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Two Scottish climbers believe they are the first climbers in 133 years to have scaled a precipitous sea stack in the St Kilda archipelago.

Climber and film-maker Robbie Phillips and adventure photographer Ryan Balharry, both of whom live in Edinburgh, described the story of their climb, achieved as part of an expedition in September, as ‘possibly the most wild and wonderful tale (we) have yet to tell.’

They climbed with an un-named colleague from Cumbria during an expedition in September which also involved free-climbing on Soay, but have only recently put together their images and accounts of the ascent.

Robbie’s ambition to conquer ‘the Thumb’ on Stac Briorach was born when he read Martin Martin’s 17th-century travelogue ‘A Late Voyage to St Kilda,’ recounting the incredible lives of the St Kildans, and devoting a whole chapter to their sea cliff climbs in pursuit of birds and eggs.

The Thumb is a 70-metre tall stack between Hirta and Soay, which Martin said could only be climbed using a technical move involving a thumb press, described in the book.

Robbie said: “Upon reading this I knew I had to find it. Technical rock climbing was something climbing historians have suggested started in the Victorian era, but if this passage was true, it would put the St Kildans practicing technical rock-climbing before the 17th century.”

The climbing party of three were well-equipped – unlike their predecessors, who might have climbed with a single rope – but Robbie felt it was ‘one of the boldest moments of his life’ when he leapt from their small boat onto the pillar of rock.

He said: “In my mind I followed the line of least resistance, aiming for the currently empty birds’ nests as that is what the St Kildans would have done.

“It all came together like the final pieces of a brilliant jigsaw puzzle. The climbing got steeper as we traversed around the pillar and I found myself imagining being in the shoes of a St Kildan from centuries before.”

The conquest of the technically-challenging climb has an environmental dimension for Robbie, too.

He said: “The rugged igneous protrusions that over millions of years have been weathered by the raging force of the Atlantic ocean, despite these harsh conditions, are home to an abundance of life.

“We know that our future is tied to the ocean. Its shared seas connect us through food, culture and sport. The home of amazing, abundant life, it’s also a powerful climate solution.”

A two-part podcast describing the climb is available at

Pictures by kind permission of Ryan Balharry.