Climbing on the Solway’s sea-cliffs: guest post by Judith Brown and Dog Holden

Godfrey ‘Dog’ Holden and Judith Brown have been friends for years, climbing together extensively during the 1990s and early 2000s. Here they look back on discovering those early delights of climbing on the Solway sea-cliffs in Dumfries & Galloway.

Cliffs above Rascarrel (photo: Ann Lingard)

On a clear, bright day of the kind that does occasionally occur in Cumbria, despite rumours to the contrary, the sea-cliffs of the Scottish Solway coast caught both the sun and the eye of my great pal and climbing partner, Dog Holden, as he made his daily commute to work.

Driving north along the roads of the English side of the Firth, the view across the estuary is particularly fine, the low morning sun often illuminating the cliffs and bathing the hills of the distant hinterland in a soft, hazy light.

“I thought surely the big sea-cliffs I could see across the Solway Firth must be great for climbing,” Dog explained. “But when I asked climbing friends from Cumbria they knew nothing whatsoever about them – and that just whetted my appetite to find out more.”

Back in the 1980s the hills and sea-cliffs of Dumfries and Galloway were not particularly well known within the climbing community, and – in those pre-google days – information was hard to come by. Moreover, despite being so clearly visible from the English side, it was a long drive around to get there, especially before the A35 was ‘improved’.

“On the first exploratory trip, I had to follow my nose as well as the map to find the cliff that had especially impressed me as having good climbing potential. Well, it was certainly quite big and steep, but it mainly consisted of barely consolidated sands. The name of the area is Sandyhills, which I suppose should have been some sort of clue.”

Although disappointing from a climbing point of view, the quiet beauty of the area made a deep impression, inviting future visits and further investigation. This revealed that there were indeed good cliffs for climbing further West of Dumfries, close to Kirkcudbright.

“At an early opportunity we made the trip to Borgue, close to Gatehouse of Fleet and from there to a good although rather busy campsite at Brighouse Bay,” Dog says. “I was with my late wife, Anne, who was not a climber, and our beloved Labrador, Harter, who was a great hill walker, but not built for rock-climbing, so this trip was purely investigative. We had only the sketchiest of information but by following the coastline east we eventually found our way to a complex area of sea-cliffs which clearly offered good climbing potential. These were below the hill named Meikle Ross with fine views over the island of Little Ross and the beautiful seascape to the sweep of the Cumbrian coast. One could even make out the steep headland of St. Bees Head, south of Whitehaven, and the Isle of Man on a clear day.”

In fact it turned out that quite a lot of climbing had been done in the Meikle Ross area. Furthermore there were several areas of coastal cliff further west – as far as Burrow Head on the southern tip of the so-called Isle of Whithorn and up the west coast around Portpatrick.

Reconnaissance done, it was time to tackle the actual climbing. Over a long weekend sometime in the early 1990s, Dog and I, armed with a few vague route details on some bits of paper, embarked upon our first experience of climbing on the Solway sea-cliffs. We chose Meikle Ross, on the coast to the West of Kirkcudbright, as the place to give it our first shot.

Climbing on sea-cliffs has complications and considerations over and above those involved in climbing on inland crags. Many host large colonies of sea-birds during the nesting season and so must not be climbed during the spring and early summer in order to avoid disturbing the birds during this critical period. Some cliffs can only be accessed at low tide, making timing critical.

But the main challenge tends to be actually locating the crag. Unlike an inland crag, sea-cliffs are generally invisible to the approaching climber, except in the unlikely event of arriving by boat. The bases of most sea-cliffs are gained either by a death-defying scramble or, more usually, by means of an abseil. This adds a degree of tension to sea-cliff climbing. Once down, you are committed to making a successful ascent of the route. The only other way back up would be to climb up the abseil rope – assuming you have left it in place and not pulled it down after you to use as your climbing rope. Although such an escape is possible in extremis, it involves both technical skill and a deal of ‘faff’ and is considerably harder than they make it look in the movies.

Limehouse Blues cliff, with rickety fence for an abseil belay (photo: Dog Holden)

To further add to the excitement, the tops of the Solway sea-cliffs tend to consist of very steep grass growing in about an inch of top-soil, devoid of stout, well-rooted trees on which to secure the abseil rope. We were forced to resort to abseiling down the cliffs from a rather rickety fence that served to stop the sheep from straying onto the steep grass. We used an extra rope for this exercise, given the height of the cliff and the distance up the slope to the fence-line. There is a handy mid-height ledge system running across the main cliff, the so-called “Limehouse Blues” area which makes most of the routes accessible even at high tide.

The rock hereabouts and on much of the coast west of Kirkcudbright is a “greywacke” sandstone. This tends to be brittle and so needs careful handling. However, winter storms often clear the cliffs, or at least the lower sections, of loose rock so there are not too many unstable blocks and few rubble-strewn ledges.  (An exception is the crag at Burrow Head which is pretty unstable).

Given the general lack of climbing ‘traffic’ on these crags back then the cliffs carried a generous covering of flora, including a tough short sea-grass and cushions of attractive sea-pinks. On that first day’s climbing I found the thrift flowers made a cheering contrast to the daunting steepness of the rock. For some inexplicable reason, the pull of gravity always feels stronger when climbing above the sea. So, although the actual climbing routes were generally clean of vegetation, I was rather over-sensitive to the occasional feel of brittle, grey-green lichen crumbling beneath my feet. However, I was only the ‘second’, Dog having led the route with his usual calm aplomb. I was climbing with the full security of the rope above me – though with the suspicion that my leader was probably anchored at the top to nothing stronger than a fence-post.

Such minor inconveniences aside, we found the climbing at Meikle Ross to be excellent with some striking and pleasant routes. Lichen notwithstanding, the atmosphere was not as intimidating as so many sea-cliffs are.  Everybody we went on to introduce to the area very much enjoyed the quality of the climbing and the “feel” of the setting.

This first trip began our fairly extensive exploration of the whole of southern Galloway, including the Isle of Whithorn and crags along the west coast. One of the latter, at Laggantulloch Head, south of Portpatrick, is particularly remote and formed of excellent granite, rather than the more typical greywacke. Granite is the predominant rock of the Galloway inland crags, including the dramatically named Dungeon of Buchan in the remote Silver Flow area at the heart of the Galloway Forest Park – spectacular climbing accessible by a very long walk/cycle rather than a short, scary abseil.

Much easier of access, especially from Cumbria is the delightfully situated Clifton Crag, not on the coast but with the sea close by and with excellent views across the Firth.

What was particularly enjoyable about the coastal climbing 20-30 years ago was both the aspect and seclusion. Although possibly busier today, now that there is a good climbing guide to the area, it is doubtful whether it gets too much traffic. This is partly due to its remoteness from the main mountain areas and centres of population but also due to the general seriousness. Sea-cliffs are not climbing walls. Climbing them always carries the frisson of an uncertain outcome, which is the hallmark of true adventure. Like the sea itself, they are mutable, constantly changing. Although this is true of all crags, the pace of change on sea-cliffs is intensified through the working of waves and wind, of salt and sand. For example, although some of the crags now have metal abseil posts in place, those posts themselves corrode quickly in the salt sea air, becoming potentially more dangerous than the rickety fence-posts we used.

Judith Brown at the top of Meikle Ross (photo: Dog Holden)

All aspects of sea-cliff climbing require judgment and self-sufficiency to a high degree. That is part of the satisfaction of climbing on these crags, a satisfaction fully realised by the surroundings. During the climb one is focused on the rock, the lichen, the sea-pinks, maybe glancing up to a sky that is – hopefully – blue and cloud-free; occasionally looking down to check the placement of your feet but letting your eye be caught by the play of light on water and seaweed and on the bands of golden sandstone. You hope that your movements are in tune with the beauty and the solitude.

At the top, climbing turns to a graceless scrabble up the lethally steep grass and it is with some relief that you reach the doubtful security of whatever metal or wooden post your leader is tied to. But then you move to safer ground, among the grazing sheep, where you can relax and enjoy the view of the Cumbrian coastline and the northern fells, looking splendid across the Solway Firth.

Looking across to the Lakeland fells (photo: Ann Lingard)

For more information about climbing in Galloway see the relevant chapter in the Scottish Mountaineering Guidebook “Lowland Outcrops” – the section is written by Stephen Reid of Needlesports in Keswick, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the Galloway hills and crags.

John Biggar also has a good website with many photos and detailed information about the areas described here and many more besides.

There are several free, beautifully-illustrated booklets about the Dumfries and Galloway coast and its rocks and placenames, available as downloads from the Solway Coastwise project.

Judith Brown’s book ‘Happy Climbing Tells No Tales’ (Open Mountain, 2007) was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountaineering Literature in 2007 (copies are still available at Needlesports in Keswick).

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