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Review - The Grahams & The Donalds


HEARTIEST congratulations to Rab Anderson and Tom Prentice, the two Scottish Mountaineering Club members who have edited their club’s latest Hillwalkers’ Guide.

A massive amount of work has obviously gone into this publication – The Grahams & The Donalds – and the pair have produced an outstanding follow-up to the highly popular Scottish Mountaineering Club’s guides to the Munros and the Corbetts.

I suspect most folk in Scotland will know what a Munro is – a Scottish mountain of three thousand feet and over, and many will know that a Corbett is a Scottish mountain between the heights of 2500ft and 2999ft. But what is a Graham, and what is a Donald?

Let’s consider the Donalds first, for this hill listing predates the Grahams by some considerable time. In December 1932 Percy Donald, who chose the kilt as his climbing apparel, began climbing all the hills in the Scottish Lowlands that were above 2000 feet in height. It took him five months to complete the round and he did so by using public transport!

In 1935 he produced a list of all the hills which was published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of that year. The lowland hills became known as the Donalds and today there are 89 of them.

I first came across the Grahams back in the eighties when I met a woman called Fiona Torbet. I was the editor of The Great Outdoors magazine at the time and she asked me if I would consider publishing a new hill-list she had compiled – those highland hills which were over 2000ft and under 2500ft.

I agreed and we published the list but quickly realised that Glaswegian Alan Dawson has already published a similar list in his book The Relative Hills of Britain. Fiona and Alan met and agreed to work together on a hill list that eventually became known as the Grahams, Fiona Torbet’s maiden name. (There was apparently some concern that the names Torbet and Corbett might be confusing.)

Sadly Fiona died in 1993 but Alan continued to maintain the list, which now numbers a total of 221 Grahams. An ‘official’ description of a Graham is a “Scottish hill over 2000ft (609.60m) and under 2500ft (762m) in height, which have a distinct all round height separation of al least 150m.”

Currently there are 89 Grahams in the Highlands south of the Great Glen; 84 in the Highlands north of the Great Glen; 23 in Central and Southern Scotland; 10 on Skye, seven on Mull, three on Harris, two on Jura , and one each on Arran, Rum and South Uist.

At this point I should confess that I had lost some interest in peak-bagging a number of years ago when I became more involved with walking long cross-country routes like the Sutherland Trail, the Skye Trail and the Scottish National Trail. My mountain-going habit was happily enough served by re-visiting Munros and Corbetts that I had climbed previously.

However, as I turned the pages of this new guidebook to the Grahams and the Donalds I began to experienced the old familiar peak-bagging sensations - a strong desire to go through the list and add up all the hills I had already climbed and a growing urge to tread some of the lesser known hill areas of Scotland that I was unfamiliar with.

I quickly realised that I hadn't actually climbed very many Grahams or Donalds and on flicking through the book I was introduced to whole chunks of upland Scotland that I didn't know at all. For someone who thought he knew Scotland reasonably well this was a wee bit disconcerting!

I suspect these hill lists offer a much more varied collection of hills than either the Munros or the Corbetts. Many are familiar - stunning looking hills like Stac Pollaidh and Suilven would be popular no matter their height, but at the other end of the scenic scale many Corbetts and Donalds are lumpy rises that have little to offer in terms of scenic splendour, other than, perhaps, a sense of remoteness and wide open skies. Such characteristics are often worthy in themselves though - I've enjoyed plenty of memorable days on what many folk might describe as 'dull' hills.

The evening sun catching the slopes of Marsco

So, let's try and get a flavour of some of these Grahams and Donalds. The Isle of Skye is as good a place as any to start and as I’ve mentioned already the ‘misty isle’ boasts a total of 10 Grahams, including the beautiful Marsco. I first climbed this hill with Donnie Munro, the former lead singer with RunRig as part of a Wilderness Walks television series which was broadcast on BBC2 in the nineties. Despite the fact he had performed a song called Nightfall on Marsco Donnie had never actually climbed the hill. That made two of us, so with sense of discovery we traversed the hill as part of a marvellous walk from Sligachan to Elgol.

Beyond the Druim Ruaige face of Beinn Dearg Mhor, Marsco rises as a rough pyramid, its western ridge bulging out into a curious protuberance called Fiaclan Dearg, the red tooth. It’s a bold mountain, a distinctive shape that dominates what is one of the finest views in Scotland - the view across the depths of Glen Sligachan to the Black Cuillin. I think that view alone makes it more than worthy of a visit.

The summit slopes of Beinn Ghobhlach

Bheinn Ghobhlach is another Graham with dramatic views. The long peninsula that separates Loch Broom with Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is a fascinating place. It’s almost an island – only a ridge of high ground connects it to the wilds of the Dundonnell Deer Forest. And it’s got an island feel to it, particularly west of the road end at Badrallach where a rough footpath follows the rocky shoreline to the scattered settlements of Rireavach, Carnach and Scoraig. Stand at the headland of Cailleach head and you’d be convinced you were on one of the Summer Isles, another island on a scattering of some of the loveliest islands on the west coast.

Beinn Ghobhlach, 635m, rises at the eastern end of this exposed finger of land. It’s double topped profile is prominent when seen from Ullapool in the north. Whatever way you tackle Beinn Ghobhlach (the name means‘forked hill’) you’re in for a steep climb, emphasising the fact that amongst the Grahams there are some pretty serious days out.

On my only ascent of the hill I followed the coastal path for about a kilometre then took to the heather on a rising traverse to reach easier ground above the twin lochans of Loch na h-Uidhe and Loch na Coir.

With the hardest part of the day’s climbing over I could now relax a bit and what a place to relax. The twin lochans lie in the cradle of a glaciated hollow with the west ridge of Beinn Ghobhlach behind them. The ridge climbs to a high col from where it was a fairly easy climb to the summit with glorious views out to the islands of the west.

Creag Dhubh of Newtonmore

My own local hill, Creag Dhubh of Newtonmore, is a Graham. Creag Dhubh, the black crag, rises in steady tiers to form an isolated hill that’s sequestered from the main Monadh Liath plateau by the broad glen of the River Calder. Of no great height, a mere 2350 feet, but is nonetheless the most striking and interesting of all the tops of the Monadh Liath. Its south-east flank presents an almost continuously steep rocky face, with fine vertical cliffs rising above Lochain Uvie at the southern end. The easiest route to the summit follows the skyline above those intimidating crags, traverses the mountain and descends into newly regenerated birch woods above the farm at Baillaid. Provided someone can take you back to the starting point to collect your car a traverse is the finest way to enjoy the hill.

Three hundred years ago the warriors of the local Clan Chatton, to which the Macphersons and Macintoshs belonged, used this hill’s name as a war-cry as they rushed into battle, a challenge which would have resounded throughout these hills and glens.

As I suggested earlier, the Grahams and Donalds have introduced me to areas of Scotland that were comparatively unfamiliar to me and I have to confess that after spending the first twenty or so years of my life living in the south side of Glasgow and after countless forays up and down the A74 to visit the hills of the borders and the English Lakes I was well into my hillwalking career before I first set foot on Lanarkshire’s Tinto Hill. I’d traversed Culter Fell by moonlight, ambled along from Nether Oliver Dod to Coomb Dod high above the infant Tweed but Tinto, only a few miles to the north-west, was as unknown to me as the Tibetan plateau!

It was a visit to New Lanark and the Falls of Clyde that first brought Tinto within my radar. There, beyond the tumultuous waterfalls and through the gap the river had created in the trees, rose a snow capped, round topped hill. It was probably the blend of light and shade, the effect of fresh spring snow on a darkened plinth but the hill bore an uncanny resemblance to Kilimanjaro. Or perhaps I’m just an incurable romantic? The snows of Tinto Hill may not be as eternal as the snows of Kilimanjaro, but, as I was to discover, the lowly slopes of Lanarkshire’s best can still pose a challenge.

That same afternoon I found the Tinto Hill tea room at Fallburn near the village of Thankerton. The café was closed and a cap of grey cloud hung over the top of the hill - an inauspicious start. The weather forecast was for rain and gale force winds but here on the north side of Tinto Hill the breeze was mercifully slight.

Lanarkshire's Tinto Hill

An obvious footpath runs all the way up the hill to the summit and there’s little danger of becoming lost but beyond the top of Totherin Hill, the northern top of Tinto, we were tempted onto a narrower path that traverses round the lip of Maurice’s Cleuch, the deep-cut corrie that carves out the hill’s northern slopes. Away below us a silvery stream snaked its way downhill, one of the hill’s two Cleuch Burns that run down to feed the infant Clyde.

This traverse round the top of Maurice’s Cleuch was quite nasty in the snowy conditions, and I didn't fancy a long slide into the Cleuch itself. And if the snowy conditions weren't bad enough there was also a string wind to contend with. As we emerged from the shelter of the Cleuch it hit us savagely, tugging and pulling at our clothing and threatening to send us back down from where we had come. The final few feet were a real struggle and we had to grasp our arms round the summit trig point to stop us blowing away, an important lesson that taught me you can't judge the potential challenges of a hill by its height alone.

So, is there life after the Munros and the Corbetts? You bet there is and this beautiful book is your portal to it. In production terms this is one of the finest guidebooks I have seen - it's easy to use, the photographs are first class and the written content gives the distinct impression that each author (and there are 15 of them) has written the route description as they have climbed the hill or hills, rather than regurgitate it from memory. Each route is incredibly well detailed.

You'll find all the usual guide book information - advice on weather, equipment, bothies, access, car parking (this is particularly good), mountain rescue and a good index as well as sections which detail all the mountains with their height, grid reference and relevant Ordnance Survey map.

And a final very important selling point. All profits from this book help fund the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, which has granted more than a million pounds over the years to various mountain related causes in Scotland. The book costs £25 and in my opinion, is worth every penny.

The Grahams & the Donalds, a ScottishMountaineering Club Hillwalkers' Guide is published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and costs £25

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