Highland Scrambles North Review

© Dan Bailey

New guides to Scottish climbing and scrambling are a bit like proverbial buses: you wait what feels like ages, and then a couple come almost at once. On my desk are copies of Scottish Winter Climbs West, and Highland Scrambles North. I'll dig into the winter tome closer to the snowy months; meanwhile, since it's scrambling high season let's start with some sunkissed slabs and ridges.

Highland Scrambles North cover  © SMC

This is the most comprehensive scrambling guide yet produced to any Scottish mountain area, and the best-looking

The Scottish Mountaineering Press has latterly branched into literary and arty directions, but it's fair to say that the mainstay of the company remains Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebooks.

The new additions to their extensive existing catalogue echo the clean aesthetic of last year's fantastic Munros guide, a design revamp that gives the current generation of SMC guidebooks, whether for walking, scrambling or climbing, a distinctive edge. These books look fantastic.

From the gnarly inaccessibility of Knoydart to the geological oddities of the far north, and out to the bare rock and bracing weather of the western isles, the new Highland Scrambles North encompasses a large proportion of Scotland's wildest and most impressive mountain landscapes. Diverse, challenging, and alluringly beautiful, this huge area is an absolute gold mine for scramblers.

At its best the photography is a real treat  © SMC
At its best the photography is a real treat

Airy ridges; isolated buttresses; rambling lines linking the best bits of slab all the way up a hill; even some Lakeland style ghyll (allt) routes - there's a bit of everything in Highland Scrambles North. Some are famous, while others may well have been climbed for the first time during research for this book. Though I spend more time than is probably healthy poking around in the north highlands, there's plenty new to me. Anyone fancy Ladhar Bheinn's An Diallaid, or the North-East Slab of Cona' Mheall, a "serious and committing route in a remote situation"? That line could sum up the whole area.

Those of an exploratory bent will find themselves well catered for here, and while some of the inclusions are likely to be scrappy and greasy, it's a fair bet that buried riches also await. From long experience of SMC scrambling guides, it pays to treat anything with one star or none with healthy caution, and to expect loose rock and greenery. But the upper end of the quality spectrum is well represented too: some two-star routes would rate as stand-outs in a more heavily-trodden area, while the top-end classics include many of the greatest hands-on mountain days in the UK. Any single book that includes the Forcan Ridge, the Lurgainn Edge, and the traverse of the Rum Cuillin has got to be worth adding to your library.

Road-testing the new guide on Liathach  © Dan Bailey
Road-testing the new guide on Liathach
© Dan Bailey

Perhaps it's a bit heavy to carry up hills  © Dan Bailey
Perhaps it's a bit heavy to carry up hills
© Dan Bailey

Whether you come to scrambling via hillwalking, or approach the activity with more of a climbers' or mountaineer's head, the grade spread in the guide has you well covered, ranging from grade 1 (you could call that hillwalking with added hands, and the potential to fall a long way), to Moderate and Difficult grade mountain rock climbs. Since I'd argue that hillwalking, scrambling and climbing exist on a continuum and represent differences only of degree, I'd concur with the inclusion of some classic lower grade climbs.

But perhaps it's a slightly tricky grey area to know how best to pitch. While a brief mention is made of ropes on Diffs, make no mistake if you're a walker lacking the relevant skills and gear that anything grade 3 or above could feel distinctly spicy. Author Iain Thow has written from the perspective of an accomplished mountaineer, and for the benefit of the less seasoned I do think that more could have been said up-front about safety, gear and climbing skills, given the varied demographic that may be interested in this guide. On a similar note, it's a little surprising how few helmets are in evidence in the photos.

I have a lot of affection for the previous Highland Scrambles North. Published in 2006, and also the fruit of Iain's hard graft, this book was a companion on many great days out. But it was long looking dated, particularly its old-school black and white sketch topos (arguably superseded before that book was even made).

The new edition builds on the improvements of 2017's Highland Scrambles South in terms of colour photo topos, but adds a new level of user-friendliness too, with logical info symbols that summarise key points of each route at a glance (including rock type, orientation, approach time, and route height gain), and clearer and better-looking maps. That 2017 guide felt like a big improvement at the time, but the new evolution is more refined, more attractive, and feels generally more contemporary still.

While the old Highland North book detailed 138 routes, the new one ups the coverage to 199 - enough to keep even the most avid scrambler busy - and has poached a few areas off 2017's Scrambles South in the process. As a result it's gained over 100 pages, so while it retains the pocket-sized format of previous SMC scrambling guides, both the thickness and the weight have gone up considerably, from 299g for the 2006 edition to 473g today. Far be it from me to criticise any guidebook for being too big to carry up the route, having written a few along those lines myself, but it's worth saying that the 2022 edition has the feel of a book you'd be more likely to peruse at home than delve into on the hill. Outdoors I'll either consult the Rockfax app or carry a phone photo of the relevant pages.

Gone too is the plastic cover that used to typify SMC rock and scrambling guides, and though these look ugly and old fashioned I do think they were practical. It's nicer, and more environmentally friendly, but I have doubts about the relative longevity of the new card cover - perhaps another reason to treat Highland Scrambles North as largely a stay-at-home book.

It's a weightier read than its predecessor  © Dan Bailey
It's a weightier read than its predecessor
© Dan Bailey

Reinforcing the reference book impression is the fact that you get through 70 pages before even setting foot on a hill - which is 70 pages of non-routes to carry up A' Mhaighdean's Red Slab as the exposure sucks at your heels. The lengthy introduction includes extensive notes on geology and weather, two very relevant concerns to the scrambler on the ground. But there's more besides, including arguably tangential information on wildlife and human history, and a timeline of mountaineering in the area. While it's all interesting stuff, and put there to help foster a reader's knowledge and love of the hills, I'm not convinced a 'pocket' sized scrambling guidebook is the best place for it. Four pages of listings for accommodation and travel seem an odd thing to add too. Since contact details are bound to change between reprints, that sort of thing would be better online.

Still in critical mode, a note on the layout. While the overall impression is very attractive, I have an issue with the way that routes run across pages. With a new route or even a new mountain in many cases starting halfway down a page, and some topos featuring on the reverse side from the accompanying written description, things can feel cluttered and squeezed-in. Ideally each route should have its own double page spread so that everything's legible at a glance with minimal flicking. I suspect the small page size imposed limitations on the design, but since this is not best treated as a pocket-sized book anyway, the larger format of the new Scottish Winter Climbs West guide would have offered more layout options.

Back on the credit side of the equation, the route descriptions are clear, succinct, and seem to offer just the right amount of hand-holding, providing sufficient guidance to steer you at the most salient points without overdoing it on extraneous detail. Some of these routes are hundreds of metres long, and you couldn't describe every feature. I've read up several routes with which I'm already very familiar, and it all makes sense; I've also successfully field tested the guide on one that was new to me, the very deserving South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain. The words and topo were sound there too.

Supplementing the hard info are a wealth of action photos, which help both sell the route and convey a bit of its setting and character. Inevitably in a research project as big as this, a few of the photos are poor bottom-up snapshots, but more attractive and professional-looking images abound too. Some have been re-used from the previous guide (as of course have many of the words), but there's also plenty new to look at and get excited about.

When reviewing any new guidebook, one of our key tests is that it should in equal measure inform and inspire. Highland Scrambles North emphatically ticks both those boxes. This is the most thorough and comprehensive scrambling guide yet produced to any Scottish mountain area, and the best-looking. I look forward to the eventual appearance of companion volumes South and Skye. Meanwhile there's plenty here to keep everyone entertained in the grandest place of them all - the north.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am an SMC member. However I've had no hand in this, or any of their books. I'd like to hope I'm unbiased.

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18 Jul

Possibly a stupid question.... are all the routes in here on the rockfax app? I'm never quite sure what the deal is with SMC guides on rockfax.

There are 150 selected scrambles from the whole of Scotland in the Rockfax app, so not everything in this book is in the app.

18 Jul

Thanks, I could never quite work out what was in the app, having the various mountains listed alphabetically doesn't help! I was tempted to buy the book regardless just for a decent overview map.

19 Jul

Not sure about the content, but the cover has to be one of the most beautiful out there

Thanks! A lot of work has gone into the new design system for the climbers' and scramblers' guides over the last couple of years, it's great to see it in the real. The painting itself is phenomenal – it's 120cm by 100cm... when I was around at Christopher's (the artist) house recently I spent about 10 minutes just looking at the detail in a patch of grass! Prints of various sizes are available on the Scottish Mountaineering Press site, just in case anyone is interested.

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