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Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
MAY THE FURTH BE WITH YOU!

The history of the Furths is not as well documented as the Munros but Dave Hewitt reveals they have produced plenty of interest and compleaters in the past.


An interesting question has come in from Alun-Peter Fisher in Hampshire, "Have you ever happened to come across what list the first bagger of the Furth Munros used?" he asks, "as his completion pre-dates all the lists I'm aware of."

Good question. For all that I've spent a lot of time researching Munroists, especially the early ones, I've not devoted much energy to the curious add-on that is the Furth list. Furth is a Scots word meaning "outside of" and has traditionally been used in the context of the Munros to refer to non-Scottish British Isles hills of equivalent height, ie Welsh, English and Irish hills over 3,000ft. The Munros being the Munros however - a list with a height criterion but no separation criterion - it's a matter of debate as to exactly what constitutes a Furth summit.

Take England, for example. Many sources routinely cite four English 3,000-foot hills - Scafell Pike, Scafell, Helvellyn and Skiddaw. Strictly speaking, however, there are at least six, as Ill Crag and Broad Crag are fairly substantial - and very rough - tops of Scafell Pike. Helvellyn Lower Man is also included in some lists despite negligible drop and distance from Helvellyn proper. (Some would say that Scafell is itself merely a top of its Pike - in Scotland it would be one of the more iffy Munros.)

More problems come with the Welsh Furth Munros, which vary in number between 12 and 15, spread around six or seven distinct main summits (depending on whether Carnedd Dafydd is regarded as a Munro or a Top). Ireland nowadays tends to be credited with 13 summits over 3,000ft, divided into four main clusters - but the baggable list has been as low as seven.

Clear? Almost certainly not. Anyway, in order to attempt an answer to Alun-Peter Fisher's question, it's necessary to look not just at the hills themselves but at when the first Furth completions were claimed. And, in an odd echo of the earliest Munroists, there's a two-decade gap between the first and second finishes.

Using the list published in Munro's Tables, the first name in the Furth column is James Alexander Parker in 1929, followed by William McKnight Docharty in 1949. Next come three 1956 completions, by John Dow, Paddy Heron and Hamish Hamilton, then three more in 1958, Jimmy Anderson, Jimmy Watt and Eric Maxwell (more of whom anon). The first post-1959 completion (1959 being a significant year in Furth history, as I'll explain later) was by the prolific Anne Littlejohn.

James Parker was an interesting man. Born on 21 September 1864, he lived at various times in the west end of Glasgow, in London and in Aberdeen. He was a civil engineer, and a successful one. Railways were his main area of expertise and his obituary in the Press and Journal (on 30 September 1946 - he had died two days earlier) noted that, "Monuments to his engineering skill abound on the railway system of North-east Scotland and South-east England." The reroofing of London's Charing Cross station was his handiwork, as was Aberdeen's Joint Station - modelled on the station at Basle in Switzerland, which Parker had observed during an Alpine mountaineering holiday.

The main tangible way in which Parker brought his engineering precision into the context of the hills was via summit view indicators - those on Lochnagar, Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis are due to him - but he was also notably precise when it came to the actual climbing and recording of hills. Indeed, his meticulous nature was such that although being only the third listed Munroist, Parker is the first about whom we can be absolutely confident that he visited every summit cairn.

The doubts over A E Robertson's round are well known - he appears not to have reached the top of either Ben Wyvis or Stuc a'Chroin - and while there is no formal doubt over Ronnie Burn, his record keeping and navigation were notoriously feckless. Parker however was meticulous to the point of pedantry. It's no coincidence that, having started his Munro-climbing career with the most southerly hill, Ben Lomond, on 19 July 1883, he wrapped things up with the most northerly, Ben Hope, on 19 July 1927. He liked things to be neat and complete.

Parker's interest in the Furth Munros is clear - in an article in the November 1929 edition of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal (Beinn Tarsuinn and the British 'Threes') he states his overall aim as having been to climb the full list of 'threes' in the British Isles. He believed there to be precisely 300 hills in this list - 277 in Scotland, four in England, seven in Ireland and 12 in Wales. (He didn't include Foel Grach and Garnedd Ugain aka Crib y Ddysgl, "which, in my opinion, can hardly be classed as separate mountains" - he also excluded the modern "discovery", Garnedd Uchaf.) That climbing the whole lot was his primary aim - even greater than bagging the Scottish set - is shown in that his article devotes almost half of its eight pages to an account of how Beinn Tarsuinn hadn't been listed as a 3,000-footer at the time of Parker's Ben Hope ascent and so had to be got out of the way before the big Munros-plus-Furth finish.

Beinn Tarsuinn was duly climbed on 24 March 1929, five months after Parker returned from a year long world tour (those were the days), and he was now free to finish off the Furth. Basically he didn't want to finish the full set on Beinn Tarsuinn (perhaps, in part, because he had become embroiled in a slightly tetchy public feud with James Gall Inglis over its status). Instead, he had left himself ten non-Scottish summits, all of them in Wales. And so, "after Easter I selected a short spell of good weather, and, working from Bangor and Pen-y-Pass, spent a most delightful week climbing them and exploring the district. Tryfan, 3,010 feet, was my last, the 300th, and was climbed on the 19th April."

As to what list Parker used, this is unclear. The four English hills were common knowledge, while he acknowledges as his Welsh source The Mountains of Snowdonia, edited by Carr and Lister, published 1925 price 25s. The neatness of the overall 300 figure could well have been a factor in his choice of hills however, and he might have felt the need to suddenly "lose" a top once Beinn Tarsuinn was promoted to 3,000ft status.



Moving on 20 years, the second listed "Further" is Glaswegian William McKnight Docharty. In Docharty's case there is no doubt as to which set of information he used - his own. He was an extraordinary man, climbing his hills in busy batches between long stints spent caring for his housebound wife. Despite being unable to drive (an affliction later shared by Eric Maxwell), Docharty completed the Munros with the Glen Nevis Aonach Beag on 31 May 1948, added the Tops a few minutes later on Stob Coire Bhealaich and went on to finish the Corbetts on Meall an Fhudair on 20 May 1960. He was well on with the 2,000ft - 2,499ft category (which we know as Grahams but which really ought to be called Docharties) when he died, aged 72, on 14 July 1968.

He had wrapped up the Furth Munros in 1949 and duly wrote about them in the first of three books, A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, privately published in 1954. This is a great piece of work and, along with its sequels (the two 1962 Supplements), it's well worth trying to seek out - although library copies are rare and a set will change hands at auction for upwards of 600. Docharty wove together narrative description, panoramic photographs and immensely detailed hill listings, and in many ways was years ahead of his time.

As to the trio of 1956 completions, these are a mixed bag. John Dow undoubtedly used Docharty's data, as the two were often on the hill together - for instance Dow drove Docharty to Meall an Fhudair in 1960. Indeed Docharty was with Dow when he finished his Furth tops with a sweep through Ireland between 25 September and 1 October 1956. (Both Docharty's and Dow's hill diaries are archived in the National Library of Scotland.)

Paddy Heron ought to have had a head start over most other Furth-seekers in that he was Irish, only having moved from Belfast to Onich in the late 1940s when he turned to the hills after a successful career as a racing cyclist. But he appears not to have climbed most of the Irish Munros (or Munroes, as some call them) until a three-day Whit weekend in 1956, in the company of Hamish Hamilton and others. His friend Miles Hutchinson (now the earliest surviving Munroist) had been with Heron on an earlier Irish foray - he loaned me photographs of the two of them at the Gap of Dunloe 24 October 1954.

It's fair to assume that Heron and Hamilton (who, in 1939, had featured as one of the main players in Alastair Borthwick's Always a Little Further) completed their Furth hills together, and another double finish came when Jimmy Anderson and Eric Maxwell of the Grampian Club completed on Ill Crag on 14 July 1958 at the end of a hectic 18-day sweep through Ireland (where Anderson, interestingly, was "disinfected for foot and mouth disease"), Wales and the Lakes. This involved "1,850 miles by car, 82 miles on foot, and over 35,000 feet of climbing", according to Maxwell's four-page account in the 1959 Grampian Club Bulletin, "Furth of Scotland". It's worth noting that Maxwell was in his late sixties at the time, and that eight years later he would become the second person, after the 25-year-old Philip Tranter, to complete a second round of mainstream Scottish Munros.

Eric Maxwell is significant in all this not only because he wrote extensively about Munro-related matters in more than a decade's worth of Grampian Club Bulletins (very handy for 21st-century researchers), but also because he encouraged his son David to produce the first formal listing of Furth Munros. This took the form of an eight-page A5 leaflet entitled Tables giving all the 3000ft Mountains of England, Wales and Ireland, privately published in 1959. During the 1960s, Maxwell's Tables were well enough known for the term to be used with little explanation, and it's likely that this small publication was the main source used by Furth-baggers from 1959 onwards. Certainly it bears reasonable resemblance to the Furth list published on page 92 of the current edition of Munro's Tables (which really ought to include some form of acknowledgement). David Maxwell listed seven English summits - including Helvellyn Lower Man - along with 14 in Wales and 11 in Ireland (where the poorly mapped Reeks bumps have always been vulnerable to exclusion and name-shuffling).

A couple of final thoughts. One is that Eric Maxwell started his 1959 article thus, "Very many years ago I entered at the back of my copy of the General Guide a list of the 3,000 foot mountains in Ireland, Wales and England, copied from an article I had come across in an old Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal." I haven't yet seen this but next time I'm within range of a set of SMC Journals I'll attempt to track it down - if the date is early enough it could have influenced Parker's choice of hills.

The second thought is this - it's quite possible that Parker wasn't the first "Further". For a start, there could well be missing Munroists from the early days (the 22-year gap between Robertson and Burn is suspiciously large, and various names - eg Edred Corner - come into contention as possible early absentees from the published list). Also, it isn't a requisite to have climbed all the Scottish Munros in order to have climbed all the Furth. The Furth list is far easier to complete, and it's by no means impossible that some pre-Parker man or woman made it round them all without adding the Scottish set. Various early-20th-century people are known to have died close to Munro completion - most famously Hugh Munro himself of course - and it's perfectly possibly that someone went round the Furths at an early stage.

All of which is a circuitous (but hopefully interesting) way of saying that I don't really know the answer to Alun-Peter Fisher's question...

Dave Hewitt
12/9/2002
 
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