May, Glen Clova.
Grey clouds rove through the glen, covering the hilltops. They are kind today. There is no rain.
I take in the slack, perched on a ledge of rock barely a foot wide at the top of the second pitch of Special Brew, the centre line of the ‘pub’ climbs on the Lower Doonie.
Somewhere, a grouse squawks.
Across, silver threads pour down the hills.
Above, a buzzard.
I take in more slack.
Below, in the fields, two collies chase the last flock of white sheep.
Life continues to stir in this quiet glen.
All too quickly, the sun has abandoned hibernation to roam the sky late into the evenings. Scotland’s hills, roadsides, coastlines and moors are clad in thick yellow shawls of gorse. The sweet smell of coconut is intoxicating, and while for those with hay fever the lurid plant marks the beginning of stuffy noses and watery eyes, for many, it is the welcome sign of long Highland days.
Recently, a few friends and I left Edinburgh to climb in Glen Clova, Angus. I hadn’t climbed since injuring one of my finger pulleys in January, but the prospect of finally being on rock, camping and breathing the last of the winter air was too good to turn down. I’d be careful, I told myself, but I knew what lay ahead.
This winter, I read A’ Chreag Dhearg: Climbing Stories of the Angus Glens. Grant Farquhar’s fascinating compilation of vignettes and photographs traces a brief history of life in the glens from the 14th century through to the climbing activity of the 20th century. It is not a historical book in the traditional sense, where events are sequentially plopped alongside each other on a timeline; rather, it is a unique mix of voices and humorous characters from a tight-knit climbing community who recount the stories, deeds, tall tales and adolescent explorations—on rock, in pubs, huts and caves—that led to the establishment of the area’s routes.
The Red Craig most captured my attention—especially the Lower Doonie ‘pub’ climbs—and upon closing the book, I had resolved that, when Spring came, I would climb Proud Corner, Guinness and Special Brew.
There are many reasons why one chooses to climb a certain route: its aesthetic qualities, ‘classic’ status, reputation as a test-piece, or as a means of measuring progress—but mine were purely anecdotal. I had never seen the rock. Never perused the area in my guidebook. Yet, magic exuded from these pages—camaraderie; rusty pitons; high, rocky exposure; brawls; whizzing Series 3 Land Rovers; mangled deer fences; headlamps and libations; huts, caves and barns—and these conjured a mythos I hadn’t yet encountered in the Northeast of Scotland.
I wanted to understand it. To somehow be a part of it. To keep it alive.
Parking at the Red Craig Quarry across Braedownie Farm early in the morning, we slung on our rucksacks and walked south along the road toward a large gate. A shepherd was yelling obscenities at the few sheep outrunning him further down the glen, and we keeled over with laughter; but as we neared the gate, two newborn lambs sprung from beneath the ewe, and her red umbilical cord swung wildly. It must be near the end of lambing season, the poor shepherd exhausted.
We hopped over the gate and started up the steep hill to the base of Lower Northwest Crag. Proud Corner, For a Handful of Beans, Wandered and Cauldron Crack: these routes lay heavy in my pocket as we scrambled up the boulders, for I thought of ‘The Pot’ plummeting ‘from the first bank of Wandered . . . onto the steep ground at the base.’ (265) He survived, yes, but since it was my first day climbing this season after my injury, I did not want to end up in the hospital.
These thoughts came to a sudden halt when the faint trail I had been following led me to a narrow, body-sized hole on the side of a rock mound.
I approached carefully, removed my rucksack.
There’s a boulder cave in the scree slope below the Red Craig, I had read. Is this it?
I peered into the hole: pitch black. I shone my phone light, fully exhaled and slithered through the tunnel, leaving less than an inch around my waist. Halfway inside, the light revealed an open cave. I crawled in further, dragging my feet through the last of the hole.
Once inside, the walls suddenly tapered upward and I could stand upright, only slightly hunched. I stared at the walls. It was warm and silent in this cavity of the earth.
The Hole of Weems, I thought: the Pictish dwelling Prince Charlie ‘allegedly sheltered [in] while on the run from the Duke of Cumberland after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden’ (72); where Des Hannigan and his friends dossed and ate the bone-like turnips pilfered from the nearby fields (the same turnips we dodged this morning on the road), and from where he watched the disputed first ascent of Proud Corner; the howff of thousands of unrecorded nights—bivvies, refuge, slumbers, brews. At what point on this vast geological timeline did these boulders fall from the crag overhead to form this cave?
A sudden rumble from above startled me. I froze.
My heart raced. As I turned toward the narrow tunnel of light I had just crawled through, another rumble from the top.
Maybe this isn’t the Weems . . .
I knelt down to escape, but halfway through, laughter erupted from the opposite end of the cave.
I lay there for a moment, the cool smell of the soil fresh and moist. Then, slowly, I squirmed back inside and met the gang in the centre. Half-burnt candles and an open box of matches adorned the walls.
‘Looks like we found a home for the night, eh?’
They rolled their eyes. We had brought firewood, beers, whisky and food, all of which were down in the van. After a few moments, they retraced their steps and I followed them. Turns out they had found the proper—much bigger—entrance, which offered a wide view to the valley floor below: carefully plotted square-plantations of firs, white sheep dotting the fields like puffs of clouds.
The shepherd was now working the second flock.
It is hard to ignore the history that marks much of the Highland landscape. In 1755, the population in the glen was 1233 ‘and supported three smiths, four carpenters, three millers, three shopkeepers and 10 sellers of strong drink.’ (74) Though the Jacobites’ defeat at Culloden was only nine years prior, the systematic clearing of clan-culture in the Highlands soon saw ‘atrocities, trials, executions, land forfeiture’, and the banning of Highland dress and arms sweep the glen.
In 1881, there were only 422 inhabitants. Thirty years later, two houses remained occupied.
The landscapes we enjoy as climbers and hillwalkers are strewn with the cultural and ecological remains of the Clearances. Most bothies and howffs are resurrected shielings, and it is rare not to stumble across ruins—sometimes the foundations of whole communities—whilst hiking. There was a time, too, when the Caledonian forest covered the bare brown hills now synonymous with Scotland’s craggy landscapes. . . .
‘Alex, we’ve got routes to climb!’
I left the Hole of Weems and walked around the boulders to retrieve my rucksack. At the base of Proud Corner, my partner was already geared up, knots in, eyeing up the route. The top half is notoriously exposed and unprotected, but he would make due.
We climbed all four routes that morning (without incident), and I slowly understood why the Men of Steel kept returning to the Red Craig. Though vegetated, largely runout and strenuously exposed in places, the diorite was a joy to climb on. Enclosed in the glen’s glaciated walls, we felt the special aura from the last ice age.
After tea, we headed to the ‘pub’: Lower Doonie. Of all the climbs in A’ Chreag Dhearg, Guinness attracted me most. First climbed in 1958 by a Carn Dearg party, it was deemed the ‘must-do’ route of the Red Craig in the 1970s (126). The route consists of two pitches: the bold and sparsely protected slab, and the strenuous, black leaning corner halfway up, where ‘two 12 x 1⁄2 inch coach bolts were hammered into the crucial corner and used as points of aid’ (91). Many stories of folly, laughter and libation-fuelled ascents with head torches stirred my desire to climb it, and its namesake is no different: ‘Legend has it that it was so named because one of the seconds couldn’t reach the starting holds and had to get a boost from a sixpack of Guinness’ (91).
Approaching the Lower Doonie, I crossed the fourth wall. My eyes followed the Pub Crawl girdle traverse across the crag: Guinness, Guinless, Special Brew, the Furstenberg Finish (named after the beer sold at the Dundee University student union pub, ‘which would often prove to be “the finish” of the evening’ (303); Belhaven, Stella, Heinekin, Export. So it is: an ordinary outcrop, with rock, vegetation and trees. Just an outcrop, I thought, though I knew this wasn’t true.
A buzzard swooped high overhead. Somewhere, a grouse squawked.
I was nervous and excited. This was metaphysical.
Conor began the first pitch of Guinness. He moved delicately, making his way toward the ledge beneath the blank, disc-shaped slab, and managed to slot in a few pieces of kit. After this, there was no gear, and this isn’t where you wanted to fall—so I’d read.
I held the lifeline.
He fiddled with gear.
Then, like a feline, he moved through the disc. ‘Safe!’
One pitch down, one to go. He pulled in the slack. I climbed up and met him on the terrace. Racking up and inspecting the black corner, I knew not to search for the two rusty nails: Ged Reilly and his partner had long ago yanked them out.
I set off, negotiating the first crux and reaching the infamous corner.
We meet at last, eh?
I shook my arms, slipped two nuts into the cracks above and set off right, placing my now-sweaty hands in the cracks. I clung to the wall like a frog, desperately searching for a foothold when I recalled Reilly’s words: ‘Rumour had it that this corner, which is now the crux of the climb, [is] black due to the “skiting” of rubber-soled feet after so many climbers had fought their way up . . . [I]n the naivety of youth, we believed it.’ (126)
Well, I had no chance to decide whether I believed the rumour or not, for when I reached around the arête, I was suddenly airborne.
‘You alright, mate?’
I was back on the shelf. ‘No broken bones!’
I stepped back onto the rock, laybacking the crack; this time, breathing. When I reached for the same handhold I cut loose again, but I held on and found a foothold. One more breath. I climbed on to the top.
I took in the slack, put Conor on belay.
One by one, the tales from A’ Chreag Dhearg came flooding back to me. I looked at the silver threads pouring down the hills across, then to the sheep below, imagining a gang of youths developing their craft for the sheer love of climbing. There are many outcrops like the Red Craig in Scotland, steeped in climbing history; yet, there are still many to discover. I hold a deep respect for those who put up the routes here in the glen, for once upon a time, these rocks, too, were unclimbed.
I took in slack.
Baah. Baah. Baah.
The shepherd rounded the third herd of sheep. As he yelled again, Conor grunted through the crux. It is a privilege to be up here, to climb rather than work the soil, though it is nice to share it; to know that life still stirs in the glen.
When Conor topped out, we quickly descended to the base of the Lower Doonie. I still had most of the gear on my harness and there was one last route to climb.
Grey clouds roamed the valley, but they were kind.
I started up the vegetated ramp to ascend Special Brew.