I am often asked what it was that first got me into Munro bagging. That’s generally the first question people ask me about it. Provided, that is, they know what Munro bagging is.
If they don’t know what Munro bagging is, then the first question is usually, “What is Munro bagging?”
A Munro is a mountain in Scotland that reaches a height of at least 3,000ft (914.4m). They are named after Sir Hugh Munro who, in 1891, published a list of said mountains. Those of us who attempt to climb all 282 of these beasts are known as Munro baggers.
Why we say mountains are ‘bagged’, as opposed to ‘ticked’, ‘done’ or ‘bimbled’, I do not know. Peak bagging seems to have a language all its own. Once you have bagged all the Munros you may call yourself a Munroist and you are said to have ‘compleated’ them. Yes, compleated. I have spelled that right, despite my laptop’s attempt to correct me.
If I had to blame one person for getting me into Munro bagging, it would probably be the writer and broadcaster Muriel Gray. When I was 18 and a student in Glasgow, I came across a TV programme hosted by Ms Gray called The Munro Show, in which the former presenter of Channel 4’s music show The Tube chirpily showed off Scotland’s mountains. As a hillwalker myself, I knew then, and still know, that hillwalking will never be hip. Yet here was this woman who had interviewed people like Morrissey and Paul Weller. What was she doing stoating about on a drizzly mountain?
As much as I enjoyed The Munro Show, it was some 15 years before I ventured on to a Munro. While driving with my girlfriend (later, wife) through her home county of Derbyshire, I was suddenly filled with a desire to go hillwalking and as soon as that notion struck me, the memory of a windswept Muriel Gray sprang to mind.
My first bagging trip was far too ambitious. My older brother and I had a plan to climb six Munros north of Dalwhinnie in two or three days, depending on how we felt. In the end, weather and our own lack of fitness meant we climbed just one, Carn Dearg.
Photo credit: Ed's wife Claire
Since then I’ve gotten a bit better at it, but I’ve still had my share of mishaps. I remember one particular catalogue of errors when I went on an overnight backpacking trip, alone, to climb four Munros above Glen Dessarry. I’d packed my wife’s boots by mistake so had to do the hike in trail shoes. As I was getting ready, I didn’t realise rain was pouring through the open passenger window of the car, soaking my map. I hadn’t counted on the viciousness of Scottish horseflies, which bit me through my T-shirt, and when I made camp I discovered that my head torch had turned itself on in my backpack and flattened its batteries.
The worst part of that trip was not having anybody to moan to. I’m happy enough walking alone but if I’m going to stay overnight I definitely prefer company.
Hitting the spot
Munro bagging, for me, is the ideal hobby as it perfectly marries my love of the outdoors with my nerdy desire to tick things off lists. Here we have something of a contradiction, because while ticking things off a list seems like an obsessive and anal thing to do, the list itself has an arbitrariness to it that should bug the hell out of me. For this list that I have chosen to slavishly adhere to is full of inconsistencies.
It turns out the exact definition of a Munro is quite fluid. Not every separate peak is a Munro. There has to be a certain amount of distance, height loss and regain of height for a particular summit to be considered a Munro in its own right rather than a subsidiary summit or ‘top’ of the adjacent Munro. Worst of all, these criteria are not hard and fast rules. That has led to much controversy, discussion and revision of the list over the years. I choose not to concern myself with such matters, not because it’s not interesting, but because I know how easily I could become obsessed with it.
Don’t knock it
Strangely, the idea of ticking Munros, or any peaks, off a list is one that some people look down on. It’s not as if there’s some great rift in the hiking world between baggers and non-baggers but I have met and spoken with people who take a very sniffy attitude to the idea of Munro bagging.
The main issue people have with it is that it encourages you to climb mountains purely for their height and not for their aesthetic merits. We Munro baggers, it is thought, would eschew a beautiful and scenic walk up a mountain like Suilven in favour of a joyless trudge over the more mundane, but higher, Drumochter Hills, for instance.
This point is not unreasonable. It is true that I am more likely to climb a boring Munro than an exciting Corbett (the name for mountains between 2,500 and 3,000ft). However, the flipside of this is that Munro bagging draws you to ‘mundanities’ that people might otherwise ignore. I really enjoyed the Drumochter Hills, and I find the fact that they’re considered unloved to give them a charm all their own. You can have Suilven, with its wanton solitary prominence and eager-to-please views!
You often hear a subtler, more passive-aggressive dig, too. Sometimes when you mention you’re a Munro bagger, you’ll get a snide response along the lines of, “Oh? I’m more about enjoying the actual pleasure of walking. I’m not interested in lists,” as if non-baggers somehow enjoy mountains on a deeper level by not merely seeing them as achievements to be ticked off. The implication is that I’m out walking not because I love walking, but because I love lists. As if we’re all just out there, plodding along with our heads down, ignoring the scenery. “Come on, darling. No time for photos, we need to get these peaks bagged by 6pm so we can be home in time to finish sorting the DVDs into alphabetical order.”
Don’t get me wrong. Yes, I enjoy the listing aspect. After a trip, I tick off new Munros (and Corbetts for that matter) in no fewer than three different places – my Walking the Munros guidebook, my Hill Lists iPad app and my Harvey’s Munro map and wallchart. I really am that sad.
But, obviously, the real joy is simply being out there.
Weather or not
I sometimes joke that the whole concept of Munro bagging is a cruel trick that the Scots are playing on us tourists because the magic number of 3,000ft is the exact height at which Scottish cloud likes to sit. Many’s the day I’ve slogged my way up a mountain only to be greeted with a view of the summit cairn and no more. When the weather is favourable, though, there’s nothing sweeter than looking out across the Highlands at the hills you’ve climbed, and the hills still to climb. And even if the weather is lousy, there are far worse places to be in the world than the inside of a cloud.
To date, I have walked 75 Munros. As I live in Essex and have two small boys, finding the time to do more is problematic. I get up to Scotland when I can but progress is slow and in a way, I’m glad. It’s possible, if you’re really fit and have nothing else to do, to knock all 282 off in a matter of weeks. It will take me a lot longer before I can call myself a Munroist, but for the time being I’m really happy thinking of myself as a Munro bagger.
Ed Byrne divides his time unevenly between his family, his comedy and his hillwalking. He appears irregularly on BBC's Mock the Week and in the pages of The Great Outdoors magazine. He is also appearing on BBC Countryfile on Sunday 7 Feburary 2016, where he shares his passion for Munro-bagging.