In recent times, Shetland has attempted to vie with Midsommer Norton as TVs midweek murder capital, but I suspect that you won't be stepping over too many corpses as you come off the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to begin your adventure. Shetland, Foula, Fair Isle and St Kilda are some of the most remote islands of the UK. They have an air of mystery, romance and ruggedness that is only enhanced when you eventually arrive. This is reinforced when you hear tales of the local trows, which are nocturnal troll-like creatures. They are generally inclined to be short, ugly, and shy in nature but they do like a nice bit of folk music. To this end they have an annoying habit of kidnapping musicians and taking them home to their barrows. Leave your fiddle at home.
I've climbed on many other islands in Scotland but this place has always held out. I guess the perceived difficulty of getting there was one hurdle, as was the challenge of getting anyone else other than my old husky dog Frank to come with me. Ultimately, the reason I (and perhaps many others) have never been was because of the complete lack of information, and the fear that once you arrive either there won't be enough to do, the weather/midges will be awful, or some other frightful thing will happen to make it an expensive and fruitless journey. It's always easier to go to the Costa Wherever.
Al Whitworth has now done the climbing community a great service by producing the very first guidebook to Shetland, Foula and Fair Isle. I'd heard rumours of this thing for a few years, and then recently I was able to send some money to the far north with the promise of a guidebook in return. At the end of September it arrived and I'm already planning my first visit to these remarkable looking islands.
"It can't be that easy to get photos of every cliff on Shetland & Foula but it's been done here and it's magic"
I tend to be pretty critical of guidebooks, and there are certainly things I would have done differently with this book had I been producing it. However there are also things I would never have thought to do which are (in one case at least) such a stroke of genius that I'm surprised that no other UK guidebooks have done them before.
First impressions: there are so many guidebooks out there with terrible front cover shots that I despair. I know that a poor cover shot is unlikely to put someone off buying a guide, but I think that the choice of shot says a lot about the passion of the producer. It's not hard to find and take an iconic shoot of your area and this guide certainly has that. It shows climbers on a route at Eshaness Lighthouse cliffs. The belayer is on a platform not all that far above a churning North Atlantic and the leader looks tiny as he climbs into the blue of a Shetland summer day. You just know that the swell that's hitting those cliffs has been uninterrupted for hundreds of miles and there's a definite sense of danger. It's enough to make anyone sit up and wonder what other marvels are in the book.
"This is an essential purchase for any self respecting climber with a sense of adventure"
Essentially a guidebook has to get you to the area, then the crag, then the route. It's a matter of common sense to get to Shetland, but then the stroke of genius I mentioned earlier arrives. Each crag has a simple written approach description and then a half page OS map that shows the approach both perfectly and accurately. I'd say that every guide I've ever used from continental sport to Highland trad has always failed to give foolproof, clear directions to every crag, but this guide might be the first to never lead a climber astray, and if it does, then you can blame the OS. There are effective photo topos on most pages and the written descriptions are refreshingly short. Compare this to some of the convoluted and inaccurate descriptions in e.g. Scottish Rock North and you'll see how Al Whitworth has really blazed a trail. It can't be that easy to get photos of every cliff on Shetland & Foula but it's been done here and it's magic.
I only have a few quibbles with the guide, and they are not significant. There are no first ascent details, and that's the sort of thing I like to know about; I feel that it gives depth and flavour to any guide. The BMC's recent Lancashire guide missed all FA details out and I think it's poorer for it, and I would say that about this guide too. My other niggle is the lack of an index. All the actions shots are named by climber and route, but there are no page numbers to go find that route to see which cliff it's on or what grade it is, and I find that frustrating. An index would have gone some way to alleviate that, or more detailed annotation of the pictures.
I asked Al why he went down this line and he said that the main reasons for not putting these things in was that he wanted to refer people to the website for updates and development info - particularly for the FA info. There was also an issue of cost and time, and ultimately he was the guy producing the guide so it was his call. The print run was relatively small (hundreds rather than thousands) and so the guide will just about cover his costs; therefore putting in even more time and expense didn't seem like an option for him.
Apart from the three tasks mentioned above regarding what a guidebook has to achieve, perhaps the most crucial addition to that list is that it has to make you want to go. From the first time I picked this up it did exactly that. I'd never even heard of most of the rock types that I can now climb on - pyroclastic breccia, volcanic andesite, psammite, serpentite and ignimbrite. From all those to the abstract weirdness of The Drongs and the fact that every cliff looks like an adventure, I am determined to get there in 2017. There are even a few sport routes, although they're probably not the reason anyone goes to Shetland.
Most of the climbing is single pitch, and there are a large number of routes from Diff up to around E3. There are something like fifty crags and a thousand routes, plus a bunch of bouldering venues to explore and develop. There's easily enough to do for the average climber - up to VS if the UKC logbooks are to be believed. There are obvious gaps on many topos and perhaps that is just reflective of the number of people climbing on the islands. The star system goes up to four, and only a few routes get that treatment. There are almost certainly many new route opportunities from VDiff upwards, and that is an attractive thing for some of us. There are good descriptions of the bigger challenges, especially on Foula where routes go up to 375m, although the biggest cliff on the island (The Kame) isn't recorded except in passing. The presence of a football field sized ledge half way up takes away the impact of this cliff from a climber's point of view.
Getting to Shetland isnt actually all that hard and once there, getting around is easy. There's tons of information in the guide regarding logistics and the Shetland Climbing website is plenty good enough, with a forum section should you want to ask specific questions or even find a partner. Overall this is an essential purchase for any self respecting climber with a sense of adventure.
- Shetland is available now for £19.95. For more info, or to buy a copy of the guide direct from Al, visit ShetlandClimbing.info