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Climbing Walls in Scotland

A Historical Review

1970 - 2008

The explosive growth in the construction and use of climbing walls is one of the most significant developments in our sport and has led to a significant increase in the numbers of people participating. Although Scotland had lagged behind in terms of modern, quality facilities through the 1980’ and early 90’s, we now have some of the biggest, best and most progressive facilities in the UK.

Here is an overview of this development:

The First Walls

Prior to 1970 the leading climbers trained on outdoor ‘structures’ such as the Finnieston Walls and the Currie railway viaducts in Edinburgh and similar public structures in Glasgow. Routes were even written up in guidebooks of the time. For ‘Eastcoasters’ Salisbury Crag in the centre of Edinburgh was also a major venue but the Holyrood Palace Police had to be avoided or arrest was a possibility. Even so up to 30 people would congregate of an evening and a vibrant scene developed. Indeed some of the practitioners can lay claim to be the first to structure specific training for climbing in Scotland.

In Scotland in the 1970’s walls were built at schools and colleges to cater mainly for the instruction of novices. They included a wall at the old Royal High School in Edinburgh which was made of plywood fixed to a gym wall at varying angles, whose holds were also of wood. This was heavily used by groups as the School was the City of Edinburgh’s Outdoor centre throughout the early 1970’s. Craigmount High School, also in Edinburgh, produced a very small wall at this time which was open for group use and Firrhill High School built a large brick climbing wall but was so bad it was rejected by two resident young school boys who would later become Scotland’s leading climbers.

Herriot Watt University, like so many other Universities of the period, incorporated a wall made of brick. However, a major breakthrough came when a similarly big wall was constructed at the Meadowbank Sports Centre (a centre built to cater for the Commonwealth Games, although climbing did not feature as a participating sport!). Despite its brick construction, the Meadowbank wall with its height, regular winter programme of novice meets and thrice weekly open sessions attracted a group of young climbers who were later to become the ‘new wave’. However, in general the management entry requirements imposed for use of all these walls by individual climbers were usually regarded as a restriction and were off-putting to many, thus their usage never fully indicate the actual need, although groups and clubs were more willing to arrange access to these walls and started regular evening meets. Meadowbank did later instigate a “Usercard” system which helped increase usage by individuals.

At Herriot Watt University, in consultation with the University and Centre management, some of these climbers were allowed to make extensive ‘modifications’ to enhance the possibilities for hard training. In particular holes were drilled to simulate limestone climbing found in France - recently in vogue. As a result this became the most used wall for a time for ‘Eastcoasters’.

On the west, Langside College in Glasgow also incorporated a wall which became heavily used by local ‘hardmen’ specifically for training. The respective east and west teams were putting their new-found ability into action in Glen Coe and Arrochar and there is no doubt that these initial walls acted as a catalyst in the dramatic increase in grades, from E3 to E6, through the latter half of the 1970’s.

The first combination of a shop and a climbing wall occurred at “Spindrift” Climbing shop in Edinburgh around 1977/78, which developed a cellar bouldering wall made from inserted stone (mainly supplied from the base of cliffs all over Scotland by users of the wall). This was used extensively and created a peculiar local scene long before the term ‘cellar dwellers’ was coined.

The only other wall of note from the early 1980’s was the small bouldering wall (stone inserts into brick) built by a teacher at the Lochaber High School. Although rudimentary it was significant for a band of locally based climbers and contributed to the development of nearby Glen Nevis as one of the finest hard free-climbing areas of Scotland and helped push local grades into the E7 category.

The First Modern Walls

The first ‘modern’ wall in Scotland (designed and built by climbers using new techniques and innovative designs) came from Bendcrete at the Beach Leisure Centre in Aberdeen in 1988. This was a bouldering wall and the impetus for its development came from the local Etchachan Climbing Club. This led to the manufacture of an extremely difficult and technical climbing wall. It’s position, although a dedicated area, was not ideal being in a small corridor space at the end of the swimming pool viewing area and it has had continuing operational difficulties ever since with overheating and a lack of circulation space. Another bouldering wall was built at the Lochaber Leisure Centre in Fort William in 1987 again because of the drive for such developments from local climbers: a Bendrcete wall in contoured concrete with a particularly vicious overhanging off-width crack that only the local teacher could jam his way up.

The MCofS were not consulted in these early developments but active members of the Executive Committee soon realised there was a pressing need to take a co-ordinated approach to future development and a development programme was instigated.

As a result the next wall to be opened was part of a Regional Development Programme between the MCofS and the Scottish Sports Council. A Working Party brought the project together to develop a bouldering wall at the Kelvin Hall International Sports Arena in Glasgow with funding from The City of Glasgow District Council, SSC and various sponsors (MCofS, Tiso, Nevisport, Climber Magazine). The wall opened in August 1988 and was the most heavily used wall in Scotland for many years.

The MCofS soon after established a strategy for wall development in Scotland to further develop similar walls. A Scottish Sports Council Information Digest was produced in October 1989 about the Kelvin Hall wall & its construction (again by Bendcrete). Further walls in this programme were to come about when both the need and the monies were available. The impetus for the construction of new walls was therefore from grass-roots climbers and climbing clubs, with the MCofS providing support and backing to secure funds from the Development Programme.

The next to be built in this way was at The Olympia Sports Centre, Dundee (1991), where local climbers convinced the Local Authority that a wall was needed, quickly followed at the Carnegie Leisure Centre at Dunfermline (1992) when members of the Ochill Club secured backing. The newly operational Foundation for Sport and The Arts contributed funds to the Dunfermline project.

These developments were part of existing leisure centres but were located in areas identified as redundant to the centres’ requirements. However, they provided only bouldering style facilities at a time when the main thrust of increasing development in England was for leading walls. The one exception to this was the new wall at the refurbished National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore. Built in 1993 primarily for instruction during centre courses it rapidly became the focal point for Inverness climbers.

The popularity and success of the Fort William wall led to it being extended in 1993 with a new panelled section, into a shared site with the centre cafe where falling boulderers and cups of coffee collided. It was only a few years later that Highland Council created a dedicated area by using an old squash court and ensuring a good bouldering facility for the strong local climbing community as well as many climbers ‘washed-out’ from Ben Nevis during the winter.

Despite these developments climbers throughout Scotland were building their own walls from plywood and bolt-on holds, which were now freely available. Groups of climbers started to combine forces and invest time, effort and money to produce larger venues in industrial units or garages (particularly in Dundee and Edinburgh) and one large wall in the sitting room of a house in Kinlochleven.

The best of the public walls were used during two winter seasons as venues for Scotland’s first nationwide bouldering competition. Operated by climbers from Aberdeen and Dundee and sponsored by Tiso they were very popular and sorely missed when funding ran out.

Dedicated Centres

Alien Rock by KHIt was not until 1994 that a dedicated ‘Climbing Centre’ was opened with leading as well as bouldering walls. The first was Alien Rock in Edinburgh. This was a self-build project with mainly private investment. The Glasgow Climbing Centre (another dedicated centre built and managed by climbers) also opened at an old church in Ibrox in 1994. Here several manufacturers’ walls were incorporated including Livingstone and Bendcrete.

The biggest wall to be built in Scotland came at an old ice rink in Falkirk in the later 1990’s, named Hadrians Wall. It was a private development by climbers with private funding and was linked to other sporting facilities in the same building and uniquely had a pub next to the wall! The emphasis was on supplying a large surface area of wall rather than walls which encompassed state of the art features and was self-build. Although basic in design Hadrians Wall offered a large facility and catered well for lower to middle grade climbers. It encouraged local young climbers to get involved and soon their parents helped set up a series of lead and bouldering competitions for children known as Climbfest. These spread to include other walls for a few years and were very popular. Unfortunately Hadrians Wall closed in 2005.

Alien Rock by KHIt was in 1999 that Scotland joined the BMC in delivering a youth climbing competition known as the British Regional Youth Climbing Series (BRYCS). This was now possible because of the availability of suitable walls and the competition was held using Glasgow Climbing Centre, Hadrians Wall and Alien Rock.

In the years after these developments ‘small-wall’ projects opened at various new leisure centres including the far flung North West villages of Ullapool and Gairloch. Work was done to the Beach Leisure Centre to add extra holds to the particularly blank sections and cover the entire floor surface in matting. The funds for this came from the local Etchachan Climbing Club and the City of Aberdeen.

The Lottery

The advent of the National Lottery saw many changes to the possibilities for funding of new sports facilities. The Lottery filled the funding void after the Scottish Sports Council’s Regional Development Programme had ended some years previously.

Both Alien Rock and The Glasgow Climbing Centre extended their walls as re-investment (without seeking Lottery help) and in 1998 a new facility was incorporated into the McLaren Community High School in Callander (with Lottery funding). This latter was built by Alien Rock who were now extending into the manufacturing market.

The MCofS Strategy to establish large scale ‘Regional Centres’ started with the building of Climb Caledonia in the Inverness Leisure Centre using the manufacturer Bendcrete. Although it shared a subsidiary sports hall with other activities, it was the biggest in Scotland at the time and received MCofS support for National Lottery funding.

The prospect of a national scale indoor wall had been discussed with a developer as far back as 1989, but it was not until 1999 that the acquisition of Ratho quarry on the outskirts of Edinburgh by the developer allowed the project to proceed. The venue was to encompass world scale artificial facilities indoors with natural rock potential indoors as well as outdoors in the original area of the quarry. It was supported by the MCofS as The National Centre and received substantial National Lottery funding and opened its doors in 2003. Unfortunately it had only been operational a few months when it was taken into receivership, although both a World Cup and World Youth Championship were held. The first of an annual competition for students was also run at Ratho by Scottish University Sport. After 2 years of uncertainty it was subsequently bought by The City of Edinburgh who invested funds to finish construction and is now managed by Edinburgh leisure on their behalf. It remains the biggest indoor climbing facility in the world.

The next Regional Centre to be established was developed at the surprising venue of the old British ‘Alcan’ smelter in Kinlochleven, near Glencoe on the west coast in December 2003. The Ice factor was supported by MCofS and received National Lottery funds as a Regional Centre but it also housed the biggest indoor ice wall in the UK, which has been designated as being of National importance by the MCofS.

The development of indoor dry-tooling competitions at Glasgow Wall in the early 2000’s, known as ‘The Mixed Masters’, led to further competitions at The Ice Factor to include ice for the first time. With such unique facilities available in Scotland, these competitions now have a growing following north of the border, with Scottish based climbers now regularly competing in UIAA Ice Competitions in Europe.

Not long after (2004), the building of a new campus sports centre at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen included a small leading wall and bouldering room but was not able to accommodate anything big enough to be considered a Regional Centre. This was realised when, in 2007, Transition Extreme opened its doors in Aberdeen and is the most recent large facility to gain Regional Centre status and Lottery funding. It also houses an indoor BMX and skateboard park.

One further dedicated large centre opened its doors in Dundee in 2005, Avertical World, again utilising an old church. This was a self build project and saw the opening of a second phase in 2007. As a consequence the old bouldering wall at the Olympia Leisure Centre became under-used and was transferred to the local outdoor centre for youth groups.

The most recent addition to the network of Scottish indoor walls opened in Aviemore in 2007 at Extreme Dream. Although too small and too close to Inverness to be considered a Regional Centre, it received support from MCofS and has concentrated on delivering a modern approach to coaching in climbing, with dedicated wall designs for this purpose – a first in Scotland if not the UK.

The Future

Changing priorities of the Scottish Government in recent years to increase the health of the nation have seen a resurgence of interest for establishing climbing walls at schools and universities – a development last seen in the 1970’s. This has meant a realisation of previous plans from the 1990’s to establish a wall at the University of Edinburgh; the replacement of an old wall at Gairloch High School, which received MCofS support and Lottery funding and is due to open soon; new PPP Schools in Portree, Aberfeldy, Nairn and the northern isles all have or plan to include some indoor provision; and Local Authorities from Argyll, the Highlands, to the Outer Hebrides have been installing small traverse walls in their Primary School playgrounds. This development is sure to continue as new schools are built and the health of our young people is given higher priority. The MCofS sees such development as important for allowing access for more children to climbing and will support such development.

There remain gaps in provision of quality ‘recreational walls’ where large scale dedicated centres would be viable or a need proven to establish such walls within sports facilities. ‘Adventure walls’ and ‘instructional walls’ have never been well catered for in Scotland and so the MCofS recognises that development of walls of these types, at sites where a need is proven, should be pursued. We would also like to see outdoor boulders established in parks across Scotland as part of everyday play provision (for adults as well as children!).