Exploring the sea cliffs on the east coast.
Karin and I first became aware of the rock climbing developments in Caithness in 2003 when Jo George reported Sarclet Pimpernel and Groove Armada by Trevor Wood, Guy Robertson and Dave Porter on the brilliant Scotland Online website. We always planned to go sometime to check it out but we never quite managed to drag ourselves away from the awesomeness of the West Highlands. It wasn’t until Guy Robertson published his fantastic book The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland in 2020 that we finally put our plans into action.
We both love climbing on sea cliffs and three Caithness cliffs were described in Guy’s coffee table book; Sgaps by Murdoch Jamieson, Ellen’s Geo by Simon Nadin and Sarclet by Rob Christie. The fantastic photography was a great help for getting a feeling for the place before we’d even left home. Sea cliffs are notorious for finding the right place to abseil in but we soon found ourselves at Sarclet and tied our ropes to the three abseil stakes.
We warmed up on the awesome HVS Groove Armada then Karin lead the spectacular E1 Sarclet Pimpernel. While belaying we were both drawn to the well chalked lines of Northern Alliance and Djapana two fantastic looking E3’s. By the time we climbed those we could clearly see the lines of Orchid Hunter, Time Bandit, and The Harr Bringer. We were already hooked!
It was the last day of good weather on another trip before we got to try those three routes. We decided on an early start to make the most of the morning sun and I was soon enjoying perfect conditions on the sheltered The Orchid Hunter E3, however as Karin topped out the wind picked up and heavy rain started. Disappointed we retreated to the cafe where we checked the ongoing forecast again, it was dire, but the sun was back out so we suddenly decided to take the chance and walked back in with fresh determination. Karin made quick work of the steep and impressive Haar Bringer E4, tricky route finding weaving between the overlaps, I was relived to second this one. I preferred the look of Time Bandit E4, which I thought was very good, bolder than I anticipated and certainly no push over.
Around the corner on the North East face we climbed Walking on Water E2. It is an excellent steep climb mostly on good holds however the crux was unexpectedly greasy and proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Early morning sun and wind off the land would probably provide better conditions.
Geo of Creagan Righe (Sgaps)
Sgaps (Geo of Creagan Righe) is one of the more accessible crags at Caithness with one of the hardest climbs established in the area so far, God’s Gift, a tough looking E7. This impressive geo is littered with strong lines for the fit climbers. While the continuous climbing on Deep Joy E3/4 and Big Sky Country E4/5 makes both memorable experiences, the best of the bunch is undoubtedly the well protected and well pumpy Spummin’ Marvellous E2/3.
Ellen’s Wall is understandably popular as it has a terrific collection of routes mostly between E1 to E4. It’s difficult to select a highlight because everything we’ve climbed there has been a bit special.
The first route we climbed on Ellen’s Wall was the brilliant Hundreds and Thousands E2 5c. One of the best is certainly Strata Gem E3 5c but we say that after every route we’ve climbed on that wall. Non Stop Nitty Gritty is another memorable E3 5c in a spectacular situation and the brilliant Fracture Clinic E4 5c is already a classic.
We frequently have spectators on board the Caithness Seacoast tours shouting encouragement too! Karin is in the exposed hanging groove of Toad in the Shoe E2 5b.
The popular Latheronwheel is the first venue encountered when you arrive at Caithness. It has a pleasant 10 minute approach from the harbour and a good selection of enjoyable sub extreme climbs.
Stepping Out and Pistachio are two sought out Severes. Puffin Attack VS is a fun face climb and if you’re looking for something a little harder Guillemot Crack and Positive Mental Attitude are a pair of popular HVS’s. High tides or big seas can restrict what you can climb but the routes around Fall Out HVS at Latheronwheel has saved a few showery days for us due to its easy access.
Skerry Mor, Mid Clyth
We’ve climbed a lot at the friendly Skerry Mòr, Mid Clyth. The wall has strong crack and groove lines providing many of the easier lines with good protection and great character. Karin and I had gone for the harder face climbs but couldn’t avoid the draw of Sprockletop VS and Maelstrom HVS. Finally, Silverfish E1 is a superb route with a hard start. Great warm down, but certainly not recommend as a warmup!
At the other extreme we both led the fantastic but bold Impending Doom E5, after a close inspection on abseil assured us that there was adequate protection where you need it. I was pleased that Karin led The Annunciation E3/4. Originally given E2, E4 in the new guide may be too generous. Perhaps E3 but the crucial cam is small, Karin had to drop a loop to pull up the appropriate size micro cam while hanging on in an awkward position! The adjacent route had birds nesting near the top but we liked the look of it so we returned later in the year and Karin led The King’s Pyjamas.
Some routes here are just so good and it’s a friendly venue where it is easy to abseil back down to strip especially handy when there’s a strong westerly making belaying at the bottom of the crag more pleasant than sat on the top. Using this approach we both led the classic Incubus E3, The Fearful Void E4, Hammer House E4 5c and our own new route, the bold Signed, Sealed, Delivered E3 5b.
We enjoyed the climbing on Inset Wall so much that we climbed all the routes between the steep and sustained Frog Stroker HVS and excellent pumpy Mug’s Game HVS. Susan and Amateur Operatics are interesting E3’s Theatre of Cruelty solid E2 and Stage Fright E2 proved quite tricky in the groove.
Beyond Hammer House is South Bay where we have our eyes on the bold Love is Suicide E3 5b and the even bolder Friends in High Places E4 5b. Sandwiched in between is a bunch of more reasonably graded routes including the popular Oxter, Severe.
South Head of Wick
South Head of Wick has a few very accessible quick drying routes from E2 to E4 on excellent hard sandstone. The Lightness of Being E3, Selkie E2 and Wick & Feeble E2 lay just south of the fisherman’s steps and are all worthwhile. Despite being only 10 metres long they are all surprisingly pumpy. Nearby is the popular tourist attraction of The Castle of Old Wick and adjacent to it is the Stack of Old Wick which is a popular training route for climbers heading to Orkney and The Old Man of Hoy.
There has been a lot of development since the definitive guide to Caithness was published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 2004. The best guidebook is the selective Scottish Rock (SMC/Wired) which covers Sarclet, Ellen’s Geo, Skerry Mor (Mid Clyth), Geo of Reagan Right Clyth(Sgaps) and Latheronwheel. Gary Latter published the 3rd edition of his popular Scottish Rock Volume 2: North in 2020 and it covers Latheronwheel, Sarclet and Stack of Old Wick. If current guidebooks leave you wanting more the SMC have now made their entire routes database public here.
“The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland by Guy Robertson is the 2021 Banff Mountain Book Award-winning anthology of outrageous climbing adventures from 26 of the most extraordinary sea cliffs across Scotland.” including three on the east coast of Caithness.
Karin and I still have lots we’d like to do. Classics like Silver Surfer HVS at Sarclet, Brains as well as Braun E4 at Ellen’s Geo and Cauliflower in the Soup E5 at Sgaps. There’s so many Caithness Classics that I’ve added a list on UK Climbing. We have only just scratched the surface. Every trip we’ve made, we have returned home with an ever increasing to do list. Hidden Wall and Clythness North is high on the list and if the training goes well maybe we’ll have a look at God’s Gift.
Rest Day Activities
There’s lots to see and do in and around Caithness but our favourite pastime is to visit the fantastic small harbours along the coast. They all have their unique character and fascinating past. Lybster harbour was a busy fishing port during the boom in the herring fishing and although much quieter these days, it is still perhaps the busiest one we’ve visited. Many of them are tucked away down narrow little roads but are well worth seeking out. The recently renovated Whaligoe Steps, which are adjacent to the parking for Ellen’s Wall, are a very popular tourist destination and well worth a walk down either before or after climbing. The small car park gets rammed though, so an early start is recommended to get parked if you’re heading to the crag. There are also numerous ancient stone tombs/burial sites to visit, plus an archaeological trial near Loch of Yarrows that you can walk round.
The area also has a diverse mix of cafes for those damp days. We particularly like Wickers World next to the harbour in Wick, with its wide range of good quality home cooked food at reasonable prices.
William and Adelaine Munro run Caithness Seacoast tours from Harbour Road, Wick Harbour.