Old Man of Hoy

A mermaid & a marriage proposal: the intriguing life of the Old Man.

The Old Man seems like a steadfast fellow – solid and ancient –

but he isn’t as stable as he once was and he isn’t so very old.

The Old Man is an iconic image of Orkney. Arguably the Ring o Brodgar has taken his place, but for many he is still the face of Orkney, a symbol for the island. We have a collection here of over fifty postcards of the Old Man dating from Victorian times to the present. He is visited frequently over the summer months and waved at from the Hamnavoe by thousands. Still his fame is relatively recent. He does not feature in earlier travel journals, but he was paid a visit in 1814 by the famous writer Sir Walter Scott.

In Bleau’s map circa 1600 and in Mackenzie’s 1750 map, the Old Man is portrayed as a headland, not the stack we know today. He is believed to be less than 400 years old but of course he has been millions of years in the making. The Old Man has feet (or foot) of basalt rock, but his upper is of softer sandstone with layers of flagstone. The erosion of sandstone and the layers of flagstone give him his rugged appearance. His profile has altered over the years and like many old men, he’s not the man he used to be!

Geologists have suggested that he might not always be here, but will fairly soon crumble into the sea. Climbing sites urge people to bag him while he still has a leg to stand on.

The artist William Daniell depicted the Old Man on two legs in his aquatint published around 1813. At the base of the Old Man you can see the remains of that leg, a mass of rock left when his arch collapsed against the storms. Daniell writes that his two legs are what gave him his name but Hugh Marwick suggests that it may be one of the few Celtic names in Orkney possibly deriving from the word allt meaning cliff and maen meaning stone. In fact there are other Old Men in Cumbria, Cornwall and Skye.

At 450 feet (137 metres) high, the Old Man is a striking figure. His solitude has sparked poetic response and on more than one occasion a mermaid was seen circling, perhaps hoping to comfort the lonely man. Billy Budge of Longhope penned a song about the exciting, and at times bewildering, 1967 televised climb, in Billy’s song the Old Man is taken to America to be wed to the Statue of Liberty.

Many years later when magician David Copperfield astounded the world by making the Statue of Liberty disappear, Orcadian Ann Sutherland wrote to Paul Daniels asking if he could create the spectacle using the Old Man with on-lookers watching from the ferry. He said no. One person who said ‘Yes’ was Laura McKenna who agreed to a proposal of marriage made on top the Old Man last year.

Whisky, sticks of rock, shortbread, oatcakes and fudge have all used the image of the Old Man to announce their Orcadian allegiance. He is a well loved resident of Hoy, possibly our most famous, and if he ever does fall into the sea, he’ll be very much missed. Long live the Old Man of Hoy!

images from Stromness Museum

To find out about climbing the Old Man click here

To hear Jack Rendall talks about the Old Man click here

References and acknowledgments: Billy Budge; Tom Champagne; Jim Hansom, landforms.eu; Hugh Marwick ‘Celtic Place-names in Orkney’ 1925 Proc. Antiq. Soc.;  Alan McKirdy ‘Orkney & Shetland, A Landscape fashioned by Geology’; The Orcadian; Ann Sutherland.

These images are from the Iain and Marion Talbot’s postcard collection.

Thank you to Orkney Archive for the prints.

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