Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Guest Contributor – John Kirk


I have approached a number of people to write articles, but if readers would like to contribute an article please contact me. The only two stipulations I make are that the article has to be hill related and that I don't end up in court through its publication! Otherwise the choice of subject matter is down to the Guest Contributor.

Guest Contributor – John Kirk

John Kirk has instigated some of the most progressive hill listings in recent years, including Kirk's BIG Mountain List and The Thousanders.  In more recent times he has specialised in listing Spanish mountains

Mountain Nationality –
Time to have a Beef and take a Stand!

I write this article to suggest a common sense approach to the allocating of nationality to hills along borders. This is actually not just an issue to affect the comparatively small numbers of people involved in the making of hill lists, but an issue that affects ‘ordinary’ people. 

I was involved a few years ago in constructing hill lists for Spain, and separately for the Pyrenean mountain chain. One of the first issues to consider was that of mountain nationality. People who make hill lists use valleys and cols, where possible, to separate hill regions and hill groups, because it is totally logical and fits the purpose. On the other hand, people who set administrative boundaries find that the ridges of hills make very suitable boundaries. Populations on either side of a ridge of hills identify with those hills; they see them as theirs.  These are both the real and psychological boundaries to their homeland that define their lives.

Fact or theft?  The incorporation of Savoy into France puts the boundary as the watershed.  There is no mention of the boundary taking a circuitous tour around Mont Blanc.  The Italians appear correct.  The French appear greedy

As a classic example, the villages and farms of West Herefordshire see the dark line of The Black Mountain as the Western backdrop to their lands. All they can see is English and the mountain is their boundary. Conversely, when the people of the Vale of Ewyas look to the wall of hills to their east, all they can see is Welsh and that hill ridge is “owned” by them. The boundary is the ridge of the hill and the greater hill performs an inclusive dual national role. One side is English, the other Welsh, and all are happy.

The boundary was intended to be the watershed, and that was it.

The summit of Peel Fell.  Over a full metre into England

When the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth century came along to map everything with a much greater degree of accuracy, a line was drawn on the map showing that boundary. It was accurate, but not precise. In this world, one can be roughly accurate but precisely wrong. The Twenty-First Century Ordnance Survey have no idea on what basis the border line is precisely where it is on the undefined section on top of The Black Mountain. It is just copied from the old map when a new one is made.

The “Accurate” line of the OS can now be “precisely” mapped on the ground as an infinitely thin line. The individual tufts of grass along the broad backed ridge can also be surveyed by super precise satellite technology and a summit point, infinitely small, can be identified and measured to the centimetre above sea level.

The outcome will be that this singularity will be in either Wales or England. The fact that some of the surveyors will be Welsh or Welsh-resident will, I am sure, not sway the result at all!

The true logic is that the Black Mountain is a dual national summit; it is both a Tommy and a Taffi. Anything else would be divisive and unreasonable.

The Black Mountain.  Where is the border and where is the summit?  Be it English or Welsh, the pavement has been imported from Yorkshire

A Hill is not just a single point. It is a large area of land and, if the summit of a hill is a few metres beyond a boundary fence at the top, it makes no difference. A hill is not just a summit. There is a science of a singularity, and a singularity has no space, it has no relative height, no snow can accumulate on it in the winter, no larks sing for a mate upon it in the spring, no beasts graze it in the summer and no berries can be picked from it in the autumn.

The simple decision should be made on inclusiveness. If a hill is substantially in two countries, it is the backdrop to the lives of mountain walkers, farmers and citizens from two nations; it can be on two lists. 

My problem with the creation of a list of the summits in the Pyrenees was that an extraordinarily large number of summits lie on that border between France and Spain. French and Spanish cartography do not match and, to complicate the issue, we have Andorra thrown in the mix too. There is even a triple national mountain to contend with.

A pair of border fences cross Carter Fell with the OS column in Scotland.  On this hill the highest point can be anywhere within 100 metres of the fence

The natural lie of the land along almost the length of the Pyrenean border gives a long slope on the Spanish side culminating at the summit, with a much steeper and sometimes vertical drop into France. In some cases it seems almost cheek for the French to claim a summit, because it is as if the French part of the mountain is actually missing! 

The solution that fitted the problem for the Pyrenees was an application of a 100 metre rule. If a summit is located within 100 metres of the border, it is a dual national. This rule has resulted in 64 peaks over 2,000 metres with greater than 150 metres of drop (Marilyn Standard) along the line of the Pyrenees listed as dual nationals. The use of 100 metres was purely arbitrary, but as a matter of fact there are actually none of these summits more than 65 metres from the border line. At the other end of the scale, the nearest near miss for dual national status is over 500 metres from the border. The rule could have been 70 metres or 500 metres with the exactly the same result. It did produce a list which could stand up to scrutiny and did prove inclusive to all three countries with borders in the Pyrenees.

The reason I write this article is to try to point out an inconsistency along the border between England and Scotland. The lack of an accepted protocol on dual national hills in Britain is the problem. 

The border between England and Scotland has the following Dewey / Hewitt standard summits along its length:-

Name of Mountain
Grid Ref
Peel Fell 
NY 625 997
Carter Fell
NT 682 052
Hungry Law
NT 747 061
Brownhart Law
NT 788 093
Beefstand Hill
NT 821 144
Windy Gyle
NT 855 152
Birnie Brae
NT 871 206
The Schil
NT 869 223
Black Hagg
NT 861 237

With these nine summits, Windy Gyle is a Hewitt rather than a Dewey, but the issue is still the same.

John Kirk on the summit of Windy Gyle.  But which country is he in?

In 2012, Beefstand Hill (see title of this article) was deleted from the list of Deweys. It was observed that a tuft of vegetation on the Scottish side of the summit was the apparent highest point. This resulted in the deletion of the one hundred square kilometre hill from the Dewey List.

The summit of Beefstand Hill.  The summit is that turf of grass just over the border fence, centre right of picture

Deleting Beefstand Hill did not resolve an inconsistency, it created one. If any rationalisation of the lists to which these hills belong is to be carried out, then it should all be done in one move rather than a piecemeal demotion / deletion of just one summit. Of the nine, Windy Gyle is currently a Hewitt and a Donald, and six tops are both Dewey and Donald Dewey. The other exception is Black Hagg where the summit is some way into England (68 metres) and not listed as a Donald Dewey.

If it is to be accepted that a mountain is but a single point, a singularity, and that the England / Scotland border is a line, infinitely thin, then of the above nine hills, there can be no dual nationals, and that a careful measure of the highest point location and the border line will reveal which list each hill should be included in.

Hungry Law, 501m.  75% of the hill is in England and the summit OS column fits just inside of the corner of the Scottish side of the border fence.  Is the fence in the right place?  Where is the true summit point?  Should it matter?

If one looks at a mountain just being a summit, as defined, a singular pencil sharp point, then such an approach could be justified. However, hills and mountains are large items, usually covering several if not many square kilometres. As there is a tendency to use mountain ranges and ridges as political borders then it is not uncommon for hills to be regarded as having joint nationality.

The history of the English /Scottish border is quite fascinating, but it only became a precise fine line within the last 200 years. In medieval times the broad ridge of the hills was regarded as the border with the one exception of the Kielder Stone, a large rock which was used as a symbol of the border for local people. Today’s border respects this historic connection, and leaves the watershed to descend to the upper North Tyne (English) side to pass through the great stone before returning to the ridge. This has the effect of leaving the Donald Dewey of Carlin Tooth totally in Scotland. The rest of the route is along the watershed, the clearly intended boundary set by the Earls of Douglas and of Northumberland. 200 years ago a line of boundary stones was put in place on the ridge and subsequently the Ordnance Survey joined the dots, drawing straight lines between them. Later a fence was built, but this follows the border only generally, as the boundary stones did. The straight lines drawn by the OS are now considered to be precise, and these do not follow exactly the watershed. If they did, then they would pass precisely straight through those highest points on the hills, like the highest tuft of rough grass being eaten by those remarkably ugly goats that summer on the summit of Beefstand Hill.

The summit of Beefstand Hill.  The summit turf in process of being eaten!

That border line, as drawn by the Ordnance Survey, is now set as an absolute. The O.S. will just copy and perpetuate it. That marked border was roughly accurate.  Without a sensible protocol, a rule that creates inclusivity that is logical and defendable, those survey boys will make mountain listing on the border a precise nightmare. 
For a sensible protocol that would work for national borders within the UK, I would propose as a starting point a 400 metre rule. (It would work almost as well with either 50 metres or a kilometre!) 
This would take a national border, which is a line of no width, and extend a zone 400m wide, 200m into each adjoining nation. In respect of any mountain list, all qualifying summits within that 400 metre band would be considered joint nationals, and a hill of both countries.

Brownhart Law.  Photo taken from the true summit looking west.  The border fence is on the left, but it may not be in the right place.  Look beyond, England is the smooth grass on the left, Scotland is the heather and thistles on the right?

The reasoning is simple. It is better to be inclusive rather than exclusive.  If mountain lists, like the Deweys and Donald Deweys are going to have any joint national peaks at all, then they may as well have all within a hop, skip and a jump of the border. Anything else is ridiculous. All or none is the consistent position, and all is far more tenable than none.

What this would mean is not too dramatic:

  • Beefstand Hill is reinstated as a Dewey.
  • Black Hagg becomes a Donald Dewey as well as a Dewey.
  • Hatterall Hill is considered a dual (Welsh/ English) national. (No effect on the Dewey list)
  • It creates a proper definition to regulate the activities of earnest surveyors. 

I think everyone would not be unhappy with that outcome, as opposed to the alternative!

Who makes the decision? In a British context, in the absence of any governing body, whatever Michael Dewey and David Purchase decide between them is the law!

John Kirk


Pete Ridges said...

Great article, John. A more radical solution is for hill-walkers to adjust national boundaries as we make our lists. If English football fans are happy to regard Berwick Rangers as a Scottish football club, can't English hill-walkers regard the Cheviot as a Corbett? The Cheviot has little relationship to the English hills. Look at the beautiful map on the back cover of Mark Jackson's "More RHB" book: regions A to P are Scottish hills, while regions S to V are Welsh. Then England can have the rest. This happens to mean that my own birthplace moves from England to Wales, but that's OK, and it doesn't make me less English, because I'm not a hill. In fact, it helps to explain why most of my hill days from England were spent in Wales. In the same way, you could make a "Spain and Portugal Plus" list, extending north as far as the Canal du Midi.

agentmancuso said...

The general principle makes sense to me John; borders are not paper-thin lines, but broader conceptual features. Not sure if a simple distance rule is the best way round the problem though; I've thought about this quite a bit since first visiting Peel Fell (as a deleted Donald...)but have never quite managed to settle on an opinion as to the best option.