The new fourth edition of the classic tome The Munros combines detailed text, evocative photography and a clear, modern layout to create the most attractive and authoritative guide yet produced to Scotland's 282 3000-foot summits (and many subsidiary Tops). The fruit of several years work by its co-authors Rab Anderson and Tom Prentice, along with the team behind the scenes at the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this thoroughly updated medium-format hardback guide serves as both a practical source of info when planning your hill days, and an inspiring book to delve into and dream over.
At 384 pages, and over 1400g in weight, this really isn't a book to carry in your pack, but a source of reference to consult at home. Once you make a walking guidebook larger than pocket size, you might as well go the whole hog and embrace a format that does justice to the photography and allows the layout some space to breathe. The new version of The Munros does just that, and while previous editions of this guide and associated titles in the SMC's hardback hillwalking series were already big and weighty, the new slightly wider page size of 2021's The Munros (and 2015's guide to The Grahams & The Donalds), gives full rein to the visual impact of the book. It's intended that future titles in the SMC's Hillwalker's Guides series will also be produced in this more generous size and style.
Featuring an atmospheric photo by Robert Durran, whose work in the UKH/UKC galleries deservedly picks up a lot of five star votes, the cover features a A'Chraileag and distant Ben Nevis as seen from the south ridge of Mullach Fraoch-Choire. This is an excellent choice, for its subtle colours and sense of space, and because it shows some worthy lesser-known hills. A minimalist design and simple typeface give the cover a fashionably retro feel, making it a thing of beauty. The contrast with the mediocre glossy photos and ugly borders of old SMC hill guides could hardly be greater, and suggests good things to come within. The Munros lives up to this promise.
With a set of photos that's been fully updated from those in the third edition, the illustration of the new guide is its immediate stand-out feature. Most hills get more than one picture, which is an increase on previous guides in the series, while the section heads now feature full double-page photographs that beautifully convey the scale of the Munros. I have just two criticisms of these. While the Drumochter hills are hardly Scotland's most exciting, the area heading could surely have improved on a shot of the Dalwhinnie Distillery, a built environment scene that seems incongruous with the rest in the book. The area heading for Creag Meagaidh and the Monadhliath, meanwhile, has a tilted horizon, letting down an otherwise lovely shot of Coire Ardair in springtime.
Chapter by chapter, the photography does a good job of capturing the character of each hill, and as well as straight landscapes there are plenty with people in, which I think adds interest and helps the viewer to imagine themselves in the picture. There's a preponderance of blue skies which would give a misleading impression to anyone unfamiliar with the Scottish weather, and the chosen selection errs heavily towards summer conditions. This latter was a considered choice, I'm told, in order to make the book as accessible as possible, and reflective of the experience of the majority of walkers. A quick flick through my 2013 reprint of the third edition shows a lot more snowy scenes, and while from a mountaineer's perspective it's a shame that so many of the new photos miss out on the majesty of full winter conditions, it was an understandable decision to go green and grassy. Perhaps more use might have been made of interesting dawn and dusk lighting, and the drama of cloud effects; many of the chosen photos seem to have been taken in relatively bland mid day light. The picture quality is high though, and in this book even the duller Munros look good.
The route descriptions are longer and more detailed than in former editions, which I think is a good thing since they did seem a bit sparse before. I've not yet tried to follow a sample description as a test of accuracy, but the authors both really know their hills and the previous guide never sent me wrong, so I would trust the 2021 guidebook to be as authoritative as they come. Having read through a few well known Munros in the comfort of the sofa, everything certainly seems to be in the right place. While the writing is based on former editions the authors estimate that the text includes about 80% re-written material, and given the huge page count that represents quite some effort.
In previous editions you got just one walk to the top of each Munro, with limited if any reference to alternatives. While this was clearly dictated by the demands of page space, I always wondered if it gave some readers a blinkered and rather two dimensional approach to the Munros, helping to channel traffic onto the trade routes rather than opening people's eyes and encouraging a wider footfall. But there is always more than one way to skin a cat. By including alternative routes, short cuts, and link-ups, the new guide should help spark people's imagination.
While more single-Munro days are described than I for one would end up doing on the ground, routes do include two, three or more peaks where it's easiest and most logical to climb them together.
A new idea, and one that I love, is the addition of box-out sections peppered through the book detailing bigger multi-peak rounds. While the primary text divides the ten Mamores Munros over six separate routes, for example, you also get a sufficiently detailed aside on the Ring of Steall and another for the Eastern Four, so you can go big if the urge takes you. With classic challenges such as the South Cluanie Ridge and the Fisherfield Six, there's plenty here to keep the more ambitious walker or runner on their toes. On the other hand some of these panels give easier short day alternatives to the principal route, for instance a full page devoted to ways to subdivide the four hard-to-get-at Mullardoch Munros.
Common with every other Munro guide I've seen, earlier editions made only passing reference to the Tops, the (currently) 226 subsidiary summits not deemed independent enough for full Munro status. But the 2021 edition rectifies that, adding even outlying Tops both to route descriptions and the list at the end of the book. As with the variations, short cuts and extensions, they're there only if you want them. Rather than presenting just one prescriptive way to do a hill, a big point in this book's favour is that it gives you options.
Another change from previous editions is a greater emphasis on info for bike-assisted approaches, where appropriate - a good idea, since bikes are so commonly used on lower tracks. Separate timings are given for two-wheeled approaches, and an estimate of the total time saved over the day versus walking all the way - though these times are more provisional than those for the journey on foot. As for the walks themselves, the route times are based on well established formulae, and seem sensibly liberal. Where previously The Munros gave a distance, ascent and time estimate only as far as the summit (which as everyone knows is only the halfway point of your day), the new edition more usefully offers one set of stats for the summit and then a final set for the end of the day. Figures for route variations are also given where these are described, and have been presented in yellow font to match the variations as drawn on the maps.
Moving seamlessly to the mapping, and it's all change for 2021. Gone are those ancient sketch-like schematics with their thick black lines for ridges, and in their place come colour maps with shaded contours and details that are clearly based on actual OS data. As well as being way more attractive, and augmenting the up to date feel of the book's design, the new maps give a more useful sense of the lay of the land (except in the case of the Cuillin, which are notoriously hard to present on a map and arguably look clearer at this scale in a more diagrammatic style). Being slightly colour blind, my one gripe with the new maps is that I struggle to read the blue lettering used to name watercourses.
I won't moan that the fourth edition preserves the eccentric subdivision of the Munros into 17 largely arbitrary jigsaw-like sections. I've always found navigating this book to a particular hill or area to be hit and miss, and despite many advances in the fourth edition a comprehensive contents page at the front remains elusive. I suppose there's always the index; and you do get section maps too; but surely there's a more logical way to order and catalogue this information? Since I have no constructive suggestions I had better bow to tradition. Much like the Munros themselves, it doesn't make much sense on objective analysis, but that doesn't seem to matter; this is just how it's always been done.
In addition to the routes themselves you get a beefed-up intro which includes a three-page history of Sir Hugh Munro and his list. Given the archaic nature of bagging hills in feet, it's nice to give the pastime the weight of a bit of background history. Also included for the first time at the end of the the fourth edition are Munro's Tables, the full listing of Munros and Tops that was previously published separately. There's space here to tick the ones you've done, if that's your game.
Nowadays a lot of walking route information can be found online, much of it for free - not least in the UKHillwalking Route Cards. It takes something for a book to stand out, and primarily it needs to be a desirable object. The fourth edition of The Munros not only has the most authoritative and comprehensive route descriptions to Scotland's 3000-foot peaks currently available in print, but it looks great too, with a smart layout and quality photography. By any measure this is the best guide to the Munros yet produced. There's a mountain of Scottish walking to be found between its covers, and that's worth every penny of its £30 cover price. And just to seal the deal, all profits go to the Scottish Mountaineering Trust. If you're buying only one Munros guide then there's no competition - get this one.
- For more info or to buy the book see smc.org.uk
Disclaimer: Though I am a member of the SMC, I have no involvement in their guidebook production. If I hadn't liked this book then I would have said so!