UKH

Interview: Good things in small packages - Anne Butler on Bagging the Grahams

© Al Todd

Scotland's Grahams don't so much get a bad press, as hardly any press at all. The list of 219 hills over 2000ft (609.6m) and under 2500ft (762m) is far less known than the Munros or Corbetts. While Munroists are everywhere these days, and even Corbett completions seem increasingly commonplace, the prevailing assumption among hill baggers seems to be that Grahams are something to get around to - if at all - only when the bigger rounds have been put to bed. Most never get that far down the priority list. But are Graham-sceptics missing out? 

Dawn light on Suilven - one of the greatest Scottish hills of any height  © Al Todd
Dawn light on Suilven - one of the greatest Scottish hills of any height
© Al Todd

Lesser hills than Scotland's 282 3000ft+ Munros, or the 222 2500-2999ft Corbetts, many of the summits on the Graham list get a fraction of the footfall. With peaks the stature of Suilven and The Storr among them, there's every reason to take particular Scottish 2000-ers seriously. But what about collectively: are the Grahams a worthwhile goal for those whose hillwalking is motivated by a list? Is there as much fun to be had below 2500 feet? And how about the challenge - is Graham bagging an undertaking to equal the busier lists?

The Grahams are under-rated, virtually deserted and a big test of physical and mental fortitude

In order to find out, I needed to talk with someone who'd done it all. With multiple Scottish hill rounds under her belt, and more in progress, keen hill bagger and Vice President of the Munro Society, Anne Butler, was the obvious candidate. 

Grahams are an undeservedly ignored group of hills compared to the more famous alternatives, thinks Anne, as enjoyable and at least as difficult as the Corbetts, but with the added prospect of being far quieter.

"Even with the massive increase in the popularity of hillwalking, Corbetts and even more so Grahams are still less well known and many of them still feel untamed" thinks Anne.

"On many of the Munros you will be crushed in the stampede to get to the summit for a selfie, but on a Graham a long leisurely lunch at the cairn is always possible.

"They feel wilder and present a rugged challenge to anybody who is prepared to put in the time to get to know them. Apart from a few obvious exceptions like Suliven, Stac Polly, Ben Venue and the Pap of Glencoe, most are pathless and relatively unfrequented and will reward those willing to put a little bit more effort into their bagging."

En route to Ben Armine, and a long way from anywhere  © Anne Butler
En route to Ben Armine, and a long way from anywhere
© Anne Butler

Anne climbed her first Scottish 3000-er in 1998. "It took seven years to complete my [first] Munro round which was challenging as we lived in Devon at the time" she says.

Once she'd got the Scottish hill bug there was no stopping her. After a move north, more Munro and Corbett rounds followed, but initially at least the smaller and more obscure Grahams didn't get so much as a look-in. 

"Years ago, my walking companion Robin Wallace and I had started to use the tongue-in-cheek derogatory term DGs, or Dull Grahams" says Anne. "Like the majority of my hill walking friends, I still had my Munro blinkers firmly on and was not ready to be converted to the joys of spending hours trudging over bogs and ploughing through thigh deep heather just to reach the summit of a mere DG."

Perhaps by virtuue of their scale, the majority of hillwalkers start on the Munros since this is by far the best-known list.

"Most Munro baggers consider the Corbetts and Grahams as an afterthought" she suggests "something to be tagged on after the important business of completing a Munro round has been achieved."

Rock formations on the summit plateau of Beinn a Chearcaill  © Mike Hutton
Rock formations on the summit plateau of Beinn a Chearcaill
© Mike Hutton, Jun 2021

Having already completed five Munro rounds, and a full set of Corbetts, Anne felt the appeal of the 3000ers starting to wane. She needed a new challenge.

"For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of hillwalking is the planning involved with each walk and climbing the same hills again and again didn't exactly involve a lot of planning, just a lot of determination" she says.

"When Molly (my previous dog) was recovering from a shoulder injury, the local Grahams were ideal for regaining our fitness and hillwalking mojo after months away from the hills. I realised I had begun to make a considerable dent in the list and as my natural personality type is a 'completer/finisher' the idea of climbing the remaining hills started to develop. In addition to this, another of my friends, David Batty, was reaching the closing stages of his own Graham round and was constantly trying to tempt me over to the 'dark side', so the seeds were sown."

Molly and crepuscular rays on Beinn Ghobhlach  © Anne Butler
Molly and crepuscular rays on Beinn Ghobhlach
© Anne Butler

"My early online searches revealed a distinct lack of interest; there were a plethora of route descriptions for every Munro and a growing interest in Corbett bagging. However, the Grahams remained overlooked, they seemed a poorly loved relation that very few would actually admit to climbing."

But, she found, setting her sights at these lower and less well-known summits actually ended up rejuvenating her enthusiasm for the hills.

""When I began climbing the Grahams, I felt invigorated" says Anne. "I approached them with a different mindset to the Munros and this resulted in a far greater sense of achievement once I had completed them."

"I savoured them and took time to study their character and enjoy the solitude, they weren't rushed and completing the list felt like time to press the reset button and start again rather than the end of something."

The best views are not always from the biggest hills and height is no guarantee of quality!

Anne completed an SMC Full House - the Munros, Munro Tops, Corbetts, Grahams, Donalds, and Furths in 2018, and is now working towards a sixth Munro round and second Graham round as part of a second Full House, something she's hoping to finish in 2023. And earlier this year her dog Ralph became the first canine known to have walked a Graham round, something we explored in a recent article:

Grahams may make up the lower elevation of Scotland's three main rounds but, she says, anybody who views them as lesser or softer hills clearly hasn't climbed many.

"I found the Graham round much harder than the Munros" she confides, "and the second round is proving far harder than the first, maybe because I am older and my knees are well and truly wrecked."

"Many walks are long and remote, and over pathless, demanding terrain. The lack of paths means that you will find yourself walking on heavily vegetated ground for the majority of the walk as you never seem to be high enough to get out of the deep undergrowth."

Anne's husband Bill loosing the will to live on Meall nan Damh  © Anne Butler
Anne's husband Bill loosing the will to live on Meall nan Damh
© Anne Butler

"The Grahams are under-rated, virtually deserted and a big test of physical and mental fortitude; for me this all part of their appeal. At the onset of a Graham round, I was faced with the prospect of climbing lots of new hills and visiting areas that I hadn't explored during my Munro or Corbett rounds, plus of course, all those delightful hours of logistics and planning."

By their nature Grahams tend to be comparatively little-trodden, which means both fewer paths and less company than generally the norm on bigger hills.

"I have only met people on a handful of Grahams" says Anne, "so they are ideal for the anti-social hill walker. Of course, there are popular Grahams, with Stac Pollaidh and Suilven being standout hills, irrespective of their classification. We climbed Suilven on a stunning spring day and it lived up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular mountains in the country, I am just not sure why it took me 18 years to climb it."

"I have noticed that these lonely hills have more than their fair share of wildlife too, both the good and bad variety. I have seen foxes, pine martens and more types of frustratingly unidentifiable birds on Grahams than any other group of hills. Unfortunately, the lack of foot traffic also means that ticks, keds and clegs are hungry for a meal."

Anne's Top 10 Grahams

"A top 10 is a very personal and subjective list" says Anne, "but each ascent was unique, some memorable and some overwhelmingly awful. All these hills stick in my memory for the 'right' reasons; memorable days with my dogs Molly and Ralph and lively days with friends and of course the spectacular views, these are definitely hills to save for a decent day."

Beinn Ghobhlach

Ben Mor Coigach

Beinn a' Chearcaill

Morven

Beinn Mhor

Ben Stack

Marsco

An Stac

Carnan Cruithneachd

Suilven

While the summit heights may not look much on the map, the terrain on the lower hills can be surprisingly tortuous.

"In my experience, the Corbetts and Grahams are an equal challenge as both lists are of similar lengths" says Anne, "the majority of both are pathless and they offer a similar physical and logistical difficulty. Having learnt the hard way, I would advise people to climb both lists simultaneously as this will reduce the time spent travelling and maximise time spent on the hill, and allow for some totally unique route planning."

Looking west from An Stac  © Anne Butler
Looking west from An Stac
© Anne Butler

And as with the Corbetts, only even more so, the summits on the Graham list are widely dispersed across Scotland. Geography dictates that there'll be lots of travel and logistical fiddling. But the travel is also part of the appeal, thinks Anne.

"My Graham round involved a lot more travel than previous rounds. It entailed trips to the Borders, Galloway, Sutherland, Caithness, Ardgour and Moidart, plus islands Rum, Harris, Arran, South Uist and Jura which quite frankly, are never a hardship. There are gems such as Beinn a' Chearcaill, Morvern, Ben More Coigach and Marsco and at the other end of the scale, the much maligned summits of Cnap Chaochan Aitinn and Hill of Wirren. Don't write these hills off - on a blue sky winters day, walking across their vast featureless slopes below never ending skies is an enlightening experience."

Completing the Grahams filled in some of the gaps in her geographical knowledge, visiting areas she'd never been to before and looking at previously visited hills from different angles.

"I am embarrassed to admit that I had never been to the Ochils until doing the Grahams" says Anne. "And when we lived in Helensburgh, I had driven past the Luss hills countless times without giving them a second glance. Visits to Caithness and the accompanying views to Orkney from the summits of Morven and Scaraben will live long in my memory and I will always associate their isolated summits with an overriding sense of space and freedom.

"My previous trip to the Outer Hebrides had resembled a ram raid, all that way just to climb Clisham" she says, but longer visits to climb the Grahams on South Uist and Harris allowed her to explore many of the places she'd simply driven past before.

"I am sure that if I hadn't decided to complete the Grahams these areas would remain unvisited to this day" says Anne, "I now view Scotland as a giant jigsaw and climbing the Grahams, Donalds and Corbetts in addition to the Munros has allowed me to piece most of it together."

Sound of Raasay from The Storr, 'only' a Graham  © Dan Bailey
Sound of Raasay from The Storr, 'only' a Graham
© Dan Bailey

With a lot of Grahams between them, Skye and Mull are among the other islands that reward unhurried exploration, thinks Anne.

"Other stand out areas are along the shores of Loch Maree and the hills along the A838 in Sutherland. Coigach and the lonely lands of the far north contain some of the most unique hills in the whole of the UK. The best views are not always from the biggest hills and height is no guarantee of quality!"

Unlike the 3000-ers, and to a lesser extent even the Corbetts, the Grahams are rarely grouped into convenient clusters that allow several to be picked off in one go. The requirement of 150m prominence for each summit on the list makes life more difficult.

"I have found that the relative height on the Grahams, in addition to the rough terrain, make them a more physically challenging proposition than the Munros" she says.

"The summits stand out as individual and distinct hills and there are very few instances where three or four can be combined in long traverses as is the case with Munros."

Far from the beaten path on the Graham Meith Bheinn  © Anne Butler
Far from the beaten path on the Graham Meith Bheinn
© Anne Butler

For the non-superhuman walker, logical Graham routes seem to result for the most part in one or two summits per day, says Anne. Of course there are a few exceptions:

"It is possible to link routes together if you don't mind miles of endless heather bashing between the summits. Galloway and the Borders lend themselves to long multi-peak rounds and there are many obvious route options when exploring maps of the area. The Luss hills offer a compact group of eight Grahams which can be split into three logical rounds or a longer running or backpacking experience. Some Graham walks are short and it is possible to drive between the start points to climb multiple peaks in a day.

"I enjoy picking the summits off slowly. Over time I have developed my own hillwalking MO and break a list into small manageable sections; a list of 219 peaks can seem daunting at first but setting small regional targets makes the list feel more achievable."

"I have to say that most of the Grahams were actually pretty good! That's it I have said it out loud. In fact, not just good, they gave me some of my most memorable and taxing days on the hill.

"So, if you are planning on completing the Grahams you will grow to love the luxury of a path when you find one, you will delight in the novelty of meeting another person on the hill and walking through bogs and thigh deep heather will become commonplace… and whatever you do, don't leave all the hard ones until the end."



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17 Oct

The whole division of hills into height groupings is a bit daft really, there's really not much difference in character between lower Munros, the Corbetts and higher Grahams. It's only 300m between the floor of Graham height and the floor of Munro height - that's only a 30 minute walk. It is handy though - there's a lot of really nice hills that get almost ignored because they aren't on most peoples' lists. I do like a quiet hill.

24 Oct

Yeah. By the time you get to the summit of a graham, there's usually fuel left to go higher. The difference can be immaterial.

Of course low grahams are prefect in their own way, for a quick overnight summer camp or for a young dog new to the hills or an old dog with limited ability.

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