A Beginners-Intermediate level guide to climbing on the Scottish islands
CalMac have teamed up with Top British Climber, Robbie Phillips to bring you these quick fire Beginner - Intermediate Climbing Guides for:
Arran is an absolutely stunning island with so much to do beyond the climbing! I think that's why I really liked it because at the end of the day there was always a nice tea and cake shop to go to - and what's a day climbing without finishing it off with tea and cake?
More to Arran was the wealth of stuff you can do when you're not climbing such as:
Walking in the Hills (be careful of the ticks!)
Tea + Cake!!!
The climbing on Arran is mostly granite, although along the coast the cliffs offer a variety of styles of Schist. I found the Granite to be a really hard and technical style; difficult to adjust to but really satisfying when you get into it!
Cioch na-h-oighe on Chir Mor was our crag of choice - a gnarly granite face with climbing covering all ends of the difficulty spectrum (VS - E8). It's not got much at each grade but what it missed in quantity is made up for in quality! The climbing is in a spectacular position, extremely exposed and as high quality as you can expect from granite mountain cragging in Scotland!
I did two of the classics at this crag, "Armadillo" (E3) and "Abraxas" (E4). Both of them absolutely stunning climbs and well protected making for enjoyable climbing on challenging terrain. The second pitch of "Abraxas"finishes at a bolted belay, that you can retreat from if the third pitch is wet (which it often is).
Also a good piece of advice; be careful on the approach! It's very scrambly and can be tricky to navigate. We opted to approach via the higher tier, which made accessing the crag a bit easier.
Mull is a beautiful island with a lot to offer for the adventurer in all of us. A majestic landscape of hills sweeps across the island with the only road weaving its way from one end to the other.
The day we arrived was gorgeous and I couldn't help myself but wonder at what it would be like to take a paraglider and to jump from one of the hills - surely that must be one of the best things to do on this island?
When your on Mull there is literally only one way to go (as there is only one road), so you should just go as far as it takes you and then when you've run out of ideas, hop on the ferry to the small isle of Iona!
Iona is a wonderful island with only a handful of houses and a single road that takes not more than 5 minutes to drive until it ends at the Golf course. The hills are easy to walk and the coastline is pretty beyond belief. All the climbing on Iona is situated along the coast in small bays and sea cliffs.
The climbing is varied on Mull with there being a huge selection of crags of different rock types to choose from. The classic "Mull Climbing Experience" however is on the legendary "Pink Granite" which can be found dotted around the island, but famously the crags of Kintraand Fionnphorthost the best quality.
We had a wonderful day at Kintrawhere the pink granite didn't disappoint. A few of us found some of the easier climbs on the left of the main crag a little loose but the meat of the climbing was on clean solid granite.
The classic of the day was certainly "Casa de mi Padre"(E5) which both me, Rebekah and Calum all had a bash on!
Other routes of note where:
"Que tal Sloppy?" (E4)
Iona was yet again another treasure trove of climbing potential. These island crags just don't get much seeing to as they are more of a challenge to get to than mainland crags, but when the effort has been put in, you reap the rewards!
The rock on Iona was Granite but very different to what I saw on Mull. Sometimes it didn't look as good rock quality, almost as if it might break, but it turned out to be pretty solid... mostly!
Classic of the day had to be the incredible "Passage"(S) taking an incredible rising traverse up a stunning face looking out to sea that both Rebekah and Calum soloed. And of course "The Incredible Dr Sex" (E6) that climbed the best line of the crag through the central pillar.
Much bigger than the other islands, Lewis and Harris offers even more to those who are willing to search. The island has literally no end to climbing potential; a lifetime of adventure and exploration awaits for the avid climber! But not only climbing, the one aspect of Lewis and Harris that drew me in more than anything else was the pristine golden sanded beaches with enclosed bays and a perfect surf for those wanting to take their boards along with them too! I even took a different kind of board with me for some rest day fun on the empty hilly roads around the island.
The rock type is Lewisian Gneiss, my favourite amongst all the rock we sampled. Its texture is like nothing else; with good conditions you feel as though you can't fall off!
We spent more time on Lewis and Harris than any other island but sadly the weather was not on our side and we missed a few of the big cheeses like Sron Ulladaleand Screaming Geo.
We did however climb at the incredible Dalbegand Painted Wall, which in my opinion held some of the best single pitch cragging I've seen in Scotland.
Without a doubt the climb nobody can go without has to be "Limpet Crack"(E3) on Dalbeg.This crack feature carves its way diagonally through the steepest section of the crag sustaining both intensity and exposure from beginning to end - an ultra classic!
"Tweetie Pie Slalom" (E5) also at Dalbeg is a much harder option; a technical crux and fiddly gear leads to an awesome finale up an exposed head wall - Lewisian Gneiss at it's finest!
Skye needs no introduction; it's world-renowned for it's jaw dropping landscapes as well as unlimited potential for adventure sports enthusiasts! It's the second largest Scottish island and for decades it's been a pilgrimage for British climbers.
The Cuillins are of course the famous mountain range that pass over the island and are a stunning addition to the scenery if not an amazing feature to walk, climb and scramble!
But there is more than just the Cuillins...There is almost 700 miles of coastline with amazing world class sea cliff climbing as well as many more inland cragging.
Eigg is a tiny island taking little up to 15 minutes max to drive the length of the open public road. What it lacks in size it makes up for in incredible beauty! The Sgurr is a unique feature of Eigg that is unlike anything else in Scotland and the beaches are absolutely stunning!
The climbing on Skye is really varied with a range of rock types from rough Gabbro to soft Sandstone. Unfortunately we never had much time on Skye as the weather held us back considerably, but we did get ourselves to one incredible crag!
We visited a sea cliff crag called Siudhe Biorachon the south of the island. This was something really different to what I had experienced throughout the rest of the islands.
The climbing was aesthetic on soft-pocketed sandstone and climbed in quite a gymnastic style in places. This crag was home to a few ultra classic climbs such as "Jamie Jampot" (VS), "Veritas Splendour" (E2)and for those wanting something really testing, the incredible "Rapid Learning Curve" (E6)of which the name proved to be a warning of sorts as Sam on lead fell when he pulled a massive block off!
There is of course an endless supply of incredible climbing on Skye and Eigg, plenty for both beginner and expert climbers.
The islands are a wonderful place to climb and are suitable for climbers of all abilities. Here are a few top tips to keep you on the right path:
Buy a Guidebook - Check the SMC if they have brought out a new guidebook for the islands or there is the current "Scottish Rock"guides that cover all the islands in two volumes
Rack Up! - Make sure you've got all the necessary gear. I take a minimum of: Single set of Cams from small to medium sized (don't generally need anything bigger than a BD Gold Size 3), lots of small to medium sized wires and plenty of long slings to extend gear as some of the pitches can be windy and prone to rope-drag.
Warning of Approaches - I'd say the climbing is adventurous on the islands. What I mean by this is the approaches can be abseil in or subject to tidal fluctuations. Make sure you know what you're looking for!
Finding the Crag - Kind of linked to the last one, but finding the crag can be as challenging as the climbing on them! Buy an OS Map; makes life so much easier :P
Plug in Gear - Not a rule, more of a personal preference than anything else... I always like to be safe. If I'm not sure about a bit of gear, I try and plug in some more! Climb safe guys!
About the author
Robbie Phillips is one of Britain's top all-round climbers and has climbed extensively all over the globe! As well as being a professional climber, he is also a climbing coach (Ex-GB and Scottish Team Coach) and uses his knowledge of climbing skills and training to help others improve. Robbie brought together a group of his good friends to join him on an island hopping adventure to show the world what Scottish island climbing truly has to offer!