Written on 27/05/17 by Paul Oldham

Classifying Hills

There was some news this week that, to quote The Scotsman, "Scotland could be getting a new Munro". This made us smile as it's unlikely, even though the hill Mullach nan Coirean East Top which lies between Kinlochleven and Fort William has been re-measured and it's been found that rather than being 910m (2986ft) tall it is 916.6m (3007ft). Hence everyone is getting excited because "a Munro is a hill in Scotland over 3000ft".

Except that it's not.

When considering how hills are classified for the purposes of "hill bagging" lists a naive way of deciding if a top counts in a list is how high it is. Which is what The Scotsman are assuming in their article.

But it's not as simple as that. Classification within a list normally hinges on the issue of whether a top is a separate top or just a "subsidiary summit". So imagine a hill with two points on it which are above 3000ft but only a small drop below 3000ft as you walk between them. In that situation the lower of the two would normally be classified as a subsidiary summit.

For most of the more recent classifications, like Nuttalls or Marilyns, how big this drop has to be is precisely defined. So take Nuttalls for example. A hill is classified as a Nuttall if it is in England or Wales and its summit is at least 2000ft (610m) high, with a minimum of 50ft (15m) of ascent on all sides.

Variation on this theme are typical: a minimum height and minimum drop.

It's not always done this way though, for example a Marilyn is defined solely by its drop and is a hill of any height with a drop of at least 150m or more on all sides. (This leads to oddities like the highest point of the Weald, a Marilyn which lies within the East Sussex town of Crowborough.)

Now things become more interesting for the older lists. Going back to Munros a hill is classified as a Munro if it is a Scottish hill of at least 3000 feet in height (914.4m) regarded by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) as distinct and separate mountains, based on a list originally published by Sir H.T. Munro in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal in 1891 and subsequently revised, repeatedly, by the SMC.

Subsidiary summits meeting the height criterion are classified as Munro Tops and the SMC, like Munro himself, simply make a judgement on whether it's a subsidiary summit as there is no formal definition of the necessary drop.

Stob Ban, with Mullach nan Coirean behind to the right
Stob Ban, with Mullach nan Coirean behind to the right

In this case we strongly suspect that Mullach nan Coirean East Top will be re-classified as a Munro Top as it lies about halfway between the two mile path along a ridge from two existing Munros Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban, and indeed Mullach nan Coirean SE Top, which also lies on that path and is already classified as a Munro Top and, at 917m, is taller than Mullach nan Coirean East Top1.

As this is WalkLakes we should also mention another hill classification: Wainwrights. These take no notice at all of heights or drops. A hill is classified as a Wainwright if it is one of the 214 Lake District fells described in Alfred Wainwright's seven volume A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells and a Wainwright Outlying Fell if it is one of the 116 described in his companion volume The Outlying Fells of Lakeland. So for Wainwrights at least you can be sure that the classifications will never change!

Photo by wfmillar and is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence. For more information about this photo, including on copyright, see the photo's home page.

  1. For Munro baggers it probably make a huge different either way as most baggers visit Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban in one trip and the path between them is the obvious route so they have probably already bagged Mullach nan Coirean East Top, although it was a Corbett Top at the time.

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