Scotland is known for the rugged beauty of its mountainous landscape. A Scottish mountain with a summit over 3000 feet is classified as a Munro. That might be short in comparison to Everest’s summit—which reaches a little over 29,000 feet—but there are a staggering 282 of these peaks. By comparison, there are only 34 mountains over 3000 feet in the rest of the United Kingdom (they’re known as Furths, a Scots word meaning “outside“). Here are 10 facts about Scotland’s tallest mountains.
Munro was a founding member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) in 1889, and he later served as the club’s third president. In 1891 he was tasked with cataloguing all Scottish peaks over 3000 feet, a list that became known as “Munro’s Tables.” He admitted that “when first this work was commenced, I had little idea of the enormous amount of labour and research which it would entail.”
The original list featured 283 separate mountains and 538 tops, which are lesser summits still over 3000 feet that are judged as not being distinctly separate from the primary mountain peak. Given the rudimentary nature of the maps Munro was limited to, his number was surprisingly accurate, off by just one peak from today’s tally of 282. Munro was actually revising the list at the time of his death in 1919; the SMC has updated it several times to ensure it’s as accurate as possible.
Despite giving his name to Scotland’s tallest mountains, Munro unfortunately died before managing to climb all of them. Just three peaks escaped him: Carn Cloich-mhuilinn, Sgùrr Dearg, and Carn an Fhidleir. Carn Cloich-mhuilinn was later demoted from Munro to Munro Top.
Despite its small size, Scotland is extremely geologically diverse; its topography is split by the Highland Boundary Fault, which divides the Highlands from the Lowlands. It runs from Helensburgh on the west coast to Stonehaven on the east coast. Scotland’s mountains began to form around 480 million years ago, when the Iapetus Ocean closing caused four landmasses to slowly but dramatically drift into each other. This series of impacts is called the Caledonian Orogeny.
Northern Scotland was located on the edge of a continent called Laurentia, now the foundation of North America, which collided with a chain of volcanic islands and then, millions of years later, with the continent of Baltica, which now forms Scandinavia. Laurentia and Avalonia drifted into each other 425 million years ago, fusing Scotland and England. The Highland Boundary Fault remains as a physical marker of the continental collision that joined these geologically distinct areas. The mountains that were formed may once have been as tall as the Himalayas and were part of a now-divided chain that stretches from the Appalachian Mountains to Norway.
Volcanic eruptions and glacial carving greatly altered Scotland’s mountain ranges, but some incredibly old rocks persevered through it all. The northwest coast of Scotland is lined with Lewisian gneiss (which is pronounced nice), one of the oldest rocks in the world. Lewisian gneiss was formed during the Precambrian period and can be up to 3 billion years old. The highest place this type of rock can be found is at the top of the Munro Ben More Assynt in Sutherland.
Ben Nevis is not only the highest mountain in Scotland, it’s also the tallest summit in the UK. The iconic Scottish mountain was created 350 million years ago when a volcano imploded, causing its dome to collapse in on itself. Each year around 130,000 people climb to the summit of Ben Nevis. The nearby Munro Aonach Mòr can be summited without quite as much legwork—or without any legwork at all, as a gondola was built to take visitors up to an elevation of 2133 feet.
Mountains smaller than 3000 feet were later given classification names too: Corbetts are higher than 2500 feet and less than 3000 feet; Grahams are between 2000 feet and 2500 feet; and Donalds are at least 2000 feet with a drop of at least 50 feet between each elevation.
Towards the end of the 19th century, most of the highest and renowned peaks around the world had finally been ascended and climbers were looking for fresh challenges. Munro’s list filled this void, offering peak bagging as a new way for mountaineers to break records. People who manage to climb—or bag—every Munro are known as compleatists, based on an archaic spelling of complete.
Peak bagging has grown in popularity over the years. Some of the most well-known multi-summit challenges include the Seven Summits, which involves climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, and the Fourteeners (a.k.a 14ers) of Colorado, which requires climbing the 53 mountain peaks in Colorado with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. By comparison, bagging the Munros might seem an easy task, but the sheer number of them is daunting and time limitations can further test hikers.
In 1901, Reverend Archibald E. Robertson became the first person to reach the peak of every Munro, but it’s now thought that he may have missed Ben Wyvis. While there’s doubt over whether he actually reached the summit, the official record still recognizes him as the first compleatist. The first person to definitely climb every Munro just so happens to be another Reverend: Ronald Burn finished the incredible feat in 1923. As of August 2022, 7237 people have reported bagging all Munros. However, there are likely many more who have not reported the achievement.
The first continuous round of the Munros was achieved by Hamish Brown in 1974, and what’s more, he was almost entirely self-propelled. The journey took him 112 days and other than the ferries to the isles of Skye and Mull and a short distance covered by bicycle, he did the entire thing by putting one foot in front of the other.
While there are many Munros, the vast majority of them are relatively easy to climb. One notable exception to this is Sgùrr Dearg, on the Isle of Skye, which is topped by a jagged spear of rock known as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (colloquially called the In Pin or In Pinn). It requires rock climbing and abseiling. Due to these technical challenges, novice climbers often employ guides to escort them up this peak.
In 2014, trials cyclist Danny MacAskill precariously scrambled up the In Pin not only without safety ropes, but also while carrying a mountain bike. His death-defying ascent and descent of the mountain was filmed and includes heart-stopping first-person shots from the camera mounted on his helmet. MacAskill told The Herald that he “actually found it a lot less stressful than I did riding along a spiky fence in Edinburgh where, in my head at least, there is more real danger.”
The Munro Society keeps an official list of dogs that have climbed to the top of all the Munros with their owners. Hamish Brown’s Shetland collie Kitchy bagged the first spot on the list in 1971. So far, 14 dogs have been recorded as bagging every Munro, including tackling the Inaccessible Pinnacle, usually by being carried in their owner’s backpack. However, this is obviously not a realistic option for all hounds, and Alfie, a Springer spaniel and labrador cross, is still counted as a compleatist despite not climbing the In Pin. Most of the owners have written heartfelt pieces about their adventurous canine companions—and don’t worry, there are cute pictures.
In the summer of 2020, when most people were binging Netflix and baking sourdough bread, Donnie Campbell broke the record for the fastest round of the Munros. The record had previously been set in 2010 by Stephen “Spyke” Pyke, who managed it in 39 days, nine hours, and six minutes. Campbell had to bag multiple Munros each day, which saw him spending 12 to 14 hours a day running up the mountains and cycling or kayaking between them. He even had to tragically climb the same Munro twice after making a mistake about where the summit was. After completing the challenge, he declared: “It is great to have done it—and I am really pleased I don’t have to run again today.” In total he ascended 413,855 feet, or more than 14 ascents of Everest, in just under 32 days.
As of October 2019, Steven Fallon has summited every Munro 16 times. In total, that’s an incredible 4512 climbs. Although this is an enormous mountaineering achievement, Fallon didn’t purposefully plan to set the record. “I just need to be outside, preferably in mountain or hilly terrain and ideally running, mountain biking or skiing,” he said.