20th November 2017

Official: Shetland bumpier (and much bigger) than Orkney!

Dave Hewitt, editor of the legendary hillwalking fanzine The Angry Corrie, looks at the strange and wonderful world of Shetland’s Marilyns…

Outdoors tourism in Shetland takes many forms – some people come for the ornithology, the whale watching or the coastal scenery. Others come to see the Northern Lights or the simmer dim. And each year a certain number of people visit Shetland to go hillwalking.

This might seem odd – for all its many merits, Shetland tends not to be regarded as great hillwalking country. It doesn’t resemble Torridon, Glen Coe or the Cuillin of Skye – or, indeed, the Jotunheimen of Norway. There are no Munros – Scottish hills over 3000ft – and Ronas Hill, the Shetland highpoint, doesn’t even achieve half-Munro status.

There are, however, Marilyns – and while this oddly named category of hills is never going to rival the Munros in terms of popularity, it does have its adherents and enthusiasts, many of whom will, at some stage in their hillwalking career, feel a pressing need to visit some or all of the 19 Shetland Marilyns: not just Ronas Hill, but also other summits such as Valla Field, Ward of Bressay and White Grunafirth.

The term “Marilyn” for a particular type of hill was coined by Alan Dawson, a computer programmer who was living in Glasgow when he gathered the information that was to have a significant impact on the esoteric world of British hill lists. Arguing that the merit of a hill didn’t just relate to its height, but to its overall separation from neighbouring hills (its “prominence”, to use the jargon), Dawson defined a Marilyn as a hill with at least 150 metres (492 feet) of all-round drop.

The list of Marilyns – 1542 of them initially – caught the interest of the publishing house Cicerone, and appeared in book form in 1992 under the title The Relative Hills of Britain.

One way of understanding how Marilyns work is to think of them as islands. Clearly, on any island that reaches more than 150m above sea level, the highpoint is bound to be a Marilyn. Hence Ben Nevis is a Marilyn, as are Sgurr Alasdair and Goat Fell, the highpoints of Skye and Arran respectively. The same applies to lowly St Boniface Down, the 241m summit of the Isle of Wight.

In Shetland, because Mainland, Bressay, Noss, Muckle Roe, Yell, Fetlar and Unst are all above 150m, as are Foula and Fair Isle, the highpoint of each island is a Marilyn: Ronas Hill, Ward of Bressay, Noss Head, Mid Ward, Hill of Arisdale, Vord Hill (scraping in at 159m), Saxa Vord, the Sneug and Ward Hill respectively.

But because the Whalsay highpoint – Ward of Clett – is only 120m above the waves, it doesn’t qualify. It does, however, appear in an even more esoteric list, the HuMPs – short for Hundred Metre Prominences. Even fewer people – and, inevitably, the majority of them male – spend their spare time ticking off non-Marilyn HuMPs, of which there are 18 on Shetland and over 1400 across the UK. By contrast, the Marilyns can feel almost mobbed.

But not only island highpoints qualify as Marilyns. If something is effectively an inland island, with at least 150m of drop on all sides, then it counts as well. This brings all manner of other summits into play, with the result that Shetland Mainland has nine Marilyns all told, while Unst has Valla Field in addition to Saxa Vord (a hill where reaching the Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar inside the military base has prompted more than a little head-scratching over the years and occasional episodes of furtive law-breaking). Foula, despite being small in area, also has a second Marilyn – the Noup.

The way in which Marilyn baggers choose to tackle Shetland varies considerably. Peterborough-based Rob Woodall is one of several Marilyn enthusiasts to have reached “the wall” – shorthand for having climbed them all apart from two remote and wave-lashed St Kilda sea stacks that have served as stoppers to anyone completing the full list.

“I did Ronas and at least one other on a trip with friends,” Woodall says, “also Fair Isle on a birding trip. Then one dedicated trip to do the rest.” He has climbed each of them just once, despite a companion trying to lure him back up Ronas Hill. Woodall opted for botany rather than bagging, however, and spent the time “looking for an endemic dandelion – which I didn’t find…”.

For accommodation, on the first trip he used a self-catering cottage and on the second stayed in hostels. Would he have gone to Shetland without the incentive of a hill tick-list? “Maybe, for birding / botanising.” He plans to go back “soonish” to pursue another of his hobbies, trig point bagging: there are more than 70 of the concrete pillars scattered across Shetland.

Phil Cooper from Lancaster also made a couple of visits in the cause of chalking off Shetland Marilyns – although in his case the trips were 30 years apart. The first came as part of an early tour of all the UK county summits. “I visited in 1977 just to do Ronas Hill,” he says, “then again in 2007 to do as many Marilyns as possible, and revisited Ronas with the rest of the group.”

Cooper, too, will be back at some stage, as on the 2007 trip both the boatmen who could have taken his party across the narrow sound to Noss were off work with injuries – “Noss not poss”, as he puts it. He also wants to visit some of the non-Marilyn islands – “Papa Stour and Whalsay and maybe find some HuMPs that are not Marilyns; there are a few to do on the Mainland”.

Cooper’s first visit was ahead of its time, as the now widespread interest in hill lists and summit-ticking was then in its infancy. “In 1977, I went as a foot passenger Aberdeen to Lerwick,” he recalls. “There was quite a bit of traffic as this was the early days of oil and gas in the East Shetland Basin. Hitching was a doddle. Obviously I was better looking in those days. I hitched up to Northmavine to do Ronas, then hitched all the way south to Sumburgh. Accommodation was very expensive then due to the oil and gas workers’ demands.

“I stayed in a caravan outside the Sumburgh Hotel – did the Sumburgh area and Lerwick area on foot, then took an evening ferry back to Aberdeen. By 2007, Sumburgh was no longer an essential transit point for the offshore workers, as the larger helicopters by then in use could go direct from Aberdeen to the platforms, making Shetland seem much quieter than it did 30 years earlier.”

Inevitably, the climate was a dominant feature. “Had a solid day’s heavy rain on Unst,” Cooper says. “Sat it out in van. It never really warms up as far as I know, at any time in any summer.” He remains an enthusiast, however, having particularly liked Ronas Hill: “Far north, big as you get in Shetland, great views of the coastal features, nice summit shelter.”

Quite aside from the individual merits of its Marilyns, one claim to fame for Shetland is that it prompted the first significant change to the list itself. Various resurveys and cartographic fine-tunings over 20 years have seen the total number of UK Marilyns nudge up to 1554 – but the original intention was that, while new discoveries and upward resurveys could be added in, nothing would ever drop out.

That reckoned without Cunnigill Hill above Colla Firth – which, in a rare mistake, was included in the original book despite having nowhere near enough separation between it and the neighbouring legitimate Marilyn of Dalescord Hill. “Originally I intended that there should be no deletions,” wrote Dawson in a 1995 update to his book, “but when I discovered Cunnigill Hill had a drop of only 127 metres, I realised that it had to go.”

Since then, a further eight hills from the original list, all on the UK mainland, have received the chop – although additions have outweighed this, prompting a steady, if slight, Marilyn inflation.

Marilyns also shed light on the extent to which various parts of the UK are bumpier than others – their kurtosis, to use the technical term. While it is obvious that the Cambridgeshire fens are less hilly than Wester Ross, how does Shetland compare with Orkney, for instance? One way to assess this would be to compare relative sizes of the archipelagos and see which has proportionately the higher number of Marilyns.

It is notoriously fiddly to measure such things, but Shetland appears to be just under half as big again as Orkney in land-mass terms, 565 square miles plays 380 square miles. And if Foula and Fair Isle are included, it has more than twice as many Marilyns, 19 plays nine. So is Shetland a more up-and-down place than Orkney? Its Marilyn quota would tend to suggest that yes, it is.

Whether this claim will ever make its way into the tourist blurb is doubtful – “Come to Shetland, it’s bumpy!” But what seems certain is that a small but steady stream of eager hill-list tickers will continue to visit Shetland for decades to come, keen to explore these fascinating northerly lumps and bumps. And, of course, the hill baggers will do their bit for the local economy, along with the birdwatchers and the aurora fans.

– For the full list of Marilyns, and more information, go to www.rhb.org.uk