The long-awaited new edition of the SMC Lowland Outcrops guidebook is out. To mark its publication, the guide's author Topher Dagg looks at the area with fresh eyes, highlighting some of the best venues in Scotland's Central Belt for those just starting out on real rock.
The focal area of Lowland Outcrops is within easy access of Scotland's two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. As with its previous editions, the guide will inevitably play a pivotal role in many Scottish climbers' first forays onto natural rock, be it as pure novices or after some experience on indoor walls.
My own introduction was a week of instruction during high school in the late '80s. Before this I had a cripplingly poor head for heights. We took in top-ropes at Blackford Quarry and North Berwick (where I learned that rope did not snap under body weight), then trad at Traprain Law, where I was coaxed into my first lead. I recall the groove of Vertical Ladder was just deep enough to give the illusion of not being far above the ground, so long as I stayed utterly blinkered to my surroundings. Over 30 years later climbing is a central part of my life and work, but I still return to those early crags for a low-pressure evening out from Edinburgh.
Dumbarton rock tends to dominate the Central Belt headlines with hard ascents of groundbreaking lines such as Rhapsody (E11) and Free at Last (9a+), but while aspirational and inspiring, such routes are beyond the dreams of the vast majority of climbers. For everyone, though, significant personal challenges occur at the limit of one's own grade experience, and the sense of achievement on one's first outdoor lead can match that of topping out on a high E number after many years of climbing.
In a culture of grade-chasing, good 'beginner' crags are often underrated as unworthy challenges. But where would many of us be without such venues, whether to germinate our skills for larger and harder routes, or to provide accessible and enjoyable sport, away from the competitive peer pressure of higher grades? By often having straightforward top-roping anchors and short approaches, these crags can also foster the participation of a wide range of people with either physical or hidden disabilities.
Most guidebooks have the primary goal of describing, as comprehensively as possible, all the crags in an area. On top of this, however, the geographical proximity of the Lowland venues to the culturally and ethnically diverse cities and their growing climbing populations gave us a particular charge to redress failings of representation evident in many earlier guidebooks. Members of Our Shared Outdoors kindly offered advice on the importance of visual representation in print media to reduce culturally ingrained, often invisible, barriers to participation that may be experienced, especially within socially excluded, (locally) minority ethnic groups, disabled climbers, non-binary and LGBTQ+ climbers, and even still women.
Toward this goal, we hope that as many people as possible, from a wide variety of social, ethnic and economic backgrounds, might be able to relate to the climbers in the action shots taken for the book, to see and imagine themselves participating, and thus enrich the next generation of outdoor climbers in Scotland. We were partly successful to this end, largely thanks to the efforts of photographers Roxanna Barry and Emily Nicholl, as well as a host of generously donated shots. There is much more we could have achieved, but we hope that guidebooks can continue to improve representation, both in front of and behind the lens.
Anyone should feel able to give climbing (or any activity) a try without judgement or barrier, and a big part of that freedom is visibility of one's peers and brethren. In the book we were also able to include some mini-interviews with a range of people who have made climbing their life and work, be they instructor, photographer, journalist (including UKC's own Natalie Berry), describing their first steps into climbing that made such an impact on their lives. We hope that the guide can act as encouragement and inspiration as well as a repository of experiences and logistical help.
In this article I hope to introduce the best beginner or low-grade crags covered in the guide, where many might make their first moves outdoors onto real rock.
With the release of this new edition, I hope that the reputation of Lowland Outcrops as being dominated by grotty dolerite quarries can be dispelled. The area might lack mountain grandeur, but it has a little of everything, from popular beginner spots to secluded adventures and cutting-edge routes. I hope the book encourages more climbers out onto the crags, be they locals or visitors passing through.
This is a fine example of a gateway crag, and it has a special place in my climbing heart, being the site of my first ever lead. The crag has a very comfortable base, enjoys the sun until mid to late afternoon, with an expansive view out over East Lothian farmland, but catches whatever breeze there is. Though the iron-hard trachyte enjoys a deserved reputation for polish, and needs careful footwork, its selection of easier routes makes Traprain a great choice for lower-grade climbing.
On the Lammer Wall, directly above the approach stile, The Vertical Ladder (VD) is a deep (although now rather shiny) fault, full of gear placements, leading to a fun exit through the crack. The number of nice slabby Severes here makes this wall a particular magnet for the less-accomplished: Double Stretch (S); Brute (S); Spider Route 1 (S) and Spider Route 2 (S). A pair of classic Hard Severes, The M.S. Route (HS) and Pinch (HS), provide enjoyable delicate, slabby face climbing, but feel a very definite step-up from the friendlier fare - something to aim for in future visits. Note: there is an in-situ ab point for return to the ground, very much an added consideration if you're new to abseiling.
Wandering west, keep a look out for the semi-wild ponies, and in a couple of minutes, the larger Overhang Wall is reached, with its eponymous curved arch. Great Corner (S) cuts an eye-catching line straight through the centre of the face, with continuously interesting laybacking and jamming moves between good stances. Left Edge (S) is another fine line, left of the overhangs, with an engaging, well-protected crux that leads to a lovely crack for thin hands. For something a tad more straightforward check out Deception (VD).
As you progress up the grades, Traprain continues to offer some great options. A series of trickier routes – Wobble (VS 5a), Piglet (HVS 5b) and Burp (HVS 5a) – were established by the legendary Robin Smith and Jimmy Marshall during a flurry of early development shared with Edinburgh's 'Currie Boys'. The polish under the largest overlap, the site of many a 'moment', is infamous but easily avoided with careful footwork.
Auchinstarry ('Starry to its friends) has long been a mainstay of Central Belt trad, in part due to the dolerite's ability to dry in an instant and its unrivalled access from east and west. The Edinburgh-Glasgow express train stops just up the hill in Croy, from where it's an easy walk to the crag, while the car park itself is just a few metres from the base of the first buttresses, making it very popular with beginner and paraclimbing groups.
A few substantial trees above the car park provide convenient top-rope anchors for the climbs there, such as Scream (S 4b) and Access Route (D), Anarchist (VD) and the excellently named Mister, Ye Can Walk Up Roon The Back (S). The venue has a little something for everyone, and is often the first place chosen to venture further with a rack and trusted friend, from the first steps in the car park buttress, to well protected Severe-VS routes around the quarry bowl. These lines are still easily accessed, short and with straightforward top anchors, but the journey away from the parking into the main bowl gives an enticing sense of adventure.
The path around the top of the crag gives only glimpses of the bays below, until the elusive (but thankfully easy) scramble down to the base is found. Now the rest of the cliffs can be explored through the trees and boulders that fringe the flooded quarry loch – it feels like another world from the nearby housing estates. The eye-catching Mascarade Buttress rises directly from the water, easily spectated from the picnic benches, and holds perhaps the best VS in the quarry – Red Lead (VS 5a) starts at pond level and takes a rising diagonal line with a tricky crux (not recommended as amongst your first few trad leads). The gentler White Slab (HS 4b) starts at the same spot but follows cracks straight up. Further around to the right is the Trundle Slab. The eponymous Trundle (VS 4c) follows a deep crack, while Walk on the Wild Side (HVS 5a) tiptoes up the apparently blank slab as a multitude of small edges and micro-placements miraculously come to light - emphatically not a beginner's route, but something exciting to aspire to perhaps.
This fine sea cliff near the coastal village of Aberdour is a popular destination both for sun-seeking climbers, and for families enjoying the Blue-Flag delights of the neighbouring Silver Sands. It faces south across the Firth of Forth to the island of Inchcolm and the hills of Edinburgh, and both makes the most of this sunny aspect, and enjoys whatever sea breeze is flowing to ease summer heat.
While tidal, access is straightforward with a little planning ahead. The base of the main cliff is flooded around 2hrs either side of high water, with platforms and raised fringes remaining usable for longer. A natural dolerite outcrop, the rock often bears little resemblance to its quarried cousins, but shares the need for care of loose blocks near the top. Helmets are highly recommended here (well you should arguably always wear one at any crag), not just for climbers and belayers but for anyone sat around at the bottom; as well as a favourite spot for Central Belt low-to-mid grade climbers, the Hawkcraig can sometimes attract bottle-and-stone chucking teens.
Beginners tend to first encounter the set of routes around Fish Head Arete (VD), on the West Terrace Bay, where the rock is impeccably wave-cleaned. This is often finished on the terrace after 8m, along with Fish Head Wall (Direct Finish) (S) and Ugh! (HS) (a very definite step up in difficulty from the previous routes), although it can be continued to the top of the crag in 20m or broken into an amenable multi pitch route - great practise for bigger things.
At the other end of the cliff, the East Bay is easily accessed from the lighthouse, and safely climbed on a rising tide. Here too are short walls, with routes including Welly Wall (VD), a popular first lead with good gear placeable from comfortable stances and not reliant on intricate footwork. From these short introductions, good progressions can be found onto longer routes such as Gunga Din (S), and eventually the local classic Pain Pillar (VS 4c), which takes the left edge of the main face, the highest point on the cliff and provides sustained and well protected climbing in a photogenic and spectacular position.
This Trossachs addition is perhaps not the most obvious recommendation for a beginners' crag, but its location and scale make it a great mountain in miniature, and a good place to hone belaying, route-finding and navigation skills before venturing into more committing territory in the mountains proper.
The south flanks are embellished with a scattering of short, sound, schist crags, which can be easily linked together in various combinations into a low-grade multi-pitch experience. The approach path is well constructed and signed from the loch-side car park, and a short scuttle leftwards brings one to the start of the lower tier, close to the tourist path but concealed enough to stash bags for the day.
A popular link-up from here is Ash Wall (S 4a); Birch Wall (HS 4a); Rowan Rib (D); Atom Rib; The Last Eighty (S 4a); and Record Slab (D), which all-in provides 100m of climbing in 125m of vertical elevation. The route finishes on a true pinnacle summit of the mountain, with spectacular sunset views across Loch Katrine and the bonus astonishment of hillwalkers as you emerge onto the plateau. The descent path is straightforward and brings you back down to your bags in 10-15 minutes. Then you have the option of picking another combination of lines, or retreating to the car park and enjoying a well-earned jump in the loch or chips in Callander.
Crags of volcanic origin pepper the fringes of Glasgow, and are most often hidden in the hills or in the woods, but one crag that entirely breaks this igneous mould is the humble yet fantastic sandstone escarpment of Craigmaddie.
Located several miles north of Glasgow, this crag is tucked among hillocks at the boundary between farmland and open moor. A ten-minute walk from the road reveals a cluster of crags weathered from the hillside in a scattering of prows and roofs of bouldering height, both south-facing and exposed to the wind. Unusually for the Glasgow crags, Craigmaddie enjoys an extensive panorama across the city, which also makes it a good choice on sunny winter days.
The rock gives pockets and rough slopers, with lip traverses and steep straight-up problems where heel and toe hooks are well rewarded. With echoes of Northumberland, Craigmaddie is a hidden gem of bouldering, and recent popularity has pushed its top grade to 8A. For first forays onto real boulders, however, the venue offers a fine selection of lower-grade challenges, without the need to go highball.
The first area reached on approach is the Sheep Pen, often busy and identifiable by its large roof. Its best lines are harder, including the classic Abracadabra (7A), but it serves as a good point of orientation. Just above and to the right lies the Jawbone Crag, a good accessible place to start, and with a cluster of problems around 3 and 4.
A further 100m walk above the Sheep Pen lies a second band of crags. The Upper Crag is a perfect summer evening crag – a quick-drying wall with a range of accessible grades and flat landings. Accordingly, problems here are among the most popular at Craigmaddie, including Left Crack (f4) and Right Crack (f5) , with The Mantle (f6B) and Undercutter Crack (6B) providing excellent harder fare.
Craigmaddie's rural location underlines the need for climbers to be sensitive to local concerns: don't damage walls, disturb nesting birds, or climb on the sandstone after rain. However, the sunny quietude above the city, excellent rock and a spread of grades make it a great bouldering spot for all abilities.
(with thanks to Kevin Woods for Craigmaddie details)
From Ayrshire, into the Central Belt and up to the Stirlingshire hills, the Lowland regions of Scotland are within easy travel distance of its two main cities and the majority of its climbing population. Though perhaps lacking the grandeur of the Highlands, the Lowlands make up for this in variety and accessibility with dolerite quarries, adventurous greywacke sea-cliffs and basalt test-pieces. With over 1,900 trad, sport and bouldering routes, from esoteric gems to world-classics, the area holds something for everyone.
Compiled and updated by local activists, this new guide presents the best that the Lowlands have to offer. With colour photographic topos throughout, inspiring action shots, detailed maps, public transport and accessibility details, it's designed for both seasoned climbers and those taking their first steps onto outdoor crags.
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