Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Pabbay Climbers and the Boy James | Sea Cliff Climbing On A Remote Scottish Island

This short film about a crew of climbers in the Outer Hebrides is sure to inspire you

Climbing the remote sea cliffs of Pabbay, in the Barra Isles of Scotland was our mission. Uninhabited since 1912, with a rich history dating back to at least the 6th century AD, it had all the key ingredients of a world class climbing adventure: history, intrigue, challenge, journey and unknown outcomes, all in perfect balance. 

As with any worthy mission the enjoyment starts long before the trip. Sometimes, I’ll take a break from guiding kids up big rock climbs and chasing my dog off decaying birds and sit down to read an article like this one. I get inspired and drift away, daydreaming up exciting ‘missions’ to fuel the psyche-tank and escape a world in chaos, if only for a week or two. 

We’ll ride Paso Fino horses through Colombia – straight shot down to Ecuador and sell those smooth riders for a ticket home; we’ll hop on some rickety mopeds and zing ’em down to Kosovo to hike the Šar Mountains; we’ll this…we’ll that.

Climbing sea-cliffs on Pabbay was one of those dream missions, inspired by a UKClimbing article and a UK top-5 E2 route called Prophecy of Drowning. What a route!? – a precipitous 100m cliff and sensational exposed line. Hulking straight from the sparkling waves of the Atlantic the route takes you on a tour past ‘The Great Arch’, an imposing giant spanning the width of the cliff.

Mission mode engaged, my brain was focused, the horses and mopeds unceremoniously swept aside. A quick net search later and I was sold – a veritable feast of daunting sea cliff routes on exquisite rock awaited.

“A veritable feast of daunting sea cliff routes on exquisite rock awaited”

Many were tidal, abseil-in affairs soaring above the pounding surf – exposed multi-pitch bangers with a savage compelling gravitas. We’d clearly be spoilt for choice, but when I came across a route called ‘The Ancient Mariner’, I was instantly in love.

The poem, after which the route is named, has been said to give off a sense of danger, the supernatural, or serenity in different parts. If the route could stay true to the poem it was named after it would be the perfect E5-graded route to aspire to. 

We needed the expedition, cliff rescue, and first aid skills to be self-sufficient for this trip. We needed to be on it, but with the right team we’d be golden so I contacted a bunch of awesome climbing people I knew. When the ‘yeses’ came back I could have danced a jig, but I didn’t because my dog was looking and she’s a bit judgmental.

Callum, Tom and Matt – I knew these cats, knew they had a clue, and knew they all had that crucial X-factor. Trev and Elle were unknowns to me, friends of friends, but I was grateful to hear we’d have the fire of youth with Trev, 23, and a strong female rep in Elle, an experienced Aussie bush-guide and life-long get-involved-with-everything-er.

“I could have danced a jig, but I didn’t because my dog was looking and she’s a bit judgmental”

I was pumped for the discovery of new souls, world views, and wit as much as I was for the rugged Hebridean island and awe-inspiring climbing that awaited us. 

Plans were laid and miraculously realised without too much stress.

On the morning of our ferry to Barra, the team converged at the Oban terminal and met for the first time. Under a bit of time pressure to unload and park the vehicles and shuttle the 300kg of gear onto the ferry, our rag-tag crew shared a few quick hellos and then – ‘Ka-ching!’ – slick teamwork, instant rapport, stories, laughs and unity, baby. We were on the money – jackpot, bells and flashing lights!

Ferry to Barra – Pint *glug* – ‘The Boy James’ boat through the Isles – Pabbay *plonk* – welcome to the island, my friends.

We were dropped at Bàgh Bàn, a wide sandy bay on the sheltered East of the Island. We made camp overlooking the beach where all island residents of centuries past have. The shell of a lone old building, Taigh nam Bochdan (‘House of Spectres’), and an ancient conical burial mound capped with a rare Pictish Symbol Stone (one of only 6 found in the islands) were the only signs of civilisation.

We were temporarily joining the ranks of the formerly resident Picts, Gaels, Monks, illicit whiskey distillers, fishermen, farmers and most recently birdwatchers and climbers who’ve lived or spent time on the island. Revelling in the glorious loneliness, we were looking to ride out the storm before squelching our way westwards like Pictish Warriors to climb walls with unbending intent.


I asked the team, variably self-defined as “eccentric, light-hearted, funny, sarcastic and useful”, to give an insight as to what the trip was like for them…

How was it first arriving on the island? Camp? First impressions?

Trev: I was full of excitement. We saw that house on the hill – it just looked like the perfect camping spot. We were really close to the ocean so we could listen to that all night.

Tom: After a full season of teaching Outdoor Education it was really nice to get to Pabbay. It feels quite inviting but also quite wild. We climbed Prophecy of Drowning (the 100m route that inspired the trip) on our first day climbing. I remember it was evening time, the sun was setting, there was nice light and it felt out there… the camp is on the protected east but on that west side you’ve got the whole of the Atlantic there. It was the first time feeling we were really out in the ocean – the next stop west is Canada. 

Matthew: You don’t need to put much in to feel wild there – it’s a very achievable exploration where you feel like you might be the first person to ever have walked to the edge of that rock or stood in that tiny cove. You get a sense for what life might have been like on the island.

How was the climbing? How was the rock?

Callum: Steep, pumpy, adventurous but solid rock and good protection, crazy abseils and pretty cool exposure – you can’t really ask for more! ‘Paradise Regained’ on Grey Wall was my favourite – it was our first big route of the trip, we were all going down together. The 100m abseil in was mind-boggling. We landed on that ledge miles below and that wall was incredible – every pitch was really good. Very memorable. Proper wild!

Tom: The gneiss rock is very nice (pronounced the same). I don’t know if I’ve climbed on quite such grippy rock – loads of friction! Good holds and big moves like you find in a climbing gym.

“I lost my footing… fell a few metres and was left hanging”

Elle: As a relative beginner, us having two-way local radios made it awesome. I lost my footing following Matt’s lead, fell a few metres and was left hanging. I looked down and thought, ‘Wooahhh, ‘I’m so mother-flippin’ high and with nothing underneath me!’

I couldn’t swing myself back to the rock so I had to go up the rope. You really want to know how to prusik up a rope, how to pass a knot on abseil and you need to be a competent ‘second’ (the person following the lead climber) as a base-line.

How did you find the remoteness and lack of comms affected your experience? 

Callum: It’s got a very committing feel with no weather forecasts and no chance of immediate rescue so you have to want and be able to deal with that. For me though, the biggest challenge was coming off Pabbay. The thought of checking your phone and your emails and all that stuff – I think that was hard. I felt like a pirate for two weeks and then I come back to the mainland and shit’s hit the fan! Life on Pabbay is pretty simple, you live in the moment which is nice.

“I was thinking about poo… you have to carry it out”

Matthew: Best to keep yourself [the team] as independent as possible. You have to have structure to how you live on the island – where to pitch tents, wash dishes, wash yourselves, collect water, and I was thinking about poo. It’s a delicate island and everyone’s camping in the same spot, same beach! More visitors, bigger problem – nothing for it, you have to carry it out.

For the climbing, you could put yourself in a very difficult situation, very quickly. Good communication with your partner and between the team was critical. We had Elle’s PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) but imagine someone had broken their femur and emergency services couldn’t get to you for 3 days! Imagine 4 first aiders around you for 3 days going, ‘how’s your femur?’  You need a Beacon as a minimum but a Sat phone would be ideal!

How about the weather?

Matthew: As is the signature of the UK, the quality of the weather doesn’t match the quality of the rock. It can be as good as you like but if you don’t get your window, you’re just looking at it. We’d commit to the walk over the island to check the sky. Every day you’re not really knowing the weather and so you’d get up and go and 20 minutes later it was raining. You have to be emotionally resilient.

Elle: If it was sunny, we’d go and didn’t question it. If it was showering, we did the same. I liked it. It’s exciting to have big storms!

When you weren’t able to climb, what did you get up to? What did you spend the rainy days doing?

Elle: It was fantastic to go out and explore, go coasteering, go for a swim, walk the coves, it was really peaceful. You can always get in the ocean when it rains if you’re into that…if you’re warm enough! Take a thick wetsuit – amazing coast, big seals, super cool.

Callum: There’s crazy wildlife – lots of seals on the beach. There were two males and a female – they were having a dance off…or maybe it was a stand off… I’m not really sure. We were crouched silently in the long grass watching them at dusk. Crazy bird-life too.

For me there were a ton of wonderful, just stop and appreciate, ‘fuck yeah!’ moments, never to be forgotten. What were some of your most memorable moments?

Trev: We were at the bottom of Banded Wall and it had been raining but the sun was shining through, the sky was perfect and a seal was right next to me, popping up, watching what I was doing. They love climbing man! – it’s like a spectator sport for them. Three or four seals staring up at you, then looking up at the leader – they honestly love it. 

“The sky was perfect and a seal was right next to me, popping up, watching what I was doing”

Elle: Matt and I had just come off our first big multi-pitch next to the Great Arch [The Priest], our first proper E1. We were walking back across the island and there was a beautiful double rainbow across the whole skyline. It was just a very unique profound experience and I thought, ‘Isn’t it amazing that someone *finger snap*, had the idea, you got invited along and it’s as fun as it is, with so much growth and reward.’ It felt very soulful and rejuvenating.

Any parting words, pro-tips or final thoughts re: Pabbay?

Matthew: It’s a place that needs looking after – a good solid respect for the environment is core. It’s not Glastonbury, and it’s not Kalymnos…it’s a soggy island on the west coast! 

…Also, take Monopoly Deal.


…and that’s just it. Pabbay is a soggy island on the west coast, but it’s also unquantifiably special and I had my moments there too. 

Sometimes in climbing you find routes so perfect that move after move and pitch after pitch, you’re no longer making the decisions on how to climb it. You go into a trance-like state where the rock is leading the dance, and you’re merely swept on upwards, the features directing your step, rhythm and effort. That was what ‘The Ancient Mariner’ was for me.

“You go into a trance-like state where the rock is leading the dance”

I geared up, roped up and set off leading the crux pitch up the steep and diabolically gorgeous Pink Wall, sixty metres above the ocean. Forty metres and forty minutes later I was at the belay looking south over Mingulay and ready to bring Callum up. Satisfied that all the preparation had paid off, feeling worked but calm, a wave of euphoria washed over me and in that moment, on the perfectly named Ancient Mariner, life couldn’t be any better.

Pabbay gifts these types of routes: Prophecy of Drowning, Endolphin Rush, Regaining Paradise, The Priest, U-Ei, Sugar Cane Country and many many more I’m sure, but it’s so much more than the quality of the routes that make them special.

It’s the hyper-exposed abseils and climbs you’ve snuck in on pink and grey and white sparkling walls whilst squalls dance atop the rolling black ocean and Gannets dive-bomb for dinner below you. It’s bog-trotting around your own private island enigma barefoot under rainbows, to stumble upon the remains of an Iron Age fort or other ancient relic and sit sippin’ whisky on hilltops in the mist.

It’s all the very many different emotions you experience there in the sun, in the rain and wind, in isolation where you have time, space and quiet to truly tune out for a while. And for me, the whole experience radiates awesome amongst a lifetime of adventures, the occasional unease and unpredictability accentuating the wildness, the beauty, and the satisfaction with what we achieved out there; climbing remote sea cliffs on Pabbay, our soggy island on the West Coast.


Thanks to Elle Rasmussen, Matthew Rothwell, Callum Nelson, Tom Seccombe and Trevor Oats for their contributions. For more information about climbing on Pabbay here are some useful links:

Pabbay and Mingulay – UKC

The Five Best E2 Routes In The UK – UKC

Ming Pab Bern Leaflet – NTS

The Papar Project – Hebrides / Pabbay 

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