Marhofn 316.18 - May 2016

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All fur coat but no tickers: The Grahams and the Donalds guidebook

Jon Metcalf

Camouflage a wilfully incorrect set of hills with a deliberately misleading title in sufficiently glossy trappings, and most walkers, reviewers and people who buy books for walkers may miss the deception. The reputation of the Scottish Mountaineering Club has been gambled on a hope that neither the public nor the trading authorities will notice, and an arrogant dismissal of the views and work of Alan Dawson who devised and who continues to research and maintain the Grahams.

A person who only bags each hill described in the book (other than its non-Graham Donalds) will not have completed a round of the Grahams, but will have visited several otherwise enjoyable locations that are not Grahams. This is a significant failing in a book modestly described by the SMC as 'definitive' and 'probably the most significant contribution to Scottish hillwalking in recent times'.

My psychic powers may have been 'at a low ebb', but try as I might I just couldn't find the fact that the book is not about the official Grahams on the cover or anywhere in the PR. This is as far as many purchasers for others will engage with this book. The innumerate back cover '2500ft (672m)' gives fair warning though.

The SMC's marketing psychology is stripped bare in the Amazon blurb for The GrahamS and the DonaldS. There are four 'colour's in one paragraph and a 'handsomely illustrated' in another. Phase one of this attempted lebensraum annexation of the Grahams is to bury Andrew Dempster's 2003 alternative by highlighting the earlier book's significant consumer failings ('not glossy', 'black and white', 'poor/sketchy maps' etc).

The editors of The GrahamS and the DonaldS own up to not describing the official Grahams in the small print. The rationale is the greatest U-turn since the Liberal Democrat tuition fee pledge: 'Height information has been taken from the Ordnance Survey as the national mapping authority responsible for the maintenance of the definitive record of Britain's geographic features. The SMC is aware of independent surveys undertaken by others. Where these surveys remain unratified by the OS it is the SMC's view that they cannot be deemed to be official.'

Can this be the same SMC whose original list of Munros included ten mountains based on aneroid barometer surveys despite the OS mapping? The same SMC who supported 20 of the Munros and a further 72 Tops with aneroid surveys despite the maps in the 1921 revision? The same SMC who in 1969 still had 17 Munros supported by non-OS surveys and said 'The contours for the Cuillin Hills on the 1-in. map cannot be relied on, and are therefore omitted here.'? Can it be the same SMC whose President's symbol of office is AE Robertson's height measuring barometer? The same SMC who included Knight's Peak in the most recent Munro's Tables on the basis of a 'precision altimeter' survey. Are they still smarting about the 2013 GPS survey proving both wrong and the OS to have maintained its rich tradition of not being definitive about wild country? Mountains aren't the main thing that the OS do - look at their resource allocations and their numerous statements about measuring non-urban and transport corridor locations to +/- 3.3m. How can the previous 120 years of the SMC using OS maps for guidance and mountain surveys for accurate heights have slipped the SMC memory?

Can outdoor users really have full faith in the objectivity of a commercially driven OS who have still to decide whether to include features such as the Scottish Core Paths network into their mapping? One factor 'that must be considered before commitments can be made' being 'intellectual property - if OS includes core path data within products then we would need to be confident that we had full rights to commercially exploit this data.' Presumably third-party height measurements, no matter how surveyed, would be prone to the same not-owned-here stance that anyone not contracted as part of the secretive OS 'Integrated Capture Programme' would face. I say secretive on the grounds that the OS tender documents (in the public domain) contain confidentiality clauses, as do the contracts under which other surveyors operate certain hill surveys for them.

It suits the commercial interests of contracted parties, and the control agenda of the SMC, to assert that there is something questionable about surveys produced by non-OS contracted parties, but there is absolutely zero science behind any assertion that sufficiently accurate measurements as taken by Alan Dawson are not determinative of which hills belong in objectively defined hill lists such as Dawson's Grahams.

Does the book work as last minute gift for your difficult-to-buy-for walking buddy or relative? The hooks for the pressured purchaser of stuff are colour and mapping.

For lovers of the colour brown there is plenty to wallow in. The hill maps 'drawn from out of copyright mapping' (i.e. the Bartholomew's 'Half Inch to the Mile Maps' of Scotland) are certainly an improvement on the black starfish of past SMC publications. Perhaps if some reference to crags and cliffs had been retained then everything might look a bit less like some sort of elevated Teletubbyland? As with Newman's Lakeland Fells book, the results with parking symbols and road labels added are better than earlier Newman books' use of modern OS extracts. The lack of any scale on the maps is unhelpful in getting a visual feel for how exacting a route is from the maps. In common with the Dempster book, the text and the accompanying map are sometimes not on the same pair of open pages, so the reader is left flipping back and forth to follow a description on the map.

The section maps are more about road and rail proximity to the hills, and while functional are less appealing than the hill maps and are more questionable propositions in a hillwalking guide. Similarly the desperate section on ferries that jars into the Arran route can't really be justified for inclusion. Is it safe to encourage those who don't realise how to get to a populated island unescorted out onto a hill?

Jim Teesdale's magnificent photographs sadly grace too few pages, but Noel Williams and Tom Prentice also contribute the kind of sumptuous compositions that will make any able walker ache to be out there. This is not a negative judgement on all of the other photographers. Somebody has to try to make something out of the tepid undulations of the less inspiring Donald Tops before the book really gets into its stride.

And for those who are given or buy the book, how does it fare as a guide? The introduction coughs up the ball on Docharty, who was indeed a prodigious researcher and climber of lower Scottish hills (Munroist 13, SMC member and first person to climb the Munros, Tops, Furths and Corbetts). However, like Corbett within his lifetime, on SMC meets (according to contemporary SMC Journal accounts) both were figures of fun for climbing 'Corbodocharties', i.e. hills that were risible to these pioneers' peers for being lower than 3000 feet. Docharty ended up publishing privately and no amount of wishful thinking now is ever going to result in the Grahams becoming known as 'Dochartys'. The SMC don't even manage to spell his name correctly.

The 635.3m summit of Glas Bheinn near Loch Eil. The summit further west,  marked as 636m on OS maps, is clearly lower. It is impossible to tell from OS maps whether this hill qualifies as a Graham.

The 635.3m summit of Glas Bheinn near Loch Eil. The summit further west, marked as 636m on OS maps, is clearly lower. It is impossible to tell from OS maps whether this hill qualifies as a Graham.

The hypocrisy also drips from the Donalds references, particularly in the final section's page 324. Here (having spent part of the introduction and end pages traducing Dawson's surveys and ignoring his list of Grahams for their own purposes) the SMC, while twice referring to objective lists as aberrant, tell us that their current interpretation of Donald's subjective and incomplete definition should be sacrosanct. 'This is Donald's list and these are the Donalds'. But it seems completely ok to re-write Dawson's list (although there are no subjective grounds in Dawson's list definition to facilitate this) even after having asked permission to reproduce his list.

So the fact that Donald didn't include the south of Glen Artney hills (an uncredited TAC discovery), added years after Donald's passing, still makes this Donald's original list in the unique world view of the editors. Alchemy! Page 7's line about 'as with The Munros, the challenge is in completing Percy Donald's original and historic listing' is no more true with the Donalds than it is with the Munros. Even a brief consideration shows how risible it is to claim that the current Munros for which walkers become listed as Munroists is original and historic.

Indexation is very efficient throughout. In addition to height and name indices, there are section listings and the margins let you know which section the book has opened at. Virtually nobody is going to wade through 336 pages serially. The book is way too bulky for a field guide, so this a coffee-table book that some may try to refer to. Unfortunately, the sections into which Scotland is divided for discussing the Grahams are (with what becomes growing inevitably under this idiosyncratic editorship) plucked out of the air rather than what they have always been since The Relative Hills of Britain was published (and as in the Munro's Tables book). Section 0 is so ridiculously bloated that it has to be fudged with subsections. Meanwhile, new composite sections are begotten. They must have been up all night to come up with the designations '2-3' and '5-6-7'. On this 'rationale' I guess a future CorbettS book could have a '0a-0b-0c'?

Lady Lea keeps watch on her 609.1m hill to guard against cairn tampering

Lady Lea keeps watch on her 609.1m hill to guard against cairn tampering

Having fluffed the hill set and stumbled over the sections, the hat-trick is secured by having to then add geographical qualifiers into a number of hill names that didn't need them under the RHB section organisation. Accents are also added to certain letters, which is a great idea until you try to search for one of these hills online without black belt keyboard shortcut skills and an elephantine memory for which cases have an accent. The same problem has made OS online gazetteers far less useful as a search tool for the past decade, but I guess since it is official OS policy 'to adopt the Gaelic orthographic conventions agreed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority', that the SMC are now also bound by the SQA in this matter, since they regard the OS as definitively definitive.

Route choices and descriptions are generally the obvious approaches to a hill that an experienced car-based walker would plan for themselves given the right mapping, qualified by what the researchers actually found on the hill (so that in some cases a more obvious route is given as an alternative with a reason). Where burn crossings are critical they are researched. If a mapped bridge wasn't there this is documented. If a wade was necessary and feasible in ordinary conditions this is also covered. When things get narrow or scrambly there is also fair warning in the text, although nothing in the way of useful annotated route photography. The SMC even go so far as to say that 'getting close is good enough' on Stac Pollaidh, so the timid aspirant bagger may not even have to bag every hill on the SMC's unofficial list for some sort of recognition?

There is also a degree of inconsistency between 'better and more ambitious' routes like the one from sea level over three hills including the non-Graham Ben Aslak, despite a 279m road bealach with parking between them (why not swim from Glenelg and make the outing really ambitious?), and the 'separate more manageable walks' over Marsco and Beinn Dearg Mhor five pages later.

I wasn't entirely optimistic before seeing this book when the SMC website proclaimed: 'Expected 2014 Donalds are all the hills in Scotland whose summits are between 2000 and 2500 feet above sea level, and Grahams are those Donalds that also have a 500 foot drop all around the summit.' The 2015 book is better than the expectation this statement set. Ultimately the route authors and photographers are generally successful in this book, while the bizarre editorial aberrations are to be expected as the latest froth in a rich tradition of SMC subjective transience.

A bright history of making up and irregularly reselecting subjective lists as they go along remains open to the SMC. It would be a good decision to leave objective topography to those who can actually measure things though.

People still haven't evolved enough to question anything that's printed - Kurt Cobain

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