We are adept…at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us…the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then…what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself. (R. Macfarlane)
Since arriving in Scotland, I’ve heard numerous references to the endeavor of “Munro Bagging.” So, like any history PhD student, I did some research…
“Munro” is a term used to classify mountains / hills in Scotland that are over 3000ft in height. The term is in honor of Hugh Thomas Munro (1856 – 1919) – cavalryman, estate businessman, and a founding father of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, who was tasked with (and eagerly embraced the challenge to) list and classify all the major peaks in Scotland. Munro was an avid note-taker, an adorer of mountain topography, and a tenacious explorer of hills. His list was published in 1891 and included 283 peaks, where previous there were only 30 documented to be of that height. (*Likely more on Munro in a future post or two, but will stop here for now).
“Munro bagging” is marketed on the “Things to Do & See” on the Visit Scotland website as the challenge to summit or “bag” all 282 Munros. The Walking Highlands website even has a portal in which you can log all the monros you “bag” and read or write reviews on individual summits. The website also tells you the best access point and whether it is reachable via public transportation…and it also gives each walk a “bog” rating (if I hadn’t already been sold on this venture, I certainly would have been now!)
I became instantly intrigued by this Scottish pursuit. Not only because I’m an ever-increasing addict for walking in wild landscapes, but also because this is in the general wheelhouse of my research topic (still being fine tuned). I plan on researching the history of munro bagging a great deal further, but for this post I’ll keep the history brief so I can write about my first munro “field work” experience.
Now, to be fair – the beginning of my “Monro Bagging” career did not commence with a bagging of a “monro.” The classification system is based on height and goes as follows:
Monros – 3000ft+
Corbetts – 2500 – 3000ft
Grahams – 2000 – 2500ft
Donalds – 2000ft+
My first “bagging” was of a Graham. The higher peaks are a bit further afield from where I’m living, so will require a bit more research for how to reach their access point via public transportation.
I found a Graham within an easy day-trip-by-bus reach, and a detailed trip review to follow. Ben Cleuch (2,370ft) is the tallest of the hills in the Ochil Hills (coming from the Welsh ‘uchel‘ meaning ‘high’).
When I arrived in Tillicoultry, armed with the street name I needed to walk up to find the trailhead, I asked a local where to find it:
Me: “Excuse me…can you tell me where to find Upper Mill Street?”
Local: “Where are you from?”
Local: “Gotta love America…” (with a dreamy, sincere tone)
Me: “I don’t know…I love it here!”
Local: (smiles and glances over my trail garb + pack) “You here for the Ben?”
Local: “You just follow the river upward through town, and you’ll find the trial start.”
So I followed the river and started the trail. Now, the snooty California in me was a bit curious whether this 2,370ft max elevation business would be a bit of a disappointment. In the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where I’ve done most of my hiking, most trails start over 5,000ft in elevation. However, I am happy to report that hill walking in Scotland is in no way a disappointment – and is a reminder that not all wilderness experiences need to be about great heights.
This height felt pretty great anyways. Not only for the panoramic view it provided but for the physical effort it took to get up to the top of Ben Cleuch! I am not sure if this is the case of all the Munros, etc. in Scotland, but it is mostly a walk straight up, not with switchbacks. And the way down is just as physically challenging because you are consistently applying the hamstring-brakes.
I passed a wide variety of hill walkers during my journey: the father & son (son looking like he’d rather be doing, oh, perhaps anything other than what he was doing), two college-aged females looking better dressed for a day shopping in town than a hill walk, the married couple (clearly locals and used to cooler temperatures as they were wearing shorts while I had on pants, wool socks, 2 upper layers, gloves, and a beanie…), the chipper trail runner (glutton for punishment), and the solitary old man (without pack or poles, looking as if he were merely taking a stroll in his own neighborhood…perhaps he was).
I was happy to be among them.
The terrain was mostly barren, save tall grasses, some ferns, and a few low shrubs. It was evident that fall was approaching – browns and yellows and reds were creeping into the color pallet of the scenery. My body temperature changed probably 12 times, taking on and taking off layers as I became more or less exposed to the biting wind. The weather was sunny with shifting grey clouds, a hazy horizon line but the impression of features in the distance was still visible.
There was a circular I could have done instead of the out-and-back route I chose: I had a 4 hour window to catch my bus so I didn’t want to risk not knowing how long the circular would take me. But even the bus ride to and from was a lovely tour of the new land I’m living in. The geese have arrived, and a innumerable flock of them took residence in a field we passed – sticking strictly to the borders of a single field and not spreading out to any neighboring one, almost as if they’d booked the room for the night’s sleep. I sat quietly on the upper deck of the bus, at the very front with the wide window (which makes the bus ride seem like a theme park ride, really), doing some research reading for my dissertation while returning from my self-imposed “field research” and listened (charmed) to the Scottish accents of the old couple in the neighboring seat.
I am charmed by this land in more ways than one.