Among the more esoteric crags coming into season this weekend is the Souter sea stack and its surrounding fins, at Fastcastle on the southern Scottish coast. More reminiscent of the South West of England than its better-known counterparts in the north of Scotland, there are still good lines up for grabs in this under-explored corner of Berwickshire.
Hidden away on a quiet stretch of coastline in the South East corner of Scotland, the Souter stack and its myriad fins of grey rock remained unnoticed by climbers until a canoe expedition of the renowned Squirrels chanced upon it in the mid 1960s. What is more surprising is that, having dispatched the obvious challenge of the Souter itself and a few now esoteric routes to the south, that redoubtable Scottish crew largely left the Fastcastle area alone. You could just go down and find a new cliff and climb it – Bruce Kerr
You could just go down and find a new cliff and climb it – Bruce Kerr
It has been re-discovered and developed in a number of waves over the decades since, first becoming popular after Edinburgh climber Bruce Kerr’s trip to climb the Souter in 1979 yielded a new route on the main fin next to the stack. He sensed the area’s potential as a winter cragging ground and spread the word among the small community of keen climbers who congregated at the city’s Meadowbank wall. Activity really took off in the early 1980s, when a score of lines were climbed by the likes of Kenny Spence, John “Spider” McKenzie, Rab Anderson and Jerry Handren. Spence’s lead of the wonderfully named Squid Vicious on the Souter itself was, at E5, close to the cutting edge at the time – especially given that the ethic of the day was to climb routes almost on sight, cleaning them on abseil but not practicing the moves.
“You could just go down and find a new cliff and climb it,” Kerr recalls.
With pickings like that on a crag an hour from Edinburgh, Fastcastle was soon providing an alternative to Northumberland as a training and proving ground. But with the explosion in climbing standards of the time opening up the great cliffs of the Highlands to enormous new potential, it was regarded as a winter venue, with most of the development taking place in February and March. These were the preferred months because the winter storms had by then cleaned the bird mess off the routes. It was not uncommon for keen enthusiasts to go winter climbing in the glens on a Saturday and then climb at Fastcastle on the Sunday, with the shelter of the fins and the steep east-facing hillside behind forming a pleasant micro-climate under the right conditions.
At around the same time, the area was also attracting attention from south of the Border. Kevin Howett, now the MCofS’ sports development officer, had developed a taste for loose rock and adventurous new routing on the cliffs of North Cornwall before moving to Newcastle. He also first climbed in the area in the late 70s, repeating some of the early routes on Fastcastle itself.
“That was the start of it,” he says. “We explored a bit more and wandered to the south and found the Brander, and just though we’d go for it because it was such a lovely bit of rock. I couldn’t believe it.”
With his old school friend John Griffiths he climbed a number of the routes on the huge Brander slab on-sight, finding the rock to be clean and good. He is surprised they aren’t more popular. Blue Moves is just beautiful, one of the best routes I’ve ever done- Kevin Howett
Blue Moves is just beautiful, one of the best routes I’ve ever done- Kevin Howett
“Blue Moves, which is the one right up the middle of the slab, is just beautiful, one of the best routes I’ve ever done,” he said.
Howett also had a close shave when a route he was prospecting collapsed. Fortunately, he had just caught a hold above the loose section when the rest of the rock fell away, taking his gear with it. He called it Lucky Day, E3 5b, and perhaps not surprisingly it is recorded as unseconded.
Meanwhile, Griffiths added Guano Corner, a vertical corner full or bird poo and mud described as “an unbelievable lead”. Even after the on-sight cleaning efforts of the first ascentionists, the guidebook still recommends a wearing a wetsuit for those bold enough to repeat it.
The short season and a reputation for loose rock kept the crowds at bay, and Fastcastle never did become particularly popular despite the fact that there is also a lot of good rock and fine routes which cater to modern tastes. But there was a resurgence in new routing in the 1990s that saw a steady stream of routes added, with some of Scotland’s best known figures leaving their mark. Malcolm Smith’s Crimpanzie may still be unrepeated – despite the guidebook grade of E5 6b.
As the short steep walls around the Souter filled up, some longer and more adventurous routes were also prospected in the wider area. Typical of such routes is Kerr’s favourite among his new routes, the Voyage of the Mad Manxman, which he spent a wild day cleaning on his own, “against all common sense”.
Kerr had been inspired to re-visit the area by a number of trips to Devon, and he even carried out a traverse of the entire headland with George McIntyre, picking a day of spring tides to allow them to walk along the beach as much as possible. That had its drawbacks.
“We were glad we took sandwiches because we had to take a six hour interlude on a ledge,” he says.
Despite that expedition, gems remained to be found. During the summer of 2013 Anthony Dodd and Dominic Jeff developed the Waterfall Wall, an idyllic spot for a summer’s climb that could end in a refreshing early bath due to the pool beneath it. After celebrating with a paella cooked on the beach over a driftwood fire the duo walked back under the overhanging north face of the Wedge – the smallest of the Souter fins proper – and wondered about climbing that too.
Stuart Green and Dominic Jeff later headpointed three routes on the Wedge, and honoured the local naming tradition with Prawn Slippy, Puffer Daddy and Skate Bush. The latter, at E7 6b, is in theory the hardest addition to the area yet and has attracted attention from some of Scotland’s top trad men. Repeats are believed to include an onsight by Nial McNair who climbed up to the crucial cam at two-thirds height, then downclimbed for a rest before going back up and sending the crux upper moves.
There are whole crags as yet unclimbed in the Souter area, including some potential for deep water soloing, so as the seagulls vacate it, this may be the summer for a new wave of interest.