The SMC Guide to the Outer Hebrides Review

There are few places more special in this world than the Outer Hebrides. The prevalent rock type - Lewisian Gneiss - is amongst the best out there: it's beautiful, solid, ancient, and varied. The island landscape has to be seen to be believed, with rugged coastlines, fascinating wildlife, and an ambience that is hard to match. However, due to the absence of a definitive guide many of the secrets locked within this wondrous area had been left hidden for decades. Now they've been revealed, I suspect a lot of us will be looking at our diary for next year...

When it comes to the contents the guide gets straight to the point, with a short introduction, a few pages on environment, safety, and technical info, a couple of pages on geology, then that's it - you're into back to back topos and descriptions. Numbers-wise, we're talking 2,500 routes, 177 photo diagrams, and 124 action photos, all packed into 480 pages.

However, numbers don't do all the talking, it's the names that matter too, and this guide covers it all: Lewis to Harris, Barra to Vatersay, Pabbay to Mingulay, then beyond to Berneray before finishing up at St Kilda. I'll repeat that - St Kilda!!

Thinking of such an awkward set of islands to photograph, let alone document, gives you an insight into the magnitude of the task of putting it all into a single guidebook - and this makes you all the more grateful for having it in the palm of your hand.

Katy Whittaker and Jo Stadden on A Prophecy of Drowning (E2), during a stellar trip in 2014  © Rob Greenwood - UKC
Katy Whittaker and Jo Stadden on A Prophecy of Drowning (E2), during a stellar trip in 2014
© Rob Greenwood - UKC

In terms of topos, they're clear, large, and of a high quality. In fact, there's only a handful of crags that don't have them, which is mind-boggling really - not least because of the complexity in acquiring them! There's a blend of half page and full page topos, with two double page spreads reserved for Sron Ulladale and Creag Liam. Whilst the magnitude of each cliff is very much felt through the double page topo, it does make you realise why the half/single page topos are preferable, with several lines being lost to the crease. Award for the sexiest topo however doesn't go to Sron Ulladale, it goes - in my opinion - to Creag Dhearg on Mingulay: taken in the evening sun, it really shows the immensity of its proportion and really, really makes me want to go back.

If there's one thing that compliments a topo, it's an action shot (and a description, but we'll come onto those later). Whilst a topo gives a sort of one dimensional overview of what a cliff has to offer, an action shot helps give some perspective of all the rest of it. One thing is for sure - this guide has a LOT of good action shots. A large number of these come from the likes of Rab Anderson and Kev Howett, who have been involved in the development of the islands since the beginning of the goldrush. There's also a plentiful supply of images from Mike Hutton, which really brighten up the guide from a more modern perspective, but Mike isn't in isolation, as there's images from a great many other keen climbers and photographers that really bring the guide to life. It all adds a splash of colour and inspiration, and really makes you want to go.

When it comes to descriptions the guidebook has been researched, written, and fed back on by countless climbers and area activists. In fact, much like the topos, the magnitude of this task can't be underestimated, because it will have taken a lot of time and effort to collate. That said, an initial criticism comes not from the descriptions themselves, but to their ordering, which varies in between right to left and left to right. The idea behind this is that the numbering falls in line with the direction from which you approach, which sounds nice on paper, but in practise just leads to confusion (it is - in my eyes - counter intuitive to read anything from right to left, because that's not the way anything in this world actually works... apart from Japanese...). Furthermore, this theory is even broken within the guide itself, with Sron Ulladale being described left to right despite approaching it from the right, hence the logic (if indeed it was logical in the first place) further falls apart.

When it comes to grading, the Outer Hebrides have a reputation skewed towards the extreme end of the spectrum; whilst there is undoubtedly truth in this, that isn't to say that there is no decent easier stuff around. Stand-outs include Griomabhal and its Islivig Direct, a superb looking 270m VS 4b in the Uig Hills and Fifteen Fathoms of Fear, a 50m Severe that launches its way through unlikely terrain on Dun Mingulay... but there is so much more. 2-3 star routes from VDiff to VS are littered throughout the guide, that would guarantee a great week away for the adventurous low-mid grade climber. For those operating into the extremes, simply run your fingers through the pages, stop at random, and the chances are that you'll have landed on one of the best routes you've never heard of (a good game for a winter evening perhaps?).

Things that most excited me about this guide (in no particular order):

Berneray - if the topo for The Giant's Pipes wasn't enough to spark a bit of imagination, the action shot of Barra Head Games really puts things into perspective - this is a huge cliff with so much potential left that it makes me wonder what I'm doing sitting here writing this review.

Pabbay and Mingulay - for years we've been going off what's in Gary's guide, simply because that's all there's been. I always suspected there was a lot more, but not this much more. Huge cliffs with fantastic lines that give me a good reasons to go back.

St. Kilda - there is so much mystery surrounding this awkward outlier that it's nice to see exactly what's on offer, and what the logistics are to get there. Has it diluted the mystique of the unknown? Perhaps a little; but more climbers might actually get out there now.

No review would be complete without a word on grades and grading. In that respect this guide is diverse. Lewis and Harris generally feel quite solid for the grade, compared to Pabbay and Mingulay's relatively soft grading (something I've always attributed to the area's remote nature). Despite this discrepancy, they are all consistent to themselves (i.e. Lewis to Harris and Pabbay to Mingulay), so if you go on a trip to either/or you'll tend to find it's all pretty much equivalent to one another. The only oddity I could see that has been downgraded is The Ancient Mariners on Pabbay's Pink Walls. Why the authors chose to downgrade this and this alone is somewhat perplexing, not just because it's one of the best E5s I've ever done, but also because it's the exact same grade as every other E5 on the islands. If you downgrade one of the key routes at this grade, surely The Herbrudean should go down to E3 and Big Kenneth E2! Still, the fact that I'm only talking about a single route gives you some sense of perspective, I just felt sad that such a proud route had been stripped of its E5 badge, and that balance had hardly been restored from it having been downgraded (if anything it'd upset the balance a little).

The only other anomaly I spotted was the suggestion that a 150m abseil rope is required for Mingulay, which seemed strange given the fact that 100m will definitely do for 99% of the cliffs. Looking further through the topos it also seems strange that 150m this isn't mentioned anywhere else, other than a single cliff on Guersay Mor which requires 120m to access the base. This seemed a bit misleading, and more than a little unhelpful, but I suspect anyone wishing to visit the area will peruse the guide as a whole as opposed to a single line within the island's access notes (or just ask a friend). Another point worth mentioning is first ascent information, which is - thankfully - included. Due to the guide's size there aren't any further historical notes, but I think this is acceptable given the sheer quantity of information that is already in it - I really don't think they could have fitted any more in!

Finally, the cover…

There's already been quite a bit of discussion about the cover elsewhere online, but for those that haven't been involved here's a quick summary of my own views: a guidebook cover should attempt to distill an area's very essence into a single image and - for me - this means a wild Atlantic ocean and golden Lewisian Gneiss being kissed by the last rays of the evening sun. Sron Ulladale is an exceptional cliff and The Scoop is an exceptional route, but this is not an exceptional photograph - neither does it fulfil the criteria outlined above. Dare I say it, but there are countless other shots in the guide that would be more suitable than this, which leaves me feeling somewhat confused. In a guide filled with so much colour, so much vibrancy, the cover left me feeling cold.

In addition to this, whilst I understand the need for consistency within a series of guides, I think it's high time that the SMC moved on to a full bleed cover image. The current format is now looking quite dated and I think a larger image would arguably have more impact (particularly if it's got that aforementioned Atlantic sunset in it - even the thought is enough to send a shiver down my spine). All that said, somewhere on Facebook someone commented "How many people are going to buy a guide to a hard-to-access area just on the basis of the cover?" and I guess this is a valid point. What matters most is that we have the guide - and quite a body of work it is too.

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7 Sep, 2018

Wow - it looks amazing. Obviously a monumental effort. Congratulations to all involved.

7 Sep, 2018

Rob, if you find it sad that The Ancient Mariner has been downgraded because it was one of the best E5's you've ever done, spare a thought for someone for whom it was not just one of the best but one of a decidedly limited number of E5's they've ever done! :-(  Though the fact that I got up it ok almost certainly means it was a bit soft........

And is Big Kenneth really only E2? If so I'll have to get back asap for the E5 tick!

7 Sep, 2018

Me too, can't believe I missed that one on my last visit!

7 Sep, 2018

Could agree more on the cover, though I like the actual shot of Tony, it's not the best for a cover. The white cover design is in desperate need of re-design, I totally agree.

7 Sep, 2018

I'd just like to echo some of the other comments. This guidebook is an absolute triumph. I've barely put it down since I bought it hot off the presses. Who knows, I may even get to climb there as early as next year.

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