'Scotland is a country of mountains' begins the introduction; then author Chris Townsend proceeds to cram most of them between the covers of this weighty tome. It's a big, ambitious thing to attempt, but luckily the results are worthy of the subject matter. Scotland is an impressive piece of work.
Author: Chris Townsend
Cover: Paperback - Laminated
Published: 20 Oct 2010
It would take a lifetime to visit each area and climb every hill mentioned in this book, and in a sense that's what Scotland is – the data from a lifetime of hillwalking, scrambling, wild camping, bothying, ski touring and backpacking condensed into a single mega volume.
Apparently this book took six years to assemble, but it's clear that the writing time is just the tip of a pretty deep iceberg. Chris Townsend is a well known and respected authority on the outdoors with a huge volume of work spanning many years. To my mind, among his many guidebooks and magazine contributions Scotland stands out as something of a magnum opus.
"Newcomers to the Scottish hills are typically baffled by the sheer amount of upland in one small country, and even old hands are unlikely to know it all. "
This book should appeal to a range of people, from climbers and hikers visiting from overseas (or even from England) to local residents who spend every weekend out. Newcomers to the Scottish hills are typically baffled by the sheer amount of upland in one small country, and even old hands are unlikely to know it all. So Scotland is likely to fill a few gaps in most people's knowledge and for some it could become the starting point to a whole new adventure.
Before you rush out and buy it, let's be clear exactly what we're talking about. This is a reference book, painted with the broad brush of the all-encompassing gazetteer rather than the minute detail of a typical routes guidebook. At over 500 pages long it is about the size and weight of half a breeze block, a book to keep at home rather than in your pack. The aim is to present a comprehensive overview of the country as a whole, giving an impression of the character of every major range from Galloway to the Western Isles but not digging that deeply in any one place. Major peaks, passes and points of particular interest are well covered, but plenty of detail is omitted too, particularly away from the Munros and Corbetts that (perhaps inevitably) make up the bulk of the hills described. Scores of routes are mentioned, but only the best and most obvious in each area; none are described in blow-by-blow detail. Treat Scotland as a resource for initial research on an area, then get the up-close stuff from region-specific guides.
Walking is the main focus, but perhaps uniquely in a British hillwalking book the area highlights are broken down into a wider range of activities too, with something to interest every breed of hill goer – low level passes; long distance trails; summit walks; scrambles; rock climbing; winter climbing and ski touring. Each activity is given a little symbol to make the relevant paragraphs easier to spot. The coverage of different activities nicely reflects the fact that many hill folk have a finger in more than one pie. After all, serious walkers are likely to go scrambling or winter mountaineering on occasion, while it would be a sadly single minded climber who couldn't see the attraction of long distance backpacking. There aren't many books on Scottish ski touring at all, so its inclusion here is very welcome.
"...the data from a lifetime of hillwalking, scrambling, wild camping, bothying, ski touring and backpacking condensed into a single volume..."
Does this diversification work? Broadly, yes – and breadth is exactly the intention here. Whatever activity floats your boat there's enough to identify most major hills of interest to you in Scotland, but inevitably this book can't hold your hand up every route, and it isn't meant to. For more activity-specific information climbers, walkers and scramblers will have to look elsewhere, and as luck would have it the chapter summary sections offer a selection of the guidebooks available for each area (albeit a limited list in some cases). Summary indexes at the start of every area chapter also give quick easy reference to the contents by hill range and activity, while the main access points to each hill group and the places you might best base yourself for a weekend are listed too. It's all very user friendly.
Enthusiasts of a particular activity may find the coverage of their favourite game a little cursory at times. Speaking as a climber one wee niggle is that the relevant information is patchy, simultaneously too in-depth and too fleeting. A respectable half page is given to summer and winter routes in the Loch Avon basin for example, but much of that is taken up with names and dates of first ascents - though nothing about more recent hard routes. Hell's Lum, the Shelter Stone Crag and Carn Etchachan each merit a paragraph but there's no mention of Stag Rocks and the rest. On Hell's Lum the only climbs explicitly covered are Deep Cut Chimney and Hell's Lum itself, though if we weren't told when and by whom these were first climbed there'd have been space for lots more routes equally deserving a shout. The approach suggests that climbing is not Chris Townsend's first love; an edit from a local expert would have been worthwhile here.
"If the many inspiring pictures don't fill you with the urge to get out today then you've probably got no soul..."
While I'm in nitpicking mode it's worth mentioning that I've come across the occasional snippet of outdated information. Following boundary changes in 2010 the Cairngorms National Park is now 4528 square km, not 3800 sq km as stated in the intro. Since the SMC accepted a revised height survey for Sgurr nan Ceannaichean there are now 283 official Munros, not 284 as stated at least once in the book; the 'demotion' of this hill also bumps up the number of Corbetts from the quoted 219 to 220. The most recent version of the SMC Lowland Outcrops climbing guide is 2005, not 1994 (not that it greatly matters – personally I'm still happy using my older version). Given the density of information it's hardly surprising if a few minor errors like these creep in, and I imagine these particular examples arose as a result of the book having been so long in production.
Cicerone must have worked hard on the design and layout of Scotland. This is a very attractive book indeed, a real pleasure to peruse. Interest is driven by Chris Townsend's excellent photography, inspiring images that keep you flicking happily through page after page. These showcase the diversity of Scotland's hill groups and the distinct character of each range; and if they don't fill you with the urge to get out today then you've probably got no soul. This many decent pictures taken in every season across the length and breadth of the country represents a lot of time spent in the hills, further reinforcing the impression that Chris Townsend knows his subject intimately. Anyone familiar with our often sub-optimal weather will recognise how much sustained effort it must have taken to end up with so many well lit shots, plenty under blue sky too. The book's many maps are a perfect complement to the photos – clear, colour-shaded, often full-page and some even double-spread. Mapping of this quality is a quantum leap from the crappy hand-sketched black and white guidebook maps of yesteryear.
There's more to Scotland than bland hill-focused information. The introduction covers history, geology and natural history in some depth. The fascinating etymology of place names gets more than a look-in, and there's a handy glossary of common mountain words in Gaelic and English. Interesting asides are peppered throughout the book, often presented as boxed-out paragraphs to avoid them getting lost in the sheer volume of text.
Fact-packed reference books aren't generally strong on readability and enthusiasm so this is an added bonus here. An exercise like this might run the risk of being dry, but Chris Townsend's love for his subject shines through, and it couldn't fail to rub off on you too. My copy isn't likely to spend much time on the shelf; I'll be too busy dipping into it. Scotland is the second book in Cicerone's World Mountain Ranges series, following Kev Reynolds' excellent The Pyrenees. On the strength of these two I really hope there are more titles in the pipeline.
Dan Bailey, UKH Editor (News), is the author of several guidebooks including Great Mountain Days in Scotland, West Highland Way, The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland - Scrambles and Climbs and Scotland's Mountain Ridges - A Guide to Scrambles and Climbs described as 'a work of considerable authority, I can recommend (it) unreservedly' by Chris Craggs.
Dan lives in Fife and has always had a passion for climbing and the outdoors. His work features widely in print and online media, from outdoor mags to Sunday papers.
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