Jonny Muir: Why hill running in Scotland is the ultimate high
Jonny Muir is a writer, runner and teacher. He lives in Edinburgh. The Mountains are Calling is his fourth book. He reveals why he has been inspired to be a runner and why he believes that hill running in Scotland is the ultimate high.
Inspired to run
Jonny was nine when the silhouette of a lone runner in the glow of sunset on the Malvern Hills caught his eye. A fascination for running in high places was born – a fascination that would direct him to Scotland.
Running and racing, from the Borders to the Highlands, and the Hebrides to the hills of Edinburgh, Jonny became the mountainside silhouette that first inspired him.
His exploits inevitably led to Scotland’s supreme test of hill running: Ramsay’s Round, a daunting 60-mile circuit of 24 mountains in 24 hours. The challenge includes running an equivalent height of Mount Everest and finishing on Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.
While Ramsay’s Round demands extraordinary endurance, the challenge is underpinned by simplicity and tradition, in a sport largely untainted by commercialism.
The Mountains are Calling is the story of that sport in Scotland, charting its evolution over half a century, heralding its characters and the culture that has grown around them, and ultimately capturing the irresistible appeal of running in high places. The book is published this month by Sandstone Press.
Scottish hill running: A brief history and highlights
It’s claimed that the world’s first hill race was held in 1064 on Creag Choinnich, a heathery peak overlooking Braemar, on Royal Deeside, under the orders of King Malcolm III who sought messengers to operate a post system across the Highlands. The winner, Dennisbell McGregor of Ballochbuie, apparently finished without his kilt after it was grabbed by his chasing brother.
Throughout its history, a key theme of hill racing – and it is still true today – is that the sport is both low-key and non-commercialised. The vast majority of hill races are organised by local running clubs and entry fees are kept to less than £10.
A great example is the David Shepherd Memorial Glamaig Hill Race, which charges an entry fee of £4 for a 4.5-mile race that starts and ends at the Sligachan Hotel on the Isle of Skye, where soup is served to finishers ahead of an evening ceilidh.
Scottish Hill Runners, the organisation that supports the sport in Scotland, oversees a calendar of varied races. They range from the 27-mile Lairig Ghru race from Braemar to Aviemore, to the Bishop Downhill, a race that starts from the summit of White Craigs above Kinnesswood in Fife, before descending for just 1,140 metres. Iain Gilmore holds the record, having completed the course in four minutes and 18 seconds.
Hill running is a traditional sport of the many Highland Games that take place across Scotland and throughout the summer.
One of the more unusual races is the Isle of Skye Games in Portree, with a route that symbolises the eccentricity of the sport: “Over a low wall with an eight foot drop into a cemetery, through a graveyard, over a barbed wire fence, down a grassy bank (avoiding the nets drying), over a gate and on to the beach, then across seaweed, mud, stones, a couple of paddles through burn outlets, then back up to the road beside the petrol station…”
Why hill run?
Hill runners are often derided as mad for making the sport of running even harder. But runners go to the hills for many reasons: To escape the trappings of modern life; to find a challenge that demands self-sufficiency and navigation; to find pleasure in extraordinary landscapes.
Ultimately, the experience of running is heightened when it is done in high places.
Unlike England, where fell running is largely confined to northern areas, hill running and racing is practised across Scotland, from the Hebrides and the Highlands, to the central belt cities and the peaks of the Borders, making it the country’s national minority sport.
The sport is known as hill running in Scotland, as opposed to “fell running”, a term that originates from the Lake District. Nonetheless, one of Scotland’s most iconic races, the 16-mile race across the Paps of Jura, is known as a “fell” event. Explaining the reasoning, George Broderick, the race’s founder, said: “I chose fell race as in Scotland a hill race meant running up and down one hill. This was not the case in Jura.”
Hill running is a sport for all ages. Although there is a crop of young, emerging runners, in many races competitors aged over 40 outnumber those under, while older runners continue to compete successfully in their 50s and 60s.
Bill Gauld notably won the Seven Hills of Edinburgh Race as a 59-year-old and continues to run in his eighties.
Big names and races
The Ben Nevis Race is one of the most challenging hill races. The first timed ascent up Ben Nevis took place in 1895, by William Swan, a hairdresser from Fort William. The first competitive race was held in 1898.
Scottish runner Finlay Wild has won the Ben Nevis Race for eight consecutive years. Finlay, who lives close to the start of the pony track in Fort William, first won the race in 2010.
His fastest time – one hour and 28 minutes, set in 2016 – is still three minutes slower than a course record that is deemed untouchable due to the historical restructuring of the race route.
Charlie has first tested himself on an 18-Munro loop, known as the Tranter’s Round in Lochaber. For Ramsay’s Round he extended Tranter’s route east to take in a further five Munros.
His aim was to complete he route in less than 24 hours. On July 9, 1978, he did the 60-mile round, with around 8,500 metres of climbing, in 23 hours and 58 minutes.
Glyn Jones was the first to complete Ramsay’s Round in classic winter conditions in 2002. Travelling anti-clockwise, Glyn’s round took almost 55 hours, with some two hours of that time spent trapped on the frozen face of Chno Dearg. Even today, only three runners have breached 24 hours for the round in winter.
Jasmin Paris holds the outright record for Ramsay’s Round, having clocked 16 hours and 22 minutes in 2016. In the same year, the Edinburgh-based vet also achieved fastest women’s times for the Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley rounds, gaining the fastest cumulative time for the three rounds in the process.
Trossachs-based Angela Mudge became a world champion hill runner in 2000. Starting cautiously in the uphill-only World Mountain Running Championship race in Bavaria, Angela overtook everyone, including the German favourite, to become one of only two Scottish female world champions.
The Glen Coe Skyline, a 32-mile race that includes the Devil’s Staircase, Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mòr, the Munros of Stob Coire Sgreamhach and Bidean nam Bian, and the infamous Aonach Eagach ridge, has become established as Scotland’s premier hill race, attracting entrants from across the world, notably Kilian Jornet and Emilie Forsberg.
This year’s race, part of Skyline Scotland on September 16, will host the Skyrunning World Championships.