Robbie Phillips Climbs Stunning Sea Stack in Ode to Barefoot Ancients

Robbie Phillips can spot worthy climbing projects in just about any size or shape.

So maybe it’s not surprising that his latest quest focused on an obscure sea stack that nobody had climbed since the 1800s. And whose earliest ascensionists likely climbed it in a ritual capacity.

Phillips and his team experienced a close encounter with ancient UK climbing history with their recent ascent of The Thumb. It may be the most remote sea cliff in Scotland.

The 70-meter formation thrusts from roiling North Atlantic Ocean waters on the St. Kilda archipelago, about 170km off the Scottish mainland.

Properly named Stac Briorach, it had received one prior confirmed ascent. Richard Manliffe Barrington claimed it in 1890, according to STV News.

Phillips focused on the archipelago’s ancestral Scottish inhabitants in his ascent reporting. According to him, the earliest climbers on The Thumb likely went barefoot.

‘In their blood, as it is mine’


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“What I didn’t expect was to find myself connecting with them on an even deeper level,” he wrote. “The St Kildans didn’t just do this to survive. It was a part of their culture and it was in their blood, as it is mine. They enjoyed climbing.

“They would train on the stonework of their houses in the off-season and they understood that it was a skill they could hone.”

Life on St. Kilda was hard, Phillips commented, and every permanent resident evacuated the craggy islands by 1930. An independent charity group called the National Trust for Scotland assumed custodial responsibilities over the island in 1957. It still presides over it today.

While there are no more resident St. Kildans to practice their barefoot rituals, Phillips found purchase in the lore they left behind.

“Jumping from a boat in a strong Atlantic swell onto a remote Scottish sea stack, sharp wet barnacles biting into my skin, then repeating those hallowed movements, so revered they name the climb for it,” he wrote. “For a brief moment in time, I felt that I too was St Kildan…”

Interviewed by STV News, he called the Stac Briorach climbing history “a testament to their bravery and mental fortitude.

“To have such a critical piece of climbing history in Scotland as well is hugely special to me as a Scottish climber. This is a unique glimpse into the past that connects us in a meaningful way.”

Keep your eye on Phillips. On top of whatever similar objectives he may target, he promised a full film on the second ascent of The Thumb next year.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.