Lowland Outcrops Review


In recent times the Scottish Mountaineering Press have gone from strength to strength, with a renewed emphasis on design and modern layouts, and a bumper crop of quality guidebooks. In 2022 they brought us not, one, not two, but three inspiring titles - Scottish Winter Climbs West, Highland Scrambles North, and Scottish Rock Climbs, the selective guide to the country's best rock climbing. The latter is a big book of fun by anyone's standards, and for visiting teams it's got probably all you need; but there is a major omission (to my mind) in the form of a Central Scotland-sized gap in its coverage.

Lowland Outcrops  © SMC

Coming out around 18 years after the previous edition, the much-anticipated new edition of their definitive guide to the Central Belt crags - published towards the end of 2023 - fills in that blank. Put together by Topher Dagg and a team of local activists, it's an attractive guide that brings new clarity to this well-trodden area, and should prove a big seller. We first covered it in our Christmas books feature, and felt it deserved republishing as a stand-alone review.

The urban heart of the country may be where most Scottish climbers live, but it's a region that seems to be much maligned, and perhaps unfairly. While no one could disagree that Lowland Scotland is the poor cousin of the Highlands and Islands in terms of both quality and quantity of rock, and the region has a deserved reputation for grotty quarries, there's still plenty to love. As an ex-Central Belter myself, I'd argue (and I'm sure this isn't a unique view) that from the mid grades upwards the best of it compares head-to-head with single pitch routes anywhere in the country.

There's plenty of variety too, including some great natural outcrops as well as those scruffy quarries, and even sea cliffs and a mini-mountain crag for added interest. It's not all about graffitied dolerite either, with sandstone, basalt, greywacke, schist and limestone also to be found. While trad still makes up the bulk of the climbing, sport climbing and bouldering have increasingly featured too. The shiny new Lowland Outcrops ranges far and wide across it all, usefully bringing sport, trad and bouldering into a single volume that contains over 1900 routes, from the esoteric to the classic. At well over 350 pages, and coming in the imprint's medium format size, this hefty tome is the definitive resource for all Central Scotland climbing.

Katie MacKay high above the water on Red Lead  © Frit Tam
Katie MacKay high above the water on Red Lead
© Frit Tam

Don't judge a book by its cover, they say, but those gracing the new generation of SMC guides are literally works of art, each a stunning photo-realistic painting by the very talented Christopher Smith-Duque. Featuring Dumbarton Rock in dramatic contrasty light, and bearing the now-trademark retro typeface, Lowland Outcrops is a real beauty.

Sunset at Dumby - Koon Morris on Bad Attitude  © Fraser Harle
Sunset at Dumby - Koon Morris on Bad Attitude
© Fraser Harle

The high production values continue within, where the publisher's distinctive design identity is in evidence in the attractive layouts and easily-navigated information. For each crag, handy maps and at-a-glance symbols augment the written content, and the topos are a big step up from those in the previous guide. If I have a criticism of the topos, it's that not enough is made of them, and while the layout looks very smart it does introduce constraints to their size, making some of the busier crags a bit squished and cluttered. Doing away with the page borders and allowing topos to spread right to the edge of the paper would have given them more room to breathe, improving clarity. It's also a bit of a pain that route descriptions don't always appear in the same spread as their topos.

What of the photography? At their best the action shots are great, with my (not impartial) personal favourite being UKC's Stephen Horne on Chemin de Fer, photographed by our own Martin McKenna. There's a fair amount of so-so stuff too, but while not all Central Belt venues are hugely photogenic the pictures do at least give a good sense of the character of crags and climbs.

An interesting addition is the inclusion of several mini-interviews with local climbers. Scattered throughout the text, these portraits give the book a friendly feel, and along with the action shots they help reflect the diversity of the scene here. Climbing is no longer just for white men (if it ever was) - an admirably inclusive ethos that runs very subtly through the book, without coming across as preachy virtue-signalling. I don't think the mini interview idea would suit every guide, but it works here.

In terms of clarity, attractiveness and sheer inspiration, the new Lowland Outcrops is a major improvement on the previous guide. Even if you already own the old edition it's well worth making the upgrade - especially for all the sport climbing and bouldering that has been developed in the interim. Climbing in Scotland's Central Belt has never looked so good. I'm almost tempted to head back down there for a trip; can't get enough of those quarries.

For more, see guide author Topher Dagg's recent pick of the Central Belt's more beginner-friendly venues: 

23 Jan

Looks great! Are the Southern Upland crags in it as they were in the original 90s Lowland Outcrops guide?

From the example pages I see that Spirogyra (VS 4c) is 5a. It's a route I did many times and loved whilst a Glasgow resident, but I thought it was VS 4c. Did it get an upgrade or is my memory failing me (highly likely!)?

edit: having hit "send" I can see the UKC database has Spirogyra down as 4c so perhaps it's a debatable one!

23 Jan

Things of beauty, guidebooks as they ought to be

23 Jan

They are getting their own guidebook. There's been loads of development there recently.

23 Jan

Spirogyra was given 5a in the previous guide - perhaps for the awkward starting crack shared with Prom Direct?

23 Jan

Indeed, I can confirm that there is a South West guidebook in the works that covers Dumfries, Moffatt, The Galloway Hills and the Southwest Sea Cliffs.

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