The year-round sport of bouldering is attracting a growing number of participants, and following its addition to the 2020 Olympic schedule, it’s a sport that’s rising in popularity.
And for good reason too – bouldering offers a physical and mental workout that few other activities can match, and you can try it in some of Scotland’s most stunning areas of natural beauty.
What is bouldering?
Bouldering is rock climbing stripped back to its purest form: there is no need for ropes, harnesses, or a climbing partner. All you need is a pair of shoes, a bag of chalk and a bouldering mat.
The sport involves completing short but tricky ‘problems’ – a sequence of holds – using technique, strength and your brain. Look at it like a game of physical chess
Where can I climb in Scotland?
Not content with spoiling us with its aesthetics, Scotland’s landscape provides thrill-seekers with the perfect boulderer’s playground, due to the variation in rock types. As professional rock climber and author Dave Macleod puts it, “the variety is endless”.
Here, Macleod outlines his favourite climbing locations around the country.
“Dumbarton Rock is the number one venue for people from Glasgow - that’s where I started climbing. Climbers sometimes go and think it is not the prettiest place because it is in a semi-urban environment and there’s a wee bit of graffiti on the rocks as well, but the actual climbing itself is absolutely brilliant.
“The rock is smooth and slippery basalt. It’s very unforgiving of poor technique, but that is why I like it so much - I did many first ascents there. If you’re a complete novice it is a bit intimidating
“The boulders are all close together, so it’s quite a social place - I started there and didn’t know many other climbers, but I learned to climb by watching other people at Dumbarton. I enjoy the social aspect.“
“Glen Nevis is the polar opposite of Dumbarton Rock - an absolutely stunning glen, a beautiful, beautiful place. Bouldering is very different there, it’s spread out, some of them are totally roadside, some of them are remote.
“It’s really good rock, it makes for amazing features. To go there on a spring or autumn day is a brilliant experience. I live near Fort William now so it has been my hang-out for the last few years. I’ve also done a lot of first ascents there.
“Having a bit of local knowledge pays off. The boulders by the roadside are the most commonly used because they are accessible, but higher up at the Polldubh Crags there’s a crag called Skypilot and up there it is like a wind tunnel, it catches the wind all day and keeps the midges at bay.”
“The Celtic jumble is right beside the Youth Hostel at the base of Glen Torridon where there’s loads of boulders.
“It’s a beautiful setting, easily accessible and the rock is amazing - perfect sandstone, clean really good friction. Best of all there are a lot of easier climbs there, the rock is so grippy that it makes for less difficult climbing. Total beginners can go there and have a fantastic time.”
Coire Lagan, Skye
“Coire Lagan is the Coire above Glen Brittle campsite. You just walk up the standard route from Glen Brittle campsite and after half an hour you start coming across boulders. The whole corrie is littered with boulders. There’s climbs of all shapes and sizes and difficulties.
“It’s the combination of the setting and the rock that makes it beautiful. You’re in the Cuillins - it’s totally wild. The rock there is gabbro, it provides unbelievable friction, but if you climb there for a day you shred your fingertips, so it is quite hard to climb here multiple days in a row.”
The Isle of Raasay
“My hidden gem would have to be the Isle of Raasay just off the Isle of Skye. I went there a couple years ago because I had seen pictures of a big trad cliff that was massive. The trad climb ended up being quite disappointing because the sandstone was a bit soft, but the boulders below were amazing.
“The setting was great - you get the wee ferry over from Skye and you drive round the east coast. It’s an east-facing coast so it catches the sun perfectly.
“There is a famous poem by Sorley Maclean called Hallaig and he talks about all the hamlets that were cleared during the Highland clearances - if you know that poem when you go there you can imagine what it would have been like.“
“On the Arisaig coast, out west of Fort WIlliam, on the way out to Arisaig village there is a wee peninsula and someone told me years ago they were canoeing round the peninsula and they saw this enormous cave with a leaning wall that would be a perfect bouldering venue.
“The first time I went and looked for it I couldn’t find it. I returned and eventually found it. I must have spent about 100 days there. No one goes there and it’s a wonderful place.
“It stays permanently dry as well. In winter I take LED panel lights and climb when it’s dark.”
What kit to use for bouldering
Getting the right gear before undertaking bouldering is important. Macleod recommends the following equipment for those looking to give the sport a go.
“The shoe I wear is La Sportiva Solutions. They are good all-rounders for any angle and any type of climbing, especially bouldering. “
The Bouldering Mat:
“I’ve broken my ankle many times, so when it comes to mats I tend to go big, and the biggest mat around is the Black Diamond Mondo. It makes you look really silly walking up munros in gale force winds, but when you land on it, it’s absolutely brilliant.”
“The obvious other thing to recommend would be my book: ‘9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes’. That’s got all the advice on climbing technique and how to learn it, it’s not a boring sport-science type book, it’s accessible. “