Monday 24 October 2011

Handa - More dangling above drops for the BBC

The Great Stack of Handa. Photo: Triple Echo Productions

*Update* The programme now has a provisional slot of Nov 22nd at 19.00. Adventure Show special, BBC2 Scotland, iPlayer.

Last month I was working on two great film shoots with the Triple Echo team for the BBC at either ends of the UK. First off it was up north to the Stack of Handa to play the part of Donald McDonald, a Lewis farmer from the 1870s. 
The reason we ended up here was down to two accounts in the SMC journal by WH Murray and Tom Patey. Handa is a small island off the far north west coast of Scotland near Scourie. It’s a fairly remote and barren place, abandoned since the potato famine in 1848. Probably it’s best natural feature is the great stack of Handa, a 300 foot chunky sea stack of red sandstone sat between two headlands with cavernous vertical cliffs between.

Myself, Donald King and Dave Cuthbertson going climbing on Handa. Photo: Triple Echo Productions

Three rather intrepid men from Lewis rode across the Minch in 1870 and made the first crossing onto the stack by rather inventive means. They lugged 600 feet of fishing rope across the island and walked it out across the headlands , pulling it tight until the rope (just) rested over the summit of the stack. McDonald then rather boldly hand-over-handed across the sagging rope without any backup to get onto the stack. The climb up the far side of the rope stack sounded like a fight for his life, the rope basically running almost vertically at that point. With encouragement from his partners, he made it and brought the others over the re-belayed rope in a breeches buoy. 

Crossing the fishing rope to the stack. Photo: Triple Echo Productions

It’s hard to see any other reason for them taking the considerable trouble and risk to make this expedition for anything other than the sheer challenge of it. There are plenty of birdy cliffs for harvesting that are a lot more accessible nearby. Therefore, according to Murray writing in the journal, it may be the first recorded instance of an ascent like this in the country. 

Making progress along the rope got a lot harder as you approached the stack. The rope was basically running vertically. Photo: Triple Echo Productions

Tom Patey tried to repeat the same method in 1967 with modern ropes and jumars, but there was so much sag on the rope that Patey found it a desperate challenge and wrote of his incredulity that the Lewismen pulled it off, and without protection. A piece of stomach churning boldness! He invited Murray to research the story further, which he did. Murray tracked down McDonald’s son in Dunoon and got the more detailed story. It sounds like the Lewismen of the era were pretty handy and competitive climbers!

Cubby following in the breeches buoy. I.e. an oversized nappy! Photo: Triple Echo Productions

Anyway, the full story will be in the film which is on BBC2 Scotland (iPlayer etc) towards the end of November. I’ll let you know the time when it’s published.
My comrades in the re-creation were Cubby and Donald King and we had a blast dangling about on fishing ropes above the big drop into the sea. Or should that be we got blasted by the full wrath of the Atlantic squalls every ten minutes for the best part of a week. I started off the week thinking that my costume of a tweed suit, bunnet and old leather boots was quite good outdoor attire. But by the end I must say I couldn’t wait to see the back of soggy tweed and soaking boots and get back into modern kit and ropes that weight less than 40kg.
The week was for me an old lesson re-learned. The generations gone by had less to work with, but had no less boldness, courage, or ingenuity.


  1. They rode across on their dashing white horses did they? lol Rowed across in a wee boat more likely.


  2. Great story! reminds me of the first ascent of Devils Tower.....

    Seth Zaharias

  3. This looks like a great adventure Dave. Good job going hand over hand across. Were you pumped coming up the other side?

    This I have a few photos from my research into Patey of those old boys doing some of this stuff.

    Love the breaches boy. Did you pull straws for it?

    have fun