Its size is hard to take in. Dublin’s Millennium Spire, for comparison, rises to 121m and Cork’s Elysian tower reaches 71m. Layered and fissured, with great cracks opening here and there, the Old Man is anchored to a watery plinth of black basalt, the product of a primeval volcanic eruption. He is topped by a grassy patch in which puffins nest, although on a recent visit, I didn’t see any.
’Old man’ may be a synonym for ‘phallus’, as with the ‘Rude man of Cerne’ in Dorset.
Calling the stack ‘old’ is misleading; this natural skyscraper has been around for a mere 200 years; a map dating from 1750 shows a promontory jutting from the nearby cliff. In a sketch, drawn in 1819, it has become a thick pillar standing on two legs, the sea flowing between them; the bridge which joined it to the mainland has fallen into the sea. The Old Man, in geological terms, is very young and, what’s more, he may never be eligible for the bus-pass. With punishing gales and mountainous winter seas, Orkney’s most famous landmark, the experts predict, may soon be on its way to a watery grave. Visit the patient before it’s too late; you won’t be disappointed.
This senior citizen is a tenant of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, owners of the vast swathe of blanket bog fronted by spectacular sea cliffs, off which the Old Man stands. The reserve includes St. John’s Head, at 351m the highest cliff in Britain. But Hoy has another claim to fame. It’s the principal breeding haunt of a notorious predator with a penchant for avian piracy.
The reserve has breeding hen harriers, peregrines, cuckoos and red-throated divers but the most conspicuous bird you encounter, on a hike to the famous stack, is the great skua; it keeps a watchful eye on visitors. Half of the world population of this hawk-like relative of the gulls, are Scottish residents and Hoy has one of the largest concentrations. Dark brown, and about the size of a herring gull, this heavily-built war-monger has conspicuous white wing ‘flashes’. The Stuka of the bird world dive-bombs intruders who venture too close to its nesting area. However, by keeping to the path on the hike to view the Old Man, visitors have nothing to fear; the skuas allow unmolested passage.
The American term for ‘skua’ is ‘jaeger’, from ‘jäger’, German for ‘hunter’. The local Scottish name is ‘bonxie’, which means ‘dumpy’ in Norn, a language spoken in Orkney up to the 19th century but now extinct; the great skua’s thick neck and large head give it a stocky appearance. The bird is known to Irish fishermen as the ‘shite-hawk’. Skuas waylay other seabirds as they return with food for their chicks, forcing them to disgorge the contents of their crops. The pirates sweep down and grab the food in mid-air. Fishermen concluded that it was the contents of the victim’s bowels which were being discharged and eaten. The extent of the piracy may be exaggerated, however. A study, carried out in Shetland in the 1970s, found that less than 2% of the great skua’s diet came from piracy.
Most of the diet consisted of offal, fish and the chicks of other seabirds. Even adults can be taken.
Fish discards from trawlers benefited the great skua. It first bred on Orkney as recently as 1915 and on the Outer Hebrides in 1945. This sub-arctic species is bucking the trend of global warming. According to the Bird Atlas 2007-11, it has spread southwards in the Scottish Western Isles during the last 20 years. It has also colonised the northwest coast of Ireland. The news from the Northern Isles isn’t all good, however; the numbers breeding on Hoy have declined by 23% since the Seabird 2000 survey.