Scotland is a country whose character owes much to its mountains and upland areas. By world standards, Scotland's mountains may not seem especially impressive. We have just nine mountains over 4,000ft (1,220m) in height; and a few hundred over 3,000ft (915m). This compares poorly with the Alps, which has over nine times as many mountains over 4,000m as Scotland has over 4,000ft. On the other hand, Scotland's exposure to highly changeable and unpredictable weather patterns influenced by the meeting of Atlantic and European airstreams gives our mountains a seriousness out of proportion to their height.
Scotland's mountains have been seen in many different ways over the years. For many centuries, those not actually living in the Highlands tended to view both the landscape and the inhabitants with fear. Daniel Defoe summarised this viewpoint well in his 1719 book A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain:
"From this river or water of Abre, all that mountainous barren and frightful country, which lies south of the water of Abre is called Loquabre, or the country bordering on Loch Abre. It is indeed a frightful country full of hidious desart mountains and unpassable, except to the Highlanders who possess the precipices. Here in spight of the most vigorous pursuit, the Highland robbers, such as the famous Rob Roy in the late disturbances, find such retreats as none can pretend to follow them into, nor could he be ever taken."
There had been a remarkable change in perceptions by the Victorian era, when the English author, poet and artist, John Ruskin, wrote that: "mountains are the beginning and end of all natural beauty". But perhaps the ultimate compliment to Scotland's mountains was made by the Englishman who did more than anyone else in the 20th Century to popularise hillwalking and, in particular, hillwalking in the English Lake District. In the foreword of "Wainwright in Scotland" the author wrote: "In the past 20 years... I completed an ambition by making a comprehensive survey of all the higher mountains of the mainland and offshore islands... All my holidays have been spent north of the Border; I have never had a vacation anywhere else, nor wanted to." Thank you, Alfred Wainwright: there area lot of Scots who feel exactly the same way.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 40,000 Scots are regular hillwalkers, and perhaps twice as many more visitors come to Scotland especially to climb Scottish hills and mountains. That's an awful lot of feet, and if you climb a popular mountain like Ben Nevis on an August weekend, you can end up feeling like you've met the owners of each and every pair of them. On the other hand, Scotland does have a lot of other hills and mountains, so there are plenty to go round: and it remains possible to spend all day in perfect Summer weather on Scotland's mountains without seeing another soul, unless you count red deer and mountain hares.
This is probably as good a moment as any for the obligatory warning not to underestimate Scotland's mountains. They may not be especially high by international standards, but they can be remote and lonely, they can involve travel over trackless and difficult terrain, and even the easiest and most popular are subject to the extraordinary changeability of Scotland's weather. People can, and do, die on Scottish mountains. And far too often it is because they have failed to equip themselves with good boots and warm, weatherproof clothing; or because they have failed to bring a map and compass; or because they can't use the map or compass they are carrying.
If you want a perfect illustration of the problem, take a look at the clothing and footwear worn by the stream of people heading up the Ben Nevis path from Glen Nevis on any bright, warm, Spring morning. Then consider how well equipped they are for the thick cloud (and minimal visibility) that envelops the summit 5 days out of 6, and for the snow that will still be lying on the upper reaches of the mountain, often well into June, and often concealing the edge of a 2,000ft drop close to the main path.
But if tackled thoughtfully and responsibly, Scotland's upland areas and mountains offer just about every sort of walking anyone could ever possibly want. Starting in the south, the Southern Uplands offer a number of ranges of rounded hills divided by broad valleys, though they can also seem remarkably remote and, perhaps surprisingly, are home to Scotland's highest village, Wanlockhead, at 467m or 1,531ft. Even in the so-called Central Lowlands, you are never out of sight of hills, with the Pentland Hills, the Ochils and the Campsie Fells providing excellent hillwalking very close to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
But it is the Highlands that provides Scotland's real mountain magic. Occupying perhaps 60% of the country, virtually all of the area, bar a strip running down the east coast, is at least hilly, and more often mountainous. Starting in the east, the Cairngorms form large areas of high level plateau, cut by a series of valleys. But as you head further west, the mountains become more peaky. This trend culminates with the Black Cuillin of Skye, a jagged ridge that would not be out of place as a backdrop in "Lord of the Rings".
To the north are the magnificent mountains of Applecross and Torridon, while still further north the mountains start to become more individual in style, standing further apart amid areas of rocky, boggy, wilderness. For many who love Scotland's mountains and wild places, the far north west takes a lot of beating: coming as it does complete with a large selection of magnificent beaches, often in close proximity to the mountains.
Many of those walking and climbing Scotland's mountains are driven not just by the sheer joy of being there, but also by a collector's desire. Scotland has 282 individual mountains over 3,000ft defined as "Munros", and "bagging" them is a passion shared by many. In late 2007, the Scottish Mountaineering Club listed nearly 4,000 "compleatists" who had "compleated" a full round of all the Munros. Lists turn out to be every bit as fascinating for hillwalkers as they are for train spotters, and there are numerous other lists of mountains that meet assorted criteria likely to be of interest to one group of walkers or another. These include the Corbetts, individual mountains between 2,500ft and 3,000ft; the Grahams and the Donalds, both lists of mountains between 2,000ft and 2,500ft; plus Murdos, Marilyns, and more.
Given that many hills and mountains can be reached by a number of different routes, and that changing weather means that any two ascents are seldom alike, the pursuit of Scotland's hills and mountains is guaranteed never to leave you bored.