The Mountains of Britain

Published 4 October 2020

The view from the top of England’s highest point, Scafell Pike.

I have absolutely no evidence of this. I haven’t gone out and done a survey or anything. Not stood on my nearby high street with a clipboard asking passers-by. But I strongly suspect that if you ask most people what the highest peaks are in the British Isles, three names would dominate those that could reply. Ben Nevis. Snowdon. Scafell Pike.

To many they are collectively known as the Three Peaks. The three highest points in England, Wales and Scotland. Known for that challenge walk where – for some unknown reason – people think it’s a good idea to try and walk all three in under 24 hours.

But there’s more to mountains than those three. But where are they? What do they look like? And in the scheme of things, how big are they? And what is a mountain anyway?

There’s no globally accepted definition of a mountain, but in the British Isles it’s generally accepted to be any peak with a height of at least 600m above sea levels. Some people go with 610m because that’s 2,000 feet. But being a fortysomething, feet and inches mean nothing to me, which is why I go metric every time. And 600m is much more pleasing a definition than 610m. Also it’s the definition of a mountain that the UK government use. So there you go.

And if you take 600m as your minimum height, then there’s 2,754 mountains in the British Isles. I know because I found a nice table of them on Wikipedia.

The highest mountain in the British Isles is – of course – Ben Nevis, near Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland. I’ve been there. It was June. There was snow at the top. It was in cloud so I got no view.

But what of the the rest? The other 2,753? Well let’s take a look.

Before we do, one note on the data – the Wikipedia list includes all the British Isles, so includes Ireland. However it doesn’t break Ireland down into the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. As such, the data below doesn’t either.

Where are the 10 highest mountains?

Think of those three peaks we mentioned earlier. Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Scafell Pike. It suggests distribution. That somehow the peaks of Britain are rather fairly, equally spread out.

That’s bollocks of course, because it’s Scotland where the ten highest points are. All of them. Every single one.

Where are the 50 highest mountains?

I could have gone on repeating this chart. Top 10. Top 20. Top 30. And so on. Scotland when it comes to peaks, well it reigns supreme. If you want to climb the biggest mountains, forget about everywhere else for you want to be in Scotland.

Where are the 100 highest mountains?

In fact it takes to entry 76 before we find any mountains in the Top 100 that are outside Scotland. Number 76 is Snowdon in Wales. It’s probably the easiest mountain to get up because it has its own railway right to the summit. There’s no better way to deflate your sense of achievement at climbing it on foot than to get to the top to find a load of people milling around eating pasties. Still when the cloud sets in, at least you can pop to the cafe for a cup of tea. And a pasty.

So yeah, the 76th highest mountain is Snowdon in Wales. Mountains 77 to 96 are in Scotland, before Wales gets another look in again (it gets numbers 97 and 98) before a whole heap more of Scotland again.

Where are the Top 500 mountains?

We could go on with more and more breakdowns, but let’s leap to the Top 500. Now things are getting more varied. Well, slightly. Ireland’s highest point, Carrauntoohil, turns up at Mountain 133. As for England’s highest point, Scafell Pike, well that’s way down the list. If you decided to do them all in height order, starting at the top and working down, well you’d be on fell 257 before you got to that delightful fell in the Lake District.

Scotland has more than its fair share of Great Britain’s top peaks. If you put all the mountains of Britain in a list and order them by height (and of course, someone has done), you will have to go down to Mountain 76 in order to find one that’s not in Scotland.

The fact is that Scotland is one very high place.

Where are all the mountains?

Let’s broaden it out and look across all mountains. Now the picture changes. Scotland still dominates with 80% of all the UK’s mountains. But now both Ireland (8%) and England (7%) have overtaken Wales (5%). They may not have the highest points, but they’re got lots of smaller mountains. This probably should surprise too much – of the four, Wales is hilly but has the smallest landmass. Well, other than the Isle of Man with its one mountain. One mountain that struggles to be represented clearly on this chart. But yeah, England and Ireland simply have more space for their hills.

Snaefell on the Isle of Man, is well down at 2,522 in the list, by the way.

What’s the height of the highest point in each region?

Now the numbers above hide something. They show quantity but that’s not all the tale. What about actual heights? We know Scotland is higher, but is it that much higher?

It’s not really, is it? The highest point in Scotland is 1,345m. And that that much higher than the highest point in Wales (1,085m). And Scafell Pike in England (978m) isn’t that much lower than Snowdon in Wales. Although you can’t get a cup of tea and a pasty when you get there.

How many mountains are there of different heights?

Indeed, let’s break this down even further and look at the distribution of mountains. We immediately see that 60% of the mountains of the British Isles are under 800m in height. Not even 10% are above 1000m.

Overall, perhaps the British Isles aren’t that mountainous after all.

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