The Relative Hills of Britain


Alan Dawson

Cicerone Press
Milnthorpe, Cumbria

© Alan Dawson 1992

ISBN 1-85284-068-4

Chapter 2: The Challenge of the Marilyns

For hundreds of years small groups of Britons have travelled all over the world looking for adventure, discovering new continents, scaling unclimbed peaks, boldly going where no-one had gone before, and so on. Now that all the major mountain ranges of the world have been explored and the highest summits climbed, it may seem strange to suggest that there is still a significant challenge provided by the British hills that is awaiting its first conquest. Yet the fact is that no-one has ever climbed all the relative hills of Britain. This is largely because no-one has ever known where they all are. The publication of this book changes all that. The listing of the relative hills for the first time naturally raises the question of who will be the first person to stand on top of them all. This is part of the challenge of the Marilyns.

Although several hundred people are known to have completed the ascent of all the Munros, it is unlikely that many will attempt the Marilyns. The scale of the task is daunting. It requires the equivalent of one ascent per week for almost thirty years. Of course anyone who has already climbed all the Munros and Corbetts has a good start, but it still leaves a vast number of hills outstanding. There are several problems likely to be faced by anyone contemplating the challenge:


This is the key factor, as no-one is going to complete the Marilyns by accident. It will require dedicated commitment and perseverance. Even being a very keen hill walker will not be sufficient, as a small number of Marilyns can hardly be regarded as hills in the usual sense. For example, the tops of Bishop Wilton Wold (Humberside) and Grendon Green (Hereford & Worcester) are just next to a main road, Crowborough (East Sussex) is a town, while Arthur's Seat (Lothian) is in the middle of a large city. It requires a particular type of mentality to be bothered with this type of summit bagging. It's not the sort of thing that is likely to appeal to Reinhold Messner or Chris Bonington, but let's face it not many of us come into that category.

Time and Money

Walking is one of the few leisure activities that cost nothing, but transport, accommodation and outdoor clothing can all be expensive. Anyone wealthy enough to not have to work for a living should have both the time and the money to consider attempting the challenge of the Marilyns, but few of these people seem to be interested in hill walking. Unemployed walkers may have the time but not the resources, whereas the retired may have enough money but not the time or the health. Those in full-time employment would need to set aside a substantial chunk of leisure time each year, which is likely to rule out anyone with family responsibilities. Probably those best placed to make a serious attempt on the Marilyns will be fairly solitary characters with a job that allows them generous amounts of free time. It is surely no coincidence that the first two men to complete the Munros were both ministers of the church.


Perhaps another reason why vicars were the first recorded Munroists was that they were the first to be believed! What proof is there? The same problem applies to the Marilyns. Even a photograph from each summit is unlikely to suffice, given the frequency of mist on the Scottish hills and the similarity of most cairns. So an important quality is credibility - it is not just a question of completing the Marilyns, but also of being known as an honest and reliable character.


The fact that a summit is listed in this book gives no guarantee that access to it is possible. Most summits are on privately-owned land, and it is of course up to the individual walker to abide by any restrictions that may be imposed or to ask permission for access. Hundreds of hills in the Scottish highlands are virtually closed to walkers for a few months each year so that deer and grouse can be safely shot without being disturbed. Some summits are on Ministry of Defence land and subject to severely restricted access (Ben Clach in Central Scotland is a notable example). Look out for the red 'Danger Area' lettering on Ordnance Survey maps. Access to hills on the island of Rhum is also restricted, though for different reasons, as it is a national nature reserve, and all visitors must obtain advance permission.


The great majority of summits can be attained by anyone with a degree of stamina and the ability to put one foot in front of the other. However, there are a few significant exceptions. On the British mainland perhaps the most awkward summit is The Cobbler, which has a dramatic outline overlooking Arrochar and Loch Long. On its summit are three rocky peaks, the highest of which is undoubtedly a climb rather than a walk. In the Cuillin Hills of Skye, both Sgurr nan Gillean and Sgurr Alasdair require liberal use of hands as well as feet, but the main problem is the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Sgurr Dearg. This has proved a thorn in the side of many aspiring Munro baggers, as it requires reasonable athleticism and proficient ropework to successfully complete the rock climb and abseil. These difficulties are relatively trivial compared to those posed by St Kilda. For a start you have to get there. There are some summer sailings for tourists to Hirta, the main island, but there are difficult Marilyns on three other islands and two sea stacks - Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. These stacks will look absolutely frightening to most walkers. They have been climbed on several occasions, by some of the inhabitants of St Kilda before its evacuation in 1930, and by rock climbers since then, but there is no easy route up either of them. Even landing is a problem, as the stacks have no beach or cove, and calm seas are a rarity in this part of the world. Once on the stacks the multitude of seabirds on the narrow ledges are likely to pose an additional hazard.

Rock is not the only natural hazard to be encountered on the Marilyns. Trees and water can cause problems on some hills. As an increasing proportion of British uplands are becoming coated in forestry plantations, it can be awkward to find a route through to some of the summits. Tracks or fire-breaks can usually be found somewhere among all the gloomy conifers, but they rarely run for long in a convenient direction, and the map may offer little help. Rivers and streams are less of a problem near the summits, but in wet weather they can make the approach to some of the remote Scottish hills difficult and dangerous. It is generally possible to plan a route to avoid river crossings, but after heavy rain even a minor stream can become an impassable barrier, and force a long detour or an unscheduled encampment.


It may seem silly to raise ethical questions in an activity as essentially simple as walking, but anyone contemplating the ascent of all the Marilyns must make some decisions about what are acceptable means of reaching the summits. Does a trip on the Snowdon mountain railway and a fifty-yard stroll to the top count as an ascent of Snowdon? Most walkers would say certainly not. But the mainline railway across Rannoch Moor to Corrour Station is usually considered a valid means of access to the remote hills of the Ben Alder area. Everyone uses public roads to reach the start of a walk, but in some places they come very close to the summit of a hill. No-one seriously argues against using these, as the only ethical alternative is to start every walk from sea level, which even the purest of purists would regard as excessively silly. Yet once off a public road any form of motorised transport is likely to be frowned upon by those on foot. The off-road use of man-powered devices is less controversial, but it's a tricky question to decide whether an ascent assisted by skis or mountain bike is as valid as an ascent on foot. Personally I would say it isn't, but I have no intention of laying down rules for valid means of reaching a summit. The only techniques I would definitely outlaw are those that involve landing on or near a summit from the air, so any 'ascents' by helicopter, chair lift, parachute, balloon etc definitely do not count!

The Real Challenge

Despite the difficulties outlined above, there will no doubt be some poor fools out there who can not resist a challenge, and will probably have reached the top of all the Marilyns before the end of the century. However, the challenge of the Marilyns is not just the race to be first. There are lots of other challenges - the first winter ascent, the first to complete the Marilyns in one calendar year or one continuous journey, the first to complete them in alphabetical order or height order, the first ascent by a disabled dog, and so on.

But of course the real challenge is for each individual to set his or her own target and try to achieve it, by being selective and choosing to concentrate on the hills in a particular area of interest. There are numerous possibilities, such as the British mainland, England or Wales, a particular region or regions, summits above or below a certain height, and so on. For example, you might decide to tackle the 111 Marilyns that are over 1000 metres high, which might seem feasible to those who regard the 277 Munros as too many for one lifetime, or you could choose to concentrate on the Marilyns in England over 1000 feet high, and be surprised to discover that there are only 136 of them. My recommendation is to use the list to give some extra purpose and enjoyment to your walking, and to encourage you to visit new areas and see new views, but do not let it dominate your thoughts so much that the bagging of summits blinds you to the character of the countryside. Lists can offer a tremendous incentive to actually go out walking more often, and you'll find that it's almost always worthwhile and enjoyable wherever you go.