The Munros are mountains in Scotland with a height of over 3000ft and take their name from the first list of such hills published in 1891 by Victorian mountaineer Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet of Lindertis. Revised several times in the years since, most recently in 2012, the official list now features 282 peaks.
This guide is for anyone who wants to climb these mountains and aims to provide reliable routes and tips for ascending them safely. The Munros will ensure you reach parts of Scotland you might otherwise overlook, spend memorable evenings in pubs, bothies and wild camps, and have encounters with other walkers, locals and wildlife that enhance the adventure regardless of whether you get to the top of one Munro or all of them.
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Look beneath the waterproofs of any keen hillwalker in Scotland and, once past the midge bites, it’s likely you will find a Munro-bagger.
Even those who protest and mumble about it being ‘trainspotting for outdoor types’ often secretly know their Munro tally and are working towards the triumphant moment when they top out on that final summit.
This guide is for anyone who wants to climb the Munros. It aims to provide reliable routes and tips for ascending all of these magical 282 peaks. The other half of the deal is that you have to provide the energy and enthusiasm to make it as enjoyable and safe as possible. Setting out to climb all the Munros is to embark on a huge adventure. No two mountains are the same; weather conditions, companions – and the state of your squashed sandwiches and frozen Mars bars – make every outing different.
The Munros will ensure you reach parts of Scotland you might otherwise have overlooked, spend evenings in pubs, bothies and wild camps all with their own delights, and have encounters with other walkers, locals and wildlife that will enhance the adventure.
Ordnance Survey mapping and downloadable routes for GPS devices are available for all of the Munros online at walkhighlands.co.uk. If you register free on the website you also get your own online Munro-bagging progress map where you can keep track of your ascents, and you can also keep a detailed walking blog and photos of all your trips to share with others.
What are the Munros?
Scottish mountains over 3000 feet high are collectively called the Munros after Sir Hugh Munro, the man who first catalogued them. A founder member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), Munro was landed gentry, with an estate near Kirriemuir. His first list was published in 1891, the result of meticulous study of the Ordnance Survey one-inch- and six-inch-to-the-mile maps together with knowledge and notes gleaned from his numerous mountaineering expeditions. Other SMC members assisted and Munro spent the next two and a half decades painstakingly, and some would say, pedantically, refining the list – a habit the SMC has continued to the present day. Munro divided the summits into Mountains and Tops, the former being for the main peaks – now referred to as Munros – whilst the Tops are the lesser, subsidiary summits. Munro died in 1919 with only three Munros on his current list remaining unclimbed; the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye, Carn an Fhidhleir in the Cairngorms, and Carn Cloich-mhuilinn which was later demoted to a Top.
Credit is given to the Rev A E Robertson as the first person to climb all the Munros in 1901. A small trickle followed in his footsteps, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that Munro-bagging started to take off. People who complete (or compleat as the SMC retains the Victorian spelling) can notify the Clerk of the List; their names are recorded in the book, Munro’s Tables. More excitingly, being a compleator also qualifies you to purchase a commemorative tie or brooch for the ladies! Traditionally a bastion of the male climbing world, the SMC list refers to the early female compleators as Miss or Mrs although it dropped this by the 1990s. The first continuous round was undertaken by Hamish Brown and it was his classic book Hamish's Mountain Walk that spurred increasing interest, as well as being the forerunner of ever harder or more obscure challenges, such as rounds undertaken entirely in winter or running.
Since then people have tackled the Munros in increasingly diverse ways, from Paul Tattersall who was the first (and only!) person to take a mountain bike up all the Munros – yes, it was mainly in bits in a rucksack for the Skye Cuillin – to Stephen Pyke who set a new record in 2010 for a continuous round involving running, cycling and kayaking between all the then 283 peaks in 40 days. It’s only when you are part way round your Munros that you realise what amazing achievements these are. More and more people are attempting second, third and fourth rounds. Hillrunner Steven Fallon holds the current record for the most rounds, having completed 15 circuits. None of this excess of testosterone (or chutzpah) should diminish the achievement of your first Munro, your first winter ascent, your first solo Munro, or the ascent of the trickiest peaks – and ultimately, your final Munro.
What you need to know
So what do you need to climb the Munros? Well, you’ll need a good range of layered clothing to keep warm, waterproofs and suitable footwear – boots provide the most support, but dedicated hillrunning shoes are also becoming popular. More important still is navigation – a map, compass
(a GPS is also useful) and the knowledge of how to use them. Navigational errors are a factor in a huge proportion of accidents as walkers lose their route and wander onto difficult terrain.
If you are planning on climbing many Munros, you’ll be getting yourself a good range of walking clothes and gear. Hugh Munro, Robertson and the early Scottish hillwalking and climbing pioneers often set out in not much more than tweed jackets, woollen breeches and hob-nailed boots, with the trusty A-frame haversack on their back. In Munro’s case he often went about at night using a candle lantern to avoid encounters with unfriendly landowners and gamekeepers – this was, after all, long before the Access legislation. Whilst the lack of decent breathable waterproofs must have made things hard going, they were also venturing out in the era before Mountain Rescue, mobile phones and GPS and would have had to rely on their common sense, mountain experience and navigation skills. These remain the most important items to carry with you at all times.
In terms of gear; for summer walking, a decent set of waterproofs and boots, hat, gloves, map, compass, torch and first aid kit are the must haves to begin with. Good quality gear will last for years. Remember that weather varies greatly with altitude and whilst it might seem a lovely day in the car park – up there it could be blowing a hoolie or feel like an ice-storm.
In winter the hills become much more serious – under snow, climbing Munros is nothing short of mountaineering, and an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge of how to use them, plus some awareness of the risk of avalanches, becomes essential.
If you aren’t so sure on your navigation, or need to learn those winter skills, you really have a couple of options. There are a range of mountaineering and hillwalking clubs across all parts of Scotland – a great way to meet experienced friends and to learn from them. Scotland also has an increasing number of instructors and companies offering guiding and skills courses. The Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge offers a huge range of superb courses for beginners and can help you take your hillwalking into the realms of scrambling, rock or ice-climbing if you become tempted to take things further.
Opinions vary widely on what food to take up the hills and it really is a matter of personal preference. The only givens should be to include some quick release, high-energy food, and to have something that is kept for emergencies – and no, having eaten all the sandwiches by 9am does not constitute an emergency. Most walkers will also carry all the water they need for the day. If you need to replenish, try to find a fast and clear running stream near its source and away from obvious livestock and deer gathering points as the animals cause contamination. Most walkers will use some kind of steriliser – and never drink water where animals are using the water supply higher up, from standing water, or where people have been camping. Although sterilising tablets can make the water taste slightly funny you’ll feel better about it if you pass the carcass of a decomposing sheep in a burn higher up. Filters and boiling water can also be used to improve safety. Even if the weather is not hot, keeping hydrated is important.
In an Emergency
If one of your party has an accident and cannot be moved phone or text 999 or 112 and ask for Police and then Mountain Rescue. Treat injuries as best you can and calculate your position on the map (or check on a GPS/phone). All hillwalkers should register their mobile phones with the emergency SMS service by texting ‘register’ to 999 – this allows 999 texts to be made and responded to in areas where there is insufficient signal to make a call.
Scotland has traditionally had a more liberal approach to letting people walk on open ground than the rest of the UK. That’s not to say that there haven’t been access disputes, including the famous trespass at Jock’s Road near Ballater, although the subsequent legal action bankrupted both the landowner Duncan MacPherson and the Scottish Rights of Way Society (is it always the lawyers that are the real winners?). It did, however, lead to the passing of the Scottish Rights of Way Act. More recently the Land Reform Act 2003 granted much more sweeping rights of access – comprehensively codifying what has become known as the Right to Roam. Like all these things the devil is in the detail and while generally there is a right of access on open land there are a number of restrictions and also responsibilities which are built into the accompanying Scottish Outdoor Access Code. In particular, there are no automatic access rights near buildings, in gardens, and in fields where crops are growing. Dogs must not be allowed to worry livestock or disturb groundnesting birds. Gates should be left as you find them, walls and fences should not be damaged and farming, forestry, shooting and stalking activities should be respected with minimal disturbance.
The Scottish stag stalking season runs from 1 July to 20 October, although many estates operate a much shorter season and will only be stalking on a few dates within that period. Once the preserve of wealthy landowners and industrialists, many of whom bought Scottish estates inspired by Queen Victoria’s passion for the Highlands, stalking remains a profitable business which employs a small army of gamekeepers, ghillies and other staff. The Outdoor Access Code asks both walkers and land managers to respect each other’s activities, and walkers heading for the hills during the stalking season should try and find out if stalking is taking place and whether they need to alter their planned route to avoid it. This is necessary for your own safety as well as avoiding the tweed-clad wrath of a stalker whose hours spent crawling through the heather have been made futile by an orange-Gore-Tex-wearing hillwalker.
Some estates are more helpful at providing stalking information than others. The latest stalking information for a good number of estates is available online through Walkhighlands’ route pages via the ‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ web service; the latter website has further information if choosing a different route.
Grouse shooting takes place from 12 August usually to the end of September. With grouse butts often marked on OS maps and the patchwork appearance of the heather grouse moors easily identifiable, it is often possible to spot a shooting party out on the hill and take measures to avoid walking into the line of the shoot or disturbing the beaters or dogs.
Nowadays there is accommodation to suit all budgets and comfort levels within easy reach of the majority of Munros. However, one of the joys of embarking on the challenge of the Munros is that, unless you are extremely fit, some of the peaks will involve expeditions which are best undertaken with a wild camp or a stay in a remote bothy. Whether walked in blissful isolation or in the company of like-minded walkers and climbers (or the axe-carrying starey-eyed bloke in the corner of the bothy) these nights are often the most memorable and can lead to more of these trips or at the very least a heightened appreciation of home comforts on return.
This guide is focused around good places to base yourself for Munro trips in each area, and a number of local accommodation options are highlighted. However, increasingly many B&B and hotel owners are welcoming walkers and providing early breakfasts, drying facilities and local knowledge which make them a good alternative to the network of hostels (the standard of which continues to rise each year), campsites and self catering cottages. Campervans are also increasingly popular, particularly for hire, and can provide a fun and convenient mobile base for climbing Munros.
The Access Code is generous towards wild campers, allowing camping on access land away from roads and buildings for a maximum of three days at the same site. In some areas where camping has caused a problem with anti-social behaviour, such as east Loch Lomond, local byelaws prohibit it. Wild camping should always be undertaken on the ‘leave no trace’ ethos, with any rubbish carried out. Care should be taken not to pollute rivers, water from pot washing should be poured onto the ground, not into the watercourse, and you should go to the toilet as far away from a watercourse as possible, burying faeces in a hole and burning or packing out toilet paper. In the Cairngorms the problem caused by the number of people camping out or snow-holing in the winter months led to the Cairngorms Poo Project – special pots can be collected to carry out human waste to disposal points.
Bothies, too, need to be used responsibly. Basically these are usually unlocked buildings which provide four walls and a roof but little else – the toilet facilities usually come in the form of a shovel. Some are provided by estates and any abuse is likely to see them locked, but many more are available through the permission of the estate but maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothies Association. The remote locations make keeping these places wind-and-water tight a major challenge – please do your bit by not only carrying out all your own rubbish and leaving the place tidy, but perhaps carrying out any litter other walkers may have left there as well. The MBA organise work parties which are great fun and a good way to give something back if you enjoy bothies. The Mountain Bothies Association publishes a Bothy Code on behaving responsibly.
Public transport in the remoter parts of the Highlands is sparse and often non-existent. Long-distance coaches do serve many of the walking areas such as Glencoe, and local buses can often be used to get from your accommodation to some of the routes, but access to the start of the walks from public transport is often pretty limited. The West Highland Railway running from Glasgow to Mallaig and its eastern partner from Edinburgh to Inverness do provide access to many of the ranges – this is noted in the text. The transport planner at travelinescotland.com is the best starting point. The Caledonian Sleeper running from London to Fort William, Aviemore and Inverness can be a great way of combining accommodation and transport, but fares can be mortgage jobs unless you are lucky enough to nab one of their elusive bargain berths. Car-sharing via clubs and websites can cut down on costs, and hitching is still commonplace in many of the remoter areas – make sure you take sensible precautions.
Aside from this volume, of course, the main friend of the Munroist has to be a map. The OS 1:25,000 Explorer series is now the bestselling range aimed at walkers and includes extra navigational features like walls and fences not shown on other scales. More confident navigators will swear by the pink 1:50,000 Landranger series, which certainly reduces damage to your wallet. Harveys also produces very high-quality mapping for many of the mountain areas and once familiar with their distinct look these are favoured by many hillwalkers. You can also print your own maps, either using mapping software on your PC or websites such as walkhighlands.co.uk – if doing this be careful to ensure you print a large enough area if you need to change your route, and remember that any water at all will cause the ink to run on home-printed sheets, quickly rendering the map useless – so it is probably best to have a professionally printed map as well.
GPS is a useful addition to knowing how to use a map and compass – make sure you carry spare batteries and don’t come to rely on it completely as it could pack up when you need it most. One of the most useful features of any GPS (including those on smartphones) is the ability to pinpoint your location as a grid reference. Whole routes or just spot points can also be pre-programmed into a GPS and used to keep you on the correct route while walking. Again, routes for all the Munros are available as downloads for GPS units and smartphones on Walkhighlands.co.uk. If using these, do so only in combination with mapping as batteries and electronic devices can fail, and some judgements are still needed – for instance a path along the rim of the cliffs may be enjoyable in summer, but in winter you would want to keep safely away from any cornices – snow which overhangs the edge and is prone to collapse.
Where to start
There are several Munros which are much more popular than others, usually those with shorter routes and good paths lower down. These easier hills are probably the best ones to tackle first; Ben Lomond sees scores of people reaching their first ever Munro on any decent day in the summer. Other peaks suitable for early in your bagging career would include Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas, Ben Chonzie, Schiehallion, Mayar and Driesh, or Ben Vorlich above Loch Earn. Once you have a few of these under your belt you’ll be itching to begin exploring the rockier peaks of the west or the remote wilds of the Cairngorms.
The hardest Munro really depends on your perspective. For anyone with a fear of heights, routes such as the Aonach Eagach or Liathach in Torridon are likely to lead to many sleepless nights! The greatest of such difficulties are undoubtedly experienced on the Cuillin of Skye, an awesome ridge of naked rock contorted into crags and pinnacles – light years away from some of the rolling hills of the mainland. Worse (or best!) of all is the Inaccessible Pinnacle – the only Munro that calls for real rockclimbing – up a ridge with ‘an overhanging drop over infinity on one side, and steeper and further on the other’. It also requires an abseil descent; most Munro-baggers will be calling on a guide for this one.
Others will have the climbing skills to confidently tackle these dramatic peaks, and such people are likely to regard some of the remoter Munros, requiring great physical effort, as the hardest. There are several peaks that will most likely require an overnight stay, none more so than the amazing mountains of the Great Wilderness – the Fisherfield and Letterewe Forests in the northwest.
Beyond the Munros
Climbing the Munros will mean exploring vast swathes of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, drawing you out into the wildest and yet varied landscapes and to undertake some great challenges – but, of course, the Munros are not the whole story. Whilst some people do become rather intensely focused on the list, a glance around from any summit should reveal that in bagging these hills you are really only scratching the surface of what Scotland has to offer. It is the focus on Munros to the exclusion of everything else that sometimes gives the Munro-bagger a bad name, but you’ll soon realise that many of the very finest hills in Scotland are not Munros. Anyone climbing Beinn Narnain and Beinn Ime in the Arrochar Alps will be staring across at the dramatic rock peaks of The Cobbler – proof that highest is not necessarily the best. Take the time to dig a little deeper and explore more widely and your Munro trips will be all the more enjoyable.
Those who have come to love the idea of lists will soon find that these don’t stop with the Munros either. Most popular are the Corbetts – summits between 2500 and 3000 feet – which provide every bit as much challenge, if not more, than the Munros themselves. Traditionally an objective for those who have completed the Munros, increasing numbers of hillwalkers are now taking on both lists at once. Although the Corbetts include some amazing lesser-known hills, many of them easily matching the Munros, there’s still more! Some of the best hillwalking in the country is in Assynt, where incredibly dramatic hills such as Suilven and Stac Pollaidh don’t even reach high enough for Corbett status. Scotland’s many islands, too, offer much unforgettable wild walking, even on seemingly lowly hills.
There really is a lifetime of exploration and discovery out there waiting for you – so by all means climb the Munros, but do try to avoid becoming too blinkered by those damned lists!
Useful organisations and websites
Mountaineering Scotland (formerly the Mountaineering Council of Scotland) is the representative body for hillwalkers and climbers in Scotland. They were key in the fight for access legislation, are also involved in promoting safety, education and in conservation, and deserve every hill-goer’s support. mountaineering.scot
The John Muir Trust, named after the Scottish father of the conservation movement, fight for the preservation of the environment and the sense of wildness that is so key to the satisfaction of heading out into nature. jmt.org
The Mountain Bothies Association is a group of volunteers who organise the maintenance and repair of around 100 unlocked shelters amongst the mountains and islands. They arrange regular work parties where you can help to keep these places open and available. mountainbothies.org.uk
Walkhighlands is a website for walking in Scotland, run by the authors of this guide. It includes routes, GPS files and mapping for all the Munros, as well as a guide to all types of accommodation. The site also enables you to register which hills you’ve climbed – marking them on your own ‘bagging map’ – and to share your experiences and photos with others, as well as read everyone else’s accounts of each hill. walkhighlands.co.uk
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is essential reading – the complete online guide to behaving responsibly in the outdoors. outdooraccess-scotland.com
The Mountain Weather Information Service provides detailed forecasts for hill conditions split into a number of areas and updated daily. mwis.org.uk
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides forecasts of the risk of avalanche in the Scottish hills – essential for planning in winter months. sais.gov.uk
Heading for the Scottish Hills gives up-to-date stalking information for many estates; the information is also shown where appropriate on the routes on Walkhighlands website.