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South Barra Isles

 

The South Barra Isles from Barra

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Barra and it's co-joined twin Vatersay are the last inhabited islands situated at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Some climbing has been developed on the west coast of Barra itself. There are five main islands of interest to climbers continuing south beyond Vatersay, these are Sandray, Lingeigh, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray. Over 1000 climbs have been recorded across these uninhabited islands and they are usually on perfect gneiss, offering some of the best climbing that can be found in Scotland. There are spectacular routes from 20m to 250m and quality climbing covering the entire grade range from Easy to E8. A selection of the best climbs on Mingulay and Pabbay is included in Scottish Rock Volume 2 (The North) by Gary Latter.  Colin Moody has developed many climbs on the Scottish Highlands and Islands and has recorded the development on his website until such times as there is a definitive guidebook published to the area. Kevin Howett and Grahame Nicoll are working on a new definitive climbing guide to the Outer Islands on behalf of the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

 

Gary Latter on Pabbay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

A Brief History of Climbing on the South Barra Isles by Gary Latter

(www.scottishrock.co.uk)

 

Like St. Kilda, the indigenous islanders scaled the cliffs on Mingulay in order to harvest seabirds and their eggs. Undoubtedly various climbers have visited and climbed the occasional route in more modern times, but the first recorded climbs of any note occurred comparatively recently, when, in May 1993 Graham Little, Kev Howett, Mick Fowler and Chris Bonington paid a brief visit to Mingulay. Fowler and Bonington added 4 long routes from S-HVS on the North West Face of Guarsay Mor, together with Liverbird in the impressive huge chasm of Sloc Chiasigeo. By far the most significant find was Dun Mingulay, where Howett and Little added two superb lines up the centre of the cliff with The Silkie and Voyage of Faith. Despite encountering wild seas and stormy weather, the superb quality of the rock, impressive situations and the glaringly obvious potential for a wealth of routes of every standard clearly inspired Howett and Little, who went on to make many productive visits to all the islands in the group.


Two years later, two separate teams visited the neighbouring Pabbay. True to nationalistic stereotypes, first to place their towels on the beach was a German team, blessed with fine weather. From their own yacht they approached the base of the cliffs by dinghy in calm seas. They added the first routes to the extensive Banded Geo with Warm Up and Steife Breise, and developed the finely situated headwall above the Great Arch with 9 routes from S-HVS. The following day, two impressive lines running the full length of the 100m high Grey Wall Recess gave R.Gantzhorn and S.Wacker U-ei and R.Witt and J.Fischer the much harder corners of Spit in Paradise. Howett and Little returned in the company of Graham Nicoll, Andy Cunningham and Bob Reid. Little and Howett climbed the inaugural arete of The Priest up the left arête of the Great Arch. Cunningham and Nicoll added several good lines on the Banded Geo, including Spring Squill and Spooky Pillar . Moving to Mingulay, Cunningham and Nicoll climbed the first routes on the excellent Guarsay Mor with Okeanos and A Word with the Bill, Howett and Little contributing Crystal Daze and the bold Lost Souls; Cunningham, Nicoll and Reid Oh No, Norman’s Due Back Tomorrow!. The same team also added a number of routes from S-E2 at either end of Dun Mingulay, including the excellent intimidating Fifteen Fathoms of Fear.

 

Mary Jenner on U-ei E2 5b Pabbay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

By 1996 word had spread, and Little, Howett, Cunningham and Nicoll were accompanied by a select few. Rubha Greotach, the westmost promontory on Pabbay revealed two immaculate 25m high walls, dubbed The Galley and The Poop Deck. Amongst the immaculate 3 star additions, were Wriggly Wall, Illegal Alien and Bogus Asylum Seekers all in a productive day from Nicoll, and The Craik from Howett. At the north end of the island Kath Pyke and George Ridge developed Hoofer’s Geo, the highlight the immaculate hanging crack of Sugar Cane Country. Howett and Little made up for a failed attempt on the huge roofs of the Great Arch with their ascent of one of the best routes on the islands with the stupendous Prophecy of Drowning up grooves in the spectacular arete. Moving to Mingulay later in the week, Howett and Ridge weaved through some huge roofs up the steepest section on Dun Mingulay to produce Rory Rum the Story Man utilising several rest points on the main traversing pitch and taking a hanging belay on the lip of a roof. Pyke and Little opened up Seal Song Geo on the southern tip with Rubha Soul and The Power of the Sea. Little and Howett also added the excellent orange wall of Morning Glory in a sub geo in the huge Sloc Chiasigeo. Just to the south, Scott Muir, Cunningham and Fraser Fotheringham abseiled in to the Arnamul Promontory amidst wild seas, hence their Lament to the Abyss.

 

Karin Magog on Sugar Cane Country E4 6a Pabbay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Early in April 1997, Mick Tighe, Charlie Fowler, Kathy Harding, Sandy McNeil and John McCall hired a boat from Mallaig. On Mingulay they added two spectacular exposed lines above an impressive heavily birded Great Arch on Guarsay Mor – McCall of the Wild and The Arch Deacon, together with a range of short routes from S-E2 on the ‘Reiff-like’ Geirum Walls, including Water Babies, Hawaiian Tropical and Mary Doune. A month later, Little, Howett, Nicoll and Hughes returned to Pabbay in the company of Rick Campbell, Paul Thorburn and others. On the Great Arch Thorburn and Campbell climbed the steep Sturm und Drang. Howett and Little developed several new geos on the south coast, with Shag’s Geo where they added Cracking Corner, Up Before the Beak and Shag’s with Attitude. Phil Swainson and John Given added a good range of lower grade routes here also. Further east, in Big Bloc Sloc Howett and Little miraculously produced two excellent lines with Immaculate Conception and Lifeline. Hardest among many good additions on Banded Geo were the steep lines of The 36th Chamber from Hughes and Nicoll, and Howett and Little’s Endolphin Rush. Harder routes received repeat ascents for the first time, and Thorburn added the super-steep The Raven on The Poop Deck. On the overhanging Main Cliff of The Pink Wall, Howett and Little added a serious route up the left edge - The Tomorrow People. The following day Thorburn and Campbell produced the first route to breach the acutely overhanging main section of the cliff. The stupendous The Guga tackled the alarmingly steep right arete of the wall, pushing standards to E6.

 

Karin Magog on Endolphin Rush E3 5c Banded Wall, Pabbay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Moving on to Mingulay, the team encountered excellent weather. On Guarsay Mor, Thorburn and Campbell repeated Lost Souls, adding an athletic direct finish through the roof – Swimming to America, along with Longships. On Dun Mingulay, Thorburn and Campbell attempted to repeat Rory Rum, starting in the wrong place and producing Where’s Rory? in the process. A bold venture further left produced the hardest route on the island with Perfectly Normal Paranoia to the pair the following day.

 

Dave Birkett on Perfectly Normal Paranoia E6 6b Dun Mingulay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Later that summer Dave Cuthbertson and Lynn Hill visited Pabbay with a camera crew to attempt to free climb an incredibly audacious line through the huge upper roof of the Great Arch. The upper roof was equipped with pre-placed protection pegs but due to lack of time they didn’t manage an ascent without recourse to rest points on the final crux pitch – To Be Continued... (E9?). Finally that year, a Sheffield team visited Mingulay, adding a range of good routes to a new venue, Geo an Droma, including Audience in the Wings (E2) and Nematocyst (E5) from Matt Dixon and Paul Evans respectively.

 

The islands saw renewed interest in 1998, following the publication of the Skye and the Hebrides volume and The Face documentary footage shown on TV. On an early visit in May, many excellent lower grade routes were added to a range of short venues on Pabbay, including development of the Allanish Wall, Evening Wall and seaward end of the Banded Wall from various teams comprising Howett, Alistair Todd, Alisdair Cain, Stan Pearson, Bill Wright, Mel Nicoll and Alan Vaughn. Howett returned to the islands the following week with regulars Little, Campbell and Thorburn and initiates Hugh Harris, Malcolm Davies, Tim Carruthers and Tony Stevenson. On Pabbay, the much-eyed line on the Banded Wall gave Thorburn and Campbell the outrageously steep Ship of Fools. On The Poop Deck they accounted for Thursday’s Setting Sunrise and One Last Look and Let Sleeping Stork’s Lie on Big Bloc Sloc. A productive two days on the Pink Wall saw the dynamic duo come away with an excellent trio of E5’s - In Profundum Lacu, I Suppose a Cormorant’s Out of the Question then? and The Ancient Mariners, together with the more amenable Raiders of the Lost Auk. Near Shag’s Geo, Carruthers and Stevenson opened up a new short steep crag, the Bay Area, pioneering a number of routes, including Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and The Roaring 40’s. Moving on to Mingulay, Howett and Harris confirmed that the centre of Sron an Duin could be breached almost anywhere at E3 with The Hurried Path and Sirens. In the Arnamul Promontory, Little and Davies added a trio of lines, the best being Mingulay Magic; Howett and Harris contributing Arnamul Instincts.

 

Karin Magog on Ancient Mariners E5 6a Pabbay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

The following week Twid Turner, Gary Latter and Louise Thomas joined a group of Jacobites from Edinburgh on a trip to Mingulay. On Guarsay Mor the trio climbed a route apiece with Save Our Soles, Hill You Hoe, and Haunt of Seals. On Dun Mingulay they found the surprisingly reasonable Sula and Les Voyageurs either side of Voyage of Faith. Over two days they added the committing five pitch E7 Perfect Monsters, coming in for some criticism over the use of pegs on a hanging belay at the base of the stupendous crux corner/roof. A rest point was used at the end of this pitch – definitely one for the jackals to get their teeth into. Elsewhere on the island, a range of excellent shorter routes were added, including John Sanders and Mike Snook’s Condemned to Happiness on Guarsay Beag, and a number of pitches from VS-E1 on Seal Song Geo from various combinations of Allison Callum, Helen Thorburn, Sanders, Sara Gardiner and Roger Benton, including Doppelkratzer from Callum. Opposite here, Latter and Fergus Murray discovered Fergus Sings the Blues and Thomas Delayed Reaction.

 

The following week a rather strong team comprising Grant Farquhar, Noel Craine, Crispin Waddy and Andy Cave arrived on the island. Despite wet and windy weather, they managed a fair tally of impressive extremes. On Dun Mingulay they added six new lines, with the impressively situated Ray of Light and the superb triple roofs of Big Kenneth from Waddy and Cave and The Great Shark Hunt from Farquhar and Craine. On Seal Song Geo, Waddy deep-water soloed a couple of E2’s. Elsewhere, in The Black Geo, Farquhar and Craine went on their Journey to Ixtlan and Cave and Waddy abseiled in to Sloc Chiasigeo, expecting to climb an E5. The resultant Pot of Gold, though only E2, did not disappoint. That same month a group of Edinburgh Uni. climbers visited Pabbay, filling many of the gaps on the smaller crags, and repeating a number of routes, including the second ascent of The Raven on the Poop Deck. On the Great Arch, Sam Chinnery and Tom Bridgeland climbed the spectacular arete of Child of the Sea over two days and with a rest point on the crux.

 

Karin Magog on Ray of Light E4 6a Mingulay

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Returning to Pabbay in 1999, Campbell and Davies conducted their Hebridean Overtures up the steep side wall of the Great Arch. In Hoofer’s Geo the pair also ascended the bold More Lads and Molasses, one of the few routes to require a brief abseil inspection. Various teams added further lines on the Bay Area with The Herbrudean, Dogs of Law and Jesus Don’t Want me as a Shelf Stacker succumbing to Paul Tanton, Mat Bower and Campbell respectively. Leigh McGinley, Mick Pointon and Tom Leppert found a trio of new lines up the left side of the acutely overhanging Pink Wall, including Tickled Pink and Where Seagulls Dare.

 

1999 saw Dun Mingulay start to take on a worked out appearance, with Campbell and Gordon Lennox completing the conspicuous line of Subterranean Exposure and finally figuring out where Rory Rum the Story Man goes, making the free ascent and dispensing with the hanging belay. Harris and Howett added a range of E2’s and E3’s around Seal Song Geo, as did Dave Towse and Glenda Huxter, and Lennox and Tim Rankin, the highlight a flashed ascent of Spitting Fury (E6) from Lennox. The latter pair also added a range of good short routes further east, as did various combinations of Bruce Kerr, Robert Durran, Alan Smith and Alan Taylor a couple of months later. Towse and Huxter developed the impressive shield of Creag Dearg at the north end of the island, with the sustained Dream the Dearg Goch; Howett and Harris also adding Ocean Voyeur.

 

Mick and Kathy Tighe returned to Mingulay with clients in 2000, adding a range of 100m routes on the extensive clean cliffs south of the Big Arch. The Arena yielded Arch Angel, another spectacular traverse in a similar vein to their previous gem The Arch Deacon. Other excellent finds were Mayday on the South Pillar, while the inaugural route on the wonderful pink veined Cobweb Wall became Cuan a Bochan. They also added a trio of fine VS’s to The Point at Rubha Liath, including Cracknan Euan. Later that year, Dave Turnbull and Huxter added more reasonable routes to Creag Dearg with Big Chief Turning Bull and Fulmar Squaw respectively, while Karin Magog produced the fine Variations on a Dream, partner Steve Crowe piecing together the long sustained The Scream. Huxter and Turnbull also came across the Hidden Wall on Rubha Liath, unveiling Whipsplash. On Pabbay, Gary Latter and Rick Campbell forced the sustained crack-line of The Bonxie up the central section of the Pink Wall.

 

Andy Watmough on Big Chief Turning Bull E5 6a Mingulay 

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Numerous new venues were opened up on Mingulay in 2001, the most impressive the fabulous Undercut Wall towards the south end of Guarsay Mor. Here Lucy Creamer and Kev Howett pioneered the fine corner and roof Rayburnt, along with the reputedly fantastic Burning Desire breaching some impressive ground. Many other excellent routes mainly around HVS-E1 were climbed by various teams on the big cliffs around here and further east in the walls of the huge geo. Other smaller crags up on the north-east coast were opened up also, including a pleasant Deep Water Soloing venue Waterfall Geo, along with Haunted Geo and the steep spectacular Bigfoot Geo.

 

Latter and Campbell explored the Grey Wall, repeating Spit in Paradise, circumventing the crux pitch by adding a new pitch Elysium skirting the right edge of the wall. The pair soon completed the first route up the centre of the wall with Amber Nectar, and returned the following year to complete the stunningly-situated Bravura close to the left edge. The easier angled Yellow Wall bounding the right edge of the Grey Wall soon received a range of additions, including Ian Taylor and Tess Fryer’s Paradise Regained. On Banded Wall, Niall McNair repeated Ship of Fools, but breached the roof by a much harder sequence, returning the following year to complete the entirely independent Geomancer. Others were active completing the last remaining gaps on the Pink Wall, with Steve Crowe slotting in What! No Puffin, and Peter Robins and James McHaffie making the second ascents of The Bonxie and The Guga and adding their own Fondue Macpac. Elsewhere, in Hoofers Geo the pair also both led the striking crack of Boosh, and found an obvious solution to Cubby and Lynn Hill’s uncompleted route on The Great Arch by bypassing the huge top roof on the left – Exit Stage Left. On Mingulay’s Guarsay Mor, Rick Campbell and Pete Craig made the second ascent of Save Our Soles and slotted in the bold neighbouring Fir Gorm.

 

Then in 2004 Paul Thorburn completed the stunning hanging crack and roof left of The Raven on The Poop Deck, climbed redpoint style – 101 Damnations.

 

Karin on the first ascent of K n S Special E6 6a Mingulay 

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

For a more up-to-date history buy Gary Latter's Scottish Rock Volume 2 (North) second edition 2014: 
 

Scottish Rock Volume 2 The North by Gary Latter

 

Logistics

Flights are available to Barra Airport (subject to tide times) but the baggage limit may prove too restrictive! There is no public access to the beach when the airport wind sock is flying.

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Caledonian MacBrayne ferries run from Oban to Castlebay, Barra. The friday ferry arrives in Barra two hours earlier than Saturdays ferry which means you are more likely to be able arrange with Donald (Barra Fishing Charters) to transfer to the islands the same day.  

Wild camping is tolerated adjacent to the harbour in Castlebay but beware of ticks!

Photo (C) Steve Crowe

 

Private charters can also be arranged with Francis Gillies of Barra Fishing Charters.

 

Francis Gillies worked with Donald Macleod as crew aboard the BOY JAMES for 14 years taking climbers and day trippers to Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Barra Head. The vessel used is the Boy James and it can take 12 climbers (min 6) with their equipment.

 

Kit List

It is worth noting that all gear usually needs to be carried onto CalMac ferry at Oban in one go (ie. Sack on front and back, bag in each hand) so don’t bring too much. Also it may be quite a walk from anchoring point to campsite on Mingulay. We generally wear the same clothes for most of the week, taking one warm set as it can be very cold, one set for hot weather and one set for rest days/travelling home in.

Some essentials include:-

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Strong tent (Quasar or similar) and extra strong pegs (can be windy).

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Big plastic bivvi bag for stashing gear near the crags.

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Waterproof shoes or socks as ground can be very wet.

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100m static abseil rope (ideally one abseil rope per climbing pair then they can be left at the top of various crags for the trip)

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Headtorch not usually needed as it only goes dark for two hours!

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Tupperware boxes useful for stashing food in stream (eg. Cheese)

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Lots of big black bags for taking all rubbish back to Barra.

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One garden spade to dig a toilet pit for the team.

We have compiled a useful Kit List here.

 

 

There is great climbing on Sandray, Lingeigh, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray.

Back up to South Barra Isles.