Pabbay: High Adventure in the Outer Hebrides

Visiting one of the wild and remote climbing destinations of the Outer Hebrides is a rite of passage in Scottish climbing. Once there, you’ll find spectacular sea cliffs, abundant wildlife, and not a soul around other than your fellow climbers. Here are a few words and shots from our General Manager, Rob Lovell, who was fortunate enough to visit the island of Pabbay this spring.

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Time spent in the Outer Hebrides always feels special, and my most recent trip to Pabbay – situated south of Barra, Vatersay, and Sandray – was no different.

The islands of Pabbay and Mingulay have become a top destination for rock climbers throughout the UK, and it’s easy to understand why. Immaculate, bomb-proof Lewisian gneiss, sculpted into perfect handholds by countless storms, rises from the Atlantic Ocean, providing the canvas for an unbeatable climbing experience. And while the climbing is sublime, a visit to the island offers so much more.

Pabbay has been uninhabited since the early 1900s, but evidence of its human history is still very clear – you’ll see it not just in the bay, but all over the island. With the absence of predators, Pabbay is home to a wide variety of birds. At camp, the corncrake is ever-keen to join in the conversation, and the wren’s call – heard almost every time you stop – ensures that you never feel alone. Gannets and Arctic terns dive-bomb in the bay, seals roll in the sand, and we even spotted a golden plover while descending from the island’s high point, An Tobha.

Beyond what you can see and hear, it’s also an opportunity to be in the moment and appreciate your surroundings and the people you are with. Switching over to ‘island time’ means you are guided not by your watch but by your daily ambitions, those of your friends, and the daylight hours (which, even in May, are very long). Switch off from social media, put on your out-of-office, and enjoy the here and now (perhaps with the occasional glance at a phone – if you are on the right network and in the right place – to check the weather forecast).

I was climbing on Pabbay with Alex, our Creatives Editor, and shared a boat with nine other climbers. Upon arrival, we set up camp, greeted another team of climbers who had already established their camp, and began planning for the next day. Earlier in the day, I’d received notifications of solar activity on my phone, so just before switching off my headlamp, I poked my head out of the tent door. To my delight, I was greeted by the aurora borealis sweeping across the sky. I got out of my sleeping bag and stayed up for another hour enjoying the display, while the others in camp slept, watching what was without a doubt the best aurora I’d experienced.

Over the coming days, we fell into a steady rhythm. Wake up, drink coffee, eat porridge, and have a slow start – waiting for the sun to hit the crags. Climb until evening, then head back to camp at dusk. We were getting to bed after midnight most nights, but it didn’t matter as there was no alarm (or kids!) to wake us in the morning. We visited cliffs all over the island, climbing classics such as Prophecy of DrowningThe PriestEndolphin RushSpring Squill, and Sugar Cane Country. After fighting my way up The Ancient Mariners on the ludicrously steep Pink Wall (taking a fall right at the top, unfortunately), we abseiled into the Grey Wall Recess – barely holding it together as we slid down 90 meters of free-hanging rope to a platform next to the sea. We climbed out via the very classy Make Mine a Treble to complete another fantastic day, our final full day on the island.

The week was punctuated by just one day of rain, perfectly timed to allow recovery from the previous days of climbing. I endured one soggy belay when the ever-keen Alex insisted on climbing one more route despite the onset of precipitation, and – on our rest/rain day – had the lie-in I’d been waiting for for seven years (I’ll let you guess how old our eldest child is). Everyone on the trip made new friends and plans for the future.

As we left the island, several people arrived who I hadn’t seen for many years. I’d have loved to stay on to catch up with them (and could quite easily have, being too preoccupied to note the status of the departing boat), but home was calling, and we departed for Barra, already dreaming of our return.

The trip reminded me of what we have in Scotland – you don’t need to travel thousands of miles for solitude, high adventure, and depth of experience; it’s right on our doorstep.

Find Pabbay, Mingulay and more in The Outer Hebrides, Scottish Rock Climbs and The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland.


Image credits

An oystercatcher catching the last rays of sunlight at Hoofer’s Geo © Rob Lovell
Bàgh Bàn and the campsite on Pabbay  © Rob Lovell
Climbers on Prophecy of Drowning on The Great Arch © Rob Lovell
The Northern Lights dancing over the campsite © Rob Lovell