Book review: The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland
The fact that the Classic/Hard/Extreme Rock format remains popular almost 40 years after its first appearance gives a good indication of what climbers look for in a coffee table book, and yet few since have matched Ken Wilson’s vision. Indeed, such is the desire for a definitive ticklist and guide – spiritual and factual – to Britain’s top trad climbs, that the out-of-print Extreme Rock changes hands for hundreds of pounds.
It is therefore somewhat of a mystery why few have sought to copy the format, which combined factual information, iconic photography and inspiring first-hand accounts of ascents by top climbers. Perhaps it is the sheer volume of work required, or the shadow of those illustrious originals – after all, most are still in print.
However, an honourable exception has arisen, catering to a hitherto untapped niche – the Scottish wilderness enthusiast. Actually, The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is good enough that it will appeal to many others beside, and will no doubt make enthusiasts of some of those who buy it only to revel in the glossy photography and gripping essays.
But there can be no doubt that its compilers, Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton, are wilderness enthusiasts, and their passion for the wild places shines throughout this magnificent volume. Encompassing both winter and summer routes, it includes some of the obvious classics, a smattering hard modern testpieces, but also some magnificent out-of-the-way cliffs in the remoter parts of the Highlands that the casual reader may never have heard of.
Robertson and Crofton are also hardcore climbers, of that breed of Highland adventurer that gets out on some pretty hefty E numbers in good style and exposed circumstances in summer, and in winter… well in winter they get up to some truly outrageous and death-defying antics in the icy hell of Scottish winter conditions. Even for a keen summer trad climber, Robertson’s account of the second winter ascent of Centurion on Ben Nevis describes a frightening and alien world, far removed from the simple pleasures of moving over rock with a runout underneath your feet.
From the point of view of the summer cragsman who has no intention of ever donning a pair of crampons, the fact that a perhaps a quarter of the book is dedicated to the cold stuff could be off-putting, but in fact the essays are easily good enough to have a wider appeal. The compilers have drafted in a rollcall of their fellow Highland gnarlers and the essays are top notch, lifting the lid on this under-reported aspect of British climbing.
What steals the show, however, is the photography. This is a big book, and it’s packed with full page glossy pics, both action shots and stunning landscapes. If they don’t inspire you to check out the great mountain crags, nothing will.
For the English tradster, nothing can really match getting your chalky mitts on a copy of Extreme Rock, but the writing in The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is its equal. It concentrates on crags, not routes, so you don’t get a ticklist in the same way and it’s less nerdy, but visually it’s in a class above and should inspire many a Lowlander and Englisher to head north in search of those elusive picture postcard conditions.
The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is published by Vertebrate