I remember the ferry poster. May 2018 and we were on our way to Orkney for the first time.

Four of us had travelled by ScotRail up from Glasgow to Thurso, a few miles west of John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland.

From Thurso, we were booked onto the evening ferry to Orkney, landing in Stromness around ninety minutes later.

I saw the poster of the Old Man of Hoy just before we boarded the boat. It brought back the memory of a tense TV program in my childhood. This was in 1966, and before the days of widespread affordability of colour television. Looking back, the black and white pictures simply added to the death-defying drama, not that we knew any different.

(Above: two images from the BBC’s programme The Great Climb)

Three British mountaineers, Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey were attempting the first ever climb of a 500 foot sea-stack of rock located just off the Orkney island of Hoy. The sea-stack – a vertical section of rock that used to be part of a cliff face, but had weathered to form a separate peak – see poster – was being filmed from the adjacent cliff by a BBC outside broadcast team. 15 million people tuned in to watch The Great Climb, breathless and with ample tea and biscuits, as the three climbers made their slow ascent over three days.

Ever since then, I’d wanted to actually see The Old Man of Hoy, but getting there is difficult, as it’s not even on the main island of Orkney. You have to take an inter-island ferry from Stromness to Hoy, then drive to the other end of the island and walk for two hours to get to the cliff-top that looks out at the Old Man… followed by the same journey in reverse. You’d need a car, and you might just do it in day.


We had been told that the ferry from Thurso passed by The Old Man of Hoy on the way to Stromness – Point A on the ferry’s route, above. On a good evening, you could get a reasonable view from the deck of the boat, sufficient to take photographs – which was what I really wanted to do. On that occasion, we were lucky, and with nothing more than an iPhone, I managed to get the shots below:

Fast-forward to 2020, and the second journey in our Silent Eye workshop. We had concluded our ‘Pictish Trail’ weekend and headed up to Thurso, with a two-hour stop at Dubrobin Castle. You can read the posts of the Pictish Trail weekend here, its story is being told in parallel to these ‘out-takes’.

The picture sequence, above and below, tells the tale. When we left Thurso, the light was falling, but the weather was fine, and we hoped there would be enough to capture an image or two of the Old Man of Hoy. For this trip, knowing it might be my last chance to get a really good shot of the sea-stack, I had brought along a DLSR camera with a long lens. The chance of a good image of the Old Man was really the only reason I’d packed it, given that the new iPhones are so capable of dealing with the rest… at a fraction of the weight.

As we approached the time where the Old Man of Hoy should have been off the starboard bow, the weather took a distinct turn for the worse…

By the time we were alongside the The Old Man, I was the only idiot still on deck. I was soaked and my ‘good camera’ was inoperable… you just couldn’t see anything in the sodden viewfinder, especially as my glasses were sodden, too. Suddenly I felt decidedly old.

I considered abandoning the attempt, but decided to get my trusty iPhone out of its pocket and stand against the deck rail, staring miserably into the rain… just in case. I was already as wet as you could be.

Just then, there was a slight gap in the deluge and I managed to get the outline of the Old Man:

And that was it…

Life as a dedicated amateur photographer is like that… You take the rough with the smooth and give thanks when something wonderful happens.. which, clearly, wasn’t today!

There was a return journey, of course, but, the light on that morning was ‘flat’, meaning it robbed the shots of any depth. Even edited, afterward, this was the best of the miserable bunch:

It was with some humour that I realised that the older photo, taken with my previous iPhone two years prior, was the best of the bunch.

You can follow the full story of the Pictish trail and the subsequent trip to Ancient Orkney on the Silent Eye , but here’s a couple of tasters…

Here are some of the posts from the Pictish Trail weekend:

Part OnePart TwoPart Three,

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, which offers a three-year, personally mentored, correspondence course in self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of how our sense of ‘self’ is built by life and can be turned to self-discovery of the individual soul.

Click here for more details…

12 Comments on “The Old Men of Hoy

  1. Pingback: The Old Men of Hoy ~ Steve Tanham | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

    • Thank you, Diana. Orkney is a beautiful place – quite different to the north of Scotland, despite being so close. It gets the end of the Gulf Stream, so is generally very mild – even in winter.

      Liked by 1 person

        • It’s a long way, and you need a car to see the Orkney ‘mainland’. But, it’s worth it. The ferry from Thurso (Scrabster is the name of the actual port) is a relatively short journey; 90 mins, or so, on a nice boat with catering… and great view of the ‘Old Man’… occasionally.

          Liked by 1 person

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