ran a ferry service from Mallaig to the Kyle of Lochalsh. It was therefore possible to board the train at Glasgow Queen Street, travel to Fort William, change for Mallaig, take a boat up the Sound of Sleat and board a train at Kyle bound for Inverness. Then, with the last hours of the Rover about to expire hotfoot it back over the border. By alighting at such stations as Ardlui, Currour, Glenfinnan, Achnashellach, and Garve on the way up, then Aviemore, Dalwhinnie and Blair Atholl on the way back, it was possible not only to collect a fair number of tops but also work out how the land really lay.
It was on one such expedition that I had an hour or two to kill in Inverness, so I decided to spend the time browsing in a local bookshop. It was here I came upon a book recently published by Cicerone. Its title was The Relative Hills of Britain and its author, Alan Dawson. Closer inspection revealed Dawson had divided the whole of the country into 42 sections which listed, in total, 1542 separate tops. In addition to a number of chapters on the nature of mountains and mountaineering, it contained a compendium of these tops in descending order of height and next to each entry a space marked ‘Date’. I decided to buy it, only out of interest, of course.