Sir Hugh Thomas Munro lived from 1856 to 1919. The son of a Scottish landowning family he was an active politician who never quite became an MP. But it is for something totally different he is principally remembered. Sir Hugh was a founding member and President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and his name will ever be remembered in the Munros, the list of separate mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet.
Munro was born as the eldest of a family of nine in London in 1856. The family would spend part of each year in London, the rest at their estate at Lindertis near Kirriemuir in Angus.
As a 17 year old, Munro went to Stuttgart to learn German and fell in love with the Alps and with mountains more widely. In 1880 Munro went to South Africa for the sake of his health following an attack of pleurisy, and became Private Secretary to Sir George Colley, Governor of Natal. He served with an irregular cavalry force during the Basuto war.
After the death of Sir George Colley, Munro returned to Lindertis, and took on the role of managing the family estates, first on behalf of his uncle, Sir Thomas Munro, then on behalf of his father, Sir Campbell Munro. Meanwhile he was taking an active interest in politics in what was then known as Forfarshire. In 1885 he stood as the Conservative and Unionist candidate for the Parliamentary seat of Kirckaldy Burghs: something of a lost cause from the start given the prevailing politics in this part of Fife at the time.
Munro loved travelling and regularly took his wife, until her death in 1902, and his daughters, on long overseas trips. This included a five month round the world trip with his eldest daughter which concluded as the war clouds gathered in April 1914. A friend in the Foreign Office also found Munro occasional employment as a King's Messenger carrying diplomatic papers to British embassies abroad, allowing him still more opportunity for travel, albeit at government expense.
Sir Hugh was 58 at the outbreak of the First World War, too old for military service. So he volunteered to help the Red Cross and in 1915 went to Malta to help them trace refugees. He was forced to return home through illness, but in 1918 we went to Tarascon in southern France with his daughters to open a Red Cross canteen for French troops. In 1919 he returned to Tarascon from Lindertis, but caught a chill that became pneumonia, and died.
A fairly full life for anyone, and all without mention of the reason why Sir Hugh Munro has become an icon for many thousands of visitors to (and residents of) Scotland. Munro brought his early love of mountains gained in the Alps back to his native Scotland. He helped found the Scottish Moutaineering Club in 1889, and in September 1891 published "Tables giving all the Scottish mountains exceeding 3,000 feet in height".
This was the result of exhaustive work with the large scale Ordnance Survey maps then available, supplemented by Munro's own extensive experience in the mountains, and Munro's Tables listed 538 tops, of which 283 were considered by him to be separate mountains and soon became known as "Munros". Munro's failure to set out clear objective criteria for deciding when a top could be counted as a separate mountain has been the cause of debate ever since. Indeed he was working on a revised set of tables at the time of his death that would have changed these numbers. And since his death the lists have been revised on a number of occasions, most recently in 1997. There are now 284 Munros and a further 227 tops over 3000 feet (or 914.4m).
The distinctions are largely for theologians, but a "Munro" is a separate mountain, and a "top" is a subsidiary high point that actually forms part of a peak. It may be that Munro cared about the distinction between these terms less than most people who have - literally - followed in his footsteps since, because he was interesting in climbing all the tops he had identified. Modern "Munro Baggers" tend to go for the Munros without worrying too much about the tops. Munro's untimely death in France meant he fell fractionally short of climbing all of his own list of peaks and tops (he managed 535 out of 538): but he came rather closer than most of us will ever manage!