Meeting the Old Man
The ferry link to the island of Hoy goes from Houton, about 15 minutes away from Stromness. The ferries in Orkney are a real lifeline for islanders and are heavily subsidised. They are also very popular with both visitor and resident alike so getting space on one can be tricky at times.
It has to be said that the day we chose to go the weather didn’t look exactly promising, with a heavy mist and dark, cloudy skies and the forecast of rain for the whole day.
The ferry docked at Lyness and we then drove for about a half-hour, along the coast and then up over a pass into the interior. For some reason I found myself at the head of a convoy of about 10 tourist cars travelling to the same spot for the same reason.
Hoy is unique amongst the Orkney archipelago in that it has real mountains and not just hills. The mountains fall to the sea in steep cliff edges and this makes for interesting weather patterns. Arriving at the small settlement of Rackwick you could see the effect of this. Around the tall cliffs was a layer of mist which seemed to flow over the rim and fall into the sea as though a waterfall. It was a beautiful sight.
But we were not here to gaze at the sea; we had a meeting arranged with the Old Man of Hoy and to get within shouting distance we first needed to climb a mountain side. The truth is, of course, that there was a clearly marked, zigzagging path up over the flank of the hill and it certainly wasn’t a ropes and oxygen kind of climb. But it was still quite a tough pull up.
Once over the ridge line there was a wide, heather clad valley spread before us and by now the mist had cleared and the temperature had climbed into the 20’s. In this high moorland environment there is the possibility of seeing Snow Hare (brown at this time of year), Golden Eagle or White-tailed Eagle. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any of these but we did see a few Bonxie – or Great Skua. It’s a magnificently hefty bird and will kill almost anything, though humans seem a bit too big for it to take on thankfully! Apparently there are more Polar Bears than Great Skua and most of the world’s population reside in Shetland, Orkney, Faroe and Iceland so we felt pleased to see it.
In the distance we could make out the very top part of the Old Man of Hoy, perhaps the ultimate in sea stacks and certainly one of the most photographed. But it was only as we got to the cliff edge that we could appreciate the full majesty of this pillar of rock. Mist was weaving in and out of the cliff face so the Old Man had the appearance of a mystic, a sage old man, firmly planted in the bedrock of the earth yet always remaining just that little bit aloof.
The Old Man is, of course, famous as a climbing rock and there was, indeed, a team of three climbers on the rock face as we arrived. They looked so insignificant against the mighty scale of the sea stack and, as a non-climber, I just couldn’t see how you might manage to get up there at all. Chris Bonnington, a famous British mountaineer, first climbed it in 1966, and then climbed it again in 2014 at the age of 80. That is some dedication to your chosen profession.
Whilst the Old Man draws your eye initially you soon start looking around the whole environment in which it sits and it is a strikingly beautiful place. The sheer cliffs, sometimes wreathed in sea mist, swoop down to a rocky shore and the churning, white waters of the Atlantic which crash up against their feet. Here you can feel and hear the full power of the sea as it pounds relentlessly at the earth which, millennia ago, was heaved up out of its depths, as though seeking to reclaim what it has lost. It is a battle which will continue for time immemorial. We were seeing it at a relatively calm time of year so goodness knows what it looks and sounds like when a full storm is raging.
There were quite a few people who had made the walk in as we had, including more climbers who were camping on the cliff top. But the truly magnificent surroundings absorbed us all and it was an enthralling, even calming, place to contemplate the earth and all its beauties.
After walking back to the car we still had some time before we needed to get to the ferry so we explored more along the coast. Again, the views were impressive and we decided that Hoy was a place which would warrant staying for a few days should we return to Orkney in the future. Its mountains did make a change from the relatively flat landscape of the other islands and it was clear that there would be some challenging walking available. As they say, always leave something to come back for.