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1 Dec 2023

Robbie scales ‘The Thumb’ in St Kilda

Two sea stacks are silhouetted against a dusk sky and the ocean. At the top of the taller one on the left, you can just make out the figures of three people.
Summiting The Thumb in the dark | Image credit: Ryan Balharry
A team of climbers has achieved the first ascent of a famous St Kilda sea stack in over 130 years, working with the Trust to plan the ascent safely and sustainably.

The sea stack is known as ‘The Thumb’, or Stac Biorach, and has caught the imagination of explorers since 1890, although the St Kildans climbed it for centuries before that. Leading the climb this year was Edinburgh adventurer and climber Robbie Phillips, who worked closely with the National Trust for Scotland to plan the ascent, ensuring they did not disturb the archipelago’s precious seabird colonies or impact the landscape.

The vertiginous climb up The Thumb was first documented by Martin Martin in 1698 in his book A Late Voyage to St Kilda. He vividly describes the terrifying feat young men would undertake to climb the rock pillar to catch birds and their eggs, without the security of any modern safety equipment. The 70m stack towers above the Atlantic Ocean; young men would scale the rock face with only a thin rope made of horsehair to pull them back to the boat should they fall.

Speaking about his trip to St Kilda, Robbie Phillips said, ‘Climbing The Thumb was like walking in the footsteps, or climbing in the fingerprints, of the St Kildans. It’s a testament to their bravery and mental fortitude; to climb onto that sea stack 70m above the raging Atlantic without even shoes is wild to imagine. The St Kildans didn’t just survive out here, they thrived with the skills they honed and the traditions they upheld.’

The location of the infamous climb remained a mystery until 1890 when Richard Manliffe Barrington completed it. With no resident St Kildans remaining after the island’s evacuation in 1930, the legend of The Thumb threatened to disappear into history, until this recent ascent brought it back to prominence.

Robbie continued: ‘This is hugely significant, as it is an example of highly technical rock climbing in a time well before the Victorian era, which is when most climbing historians say that technical rock climbing began. They didn’t just climb for survival, but it was an important part of their culture, where they climbed for enjoyment as well as status amongst their peers.’

“To have such a critical piece of climbing history in Scotland is hugely special to myself as a Scottish climber. This is a unique glimpse into the past that connects us in a meaningful way. That’s why climbing is special, you can experience things exactly as the St Kildans did, albeit hundreds of years apart.”
Robbie Phillips
Adventurer and climber
Three men are attached to ropes at the base of a sheer, tall sea stack.
Climbing on The Thumb | Image credit: Ryan Balharry

To celebrate Robbie’s amazing climb, we’d like to praise the care that he and his team took to minimise their impacts on St Kilda, and we’re sharing tips with visitors on how they too can ensure their visit is responsible and sustainable.

St Kilda is a dual-status UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 39 mixed-status sites in the world, and it boasts an incredible amount of natural and cultural significance. The archipelago came into the National Trust for Scotland’s care in 1957, since which time we have worked hard to conserve and sustain the islands’ heritage. Robbie added: ‘As climbers, it’s so important that we don’t disturb or cause damage to the areas we visit. I’m incredibly grateful for the guidance and support from the National Trust for Scotland. The work it does is invaluable to conserving such amazing places and heritage in Scotland.’

Susan Bain, the National Trust for Scotland’s Property Manager for St Kilda, said: ‘As a conservation charity, we are focused on protecting the wildlife and culture of St Kilda and we were very happy to work with Robbie and his team to make sure that the climb didn’t disturb any nesting seabirds or impact the landscape in any way.’

“As a professional climber, Robbie had the skills and the back-up to attempt this climb safely, but it’s important to emphasise that the landscape of St Kilda can be very challenging and everyone should be very mindful of its dangers as well as its beauty. It is humbling to think about the St Kildans climbing this stack without modern equipment and communications.”
Susan Bain
Property Manager for St Kilda World Heritage Site
Two jagged tall sea stacks rise out of the sea. Other small islands can be seen in the distance. At the base of the taller one on the left, two very small figures can be seen on ropes.
Stac Biorach | Image credit: Ryan Balharry

Susan continued: ‘St Kilda has some of Scotland’s – or the world’s – most breathtaking scenery and wildlife. These, together with St Kilda’s stories, draw an increasing number of visitors. While we are delighted to share this natural and cultural heritage, we also have to be careful to make sure that visits are sustainably managed. It’s important that visitors don’t inadvertently harm the nature, beauty and heritage they have come to enjoy.

‘This includes avoiding damage and disturbance to the internationally important seabird breeding colonies under our care on St Kilda. Recent seabird counts on St Kilda and further afield show that the numbers of too many species are declining, probably due to factors such as food shortages and storms caused by climate change, as well as pollution and predation. It’s vital that visitors to St Kilda understand what they themselves can do to minimise their own impact on under-pressure species such as puffins, fulmars and kittiwakes.’

Susan suggests five things that visitors to St Kilda, and other remote island places, can do to reduce their impact and support responsible tourism:

  1. Follow the ‘check, clean, close’ rule
    Predators like rats or stoats can wreak havoc among eggs and chicks if they arrive on key seabird colonies like St Kilda, Canna or other islands. The best way to keep chicks and eggs safe is to stop predators reaching their shores. When planning a boat trip to St Kilda or other islands, please check your bag and clothes for pests; clean your boots or shoes with disinfectant; and close any food containers tight shut (since they can attract stowaways onto boats or into bags).
  2. Scrub other equipment too
    St Kilda has a unique but restricted flora, and it’s important to avoid introducing seeds from the mainland or even pests and plant diseases. These are often spread in mud or dead leaves, so make sure your boots and equipment are clean of mud before landing on St Kilda.
  3. Give wildlife space
    Please maintain a good distance from seabirds that are nesting or feeding. And if you want to watch seals or other animals, just sit still and let them come closer to you, rather than chasing them or trying to feed them.
  4. Be prepared for the weather and environment
    Please bring extra clothing and sturdy boots/shoes as well as snacks and water (drinking water supplies can sometimes dwindle as we only have the island spring to depend on). We want visitors to enjoy their visit and not be cold, uncomfortable or need medical help.
  5. Take your litter home
    As with all our places, we ask visitors to St Kilda take all their waste home with them, however small, leaving no trace of your presence on the archipelago.

Robbie Phillips and his team have documented their adventures and will publish films of their ascents on Robbie’s YouTube channel and website.

Two men on a boat, with their backs to the camera, raise their thumbs towards a thumb-shaped sea stack on the horizon.
Will Birkett (left) and Robbie Phillips (right) | Image credit: Ryan Balharry

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