Climbing the Old Man of Hoy

image: Stuart Flett


Facing the rock and the fulmar: scaling the Old Man

‘Close up of pebbly beach, rowing boat, birds, crofthouse, waves crash, zoom to pinnacle of the Old Man of Hoy, large tractor with caterpillar wheels hauling BBC equipment across bog…’ So begins the shot list for the most ambitious outdoor broadcast of the time.

In 1967 television history was made when the Old Man of Hoy was conquered by a team of six on screen. Chris Bonnington, Tom Patey, took the East Face; Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis, the South Face; Peter Crew and Douglas Haston took the South-East Arête. A further crew of four climbers- Hamish MacInnes, John Cleare, Rusty Baillie and Ian Clough carried cameras and transmitters.

The event was big news across the UK but it was even bigger news in Rackwick. The influx of climbers, film crew and Scots Guards (who carted the gear including a shed) swelled the numbers in the valley considerably.

BBC crew arriving. image: Beryl Simpson

A year earlier the first known climb of the Old Man was achieved by Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey. Local people told the climbers of an earlier ascent, a tall tale of an elderly but capable pipe-smoker who climbed the stack for a bet only to repeat his efforts when the old man discovered he had left his best pipe on top of the Old Man.

‘This 450 foot sea stack was taking more time than the North Face of the Eiger.’  Tom Patey said of the inaugural climb. To celebrate the ascent the climbers built a cairn and lit a fire ‘In our enthusiasm it got out of hand and only collective action saved us the inconvenience of a fast abseil down melting nylon.’ Since that first cairn was built it has been joined by others. There is a visitors book tucked in a cairn for the successful to sign.

The Orcadian reported three ‘ghost’ climbers a month after the televised climb. The members of the Parnassus Mounaineering Club made the ‘third and least publicised’ ascent unseen and built a second cairn, carving their names in the stones and sleeping on the summit. Their cairn was noticed from the mailboat St Ola.

One of the 15 million viewers who tuned in to watch the 1967 televisual spectacle were father and son, Arthur & Roy Clarkson. They planned their ascent for the following year.  Seven year old Roy and his father from Lancashire took five hours to get to the top, watched by his mum and brothers and sister. The Orcadian reported that once on top they enjoyed some orange juice and blackcurrants before building a cairn.

By 1969 The Old Man had been conquered ten times and Christine Crawshaw had become the first woman to reach the summit. Nearly two decades after he appeared on the first televised climb, Joe Brown returned to be filmed climbing the Old Man again – this time with his daughter Zoe. The 1984 BBC event again drew crowds to the edge of the cliff and viewers to the edge of their seats when Hamish MacInnes made the longest ever known rope crossing, inching hand over hand from the summit to land.

French climber Catherine Destivelle became known as the Rock Queen after her 1998 climb becoming the first woman to solo climb the stack. With her on the climb was possibly the youngest ever to reach the summit – Catherine was four months pregnant!

In 2008 three climbers took seven hours to get to the top and then a record-breaking 10 seconds to get to the bottom.  Tim Emmett, Gus Brown and Roger Holmes made history when they BASE (buildings, antennae, spans & earth) jumped from the Old Man and parachuted down.

BBC archives; BBC Scotland, The Great Climb; Tom Champagne; Paul Gilchrist, ‘Reality TV on The Rock Face’; Northlink; The Orcadian; Tom Patey ‘Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy’; Dorothy & Jack Rendall.


Have you climbed the Old Man? Tell us about your experience and include your memories and photographs in the Old Man of Hoy archive at Hoy Kirk – contact us here


Hear Jack Rendall talking about the BBC filming of the 1967 ascent here

2 thoughts on “Climbing the Old Man of Hoy

  1. Robert Smith

    I wonder who the Ghost climbers were? I remember my father John Howard Smith, a keen and accomplished sandstone climber form Kent, wanted to climb the Old Man for years, but his fellow climbers thought he was mental. Bonnington et al beat him to it, but shortly after he did the ascent with fellow climbers Robert “Scotty” Henderson and Chris(?) “Barny” Barnicott, taking around 8 hours to make the climb and then abseil off. The event was marked in the Kent Messenger local paper, sporting a photo of my dad on the front page, complete with his droopy moustache, kneeling on the summit. I wish I could find a copy of the log hidden in the cairn at the top so I could find out when he climbed it.


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