The Outer Hebrides: Niall Grimes reviews the new SMC guide

Posted by Niall Grimes on 28/08/2018
Shauna Clarke tackles The Poacher (E1) on Lewis. Photo: Robert Durran
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Throw open any page in this new guidebook and, if there’s a heartbeat inside that overtrained husk that you call your body, you will immediately be lost in a world of dreams and inspiration. Drop-dead seacliffs yawn above wild Atlantic seascapes; climbers dotted on multipitch adventues on the most independent of geology; routes of every grade that cross impossible terrain thanks to a million Christmasses’-worth of jugs and cracks. Is this the last outpost of adventure for UK trad climbing? A Yukon of pump?

The Outer Hebrides – that collection of big and small islands that sit off the Isle of Skye (which I presume must be the Inner Hebrides?) have been developed over the last few decades to give some of the finest cragging experiences available in the United Kingdom of Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The number of routes that have been added in recent years is staggering. And this quantity has not come at the cost of quality. It’s hard to believe that so much good-quality, climbable rock exists.

To give a flavour of what to expect, we caught up with one of the book’s compilers. Rab Anderson.

What area does the guide cover?
The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, the island chain stretching for some 200km (130 miles) from Lewis and Harris in the north to Barra in the south and the uninhabited Barra, or Bishop’s Isles, which include the world renowned Pabbay and Mingulay. Whilst these islands are remote in themselves, the guide also includes the mystical St Kilda archipelago, the most remote part of the British Isles.

Is there a special characteristic that a lot of the crags in the book share?
There’s a few worth mentioning, apart from the remoteness. The rock is Lewisian Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the planet and a joy to climb on. The climbing is principally on sea cliffs above a proper and often temperamental sea, the Atlantic Ocean, so there is plenty of atmosphere! On Harris and on Lewis there are two of the UK’s finest mountain crags in Sron Uladail and Creag Dhubh Dhiobadail. If the cover photo of Tony Stone on The Scoop (E7) on Sron Uladail doesn’t prove inspirational then there is something far wrong.

What is new in here since the last guide to the area?
About a thousand routes!

When is the best time to go?
Probably the months of May and June, which statistically seem to be the best for weather, though as ever in Scotland this can never be guaranteed, albeit that it’s often better on the islands than people think. Much of the climbing is on the western side of the islands and being mainly on sea cliffs, which benefit from the sun, it’s better later in the day with longer daylight hours. The midges are usually not so bad in May (particularly for anyone interested in Sron Uladail and Creag Dubh Dhiobadail) although they are not normally a problem on the sea cliffs due to the windy nature of the islands. I have holidayed on Lewis in July for over 20 years and as well as having very few midge problems, we have always managed to get plenty climbing in. It’s certainly not a winter venue unless you want to see the waves coming in over the top of the cliffs.

What areas / crags would you recommend to the first-time visitor?
There is a complete contrast between climbing on the uninhabited Bishop’s Isles in the south, which it is pretty much an expedition type trip, and Lewis in the north where, although there is a sense of being away from it all. My section of the guide is Lewis and Harris, so my knowledge here is fairly extensive. Most visitors base themselves in the Uig Sea Cliffs area where on the Aird Mor Mhangarstaidh headland the Flannan Area containing Aurora & Magic Geodhas is only some 10 minutes’ walk, and with ledges well above the sea it’s non-threatening whilst still being suitably atmospheric. Further north up the coast, Dalbeg Buttress at Dalbeg and the Folded Wall at Bragar are also good accessible and non-threatening venues. There should be something at one or more of these places to cater for most tastes, so they are good places to start to get a feel for things.

What non-climbing images does the area conjure up for you?
Beautiful sandy beaches, a restless ocean, crashing waves, shifting skies, flying birds and wind-blown flowers, all wrapped up with a sense of history and days gone by.

What was your first experiences here?
A trip to Sron Uladail on Harris with Murray Hamilton back in May 1987 when we went in to attempt the first free ascent of The Scoop. The weather wasn’t great, so we squeezed in an early repeat of the superb Stone (E5) then it rained and that was it. In August that year Dawes and Pritchard freed The Scoop at E7 to produce one of the most prestigious routes on British rock – such is life!

Pick your five favourite routes and why?
Difficult one that since I have no experience of the routes in the southern section, so it’s easier to dodge this! Suffice to say that there’s plenty of eye catching routes and a flick through the guide should pull out any number that will be destined to become anyone’s favourite. The contributing photographers have done a superb job in helping us showcase the routes to go for.

What I will do though is highlight one must do route from each of the two main sections. In the north, the first is Islivig Direct on the Tealasdail Slabs on Griomabhal in the Uig Hills. It’s a 270m long, four star Hard Severe/VS first climbed back in 1967; an early guidebook described the slabs as hopeless and manifestly un-climbable. Forming part of the splendid backdrop to the coast, the slabs invite attention and the climb is so different to the bulk of the climbing here, which is predominantly on sea cliffs.

In the south, the second route is Fifteen Fathoms of Fear on Dun Mingulay’s Sron an Duin. This is a four star Severe climbed in 1995, which is an awesome excursion at the grade, with the abseil-in probably being harder than the route! There’s a stunning photo of it in the guide, which just begs to be ticked. I have purposely chosen two routes in the lower grades to demonstrate that inspirational climbs in such a far flung and often considered hard-core location do not have to be difficult. There are routes here that everyone can aspire too and that everyone, regardless of grade, should climb.

Can you describe your best experience here?
Too many good times it has to be said but having completed the guidebook I went out there in July this year with some friends from Slovenia whom I showed around and pointed at various routes. Although the weather was not the best, we managed to get a fair bit of climbing in. It was nice to share the experience of climbing out here, which is why I guess we guidebook writers’ do what we do. I hope that through this guidebook others will enjoy the experience too – as long as you don’t all come at once!

GET: your copy of the new guidebook from the BMC shop


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