John : Climbing Instructor and Guidebook Author

Climbing at Portobello near Stranraer 

Introduction   Portobello is a wee climbing area NW of Stranraer, on the coast of the North Channel. The climbing quality is a bit mixed and there are areas of poor quality rock that are "intimidating" to lead on, however it's a very nice area in general, there are never ever any midges, and there are a lot of good routes as well!. It makes a pleasant venue for a day trip or a bit of cragging combined with a barbecue or picnic. There is a short approach down a farm track, lots of lush grass and at low tide there is a nice beach to relax or play on.

Access   Many of the routes are affected by the tide, indeed some of them are only half as long at high coming at low tide is recommended. However one or two areas, such as Primrose Inlet and Cracked Block Bay have good climbing above the tide line. To get here follow the A77 or A75 to Stranraer then the A718, B7043 and finally the B738 to Cairnbrook Farm. A private track, which used to be signposted "To The Crags", leads down past a small ruined house, to a second ruin with limited parking. The main beach is just 5 minutes walk down the lane to the sea. Portobello Bay Cliff is immediately north of this beach. Most of the other areas described here are about 300m south of this beach, and it may be quicker to reach these areas by cutting diagonally over the field to a gate from the parking area at the ruined house.

Guidebook   For a definitive list of all the climbs and boulder problems at Portobello see the SMC published Lowland Outcrops guidebook. Included on this page are details of most of the routes I have done.

Dangers  This is a greywacke sea cliff with several areas of dubious rock, lots of fragile flaky holds and for the same reason the protection is not always reliable. It's definitely sound advice to place more protection than usual to guard against a fragile hold snapping and /or a fragile runner placement bursting. Some of the routes are tidal and require low tide and/or calm seas to be climbable. This is a very open stretch of coast so much of the crag will be hazardous in big seas and is open to rapid weather changes.

From north to south the main climbing areas are:-

Primrose Inlet

Slab Bay & The Piano Keys

Axle Bay

Portobello Bay Cliff

Shark Fin Bay

The U-Boat Pen

Cracked Block Bay

Climbers on Happy man at Portobello, August 2015.

Unknown climbers on Happy Man, Sea Buttress


Primrose Inlet

A nice, small, south facing area, somewhat overlooked by the SMC guidebook. Primrose Inlet is not affected by seabirds and not affected much by the tide either. Primrose Inlet lies about 300m north of the main cliff. From the parking area, follow the wall out towards the sea north of the beach, cross over or through the gate, walk around the top of the first (dry) inlet (Slab Bay) then immediately head down towards the sea to this narrow inlet. It is easily missed if you are walking northwards and is also not as far north as marked in the guidebook. Descent to the bottom of the routes is straightforward.

Bottom Feeders at Primrose Inlet

Lex leading Bottom Feeders, HVS 5a, a fine short route at Primrose Inlet.

Slab Bay

Some amazing looking rock in this bay, but mostly a bit beyond the grades I can climb. On the south side is the amazing steep crack of The Man From del Monte, a beautiful looking line up an immaculate piece of rock that is given E3 6a. The north side has some nice scrambling and one poor easy route.

On the south side of the bay is a feature called the Piano Keys... the name was chosen after the What Three Words location reference for the first route climbed, "glorified.pianists.cleansed" ...and the resemblance to some piano good lighting. These are all interesting and slightly deceptive routes on pretty solid rock with good protection, 15m long. The line on the left was left due to the large number of chossy sharp flakes in the groove. First ascents were made in July 2021 by John and Linda Biggar.

Low or mid-tide is necessary for a dry start.

Portobeloo Climbin Piano Keys,

 The amazing steep crack of The Man from del Monte, a beautiful looking 15m climb through the two small triangular pods on the steep wall just left of the Piano Keys. Wish I could climb E3 6a!
 NOTE : July 2021.... the left side of this buttres has been badly affected by a big rockfall.

Axle Bay

A steep non-tidal buttress. I've only ever done the central HVS here, it's steep and sustained! The pinnacle to the seaward side is a nice Easy scramble and may have potential for a few routes or deep-water solos.

Axle Bay at Portobello.

Axle Bay Pinnacle at Portobello.

Axle Bay Pinnacle at Portobello.

Portobello Bay Cliff

These two main buttresses lie just to the right (north) of the main beach as you approach and are easily viewed from the grassy ridge running out to sea between the cliff and the main beach (viewing is recommended for initial orientation). There are three broken and partly vegetated sub-buttresses nearer the land known as the Limpet Buttresses. These are about 15m high, with a couple of routes on the right accessible at high tide and all the rest accessible on foot at low tide. The rock on these is generally poor. To the left of Limpet Buttress there is a narrow sea filled slot, then left again there is a cleaner looking, slabby, crag known as Sea Buttress. This is 12m high and permanently stuck in the sea, so the routes on it all require abseil approaches. The climbing on Sea Buttress is generally very good, but there are a lot of thin, fragile flakes so take care.

This area is generally free of seabirds all year.

Limpet Buttress, Traverse of the Cods

Beyond the narrow slot is the 10-15m high Sea Buttress, which has some very good climbing. There are committing abseil approaches to small ledges or even hanging belays. Most of the climbs can be done at high tide, but big waves would be a problem. The best protected and most straightforward routes here are Happy Man and Puffin Nuffin. The top of Happy Man is easily located by looking for the left hand end (looking out) of the big grassy ledge just 1-1m below the top of the buttress.

Portobello Rock Climbing

Memorial to James Drynan at the foot of Crawfords Crackers on Limpet Buttress.

Shark Fin Bay

About 300m south of the beach this bay is readily distinguished by the Sharks Fin Pinnacle in the sea. The climbing here is a bit scrappy and this area is badly affected by seabirds in the spring. You'll get dive-bombed in the spring nesting season and guano covered hands, gear and rope the rest of the summer...nice. Access is complicated. it is possible to descend to the base of the crag about 100m south (steep grass), and to reach the top of the crag from about 100m north (mostly very easy rock). The former will not be possible for a couple of hours around high tide. This makes it much more convenient to set up an abseil, best down Basking, if you are doing multiple routes here. The scramble from the top of the promontory to the summit, graded Diff and suggested as an escape route in the guidebook, is seriously not recommended!

Shark Fin Bay at Portobello

The U-boat Pen

The U-boat pen lies immediately south of Shark Fin Bay. This area is also badly affected by seabirds in the spring, but the rock remains fairly clean. Although there are normally no nests on the routes themselves, you'll get dive-bombed in the nesting season trying to get near to these climbs. Very low tide, or scuba gear is essential for many of these routes, especially those on the left (see the topo..!). Descent is by easy scrambling round the back. These routes are about 10-12m high. the top half of Feeling the Pinch has particularly good climbing.

U-Boat Pen at Portobello

Cracked Block Bay

Cracked Block Bay is immediately south of the U-boat Pen. It is easily distinguished by the striking Cracked Block of Thunderbolt, which is unmistakable when you do find it..!  NOTE: There was a BIG rockfall here in about 2019, it may not be safe to climb for a while! 

Quickest access to this area is to cut diagonally over the corner of a field from the ruined house parking area to a gate on the horizon, then turn leftish to reach the Cracked Block area. Descent to the routes is straightforward. In general there are no seabirds in this area.

The striking line taken by Thunderbolt, HVS 5a, Portobello, Galloway

The striking line taken by Thunderbolt, HVS 5a.

Cracked Block Area, Portobello sea cliffs

Descent from this main cliff is by abseil or downclimbing easier (Diff) rock flakes which lie behind NRG, more or less opposite Thunderbolt.

Just south of the main wall in Cracked Block bay is a small 10m wall. This area is not affected by the sea or seabirds and you can walk easily off the back of these routes. The routes are a bit dirty.

Betty Blue and Parallel Lines areas

Further south there is one small area with only a couple of short routes.