You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d travelled to the highlands when you step off the ferry in Hoy, the second largest of the Orkney Islands. Its composition is unique in Orkney, with dramatic cliffs, moorlands and glacial valleys. In the north of Hoy, you’ll discover more mountainous terrain and bleak scenery compared to the green pastures of the south. As such, most of Hoy’s population of 400 people live in the south.
Except for the Old Man of Hoy, who can be found in the northwest…
When I was visiting Orkney this year, I just knew I wanted to go there. So early one morning, my Dad and I set off from mainland Orkney to the island of Hoy to go and see him!
What is the Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy is probably the most famous landmark of Hoy, and what this Orkney Island is known for. He is an almost 450ft tall sea stack made of red sandstone, standing on basalt. It’s one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain, although because it is not completely surrounded by the sea, it is not always classified as such.
Separated from the mainland of Hoy by a 60ft chasm, the Old Man of Hoy may only be around 250 years old, and so could be vulnerable to the elements. A map from 1600 shows a headland where the Old Man is now, and a drawing from 1817 shows the sea stack with a wider base and an archway at the bottom, making it appear as though it has two legs.
Why is it called the Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy likely got his name because of his previous formation, where it appeared that the stack had two legs supporting a wider body. However, from several angles the tall sea stack still looks like a man, gazing out to the ocean away from Hoy.
How to get to the Old Man of Hoy
How you get to the Old Man of Hoy and the island, in general, depends on your mode of transport.
If you’re visiting Orkney with a car then you can take a ferry from Houton on mainland Orkney, which is a 25 minute drive from Kirkwall, to Lyness on Hoy. From there you drive 30 minutes north Rackwick, where the walk to the Old Man of Hoy begins.
Check Orkney Ferries for the timetable, and ferries can be booked by calling +44 (0)1856 872044 or by going to the ferry terminal in Kirkwall. There’s no online reservation system. Make sure you book early if you’re travelling to Hoy with a car in summer because the ferries do get full. It’s important to book your trip there and back, so you don’t get stranded, and to give you enough time to drive to the start of the walk to the Old Man of Hoy, complete the walk and return again.
Getting to the Old Man of Hoy without a car
It is possible to walk to see the Old Man of Hoy without a car. One way to do this is to hire bicycles in Stromness, take the passenger only ferry to Moaness (book as above) and then cycle the approximate 30 minutes to the start of the walk. Make sure to calculate enough time for cycling, walking, and cycling back again!
You can also walk from Moaness to the Old Man of Hoy, by taking the Rackwick Glen walk from Moaness to Rackwick, and then completing the Old Man of Hoy walk. It takes two hours to walk from Moaness to Rackwick one way (7.25km)
If you really want to get to the start of the Old Man of Hoy walk and you don’t fancy cycling or walking there as well, you can look at taking a taxi or minibus. You’ll need to book it well in advance. Check out some options here.
I did find mention of a summer mini bus from Moaness to Rackwick when I was looking at all the options for getting to the Old Man of Hoy walk, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find any recent information to indicate it’s still running.
There are some tour companies who offer tours of Hoy, but none of them include the walk to the Old Man of Hoy unless you ask for a private tour.
Directions for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy walk starts in Rackwick, what would have once been a bustling little community but is now a small collection of houses, and of empty old crofts. Be aware that when you read about the “township” of Rackwick, you shouldn’t expect to find any amenities!
The walk to the Old Man of Hoy is 9.25km (5.65 miles) return and will take approximately 2.5-3 hours, depending on your speed and how long you spend there.
The visitors centre in Kirkwall advised us that the walk to the Old Man of Hoy starts with a steep descent, and we should be prepared for that. There is an entrance to the walk that starts further up the hill if you’re driving, but the parking is only for guests who are staying at the Rackwick Hostel, unless you choose to park on the roadside further down.
You can also start the walk from the parking lot near the campsite. Personally, I would walk back up the road towards the hostel and go that way, rather than along the flat towards the sea and then up, as this is much steeper. It depends if you want a more gradual ascent or a steeper, shorter one!
Once you get further up the hill the views across the bay are beautiful, and the track begins to even out a little to curve around the hill. When you’re further around the incline will reduce and eventually you’ll reach a point where you can spot the top of the Old Man of Hoy in the distance. Don’t get too excited, it’s still a little way to go yet! It’s just that the Old Man of Hoy is higher than the cliff face opposite, so you can see it above the cliffs.
This part of the path is relatively flat with a rocky mountain on one side and grass on the other. It becomes even more grassy and then you’ve reached the Old Man of Hoy!
You can continue to walk further around the coast for different views, but you’ll still need to return the same way.
Either on the way there or back if you choose to walk via the youth hostel route you can stop at the museum buildings there, made from old croft houses with grass roofs. Inside you can see examples of what living life on a croft in Rackwick would have been like, and information about the family that lived there for generations, as well as the see the old school house.
All indications were that the walk to the Old Man of Hoy would take three hours return, but we found it only took an hour or just over each way, including taking photos and making stops. However, this is entirely dependent on your level of fitness, and I would allow at least 3 hours so that you can spend ample time there, and enjoy it without rushing.
Seeing the Old Man of Hoy without walking
The ferry from Scrabster on mainland Scotland to Stromness, which passes along the coast of Hoy, gives you beautiful views of the cliffs, including the Old Man of Hoy. The ferry is much more expensive than the John O’Groats to St Margarets Hope ferry to get to Orkney, and it takes a lot longer, but if you really want to see the Old Man of Hoy and you either don’t want to walk, don’t have transport, or you’re short on time, this is how to do it. It is possible to take a boat to see the Old Man of Hoy by sea. However, I couldn’t find any regular tours offered, only one-off charters willing to take you there from locations like Stromness.
It is possible to take a boat to see the Old Man of Hoy by sea. However, I couldn’t find any regular tours offered, only one-off charters willing to take you there from locations like Stromness so you would need to ask around there.
Climbing the Old Man of Hoy
In 1966 Chris Bonington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey became the first people to climb the Old Man of Hoy over 3 days. The following year they climbed the Old Man of Hoy again for a live TV broadcast which attracted 23 million viewers.
Although rumour has it there was an earlier ascent by an elderly local man, who made the climb on a bet, and then did it again when he realised he left his favourite pipe on the top of the Old Man of Hoy!
Many climbers walk to the Old Man of Hoy, descend the cliffs across from it, walk over the remains of where it would have once joined the mainland, to then climb the sea stack.
Best time to visit Orkney and walk to the Old Man of Hoy
Visiting Orkney in summer doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have fine sunny days, but it will mean the temperatures are a little warmer. We travelled to Orkney in July and it rained on and off for most of the trip, but it was warm and often changing so we didn’t worry if the day started with a little rain.
The day we walked to the Old Man of Hoy it was overcast with low cloud, and we felt a few spits of rain about halfway there. The sky began to clear after we reached the Old Man of Hoy and by the time we were returning to the ferry the sun was out. You just never know with the weather in Orkney!
We took the first ferry from Houton to Hoy at around 8am in the morning and drove straight to the start of the walk. Although we passed one couple on their way there, they were taking it very slowly and so we reached the Old Man of Hoy before anyone else and had the views all to ourselves for at least half an hour before anyone else arrived.
As we returned we passed a lot more people on the path, including some with huge camera gear and other large groups. I’d highly recommend leaving early to walk to the Old Man of Hoy to avoid crowds!
What to Pack
- Good walking shoes or hiking boots. The trail is clear but stony and uneven in parts.
- Snacks if you want to stop and enjoy something when you’re there
- A raincoat or windbreaker
- Camera gear!
Other things to see in Hoy
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum, Lyness
Just across the road from the Lyness Ferry Terminal is the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum. Admission is free and it’s open from March to October from 10-4.30pm Monday to Saturday and also on Sunday between May and September.
It contains displays about the role that Hoy, Scapa Flow, and Orkney, in general, played through two world wars, as well as the Pumphouse Cafe which is open from Easter to October and is another great spot to eat before you head back.
On the road through the glacial valley to Rackwick, you may notice a bay for cars to park opposite a path that leads over to what looks like a large rock. This is the Dwarfie Stane, the only Neolithic rock-cut tomb in Britain dating from 3000BC.
Emily’s Ice Cream Parlour
On the road between Lyness and Rackwick, you’ll see a turquoise wooden building. This is Emily’s Ice Cream Parlour, and it makes a fantastic stop for a refreshment if you’re heading back to the ferry. She offers proper coffee, a selection of savoury foods and delicious homemade ice cream.
Martello Tower & Battery
Located in the greener south of the island, and worth a drive to see the change in scenery from the north of Hoy. The Battery was built to protect Longhope Sound for merchant ships passing through. In 1814 two Martello towers were added to provide further protection for the battery and the anchorage. You can climb the tower if you like, to see beautiful views over Hoy and Orkney.
Grave of Betty Corrigall
If you drive from Lyness north to the start of the walk to the Old Man of Hoy, keep an eye out for the solitary Betty Corrigall’s Grave. The story of Betty Corrigall is rather bleak, to say the least. In the late 1770s, at the age of 27, an unmarried Betty fell for a passing soldier and became pregnant. The shame was too much for her and she hung herself, but this resulted in the two Lairds of the island refusing to have her buried within their parish borders. Instead, she was buried in the unconsecrated ground between the two.
Her tragic story doesn’t end there, however, as in 1933 two men cutting peat discovered her wooden coffin. They opened it thinking it may contain treasure, and instead found the body of Betty Corrigall perfectly preserved by being in the peat. They reburied her and she was once again forgotten…
Until 1941 when thousands of British soldiers descended on Orkney, and soldiers digging peat once again found her grave. Morbid curiosity led to her being exhumed multiple times to be viewed by different groups of soldiers. Finally, a concrete slab was placed over her grave, but it wasn’t until 1949 when American that a wooden cross was placed as a marker for her grave, and then it would be another 30 years before a special fiberglass headstone was erected.
Hoy Kirk Heritage Centre, Moaness
A free museum, open all year with exhibitions, archive, and films relating to the people and places of Hoy.
Location of the Old Man of Hoy + Other Attractions
Where to stay on Hoy
It’s easy to see much of Hoy in a day if you can get the first and last ferries from mainland Orkney, but if you want to stay on Hoy there are a few accommodation options.
The closest accommodation to the Old Man of Hoy is the Rackwick Hostel, which sleeps 8 and has cooking facilities. There is also a free Bothy at Rackwick Bay, and a camping ground as well.
For other accommodation options around Hoy, check here.
Here’s a video of the journey to the Old Man of Hoy!
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So there you have it, a comprehensive guide to the Old Man of Hoy walk, and other things to see in Hoy! What do you think, would you make the trip?
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