Review: Scotland, Chris Townsend

6 or 7 years ago I bought a new Cicerone title from Kev Reynolds, the first in a new series of World Mountain Range guides from Cicerone. This was (and is) a beautifully designed guide to the High Pyrenees. It was a book, book more of a breeze block than a walking guide. You wouldn’t have wanted to carry this in your pack! The book was a resource tool, a great trip planning companion to see you through the long and dark nights of winter. The joy of this guide was that you had one book with which to select an area for the next trek. The guide covered routes, access, local facilities and amenities, local history and the geology, fauna and flora of the Pyrenees. This book gave you everything you needed to select your destination and leaving it a relatively simple task to consult other specialist guides to fill in the intimate details of the area that you’d settled on.

When I complimented Kev and Jonathan Williams of Cicerone on the guide they laughed. They told me that Chris Townsend had been commissioned to produce the second in the series, about the Highlands of Scotland. There were lots of jokes about this being a project that would keep him quiet for a long time! When I mentioned the project to Chris in a phone conversation there was a discernible groan coming down the line. I think Chris had realised what he’d let himself in for.

Fast forward to this earlier this year I was delighted when Jonathan proudly announced that he was in possession of the finished manuscript. The book was ready for layout and design. And now, the finished product has arrived!

I should say upfront that this is every bit as good — and as useful — as the Pyrenean guide. It is a work of which Chris should be rightfully proud. This book is the starting point for the planning of a trip or trek in the Scottish Highlands.

How does the book work?

The book is over 550 pages long and packed full of useful guidance and information.

First up are the introductory sections and guide to the practicalities of Scotland. There are details of when to go, weather, getting to Scotland, getting around Scotland, accommodation, links to important maps and guidebooks and a section on the equipment needed for the Scottish Highlands.

There is a section of the Topology and the geology of the mountains together with a cultural history of mountaineering in the area. Also upfront is an explanation of Scottish names (useful but I’ve long ago given up trying to pronounce them), details of the national parks and a description of the plant and animal life of the Highlands.

Chris also gives us details of the various mountain activities that are available and includes an important section on responsible mountaineering, including advice on wild camping, sanitation and campfires.

There is a lot in the information but it doesn’t seem to be too much. It says something for this book that 60 pages of introductory information doesn’t impact much on the mass of the substantive guide!

Philosophy

There is a clear statement of philosophy in the book. Chris sets out to encourage people to explore the wild land of Scotland and he uses the practical definition of wild land as set down by the National Trust for Scotland:

“Wild land in Scotland is relatively remote and inaccessible, not noticeably affected by contemporary human activity, and offers high-quality opportunities to escape from the pressures of everyday living and to find physical and spiritual refreshment.”

The guide covers: the Southern Uplands; the Southern Highlands; the Central Highlands; the Cairngorms; the Western Highlands; the Northern Highlands; and the Islands.

Each of these individual sections is broken down into ‘regional chapters’ each of which covers a distinct glen or hill chain.

Book Sections

Each of the above sections follows a similar format.

The section starts with a two page Summary, a list of section assets and contents that is beautifully clear and concise by glen or hill chain.

Let’s have a look at one of the sections, the section for the Central Highlands.

The summary lists the following:

Each summary starts with a Highlights section. This one starts with Low Level Passes and Walks, and there are three of these listed here with each labelled with the Chapter number where they can be found.

Next comes a list of long distance walks — there are two in this section, the West Highland Way and a walk from Fort William to Dalwinnie via.Corrour.

Then come summit walks — there are over 20 of these.

After this come details of scrambles, rock climbs and ski tour options.

Then comes a full contents listing for everything in this section. This section has chapters on: Ben Cruachan  and Glen Strae; Glen Etive; the Black Mount; the West Highland Way; Glen Coe; Beinn a Bheithir and Glen Creran; Rannoch Moor; The Mamores; Ben Nevis; The Aonarchs and the Grey Corries; Loch Treig; Loch Ossian; Ben ALder and Laggan hills; the West Drumochter Hills; The Monadh Liath; Creag Meagidh and Loch Laggan Hills; Glen Roy; and a section a long walks — Kinlochleven to Spean Bridge and Fort William to Dalwinnie.

Chapters can be two to four pages long.

This Section Summary is a wonderful thing, beautifully laid out and magnificently designed, and clearly presented over two pages.

How Sections Work

So, let’s go beyond the Summary.

Each section comes with an Introduction to the region and a crisp and clear, large scale map.

Each chapter is accompanied by a more detailed map (or maps) and offers an introduction to the glen or chain of hills. Individual hills, or clusters of hills, each have their own entry and each one easily references the ‘highlights’ that were featured in the Section Summary.

The text is peppered with highlight boxes that might tell us about the history of the area, give details of a key supply village, share with us a famous story or myth (yes Shirl the Grey Man is here)  or feature on the geography or wildlife of the area. And on every page spread you will find one of more of Chris’ inspirational photographs.

Concise Brilliance

All of this detail is given in the most clear and concise manner which really must have taken a lot of work. Chris has the knack of using just enough words to give us a proper flavour of the place.

Here is detail from the entry for Ben Alder.

Ben Alder (1148) is the dominant summit of the area, a big plateau topped hill with steep craggy sides.It’s flat-topped bulk, with the distinctive slash of the Bealach Dubh to the north, is easily identifiable from many other hills and useful for orientation.

… from the top of either Leachas  it’s a walk of about 1km across the plateau to the summit cairn. The Plateau is extensive, with some 4km2 lying above 1,000m. The landscape is a mix of high moorland grasses, patches of gravel and granite boulders, evoking comparisons with the great plateaus of the Cairngorms.

Just a few details here from the entry on Ben Alder. But you can see how — if you don’t know this hill — Chris gives you the basics of everything that you need to know.

Section Resources

Each section is rounded off with the detail off with a resource section covering details of: access to the area; details of bases from which to explore; maps; walking guides; and climbing guides.

Each Section follows a similar pattern. Phew!

Appendices

The book concludes with a series of useful appendices. There’s a glossary of common mountain words in Gaelic and Scots, en extensive bibliography for further reading, the current list of Munros (with height and OS reference), the current list of Corbetts, an index of maps included, and a comprehensive index.

 

There are other comprehensive guides to Scotland and its regions — I’m thinking about the series from the SMC. But this book is both more up to date and more comprehensive.

The First One Stop Book for Route Planning.

This really is a great and practical guide. Look up an area and you’ll find details of its history, the terrain you will be trekking through, help in approaching summits, details of bothies and tips of great camp sites.

‘Scotland’ really does take you a long way before you have to drill down into the detail with a specific hill guide. As such, this is a book that is a real reference guide to the hills.

Wonderful Design

The content of this book has been put together in a wonderfully effective manner. But the layout of the guide is superb as well.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet the design team from Cicerone and to see them at work in their design studio. Cicerone’s new guides — and new series of more substantial books — are characterised by really effective and clear design. In Scotland they have probably delivered their best work yet. The design really does contribute to this being a very useful book.

 

… In Conclusion

This is a book that should grace the bookcases of all hillwalkers and mountaineers that love the hills of Scotland.

I’m loving the detail here and I’m already using the book to plan a couple of trips to Scotland, including a route for next year’s TGO Challenge. I could go on and on but thing I’d better stop here.

The book retails for £26 but you can pick it up at Amazon for £19 or so. And it is a bargain at the price.

I’d like to thank Cicerone for the review copy. You’re not getting it back!

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for that, Andy. It sounds like it will replace my ageing SMC guides nicely. Congratulations to Chris for completing a marathon task, too!

  2. Mike fae Dundee says

    My kids have already been informed it would make a nice Xmas present.:)
    Nice review Andy.

  3. It would be a great Xmas present Mike. Mind the back when you lift it though!

  4. Thanks Andy. It will be on my next Amazon order. Well done Chris!

  5. Thanks Andy.

  6. chris yapp says

    i think i,ll start dropping big hints what i want for xmas

  7. I have put a 5 star rave review on Amazon, this book is better than one thinks. A real bonus for walker, back packer and skier. Or if you just want to walk your dog up a hill.
    Well done Chris.

  8. Gordon says

    Knowing the reputation of Chris and, knowing you … and your fulsome praise: before posting the review… I ordered the book from Amazon.
    Can’t wait!!
    Oh, and your review, and Tony’s comments, was/were as expected.
    Brilliant!!

  9. Thanks Andy (and Chris) Just ordered this from The Book Depository for £17.25 including postage. Bargain!

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