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WILLIAM McKNIGHT DOCHARTY

Updated: Apr 17


Willie Docharty was badly injured at the second battle of Le Cateau near the end of World War One (he was awarded the Military Cross) and after the war worked for P&O in Egypt. On the way back to Britain in 1929 he stopped off in Switzerland and went up the Jungfraujoch railway. He was blown away by the high mountain scene but felt he had cheated by using the train to get there, so decided that once his leg had healed he would climb the Jungfrau properly. It took four years but he did do just that, and eventually climbed many other Alpine peaks too, including the Matterhorn, the Meije and the Ortler.


The Jungfrau, Jungfraujoch
The Jungfrau, with the Jungfraujoch just poking through the cloud

As a way of getting fit for mountaineering he started to climb his nearest big hills (he lived in Renfrewshire, at Giffnock), encouraged by a friend, John Thomson. Previous to this his only hill had been a trip up Ben Lomond (like many modern Glaswegians) but he soon got hooked. He finished the Munros in 1948, the 13th person to do so. His completion hill was Aonach Beag on 31st May, after a previous attempt had been beaten back by strong winds. Thomson opted not to come with him, still recovering from the battering they had received climbing the Ben via Carn Mor Dearg Arete the day before. Docharty was obviously a tough character and not so easily deterred!


Aonach Beag
Aonach Beag, Ben Nevis behind to the right

Like many today Docharty was then faced with the choice of either doing a second round or concentrating on lower hills. He chose the latter and, being a meticulous character, made a list of objectives. The only lists of lower hills at the time were Percy Donald's list of 2000 foot hills in the Scottish Lowlands (published in the SMC Journal in 1935) and a few lists of English and Welsh 2000 footers: John Rooke Corbett (England & Wales, Rucksack Club Journal 1911, with updates); WT Elmslie (England only, Fell & Rock Club Journal 1933); FHF Simpson (Lake District only, Wayfarers Journal 1937) and Ted Moss (E&W except Lake District, Rucksack Club Journal, initial article 1939). Docharty's list had 933 summits and covered the whole of Britain and Ireland, so was much more comprehensive than anything previously attempted. As an aside (and an antidote to the nitpicking ethic common around hill bagging) I love it that for Corbett's original list you were allowed to count the 2499 foot Gallt yr Ogof as long as you jumped at least a foot into the air on the top 🙂.


Gallt yr Ogof, Snowdonia
Gallt yr Ogof is the foreground hill

Docharty's list was originally just for his own use, but in 1952 the SMC published Corbett's list of Scottish 2500 foot hills with five 100-foot contour rings (originally compiled in the 1920's). This too had been a private list but after Corbett's death in 1949 his sister handed it to the SMC. Docharty tried to get the SMC to publish his list too but they were somewhat less than keen. He was told that "The last thing we need is more lists" – little did they know what was coming 😁. Friends suggested that people might still be interested in his list so Docharty went off and self published, through Darien Press in Edinburgh (a co-op who also printed the SMCJ). 500 numbered copies were printed in December 1954. Some were sent to appropriate places (including the SMC – neh neh na neh neh 😁) but others were just handed out more or less randomly. A friend's copy came from a neighbour meeting Docharty on the hill – he had shown interest and Docharty send him the book.


Sgurr Mhic Coinnich and Sgurr Alasdair, Black Cuillin, Skye
Part of one of Docharty's Cuillin panoramas. Scan by Jonathan Russell

Docharty's original list covered hills over 2500 feet, plus a few lower hills, most of them over 2000 feet, but he soon discovered that there were a lot of smaller hills that were 'mountainy-feeling' and worth including, particularly in the West Highlands and Islands, and in Ireland. To cater for this he published two supplements in December 1962, again through Darien Press. The first of these extended the list down to 2000 feet, again with a few lower hills included, making a total of 1953 summits, while the second contained labelled photographic panoramas and an account of many of his hill days, both in Scotland and the Alps. The three books together sell for around £500 these days.


Corran Tuathail (Carrauntoohil), Macgillicuddy's Reeks
Another Docharty panorama, of Corran Tuathail. Scan by Jonathan Russell

The limited distribution is one reason why Docharty's lists aren't well known, but another is the quirkiness of the list itself, which makes it hard to use for bagging. As well as new entries the 1962 list contains corrections for the earlier list where a visit had shown the maps to be inaccurate or misleading, so you have to check both books. Hills in the same category are spread across different books, depending on whether he had noticed them from the maps first time round. Subsidiary tops between 2000 and 2500 feet are subdivided depending on whether their 'parent' is above 2500 feet or not, while subsidiaries of Munros are ignored altogether. They are organised by parish rather than by mountain block, so neighbouring hills are often in separate sections and it can be hard to navigate your way around them. The Irish list has only four figure grid references, although it's actually much more similar to modern lists than the Scottish section because Docharty had access to an early version of Joss Lynam's research.

Despite these foibles the lists are a tremendous achievement, especially when you consider the poor quality of the maps of the time. He had an interest in place names and would often pump the locals for information on them so the names in his list are often more logical and better informed than modern ones (or frequently the OS). An example would be the 779m top in the Monadhliath called Carn nam Meirleach in the Database of British and Irish Hills. The real Carn nam Meirleach is a distinctive feature over a mile away and Docharty notes that the main summit is "known locally as Ben Calin Mor". Presumably Beinn Cailean Mor, Big Colin's hill.


River Findhorn, Strath Dearn, Monadhliath
Beinn Cailean Mor in the centre, with the real Carn nam Meirleach the dark summit on right

There are now two publicly available digitised versions of Docharty's list, one put together by Ronnie Bowron and available on www.haroldstreet.co.uk and the other done by Jonathan Russell (www.jonrus.com). They each used slightly different rules for interpreting Docharty's sometimes opaque decisions so quite often picked different tops. As neither of the compilers had visited most of the summits concerned I got involved in comparing and checking these (I've been to all bar 60). Three-cornered conversations produced agreement in most cases but there are still quite a few differences. Basically Jonathan's list goes with Docharty's chosen summit even when it turns out not to be the proper top of the hill, while Ronnie's goes for the real top if it's within certain criteria. Although Docharty was a good navigator he occasionally did make mistakes, so on Benlugmore in Connemara and Mullach Buidhe in Arran we had to choose between where Docharty thought he was and where he actually was 😁. There remains one oddity on Aonach Buidhe in Kintail where they both go with the lower but more prominent summit that Docharty originally chose rather than the higher sharper one that Docharty relocated his top to once he had actually visited. In reality this is probably irrelevant as the ridge between the two tops is superb and any keen hillwalker getting that far into the backlands ought to visit both of them.


Aonach Buidhe, Glen Elchaig
Aonach Buidhe over Glen Elchaig

Docharty himself never made it to all of 'his' summits, and it took until 1984 before anyone managed to complete the list. This was Grasmere tea shop owner Colin Dodgson, whose task was made harder by having to climb most of them in the winter as he couldn't get away from the shop in the tourist season. Dodgson is best known for having bathed in all 643 Lakeland tarns, along with local shoemaker Tim Tyson (another survivor of the First World War trenches). They originally finished the tarns in 1959 but enjoyed the process so much that they added a load more, eventually defining a tarn as anything that took more than one stroke to cross. Oddly Dodgson doesn't get credited as the first person to complete the SMC "Full House", probably due to confusion over Caher West Top in Kerry. This was considered the highest top in Docharty's list, as on the maps of the day, so he must have done it, as well as crossing the modern top to get there.


Caher West Top, Macgillicuddy's Reeks
Caher West Top, considered the highest top in Docharty's day

Docharty did most of his hill bagging in a series of energetic 10-12 day holidays twice a year. He didn't drive because of his leg and got about using public transport, which brings attention to how much more connected the hill areas were in the 1950's compared to now. Branch lines and overnight services that no longer exist enabled him to have successive days on the Rhinogs and the northern Cairngorms, or the Brecon Beacons and Merrick in Galloway. He did the A' Chir traverse on Arran the day after Sgurr an Lochain Uaine in Torridon, having time to pick up a spare pair of boots at his house in Giffnock on the way. He even climbed Arenig Fawr in Snowdonia, "attended an evening function" in London, then climbed Carmarthenshire's Fan Brycheiniog the next day!


A' Chir, Isle of Arran
A' Chir, with the Bad Step in the foreground

Often the trains linked with ferries . Here's a typical Docharty itinerary, all on successive days: Beinn Mhor and Hecla (South Uist); Beinn Talaidh and Dun da Gaoithe (Mull); four days on the Appin and Cruachan hills using the Ballachulish to Oban railway; the Paps of Jura (where he did have to wait out a couple of days due to a storm); three days based at Arrochar then two more in Galloway. I make that four ferries, twelve train journeys and four by MacBraynes bus. His obituary notes that he was "a careful student of rail and bus timetables" - he needed to be!


Stob Coire Claurigh, Grey Corries
Stob Coire Claurigh, Grey Corries. Docharty climbed this in the dark in a snowstorm

Like anyone who spends large amounts of time on the hill he had a few epics. He and his friend Thomson got caught by a snowstorm on the Grey Corries, eventually taking shelter under a bridge in the Lairig Leacach at 4am. On another day he ended up floundering along the north shore of Loch Morar in the dark after a day on Sgurr na h-Aide, which can't have been fun – it's bad enough in the daylight!


Loch Morar from Sgurr na h-Aide, Bidean a' Chabhair
Loch Morar from Sgurr na h-Aide. North shore on the right

On that occasion Docharty was taken in and fed by Donald MacDonald and his wife Jessie at Tarbet. Donald lived a long time and generated a lot of stories. He was still there when I was running tours around Morar in the 1990's, though I didn't know of his connection with Docharty at the time. The impressario Cameron Mackintosh had bought the estate but Donald refused to sell his tiny patch and was living there with his dog and his six sheep. Reputedly Mackintosh had agreed to supply Donald with his groceries three days a week in return for getting the land when Donald died. By then Donald looked unimaginably ancient and about to keel over, but actually lived another 20 years, so it wasn't quite as good a deal as Mackintosh had expected! Donald had been born in Tarbet (when it was a thriving community) and always refused to move, so eventually the council paid for him to have his own care assistant living in an extension to his cottage. A legend!


Tarbet, Loch Nevis
Tarbet, Loch Nevis. Donald's cottage on right, Cameron Mackintosh's new house on left

Docharty continued to be active on the hills all his life, becoming the second person to finish the Corbetts (after Corbett himself) on Meall an Fhudhair in 1960. In 1967, aged 71, he went on an Alpine Club expedition to the Yukon. He died in July 1968, just about to head off for a hill bagging trip to Tomintoul with his friend John Thomson. He was someone whose achievements deserve to be much better known that they are.


Thanks to Dave Hewitt and Noel Williams for supplying information

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johndfleetwood
3月08日

An intruiging article Iain. Thanks for sharing.

いいね!
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