Hugh Munro

Share this article

THOUGH an Englishman by birth, the man who first charted and lent his name to our highest peaks remains a national icon to those who strive to climb all of Scotland's highest summits.

Sir Hugh Thomas Munro, co-founder of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and the first to measure and categorise all of Scotland's 284 peaks over 3,000ft, now named "Munros" in his honour, was also a war hero, traveller, political activist and adventurer.

Born to aristocratic family in London in 1856, Sir Hugh was the eldest of nine children of Sir Campbell Munro, 3rd Baronet of Lindertis and his wife, Henrietta. The young Munro would develop his love of hillwalking on early holidays in the German Alps – an area to which he would often return throughout his life.

His early career took him to South Africa, where, in 1880, he took on the post of Private Secretary to Sir George Colley, then governor of the Natal province, after service as a courier in Landry's Horse, a cavalry corps, in the Basuto Wars. He married a general's daughter in 1892.

Sir Hugh continued to travel on his return to Britain, where, carrying dispatches for the Foreign Office, he would travel to places such as Berlin, Petrograd (now St Petersburg) and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Even when he wasn't working Munro travelled, circumnavigating the globe with his daughters in his journey through North America (where they visited Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley) and on across the Pacific to Hawaii, Japan, China, Singapore and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

But Sir Hugh's heart remained in the Scottish mountains to which he would lend his name, and he would often return to his family's estate near Kirriemuir in Angus. There he became active in politics, standing in 1885 for the constituency of Kirkcaldy Burghs and organising the Conservative and Unionist Party, though the cause was unpopular in Scotland.

More important to his legend, he also co-founded the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) in 1889, taking "the liveliest interest" in doling out "racy comments" at its meetings, according to an obituary published in the club's journal, to which he was a regular contributor.

Hugh Munro was remembered by club members as having about him a "strange mixture of courtesy and pugnacity", a "wonderful ear and memory for music" and two small feet, which blessed him with notable skill in Highland dancing.

One account of his life remembers: "A tale went the rounds some time ago that he and a great talker had a day on the hills together, and when they returned both complained they had been silent all day as neither could get a word in edgeways."

Sir Hugh was often portrayed as sporting a Balmoral bonnet, the brimless cap adorned with a bobble, and full Highland rig. To the public, Munro was famous for his trademark mysterious bag of dark cloth, which he was always seen to be carrying, and which may or may not have contained a compass, aneroid barometer, maps, thermometer and measuring pole.

His tabulation of the mountains standing 3,000ft or higher first appeared in an SMC journal in 1891, but it seems that he did not scale all of the peaks he categorised. In a short piece written in 1917 for the Cairngorm Club Journal, he remarked: "I still aspire to stand on the summit of the only three 'tops' in Scotland exceeding 3,000 feet in height which I have not yet climbed [the almost inaccessible Pinnacle, on the Isle of Skye, among them]."

The first man to complete the Munros is believed to be the Reverend Archibald Eneas Robertson, in 1901.

Sir Hugh, however, at the end of his time in Scotland, is believed to have scaled all 538 "tops", or points on a hill that exceed 3,000ft but are considered part of a bigger peak. He made care to differentiate these tops from wrinkles, shoulders or undulations.

During the First World War, the aging Hugh Munro relocated to Tarascon, in the south of France, running a canteen for French troops where he eventually succumbed to a bout of pneumonia. His body was returned to Scotland and was buried near Lindertis, in Angus, on 2 April 1919.

His obituary, published in a French newspaper, paid tribute to "Ce gentilhomme tranger" (the gentleman foreigner). An apt eulogy that could have been written in his native country as he must have often felt that his English birth also made him stranger in his homeland, despite his later acceptance as one of Scotland's greatest sons.

- Robin Campbell, archivist of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, contributed to this article.