► WILLIAM McKNIGHT DOCHARTY – BIOGRAPY / HIS METHOD OF CHOOSING SUMMITS.

NOTE: I had posted an experimental file here – a list of Docharty’s Welsh mountains – but decided was not of the quality I desired. For anyone who downloaded the file, it is mostly correct in it’s identifications from a ‘bagging’ point of view – the first version was missing a whole page of Docharty’s data, didn’t include Carnedd Uchaf (which Docharty promoted to ‘top’ status in 1962) and included the wrong Foel Fras (SN 76548 92610 instead of SH 69616 68124), and also lacking other information which I thought would be of value. All being well, the complete file, including England, Scotland and the Isle of Man, should be posted first of March. The Irish data will be more time-consuming, so will be posted at a later data.

Some more notes on Docharty’s life, argely from an article by Robert M. Campbell – a copy of which he kindly forwarded to me – published in The Munro Society Journal, no.4, 17 Dec 2016. The article includes a more detailed discussion of Docharty’s methods than given here, and compares them with other lists, such as the Corbetts and Grahams.


William McKnight Docharty was born on 3 August 1895 in Ruglen, South Ayrshire. He had an older brother Joseph, born in 1891, and sister May, 1898. His parents were the landscape painter Alexander Brownlie Docharty, and Catherine McKnight, a teacher. Alexander’s uncle, James Docharty, was also an accomplished landscape artist.

Little is know about William’s early life, but by 1901 the family had moved to Glasgow and he took employment with the P&O company. When war came along he joined the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), eventually becoming a Major. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for leading two companies as a temporary captain during action on the Western Front. He sustained a serious leg injury in October 1918 at the second battle of Le Cateau [almost losing the limb, but over a period of a decade managed to recover full use of it, according to his own notes in the foreword of his 1954 book].

In 1929, returning from a P&O posting in Cairo, he was very struck by the mountain scenery on a visit to the Jungfrau/Eiger region in Switzerland, and within a short time became a dedicated mountaineer, counting John Montgomery Thomson, son of the founder of the SMC, as a close friend and mentor. It was Thomson who gave Docharty the idea of surveying the 2500-foot hills of Scotland, and the pursuit of these passions occupied the rest of his life. William died in 1968, aged 72.


Docharty’s method of choosing tops was based on studying contour rings on Ordnance Survey maps, sometimes modifying his choice of what to include based on personal judgements about the surrounding topography or actual visits.

In the 1954 volume, Docharty explains that he has only included tops from 2500-2999 feet in Scotland because Munro had already detailed higher elevations, but …

… in Ireland, Wales, and England where the area of higher ground is so much less than in Scotland, every “top” of 2,500 feet and over has been noted … the minimum requirement for consideration of an eminence for the “Tops” column is ONE 50-foot contour … In the case of Ireland the minimum is ONE 100-foot contour on the ½-inch Survey of Ireland Maps … In my opinion, however, some of these elevations lack the individuality for inclusion in the “Tops” column … Now and then while on excursion a “top” or eminence unrecorded on the maps has been discovered …

Docharty, W. M. (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh, pp19-20.

His supplementary volumes published in 1962 extended these studies down to 2000 feet.

In presenting his findings Docharty uses tables of sometimes mind-boggling complexity, which may in part explain why his lists have never achieved popular ‘checklist’ status. In addition to this, different criteria are used for different parts of the British Isles, the lists are a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data and the listings are discontinuous and split between the 1954 and 1962 publications. Many of the lesser tops never benefited from a personal visit, so it could also be considered an incomplete work.

However, all this is judging the work purely from the point of view of a checklist, which does a great disservice to something quite remarkable. The three volumes are a record of the author’s fascination with montane landscapes and were never intended for popular consumption, instead being produced as gifts for friends, fellow enthusiasts and selected institutions. They are a semi-autobiographical account of his exploration with the additional function of acting as a memento – something to look back on in his later years. The books are beautifully produced objects, being printed on high-quality paper and include large, fold-out panoramic photographs taken by Docharty himself with a Leica camera..


► WILLIAM McKNIGHT DOCHARTY (1895?-1968) – ‘A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops’.

There are many lists of hills and mountains covering the British Isles – the ‘Munros’, a list of Scottish mountains maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Council, the ‘Marilyns’ (hills with 150 metres or more of climb), the Hewitts (Hills of England, Wales and Ireland over 2000 feet with 100 feet of climb), the ‘Wainrights’ of the Lake District, the Corbetts (Scottish hills from 2500 to 3000 feet with 500 feet of climb), and so on. A lesser-know list is that of William McKnight Docharty, privately published in 1954, with a further private publication of supplimentary lists and information in 1962.

William was born in 1895 in South Ayrshire, the son of artist Alexander Brownlie Docharty (1862-1940) and his wife Catherine McKnight. There were three children in all, William, his elder brother Joseph and younger sister, May.

William served with the King`s Liverpool Regiment during World War I, achieving the rank of Captain, was severely wounded in action and received the Military Cross, a medal awarded for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operation” (only about 3000 were give out over the whole conflict).

After recovering from his injuries William became a passionate climber as well as pedestrian explorer of mountains in Britain, Ireland and abroad. In 1948 he became the thirteenth person known to have climbed all the Munros and in 1960 the second to have climbed all the Corbetts.

In 1954 William privately published his book, ‘A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops’, followed by two supplements in 1962. Only a small number of copies were ever printed and gifted by William to various individuals and institutions. They occasionally appear for sale, sometimes fetching hundreds of pounds. I have been very fortunate to gain access to a set and am going to reproduce some of the content here for the interest and enjoyment of others.

The books are still in copyright, so I need to make it clear that this information is for personal, non-commercial interest only, and should not be reproduced without reference to the original publication or linked with any commercial activity whatsoever – e.g., being reproduced on a web site which involves commercial activity.

This transcription will take some time, so will be the main activity on this blog for the next month or two (or more?). When complete, I’ll combine all the information together on a single referable page.

The references for the original books are:

  • Docharty, William McKnight (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.
  • Ibid (1962) The Supplement to A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops and a Selection of 1,000 Tops under 2,500 feet – Vol. I – The Foreword and the Lists, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.
  • Ibid (1962) The Supplement to A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops and a Selection of 1,000 Tops under 2,500 feet – Vol. II – The Epilogue and the Panoramas, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.

So here goes … extracts from the foreword of the 1954 publication:


FOREWORD

Rather than allow these Lists to lie fallow, it has been suggested they might be of interest and use to friends with whom it has been my privilege and pleasure to walk the hills. In the hope, therefore, these friends may care to accept copies, I have had this very limited edition printed to offer as mementoes of comradeship on high ridges and wind-swept plateaux. The Lists, however, may appear something of an enigma without some explanation as to the why and wherefore of their existence, so the following remarks are offered in explanation.

Until late 1933, save for Ben Lomond from Loch Ard side, when on Army leave of absence in June 1916, I had stood on no Scottish hill. In the autumn of 1918, when we had at last heaved ourselves clear of the clutches of that remorseless sea of mud from whose dead hand we had struggled so long to be free, I was again bowled over on 9th October as we deployed at the approaches to Le Cateau. Unkempt, bemudded brown brethren moving up through the debris of battle, on whose grey faces was the indelible print of that wearied sadness of soul we understood so well, hailed greetings in the jargon of the trenches and with covetous nostalgic glance at yet another lucky one with a “blighty.”

In quick succession, however, I suffered two serious relapses, and on 25th October, save for a providential collapse on the operating table, I should that day have become a one-legged cripple. As I slowly recovered – I can hazily remember the surgeon telling me the war was at last over – that left leg, too, miraculously began to mend of its own accord. Although it made surprising recovery, none the less, when discharged in August 1919, I was just another of those “medically unfit for further military service,” and throughout the next ten years enjoyed only indifferent health with the leg under almost constant treatment.

Having taken up an appointment in Egypt at the end of 1922, I was on my way home in the summer of 1929 on furlough and to undergo further surgical treatment at Roehampton, when I broke journey at Interlaken and one forenoon booked for the Jungfrau Joch (11,340 feet), With my companions from the train I passed from the elevator to the little plateau of snow. The revelation of blinding sunlight, dazzling peaks, sparkling snow underfoot, and the vast expanse of the Aletsch Glacier held rne spellbound. Later I treated the inner man to a gourmet’s luncheon in the hotel restaurant, the while my eyes continued to feast upon the amazing panorama. But among drowsy and slumbering fellow-passengers on the way down a feeling of anticlimax overcame me. Conscience whispered that, like Adam before me, I had tasted of something to which I was not entitled and that the crystal atmosphere and virgin snow deserved something better than such casual visitation, the litter of orange peel, banana skins and discarded sandwich paper, or the grinding out of current musical numbers on portable gramophones.

And such was the impact of these promptings that before I alighted at Interlaken I found myself committed to the mental pledge that should the coming operation yield the results promised I could onc day return and on my own feet seek to reach the summit of the Jungfrau and so through my own exertions pay tribute to that lovely mountain, rendering her the homage which reaction unequivocally told me was so rightly hers.

When the plaster was removed from my leg in October the surgeon pronounced the Roehampton experiment successful, but it was not to be until after a lapse of four years, in August 1933, that I could redeem my pledge, approaching the Jungfrau (13,670 feet) from the Aletsch Glacier and the Concordia with a peasant of Fiesch as my guide.

Excluding 1929, I visited the high Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria on eight occasions, to be halted by the outbreak of war in 1939, and after the war, stopped for good by a disinclination to travel abroad now that my wife was so dependent.

It was in the autumn of 1933, too, when I had returned from Egypt for good, that I first met John Montgomery Thomson who, in his turn, awakened in me enthusiasm for our Scottish hills, and many a fine excursion we have had together.

But whether on Alpine snow or rock or on our own lower ridges, I pray to be forgiven if I ever cease to be reverently thankful to Almighty God, who on that fateful 25th October 1918 not only spared my leg but my life so that I might know of His great work in the fashioning of the mighty hills, and learn anew each time I visit them their lesson of eternal truth, wisdom, and peace. As complement to that lesson, I was also to be taught the choice of whether I am bond or free on the hills – slave or master of circumstance and of what lies ahead – is in my own keeping.

To be free, with thoughtful care I must assure preparation and preparedness in plan, outfit, and person, and in the event, stage by stage, regretting the ampler endowments of none other, exploit to fullest advantage the gifts He has entrusted to me. On the other hand, whenever through thoughtlessness, neglect, or arrogance I deviate from these simple rules, nothing is more certain than that swiftly and surely bonds are laid upon me. Such, too, is the wealth of satisfaction which derives from unfolding achievement, it is prudent to keep the spirit of that satisfaction alive lest anticlimax reveals itself as drab companion of the accomplished task.

After ten or twelve days in Wester Ross and Sutherland in the autumn of 1947 it became evident, if I was to be granted several more years of fitness and opportunity to visit the hills, I would soon have to make up my mind about the type of expedition to plan for holidays after the spring of 1948. Nor did it take long to discover the choice must be one of two contrasting alternatives: To devote myself to a second series of excursions with the “Munros” and their 3,000-foot subsidiaries once more as the principal objectives, or to open up a new series on fresh ground with these no more than incidental.

Although I spent my ten or twelve days in the autumn of that year (1948) visiting the 3,000-foot hills of Ireland, Wales, and England, those two excursions from Mallaig left a profound impression upon me as to the latent possibilities of excursions on hills of sub-“ Munro” standard. By May 1949 the decision had been taken in favour of the second alternative mentioned above, and the idea of these Lists conceived, although the first, that covering Scotland, was not completed until the winter of 1950-51, to be followed by those for England, Ireland, and Wales at intervals during the ensuing twelve months. Lakeland was again visited in the autumns of 1949 and 1950 with emphasis on the fells under 3,000 feet, and Ireland-east of the Shannon – with like emphasis in the autumn of 1951. West of the Shannon I explored for ten days in September 1952, and in October 1953 I returned to Wales to make acquaintance of some of the lower hills listed herein.

The six spring holidays of the usual duration in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954, as also the autumn holiday of 1954, were, on the other hand, devoted to selections of hills from the Scottish List, and I must confess that from all twelve pilgrimages to these lower hills I have derived the greatest satisfaction.

England, or rather Lakeland if the high fells near Appleby are included in that area, with its pastoral background epitomises something serenely attractive – but so elusively subtle is it that when I seek to analyse the spell Lakeland casts upon me I discover the only words to do it justice have already escaped me. I do, however, claim the gem of Lakeland is Wasdale with its cirque of majestic hills – best seen from Yewbarrow (2,058 feet) – towering above the jigsaw of massive stone walls, lush green pasture, tiny church, and three or four scattered dwellings, which together in their turn are inseparably Wasdale Head.

In Ireland, of the highest hills Brandon and the MacGillycuddys in the far south-west are outstanding. On my second visit Mullaghanattin (2,539 feet) and Knockduff (2,572 feet), which sandwich the remote Ballaghbeama Gap (852 feet), denied the views of the MacGillycuddys from the south-west and south I had gone to see. And it required two visits to Purple (2,739 feet) above the Gap of Dunloe (795 feet) to secure glimpses of the grandeur of that great range and the rugged crest of the eastern Reeks as they slipped into and out of the ceaselessly forming mists in the moisture-laden atmosphere. In parenthesis there is a unique feature in the Irish landscape which strikes the hill walker as soon as his view begins to expand: This is the light green maze of carpetry woven by the Lilliputian fields and their borders of neglected hedge or thick wall, which latter seem to have been the depository throughout the ages for the plague of stone encumbering the countryside. This green patchwork can cover as much as three of the four quarters of the compass and extend as far as the eye can see. But west of the Shannon both hills and countryside change.

Of Wales I have least experience, as I have spent only two of these holidays there. But one dramatic picture framed itself out of the turmoil of rain, high wind, and driving mist which haunted me throughout my three days on the loftier Welsh ridges. It occurred as I was passing southwards from Aber over the Carnedds on an uncomfortably bad day. As I approached Carnedd Dafydd, however, one or two rifts of watery blue appeared in the dome of the grey prison of mist wherein I moved and from which I had hitherto been unable to detect any loophole of escape. These were soon followed by fitful shafts of sunshine spasmodically contrasting white curtains of drifting mist in the deep Ogwen cut against the forbidding wall of the Glyders beyond.

With her back towards me for a few enchanted moments I imagined I saw through tired eyes the form of an elegant lady of earliest childhood days. She was dressed for conversazione or ball in white and black evening gown and train which, characteristically, she lifted gracefully clear of the ground with one hand encased in the white arm-length kid gloves of those spacious days, as in the other her ivory and white ostrich feather fan spread itself slowly open. For a moment she hesitated on an imaginary threshold, and then, without the rustle of her silks and satins reaching me, faded from view into the dark portals of the Glyders. As she disappeared I was brought back to earth with a start to realise I had, in fact – in elusive distant mood – had my first glimpse of Tryfan, perhaps the most graceful of all mountains throughout these islands.

Compared with this fleeting vision, next day’s traverse in blinding rain and blanketing mist over this lovely little mountain from Ogwen, round the mightier Glyders to Elider Fawr and down into Nant Peris was sodden anticlimax. I look forward to the day when I may see all the mountains of Snowdonia, but especially Tryfan, standing free and untrammelled below high skies.

When I returned to Wales in October 1953, Tryfan again eluded me, but beyond the long ridge of Cnicht from Moelwyn Mawr (2,527 feet), and later from Cnicht (2,265 feet) itself, there were imprinted on my memory never-to-be-forgotten pictures of the Mountains of Snowdonia rising majestically in the clear north-west air with Y Wyddfa, Crib y Ddisgl, and Y Lliwedd the central figures of a noble company. Captured, too, as I reached the ridge of Arenig Fawr (2,750 feet c.) a few days later, I treasure in mind an exquisite early morning vignette of Snowdon, over seventeen miles distant, rising beyond some light diagonally cast cloud, the clear fresh silhouette being the only visible feature on the horizon, the remainder of which was dark, obscure, and ominous.

When I moved south I did so without anticipation or enthusiasm, but what pleasant surprises awaited me. On the ridges of these southern hills, but especially on Brecon Beacons (2,906 feet), when I turned my back on the  concentration of intensely industrialised valleys falling towards the Bristol Channel, I was richly rewarded when I looked out over the northern cwms to the colourful patchwork of field, llyn, and woodland. I was immediately reminded of Ireland, but the scene here while less vividly green and much less expansive, is compensated by a design richer, bolder, and more varied. Then I was to discover country lanes green-turfed underfoot, hedged between berry-laden holly, wild rose and thorns and deeply sunken, or bowered under sunlit autumn-tinted oak and ash, which lead downwards from the open hill sheep and pony grazings and highest farms towards the rich northern agricultural valleys with their herds of Hereford cattle and flocks of heavy-fleeced meadow sheep.

Railway lines thrust their way across the high boundary separating the two widely contrasted worlds which combine to make up South Wales. Alike in the cabins or close-by cottages of the signalmen where the lines breast the summits, and in the hotels in the townships far below, I enjoyed a hospitaIity and friendship at once spontaneous and humanly kind. There was but one sad note, and that was struck each time I encountered far-flung aeroplane wreckage – stark reminders of the remorseless toll these lovely hills are levying on erring or crippled aircraft.

Turning once more to Scotland … [the] grandeur, grace, or technical problems of a hill do not necessarily increase with height, nor does it follow the character or interest of the ridges are enhanced, or a view improved, the higher we go. In fact, and this is the point I seek to make for my Lists, it is only since I began visiting these lower hills have I seen, appreciated, and enjoyed the full majesty of the mightier ones in “Munro’s Tables,” to which classification Scotland’s hill walkers like me owe so much. The ridges are familiar from momentous days spent upon them and the tops are easily identified, but most of what now confronts the eye – the wide open corries, nestling high-level lochans, bluff’s, cliffs, and buttresses – are new, and within the framework of the familiar skyline these new features combine to focus the complete picture into true proportion and perspective.

What I claim for Scotland is in no sense less true in the case of Ireland, Wales, or England, which I think is supported by panoramas taken during those past few years. As examples I have paid tribute to what meets the eye from Yewbarrow and Purple. In Scotland I can suggest nothing finer than Liathach, Coire Dubh, and Beinn Eighe across Glen Torridon from Sgùrr Dubh (2,566 feet) – it should be Sgùrr Bhàn, as the true top is a very white quartzite “cap”; An Teallach across Loch na Shellag from Beinn Dearg Mhòr (Larachantivore) (2,974 feet); from Sgiirr an Fhidhleir (2,285 feet) north-west to north-east; or from Creag Rainich (2,646 feet) round from the south-west to the north.

Mountains by the nature of things are solitary and aloof, and, I believe, disinclined to unburden themselves to the multitude. Despite popular clamour to the contrary, I hold that when we would enjoy the full confidence of the hills we must let them commune with us alone. While Sutherland and Wester Ross – and Kerry and Connemara in their contrasting Irish ways – are outstanding in this respect, I claim equivalent enjoyment can be had almost anywhere in these islands by those who find they cannot match their skill against the Alpine giants. And for good measure they will discover themselves exploiting an enterprise and freedom peculiarly their own far from the distractions of that stifling heat from which escape is only possible at highest Alpine levels and the crowds who have responded to the efficient advertising machine of the Playground of Europe.

And if I may leave a good wish with you on behalf of our Scottish hills, I should like it to be a crisp north-west breeze in your face before which the mists are reeling to disclose the vast blue firmament, in which not far above your head sail scattered squadrons of lofty snow-white spinnakers of fleecy cumulus, whose dark shadows stride swiftly athwart the course you have set on the ridges; around and beyond on other slopes and on the foothills below the speed of the shadows perceptively slackens – perhaps even they notice the gradient ; while in yonder distances – offspring of the north-west wind – they are anchored like single islands or archipelagos on a placid tropical sea of palest powder blue.

W.M.D., Giffcock, October 1954.

Docharty, W. M. (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.

Thanks to Rob Woodall, Michael Earnshaw, Myrddyn Phillips, Robin Campbell and others for their comments, corrections and contributions.