Sunday 23 June 2019

Book Review: Scaling the Heights - Measuring Scotland's Mountains

Back in 1891 Sir Hugh Munro produced his Tables of Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet high using the maps and surveying techniques of the time. These often weren’t very precise leading to doubts about hills just above or just below the magic 3,000 feet (914.4 metres). Modern surveying equipment and methods can measure hills much more accurately. The Ordnance Survey however only gives heights to the nearest metre. So a 914-metre summit might be 3,000 feet or might not. 

In 2006 The Munro Society decided to settle the matter by measuring accurately the two hills the OS said were 914 metres high, Beinn Dearg in Torridon and Foinaven. This developed into eight years of measuring the heights of all nineteen hills around 914.4 metres, a process that became known as “The Heightings”. 

This book, produced for the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro, tells the fascinating story of The Heightings with contributions from many of the members of The Munro Society involved plus the surveyors themselves. There are also chapters on how Munro constructed his Tables, the changes to the Tables since Munro’s time, and how modern surveying techniques work. 

Measuring the hills involved carrying heavy equipment to the summit and then waiting for hours while readings were taken. Sometimes the weather wasn’t kind, but the surveys still went ahead except on the very first trip, the only one I was on, when we turned back due to the stormy weather. 

Excellent photographs give a real sense of what The Heightings were like, showing the surveys taking place, the hills themselves, and the people involved, often wrapped up warmly or lying in bivi bags as they waited for the survey to be completed. 

Heading up Beinn Dearg on the first Heighting

Given the subject matter this could have been rather a dry book. It isn’t. It’s entertaining as well as informative and contains some humorous stories. My favourite comes at the end of The Heightings when a German TV company films a pretend Heighting (a real one would take too long) as part of a documentary on Scottish life and culture with an emphasis on the idiosyncratic. Iain A. Robertson, the author of this chapter, comments ‘how any group of persons who climbed mountains because they were above a certain height and, moreover, went to great lengths to check these heights, could be regarded as idiosyncratic is difficult to fathom’.

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