Summer 2020 fizzled out and the second lockdown was looming. In planning for some long winter days I started opening accounts on a few projects, one of which was a Scottish 'round up' article. We hadn't had one for ages and I felt pretty motivated to preach the word. First off though, I needed to question it's relevance. After all, I wasn't sure anyone would be interested!
At the moment it's easy to indulge in the cutting edge of our sport; unavoidable perhaps. But every year, numerous new climbs are made at a wide range of grades, all over Scotland. If you want to keep a finger on the pulse, the first port of call are the annual new routes reports from the Scottish Mountaineering Club. These are a great resource; free and easy for all to access. A downside of them is that they're necessarily factual, a bit black and white. They don't intend to add narrative or be selective, so a lot is left to the imagination. You do your own research. Perhaps it's best left that way?! Maybe if the knowledge got out, about the the wealth of climbing to do up here, we'd ruin it for ourselves! That thought was quickly pushed aside, with some inspiring publications like The Great Mountain Crags and The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland, Hebrides Guides and revised Scottish Rock. I think we're slowly nudging perception away from a ticklist mentality of Scottish climbs. The cat is well and truly, out the bag.
But the online media world has had an ecological shift. Information is fleeting, picture heavy. Instant access skews the content as attention spans diminish and the wordy platforms are subsumed. Blogs slowed to static and sites like Scottish Climbs were just petrified in the ether. Only a few Flickr's left to trawl through. Perhaps in knowing more, we communicate less? I feel a lift when I notice, like a lone survivor emerging amidst the zombie apocalypse, that North West Outdoors Blog has published another Ardmair update. What are the consequences for our 'community'? How influential are the influencers? Have celebrity culture and the commoditisation of climbing really ruined everything?
In reflecting on my own climbing career, I know I sought relatability in the stories I read. As well as the superstar mythology, I looked for things I could relate to. Stories a bit closer to home. The people, the grades, the ethos, the places are all central to that. It's not that I'm shy of the IG, but where I once was drawn in, I now occasionally shrink back (but #climbing_IS_my_passion)!
In a year that appears likely to see most UK climbers taking their holidays on our islands it seemed timely to wave some (slightly damp, possibly mossy and definitely midgey) carrots north of the border. So a few calls, emails and some pdf scanning later I had suitably sandbagged myself with a list of routes, photos, reports and encouragement from many of Scotland's activists. My aim: to communicate some of their activities to the wider community. Because of the sheer volume, this article is the first of two - South of the Great Glen. These articles would be best described as a selected curation of new trad climbs (and very notable repeats) at all grades. A sort of 'best of' mouthful, from the last few years. You'll have to go yourself for the 3 course meal.
Galloway and The Borders
Way down in Galloway, Stephen Reid, Chris King, Andrew Fraser and Ian Magill have been busy developing a small crag near the summit of Rubis Law. Craignarget is short crag made up of perfect granite, with routes established between Diff-VS. Being on the hill side and facing directly west, it gets sun well into the evening as well as any breeze going and only 30 minutes form the road.
Further north in The Borders, Graham Little has added a clutch of new routes to Cloon craig. The cliff is described as slightly broken and vegetated, but of excellent rock quality and in a fine situation. The routes are mostly Mod-VS and reportedly well suited to beginners. Though mostly climbing his new routes solo, Graham did tie in for a a few harder additions between HVS and E2.
On the east coast, at the western tip of St. Abbs Head, father and son team Terry and Rob Middleton climbed the corner of 'Teflon Terrier' VS 4b. Rob commented "it's also worth keeping your eyes peeled when out and about, as you never know where potential lies. While scuba diving at Petico Wick near St Abbs head, I spotted a cracking corner line that just had to be climbed. Following the dive (a great shore dive highly recommended), I twisted my dads arm for the belay and Teflon Terrier VS 4b was born."
The Central Belt
Kevin Woods has been exploring the Glasgow area and updating the guide in the process.
"Most of it isn't notable on a Scottish-wide scale but some of the routes mentioned are very good against the Lowland area. 2020 was an interesting year for the crags surrounding Glasgow, which received a degree of new-routing scrutiny they haven't seen in years."
"At Auchinstarry, several teams of climbers added a pile of routes between Severe and HVS, recolonising Little Amphitheatre and Shield Bay which had previously seen demolition work. I am told that the council's attitude now lies with education rather than heavy-handed 'stabilisation' work so these routes should be safe for some time yet. I spent summer 2020 on the Glasgow crags for an upcoming Lowland Outcrops. Surprisingly there were gaps and some were even quite good. At Auchinstarry Quarry I re-climbed Balance of Power, a superb bold E4 that was done in the 1980s. It suffered partial demolition, altering the top and the landing. Tidying up the line again revealed a superb piece of Central Belt dolerite. Nick Wylie linked Blade Runner Direct into Promontory Runner to give Final Cut, E5 6b, taking in the crux of each route without the benefit of side runners. I continued adding lines to the hillside location of Slackdhu which has doubled in volume from the previous guide. But it would be fair to call this crag acquired taste in it's location and in rock quality."
"In 2017, Tristam Fox added the Autobahn - Schumacher Finish at Craigmore. I added a direct start in summer 2020. This superb arete hides in plain sight and climbs really well with a bit of a runout and a final 'pop' move to the lip of the crag."
The summer of 2018 saw exceptionally dry conditions in the mountains. On Ben Nevis, Iain Small, Murdoch Jamieson and Dave MacLeod added two new routes on the front face of The Comb, Ben Nevis. Iain and Murdoch climbed an impressive steep corner line they called "Don't Stop Me Now". At E6 6b it features sustained, technical bridging and good protection. On the wall to the left, Dave and Iain climbed "Mr Fahrenheit", a contrasting pitch featuring a serious slab lower down and a steeper, better protected upper section. Murdoch repeated this the following day, confirming the grade of E7 6b. Climbing with Martin McKenna, Iain also made an on-sight ascent of the "immaculate steep wall" just left of The Shroud. It gave a long pitch on "beautifully clean, water washed rock", but with the caveat of being "probably best done during a protracted heat wave". Onsight new routing at this level in the Scottish mountains is the reserve of a handful of climbers and this ascent in particular gives an idea of the depth of skill and experience taken to these routes.
Over in Glen Coe, Iain spent some time on the smooth wall below the The Big Top E1, on the West Face of Aonach Dubh. The wall was previously breached by Dave 'Cubby' Cuthbertson at E6 6a who, abseiling on two tied together ropes and neglecting to 'pin' them in, struggled to gain much insight into the wall before he ended up in No.4 gully. Cubby climbed Prophet of Purism more or less on-sight, weaving a bold line along natural weakness. He comments "one of the few routes where I came close to blowing it and thinking I might die if I fall off." In 2017 Iain climbed part way up this route but continued directly through the middle of the upper wall. Returning the following year he started up Salome, before cutting across the traverse of Prophets.., again linking into the upper wall. He called this complete route Prophets of Pragmatism, a serious pitch at E8 6b. Dave MacLeod, who belayed him, repeated the route straight after.
Some pre-inspection and cleaning is arguably necessary for new routes, especially at this standard, on Scottish mountain cliffs. Chalk and gear knowledge bridge the gap somewhat and often make ground up attempts desirable propositions. It's perhaps fair to suggest that Iain's new routing and cleaning efforts, in particular, have not only resulted in quality new routes but also facilitated many of the notable repeats from other people.
In recent years, the steep walls of Binnein Shuas, have become something of a focal point for hard new trad climbs. Iain Small got the ball rolling again in 2016 and Dave MacLeod began making his own additions the following year. The output of hard new climbs since has been outstanding. The cliff has yet to become popular amongst local climbers, let alone visitors but Murdoch Jamieson, Rory Brown and Jamie Skelton have been getting stuck in to repeating some of these new test pieces.
Jamie writes: "I also got pretty psyched on going up to have a look at some of Iain and Dave's new routes on the Shuas when the lockdown eased. I found details of some of Iains are still quiet elusive/non existent. After this summer The Fortress seems to have been solidified as the most stacked wall in Scotland with over 10 routes in the E7 and up bracket all tucked under the massive roofs. I spent two days up there with Rory excited to work out where the routes went and we repeated one of Iain's. I wouldn't be surprised if Rory polishes off a few more next season. We're both shocked at the amount of the lines that launched up seemingly blank sections of overhanging rock. It's common knowledge that wall is mega."
Jamie and Rory repeated The Braes of Balquither, one of Iain's earlier additions. Jamie continues: "It gets a slash grade of E7/8 probably because its a bunch easier than the other E8's, a good stepping stone for us punters. We got wrapped up in many cluster fucks trying to top rope the thing and both took comedy whips before eventually getting success on our last try's of the second day. The good thing is you can place a lot of the kit then climb to ground for a rest. Thankfully Rory put it all in on his first attempt and then we just left it in place on following goes rather than attempt to strip it, so we got up with some sub top end tactics ha."
It appears this cliff is particularly well suited to climbs above E6 but that's not to say there aren't still quality new climbs at more modest standards to be had. John Aisthorpe and Masa Sakano made a ground-up-flash first ascent of the crack right of Delayed Attack they called Behind Enemy Lines E2 5c.
Masa comments: "I was so close to fall off in seconding on the final steep head wall. P1 is dirty and vegetated (but easy), but the fantastic P2 well makes up for it! 3 star! Behind Enemy Lines appears to follow an extraordinary line at it's relatively modest grade. Alongside Delayed Attack and Ardanfreaky it adds another athletic and exciting route in the E2-3 bracket."
Also in the area, just north of Loch Ossian, is the lesser known slab of Creagan nan Nead, Jules Lines, climbing with Dave Cuthbertson, climbed Aenbharr E6 6a, a serious and inescapable 50m up the middle of the slab. I'm not sure anyones holding their breath for the second ascent!
Over in the Loch Avon basin, Guy Robertson had a productive 2018 climbing on the Shelterstone Crag. First up was the The Shard E5 6a, on the left side of the Main Bastion, with Callum Johnson. Guy's no stranger to the cliff. Having spent a few days (and nights) on the granite walls, The Shard was a line Guy had eyed up for quite a while.
He writes: "I was keen to see if it would go from the ground and on-sight. The rock on the Stone is generally impeccable. Protection however, is often less reliable! Callum and I hopped onto it a couple of weeks ago, and after an easy introductory pitch Callum couldn't commit to a blank slab section 20m or so up the second pitch. I took the reigns and got a couple of metres higher, but again I couldn't summon the courage to move into 6a upwards territory without sight of decent holds. We abandoned ship onto the neighbouring Pin (E2) and had a quick abseil down to check it out. It looked brilliant so we vowed to go back. Near the top, and while we were at the abseil inspecting, I roped down and checked out the awesome-looking splitter crack that formed the upper crux. After trundling a few TV-sized flakes out of the easier upper section it was ready for action. We returned a week later and duly dispatched the whole thing without incident, with my being treated to the steep central section through the big Citadel recess in on-sight mode. Six pitches in total, four of them with outstanding climbing - the mighty Shelterstone now has another first E5!"
Guy was back the following month for The Heel Stone with Dave Cowan, also on the Main Bastion. Anticipating it would be at least E6, they rapped the line, but quickly realised it wasn't going to be "too bad". They climbed the route first go and described it as "a scintillating line…" with "superb sustained climbing, much easier than it looks" and a "memorable climax up the wall left of Haystack's top crack." "I'd honestly say this is every bit as good as the other easier routes nearby, and one of the best E5's around", Guy continues. "The way things are looking in Scotland at the moment there will be plenty more action to come. Rumours of raiding Englishmen are rife - some of them rather strong. Let's just hope they don't get too excited, and keep their aspirations to ticking Extreme Rock classics…"
Next door are the central slabs, a wide swath of smooth red granite punctuated by curving overlaps, flakes and occasional cracks. During dry periods these slabs are likely occupied by at least one of three people - Murdoch Jamieson, Iain Small or Julian Lines. Rarely all at the same time though, since that would be crowded.
Since he was able walk up hill and tie a figure of 8, Murdoch has been working his way through the routes here and takes up the story of his and Iain's recent experiences: "The main thing for me to report on is Iain and I doing Athene (E7 6c). This is most likely the second ascent. We had both lead 'Real of the Senses' back in 2017 and had since been looking to get back in there to complete Athene. Athene consists an entry 5c pitch followed by the safe Realm pitch, then L'Elisir d'Amore- Hard Lines pitch as a proper bold runout slab. Finally after the lockdown we managed a weekend in at the Shelterstone. We rapped in to give the route a look and brush. The main issue was for one of us to re lead the Realm pitch. We both played on a shunt on the Saturday. I was shocked to find it was harder than I remembered! Anyway, Iain did a superb job re-leading that pitch on the Sunday. I slipped off on the desperate traverse of the overlap. It sort of tainted my ascent, but I can't be too precious. I lead on through and dispatched the L' Elisir d' Amore- Hard Lines pitch which was certainly engaging in places. Iain also lead that pitch after I cleaned the kit out on abseil. I guess we have both methodically worked out way through the routes on this amazing piece of rock."
Anyone who's known Murdoch for a few years will recall his annual "finished with the slabs" statements - but could they finally be true? "Looking over to Icon of Lust from the Thor belay, I can safely say that I wont be getting involved. When Jules said he was scared on it, that confirmed it."
Had climbing development on the central slabs ceased there, that might just have happened. But for granite maestro Jules, theres seemingly always something new to try. Jules continues to be a major protagonist of Cairngorm granite climbing. Well known for his affinity with minimalist terrain, he's continued to return here over the past few decades.
Jules writes about a few recent ascents :"Cupid's Bow E6 6b. The central corner, which emanates from the larger diagonal corner of Thor was dubbed the Cupid's Bow a decade before the first ascent in 1978. When looking at this feature, the bow is actually the whole feature rather than just the vertical part of the corner. Dougie Dinwoodie, on the first ascent got to the mid-point kink in the bow and attempted to follow the flake out right, but opted to step left and climb the slab to finish. So the 'full bow' or 'true bow' hadn't been climbed.
Back in the 90's, Rick Campbell, certainly knew of the line, but wasn't sure if the flake feature would hold a fall, thinking that the cams would expand the flake. A peg had been placed at the end of the flake back in the 90's, so someone had designs on the line. For 20 years I couldn't understand why the new generation hadn't been up there to do it. So, in 2018 I had a new lease of life with the Shelterstone and duly climbed the line with Caelan Barnes. The line is escapable via the original at the mid-point, but this doesn't deter, and it is undoubtedly the most varied pitch on the slabs. The new section isn't as hard as the lower crux, but it is sustained and the final slab above the termination of the flake is bold. In fact I stood for ages, trying to psyche up for the final right foot smear move to better holds as it was the hottest day of the year. The rock was sweating, I was sweating and the rope drag was ridiculous. A great slab experience."
"Sweet Granite Kiss E7 6b. I was always looking at how I could amalgamate more routes on the central slabs. This was one of my ideas and I tried an onsight attempt in 2010 with Danial Laing. I fell a number of times trying to attain the Thor belay directly. When I gave up, I knew that it was climbable if I was fresh. I didn't return for 8 years until Steve Perry encouraged me on. I attained the Thor belay by the skin of the my teeth and then set to the top pitch, which leaves Thor and climbs directly into the final slab of Cupid's (true) Bow, which I had done a few weeks prior. A tiny set of footholds lead you teetering up and left to a flake. This was tantalising out of reach (for me). Totally committed and with aching calves, I had to act quick, so in a stupid blind rush, I decided to pop for it. I caught it but I wasn't relaxed and my own nervous rigid tension tore me from it and I went flying. I hit Steve on the way down, as I rode out this huge pendulum. We were both battered and bruised and we had to take 10 mins. I didn't want to lose the opportunity, so I started back up, somewhat limply. I decided not to jump again and made hard smear moves to gain the flake and continued up into Cupid's (true) bow. This time the slab on that route was far easier in the cooler conditions. Later that evening I found a bloodied scrape down my bum and hip - a sweet granite kiss."
Over on the western fringes of the Cairngorms, even the less remote crags are far from being 'climbed out'. On Dirc Mhor, Tim Miller and Jamie Skelton climbed an obvious right tending crack, to the right of "Nature's Raw". "Here’s Johnny" E3 6a, adds a worthwhile pitch of 45m. Even on Creag Dubh "Scotland's premier road side crag" there appear to be worthwhile new climbs. Just left of Man on Fire. James Thacker and Kris Hill added Just in Thyme E1 5b, Describing the new line, James comments its especially worthwhile when combined with "Man on Fire", "similar in style, steady with a bit of urgency at the top".
2018 saw many climbers flock to the Scottish mountain cliffs and up from North Wales at the drop of a hat were James McHaffie and Ferdia Earle. Spending a few days sampling the delights and difficulties of Creag an Dubh Loch, Ferdia and Caff made, amongst other things, a post rock fall ascent of Cougar. Cougar was once a popular route that sneaked up the giant features of Central Gully Wall at relatively amenable E3 5c but the 2012 rock fall removed the main third pitch. Cougar happened to be part of Caffs 'Extreme Rock' completion list and he was keen to try the route in it's new state. The pitch was considerably more serious, and harder at E6 6a. Caff commenting it was "..mainly easy climbing but then a strange move high on the pitch" "...a good but critical little wire out left you want to extend far to stop lifting out as you've traversed 30 metres mid left of scar then going up to the crux move". They renamed the route 'Toyboy". It seems unlikely that this route will regain its previous popularity (even by Dubh Loch standards!) but regardless, the re-ascent is an important event in the history of the cliff.
Much like the resident climbers of NE Scotland, there are some routes that just don't attract noise and attention. They have modesty in their existence. As a student living in Aberdeen, I recall coming across Niall Ritchie's photo of Wilson "The Hoff" Moir on the first ascent of The Shetlander. It's the single most inspiring climbing photo I've seen. I recall Niall saying it hadn't had a repeat. Perhaps it saw off potential suitors at the time, you'd have to ask. Maybe one day Wilson will write a book, or appear on Jam Crack Podcast, and people will people will learn about the NE.
It's perhaps only now that The Shetlander has had a second ascent, that this somewhat mythical route has become better understood. Tim Rankin, climbing with Gordon Lennox last summer, talks about his experience with the route "I managed to repeat The Shetlander in August 2020. I attempted it on-sight but didn't have what it took to both climb it and clean it! At one point, alarmingly far out from my last sound protection I was reduced to sitting on a poor nut to dig out the crack. After several rest stops I did manage to do the upper crux first try and save some dignity. I did manage to red point it which I was delighted with! Dirty or clean I doubt it would have mattered as it is an incredibly hard route. We thought it weighed in at least at 7c+ for a RP and E7 for the on-sight. What's more its first ascent was climbed ground up by a very in form Wilson Moir. I have always had a huge admiration for Wilson and I think the style and difficulty of this route needs to be acknowledged as one of the very hardest routes in the mountains of Scotland at the time it was first climbed."
Wilson comments "it's waited 25 years for a second ascent and Tim fitted the bill".
Typically 'just a bit out of the way' or 'not worth the effort' for visiting climbers (as well as many Scots!) and infamously omitted from select guidebooks, the sea cliffs of North East Scotland have for decades been quietly developed and enjoyed mostly by local residents. Paradoxically, Aberdeen has perhaps the most energetic and welcoming climbing scene of anywhere in Scotland, as well as a better climate! In catching up with various NE activists I was reminded of the value of actually talking to people about what they'd been up to. Advertising development is fairly low on the priority list of many traditional climbers and I was unsurprised to hear that a stack of quality new climbs had been developed.
Tim Rankin has continued to spear head recent development. On the coast south of Aberdeen Andy Inglis describes a short crag developed by Tim and perhaps well suited to DWS. He writes "in 2017 or 2018 Tim developed a wee crag south of Newtonhill called Murray Heugh, with routes from S to E5 (up to ~12m. The main thing is that most of crag overhangs and consequently it is a great wee DWS venue! Especially in the 6b-6c sort of range. Nice sunny spot above deep water, perfect for a summer / autumn morning."
Tim writes about his recent activity: "with various partners including the Mighty Moir I developed a new trad cliff just south of The Little O wall and Orchestra cave. Crazy Band Cliff has 15 routes VS to E6 10m to 30m long. The highlight being the crazy band wall itself which yielded 3 E6, an E5 and an E2 generally all well protected. The water worn wall all provide 2 very good E4. I also just remembered I added a nice wee E7 6c to Berrymuir Head last year too. The Dark Web. Take the wall right of the Dark Arts. All completed just in time to make the long over due and eagerly anticipated NEO guide!"
On the coast north of Aberdeen, Keith Milne and Russell Birkett have developed a fantastic looking granite cliff. Buchan Walls lies just 100m from the road and had previous been somewhat written off, with only 1 routes recorded, in spite of the crags sunny aspect and generally good clean rock. Russ and Keith have been keeping the adventure spirit alive and climbed many of the routes on sight between E1- E4. Russ writes "I was really pleased with those finds, big single pitches 30/40m and fairly sustained. Not much of that on the north coast, pretty solid but still adventure terrain, the crag has a "Earnsheugh of the north' vibe."
"As far as I'm aware no one has repeated any of Keith's earlier additions, the crag has been ignored as it's been unfairly dudded in the past couple of guide books as loose and dirty. When in fact the rock is good sound granite with the occasional loose flake and sugary section that will clean up with traffic."
"Funny chance encounter saw the first of the harder routes done, I went to check it out one evening as it gets the afternoon/ evening sun, I'd noticed on Keith's topo there were some obvious steeper lines to check out. I drove up, threw a rope down to check it out armed with brushes and a crow bar. Keith rocks up to do the same thing! Proper coincidence! Didn't need the brushes or tools, obvious clean lines and could see they had protection, Keith had no shoes with him but I had a spare pair his size in the van! No excuse but to go for the onsight, on abbing in the arête out left looked about E2, typical granite it ended up being a proper sustained E4, and about 40m!"
Concluding the whistle stop tour of new new trad climbs south of the Great Glen is a crag near Inverness seeing a renewed surge of attention - Duntelchaig. On the little outcrops around the side of the main crag, I cleaned and climbed "Takoba" E3 5c with Murdoch Jamieson, a fun wee route which takes the hanging crack in the wall right of Knife Wound Wall. Over on Dracula Buttress Robbie Phillips and Cullan O Brian sampled some of the existing grooves, corners and aerates but soon turned their sights to some of the 'last great problems on the right. The steeply overhanging walls were yet to be breached and obviously caught Robbie's imagination.
It took his fresh vision and fitness to open up what will be some of the hardest traditional climbs in the area. Robbie and Cullan climbed several new routes on the right side of buttress Pennywise the Dancing Climber E6 6c was first and starts up Monsters Edge before breaking out to climb the other side of the wild hanging arête. Robbie then went on to climb Nosferatu E8 6c, a hard and sustained route breaking diagonally rightwards across the walls natural weakness. Nosferatu was repeated by Dave Macleod who confirmed the grade and quality. Robbie's current project, which takes a more direct line out of Nosferatu, looks significantly harder. Robbie and Cullan's activities are well documented on their Youtube channel which is well worth checking out. Their first ascents of some amazing looking concrete bridge cracks in the Edinburgh area are particularly entertaining. Rumour has it they are saving their Youtube profits to buy some guidebooks so that on their next visit to the NE coast they might know which routes they are on.
Dave Macleod making the 2nd Ascent of Robbie Phillips' new route Nosferatu, E8 6c
Part of what makes exploratory climbing in Scotland so unique is that new routes still take powerful lines and many cliffs remain untouched. There remains a genuine air of exploration. Whilst arguably from a climbing perspective, the last frontier is always closer to home than one might expect, the NW Highlands and Islands which are the focus of the next article "North of the Great Glen" fit that definition pretty well too.