Hugh Thomas Munro was born in London, in
1856. He was the eldest of nine children, and the son of Sir Campbell
Munro of Lindertis. The family was Scottish but divided their time
between London and the family estate near Kirriemuir, about 20km north
of Dundee, in the county of Forfarshire. The London connections led him
to a business training in London.
Munro was an original member
of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, which was founded in Glasgow, in
1889. As a boy he was an avid collector; shells, fossils, eggs and so
on. It was while on a trip to Stuttgart aged 17, to learn German, that
he became attracted to the mountains. The two attractions; collecting
and mountains, would later be productively fused.
He lived in London in his
parents' house in Eaton Place until a bad attack of pleurisy led to a
recommended change of climate. He went to Natal, in South Africa, in
1880, as Private Secretary to Sir George Colley, the Governor of Natal.
On the outbreak of the Basuto War he volunteered, joining an irregular
cavalry outfit, Landrey's Horse. With them he stayed throughout the
campaign, carrying dispatches through enemy territory.
One of his sisters, writing after his death,
describe matter of factly the souvenirs and curios he brought back with
him to London from South Africa. These included Basuto and Zulu curios,
antelope heads, a black boy, and a monkey. There is no indication
anywhere as to the eventual history of the native boy.
After his return from Natal, he entered
politics for a while, standing once as the Conservative for Kirkcaldy
Burghs, in 1885. He worked hard at organising the local political life
in Forfarshire and also served on the County Council. His business
training, it has been speculated, not to mention his energetic political
work in various committees etc, gave him an organised approach to
whatever he took on, an approach which paid off in 1891 when the sixth
number of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal published his now
famous "Tables of Heights over 3000 Feet." This was in September 1891,
in Volume 1.
Munro, in a note to his Tables, candidly confessed
that "when first this work was commenced, I had little idea of the
enormous amount of labour and research which it would entail." Munro was
not a particularly athletic type; small and neat, rather than muscular,
with very small feet. He was a keen and expert dancer, which came into
good use during the London social seasons.
Munro was 33 years old when he began his
monumental task for the SMC, in December 1889. At that time he had
personally visited only 42 tops. Fellow climbers were invaluable sources
of knowledge, as of course were the O.S. one-inch and six-inch maps. He
finished the list in the summer of 1891, with a total of 283 separate
While the original list contained anomalies
which would later be corrected, it should also be recognised that given
the conditions under which Munro worked it was a remarkably accurate
list. Since 1889 there have been only four major revisions; in 1921,
1953, 1981, and 1997. The first major revision in 1921 and some two
years after his death, was essentially Munro's own work, as he was
unhappy with his original classification.
One peculiarity of the 1889 list, for
example, was the fact that on Skye, Munro had Sgurr Dearg as the
mountain, and its adjacent and very obviously higher pinnacle (later to
be named "The Inaccessible Pinnacle") as its top. This was almost
certainly because the latter was not named by the Ordnance Survey. It
only gained its name some time after the first ascent by the English
climber Pilkington (who also did not provide a name).
married in 1892, to Selina Byrne, the daughter of a General. She was a
Roman Catholic, which caused Munro to have a falling out with the local
kirk. This led to Munro creating a private graveyard close by his home,
in which his mother and wife, who both predeceased him, were buried. His
wife died in 1902, by which time they had two daughters and a son. The
latter, Sir Torquil Munro, now lives in the States and was two years of
age when his father died. Munro, who was a King's Messenger, on
occasions ferried valuable documents to various diplomats across the
world. This allowed cheap travel, which Munro and his wife both enjoyed
during their short time together.
Ironically enough, Munro was fated not to
climb all the Munros on his list. Having said that, from a strict point
of view he had only one mountain left to do, the easy Carn
Cloich-mhuilinn. He had in fact attempted the Inaccessible Pinnacle
several times, as he was almost certainly intending to climb not only
all the Munros but as a main target all the tops. Of the 538 tops he
listed, he climbed 535.
He became arthritic at a relatively early
age; in 1893, when 37, he had to turn back from a walk due to this
painful affliction. He had probably all but stopped going up hills by
1915. After all that work on the List, Munro was three tops short of
compleation; Carn Cloich-mhuilinn, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and Carn
an Fhidleir. The last he had failed on during a night attempt in poor
conditions. Carn Cloich-mhuilinn is no longer a Munro, having been
demoted in a later revision.
Then came the first of two World Wars.
Anything which did not contribute to the war effort withered and died.
Munro worked in Malta during the winter of 1915-16, tracing the missing.
He was of course past military age. While there he caught some type of
malarial fever and returned home for a while.
In the spring of
1918 he went out to Tarascon with his two daughters and working with the
French Red Cross set up his own canteen, serving troops returning from
the war. In March 1919, he caught a chill which developed into
pneumonia. In the pre-antibiotic days this was often fatal and after a
week he died, in his small hotel room, on March 19th, at the age of 63.
There was a funeral service in Tarascon, where the French paid homage to
his charitable work but Munro's body was brought home and laid to rest
in the small private burial ground in which Munro's mother and wife
already lay. This was on the 2nd April, 1919, a short distance from the
family home near Kirriemuir.