Pabbay and Mingulay are a pair of small uninhabited Islands on the Southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, off the West Coast of Scotland. On the edges of these two islands, are for some, the most perfect sea cliffs in the UK (itself not short of quality sea cliffs). The cliffs are made of Gneiss and have two settings; steep or very steep! Thankfully the rock quality is superb - think Pembroke made from gritstone and you are not far off, despite only being climbed a couple of times a year, the rock is solid, clean and gives good protection for the most part. In short, with good weather these islands are an adventure trad climbing heaven.
Both Pabbay and Mingulay did used to be inhabited by small groups of people who would keep sheep on the islands, grow some vegetables and supplement what they could grow by catching fish, birds and stealing bird eggs. However, it was a hard life with half of Pabbay's male population being killed in a storm whilst fishing off the coast of the Island. The islands were evacuated in 1912 and are now uninhabited.
Pabbay and Mingulay were first climbed on very recently, with the first recorded route on the islands coming courtesy of Graham Little, Kev Howett, Mick Fowler and Chris Bonnington in 1993. Once word got out about the quality of the islands, it wasn't long before more teams headed to the islands and began to develop the quality climbing that the islands have to offer.
The smaller of the two islands, Pabbay is totally uninhabited and although the crags are on the whole smaller, there is more variety between them. For me, this is the better of the two islands as it is likely to be just you and your friends staying there, with the only sign of civilisation, a ruined house.
Aesthetically, the jewel in Pabbay’s crown is The Great Arch, and with classics such as Prophecy of Drowning E2 5c, The Priest E1 5b, and Child of the Sea E5 6b, there are a number of quality routes on this crag.
However for real quality, one must look past the pure aesthetics of The Great Arch and towards the myriad of other quality crags on Pabbay. Banded Walls is a very good example of this, and in reality not much less aesthetic than The Great Arch. The quality of the routes however, are outstanding with the likes of Spring Squill E1 5b, and Endolphin Rush E3 5c, giving brilliant, steep, juggy romps up the most perfect Gneiss. For those operating within this sort of grade range, the hidden gems are Mollyhawk E1 5b, The Posture Jedi E2 5c, that traces a bold but easy line of hidden holds up the wall, and the tricky Hyper Ballad E2 5c. For those who would use those routes as a warm-up Banded Walls also has a brace of quality upper extremes such as Jonny Scuttlebutt E5 6a, Ship of Fools E5/6 6a, and Geomancer E6 6b, which should give even the fittest a decent throbbing in the forearms.
The next most obvious venue for the E5 or E6 leader is Pink Walls, where the easiest route is E3 though most weigh in higher, with the best including; In Profundum Lacu E5 6a, The Ancient Mariners E5 6a, and The Bonxie E6 6b. Just to the right of Pink Walls is the superb Grey Wall Recess, and with a wild 90m free hanging abseil, is not for the easily intimidated. There is something for everyone here with Mixmaster Snipe E1 5b, giving an introduction or the easiest ‘escape route’. Though the real quality starts at E2 with U-Ei E2 5b and for those wanting to up the grade to E3, a variation to the second pitch of U-Ei, named U-th is a good option. It is the E4 leader however that gets the cherry on the cake at this crag, with the exceptional Spit in Paradise E4 6a, taking the overhanging corner-line of the crag in three fantastic E4 pitches. Elysium, also three stars and E4, gives an alternative start and access to the wild top pitch of Spit.
Pabbay isn’t just about the multi-pitch crags however, it has a number of high quality single pitch crags on which to test your forearm endurance. The best of the single pitch crags is probably The Poop Deck, which has something for everyone from HVS to E7, the bedt of which are; Illegal Alien HVS 5a, Wetter than day at the beach, E1 5b, Corncrakes For Breakfast E2 5c, The Craik, Notorious BIG, and Bogus Asylum Seekers, all E3 6a, and the wildly steep lines of The Raven, E5 6a, and 101 Damnations E7 6b.
The Bay Area is the next stop for quality single pitch cragging, and once again provides a reasonable grade spread. The top ticks for this crag are; the brilliantly named Every Cormorant is a Potential Shag E7 6b, The Herbrudean E5 6a, Rebel without a Porpoise Direct Finish E5 6a, and Sea An-Enema E1 5b.
Whilst not as littered in quality classics, Hoofer’s Geo contains my favourite route on the islands (and the world), with the beautiful wall-climb of Sugar Cane Country E4 6a. In addition to this, Hoofer’s boasts potentially the only slab on the islands with Hoofer's Route E1 5b, and the often greasy finger crack of Boosh, E5 6a, and there are also a number of other routes in the E4/5 category in a similar vein to Sugar Cane Country, this part of the island is well worth visiting.
Whilst Mingulay is the bigger of the two islands, it doesn’t have the variety of climbing that Pabbay offers. Despite a lot of impressive looking crags, many of these are very heavily occupied by birds, giving the island quite a wild, eerie feel. Due to a larger variety and abundance of birdlife, there are however more people on the island, as sometimes ornithologists stay on the island to study the birds, and when the weather is good Donald brings tourists to the island for a couple of hours to wander around. The crags are on the whole, larger than Pabbay’s or at least feel such, with few completely single pitch venues and one of them only single pitch in the fact that it is perched above around 70m of steep grass and wet, choosy rock and you still have to abseil in!
Potentially the largest and best of these is Dun Mingulay, which on it’s main face is climbable virtually anywhere at about E3 5c. Almost all the routes on this crag are good, though the best include; Sula E2 5b, Voyage of Faith E3 5c, The Silkie E3 6a, Ray of Light E4 5c, Big Kenneth E5 6a, and Perfect Monsters E7 6b.
Guarsay Mor is worth a visit if, for no other reason than that to get there you have to walk through the Bonxie territory. This is quite an experience as you will be dive-bombed by massive brown seagulls!
Oh and there are some nice routes there too… There are a lot of quality routes including Lost Souls E4 6a, A Word With the Bill E3 5c, Okeanos E2 5c, and The Arch Deacon which at HVS 5a promises to be the best, juggiest romp ever. Except that it is totally infested with birds, I’m personally not sure how it gets it’s 4-star rating but some may like it and it is certainly a journey!
Mingulay’s most intimidating crag is Creag Dhearg. I’m not sure if it was the 100 metres of steep choss and grass below me or the fact that it was the last day of a very physical trip with not quite as much food as I would have liked, but I found the steep Creag Dhearg quite hard. Top routes here are: Fulmar Squaw E3 5c, Big Chief Turning Bull E5 6a, Little Miss Sitting Pretty E5 6a, K & S Special E6 6a.
In addition to these quality crags there are a number of lesser visited crags that also have good routes, though many are also heavily bird infested - you have been warned!
So there you have it, a few good routes to aim for! Now assemble a crew of your favourite 11 friends and go have potentially the best trip of your life!
When do I go?
Being on the edge of the atlantic, the Islands are very exposed, and yet still suffer from midges in the high summer. Most teams head to Pabbay and Mingulay during late spring/early summer, or between May and July. Though late August/early September can also be a good time to go.
How Do I Get There?
This is what makes a trip to the islands so special, the journey is pretty epic and results in you feeling a very long way from civilisation, I’ve been climbing in Spain and got from home to crag a lot quicker. First you must drive from your home to Oban on the West Coast of Scotland. It is also possible to get a train to Oban, but due to the unbelievably large amounts of kit you will have, this is probably an undesirable option. Here you leave your car parked outside the town (with nothing inside so there is no reason to break into it), you then get a ferry from Oban to Castlebay on the Isle of Barra (This costs around £35).
Next you must charter a boat to take you out to the Islands. The man for the job is Donald of Barra Fishing Charters, he and his crew aboard the Boy James have the necessary skills and knowledge to get you and your large amounts of kit onto the islands. Prices vary, but as a rough guide, for 12 people to go to Pabbay, transfer to Mingulay halfway through the trip, then get picked up and returned to Barra, it costs £1200 altogether, or £100 each.
Donald's email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Where do I stay?
As the islands are uninhabited, there is only one option - camping. There is a house on Mingulay but it is not available to stay in. On Barra, you can stay in the Castlebay hotel but as you won’t be staying there long you may as well doss in a field next to the harbour.
What do I need to take?
EVERYTHING. Before you get to Oban, make sure you have bought all you will need for your stay on Pabbay and Mingulay, there are supermarkets in Oban but they aren’t very big, so don’t count on being able to get that specific brand of chocolate or type of cereal you like. For an idea of what you need to take, view the trip as an expedition to an area where you can expect weather to range from boiling hot, to chucking it down and freezing cold and there is no chance of re-supply. Here is a suggested kit list:
Full Trad Rack - i.e. full set of wires, full set of cams, 14 quick draws, double ropes, helmet, etc.
Abseil Kit - almost all the crags on the islands are accessed by abseil, and they are often big 90-100m affairs, so it is a good idea to club together and buy a couple of 100m statics if no-one in the party owns one (trust me, it is really crap passing the knot 70m down a 100m free-hanging abseil), on top of this, a load of 60+m abseil ropes would allow entry into the smaller crags. Extra bits of rigging rope and rope protectors also come in useful as the rock can be abrasive when multiple people are abseiling on them.
Camping Equipment - It is worth bearing in mind that the weather can get wild here and taking a good tent, although most of us did fine with just cheap ones. You don’t need a mega warm sleeping bag but a 3-season bag will give you more flexibility. A petrol stove will mean you can just take a litre or two of petrol rather than loads of gas but obviously whatever you have is fine.
Food - Take more than you’ll need as the physical nature of the climbing plus the big walk-in and out means you use a lot of energy during a day’s climbing. My partner and I didn’t take enough and I lost a lot of weight during the trip. A nice, cool beer is great after a days’ climbing so don’t forget a crate of your favourite tipple. There is fresh running water on the islands so you don’t need to worry about that. None of us sterilised it and were fine, but that is a personal choice.
Clothing - Your normal sea cliff/mountain crag clothing will suffice, keep in mind that it can be roasting hot but also wet and cold - so waterproofs and belay jackets are advisable.
Extras - Sun tan lotion is a good idea as it can (surprisingly) get very hot on the islands. If you are a keen fisher then a fishing rod wouldn’t go amiss as apparently there is good fishing to be had. If you are a twitcher, a pair of binoculars would be useful, though you can get very close to the wildlife on the island as they are very relaxed around humans. Definitely bring a camera - you will want to remember this trip for the rest of your life.
Which guide do I buy?
The only guidebook that contains information on Pabbay and Mingulay is Gary Latter’s Scottish Rock Volume 2. As a select book, this does not contain every route but does contain the best routes which is all you are interested in.
What else is there apart from the climbing?
Not masses more, there is some amazing birdlife - especially on Mingulay that can be nice to watch, there is also good fishing on the islands. Conversely, the beaches are both very nice on the islands so you could rest your lactic infused forearms with a day on the beach, if you are that way inclined. The water around the islands is crystal clear and so is really nice to swim in, and that can be a great rest day activity!
Neil McGeachy having a interesting time on Prophecy of Drowning, after forgetfully abseiling in with only one 8mm rope. Oops.
© neil the weak
Nic Sellers below the Great Arch on Pabbay, making the first ascent of Crash Course
© Tom Briggs - Jagged Globe
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