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The Old Man of Hoy (Orkney Islands)

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      22.10.2009 12:50
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      Highly recommended.

      The Old Man of Hoy is the tallest sea stack in Europe at 137m and an impressive natural site for those who are sick of all the archeological sites around the Orkney Isles. Originally a headland, the sea stack is created when the force of the sea washes swirls and causes pressure on the land between the stack and the mainland until it falls away leaving just its very edge as a stack. Early drawings show the stack with an arch extending from its base, which has since been swept away, from hence it gets its name since it looked like a bent old man.

      The island of Hoy is the second largest of the Orkney archipelago, just off the Orkney mainland and is said to have got its name from the old norse meaning high island as it is the only island in the chain to have any high land with the highest point being Ward Hill at 479m.

      Hoy can be reached from Stomness (foot passengers only) or from Houton a couple of miles east if you are wanting to take your car. Personally if you do have a car it can be worth taking unless you are prepared for a lot of walking as public transport is scarce. The village of Rackwick is the usual starting off point for a 3 mile walk to the cliffs facing the sea stack itself. This is a really beautiful walk and since there are not roads out to the Old Man of Hoy it is necessary if you want to see the stack. I was told to give 3 hours for the walk there and back but I would not count myself as at all fit (and I'm asthmatic) and it took around 45 minutes each way. The walk is really beautiful as at the start there is a bit of a scramble up one of the hills near a cliff edge and then stunning views over the island, beach and across to the rest of the Orkneys. I was there on a sunny summer day but there is still a feeling of wild remoteness as you realise that there is nothing east until you hit Canada and very little to the north.

      The start of the walk is by far the hardest as from there it is a well constructed footpath winding around the edge of the cliffs before cutting across to the cliffs that face the stack. The path I felt took away from some of the fun of the walk but it does mean that almost anyone can go to see the Old Man-I saw a number of young families and older people on the trail. Approaching the seastack is quite spectacular as you creep up to peer over the edge at the raging sea below (as I said I was there on a sunny day and still the sea seemed very powerful bashing against the cliffs). The stack itself can seem solid and vulnerable at the same time as this huge piece of rock looks so huge and immoveable yet is also quite visibly crumbing in some places as the weather and sea take their toll. Seeing sea birds circle around below you and flying back and forward from the island out to the stack is quite an unusual feeling. The colours are wonderful also as the cliffs and stack are a brilliant red sandstone against the greens and purple of the grass and heather.

      The Old Man of Hoy is a famous climbing destination since the first ascent in 1966 by Chris Bonnigton and others (I am too young but my mum remembers this as a major television event!) and has a few different routes of varying difficulties. A RAF logbook is buried under a cairn at the top to log successful climbs. When I visited the site a few months ago there were a pair climbing up the stack which was mesmerising to watch-even standing on the cliff looking over at them was enough to give me vertigo but I'm sure many experienced climbers would love to try it. Just check out all usual information for climbing and also as I've been told that the climb is illegal now because of the instability of the stack it should be worth looking into this also.

      Apparently there are indications that the stack may collapse relatively soon as natural erosion takes its toll so it may be worth going to see it sooner rather than later! Overall this is quite an unusual site and shows the power of nature in all its glory whilst simultaneously being in a beuatiful setting that would make a glorious walk even without the Old Man at the end-well worth the effort!

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