A few weeks ago, I fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition and visited the remote North Atlantic archipelago of St Kilda. As a young woman, I read The Life and Death of St Kilda, by Tom Steel, and ever since I have wanted to go there. This year, to celebrate my 60th birthday my friends and family contributed to the costs of the trip.
For most people, a trip to St Kilda will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s not an easy place to get to and can be quite expensive but, for me, it was everything I hoped for and more. Remote, dramatic, haunting and beautiful, the memories will stay with me forever.
St Kilda, a World Heritage Site, is a remote group of volcanic islands 40 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides and almost 100 miles out in the North Atlantic from the Scottish mainland. It consists of four islands, Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray, whose spectacular sea cliffs and stacks are home to one of the most important seabird colonies in Europe and the largest population of gannets in the world.
For me, it is the human history of St Kilda that captured my imagination. Until the early 1900’s, a small community of between 100 and 200 people had lived there for around 2000 years. Their main source of food and fuel was the seabird population, and they were extraordinarily skilled climbers, scaling the towering cliff faces to hunt birds and gather their eggs. Life was unimaginably hard for the small community and it became even harder in the 19th and 20th centuries as contact with the outside world increased. The population dwindled, due in part to the introduction of previously unknown diseases, and in part to members of the community emigrating overseas in search of a better life. They gradually became less self-sufficient and more and more dependent on supplies from the mainland. In 1930 only 30 islanders remained only seven of whom were able bodied. The people were starving, and the decision was made to evacuate.
Today, the tiny village remains as it was when it was abandoned. A curved row of little cottages overlooking the bay, the church, the school and the store and over 1000 stone storage huts known as cleits, that are scattered all over the islands. The only people who live on the island now are the National Trust wardens and a handful of Ministry of Defence staff, conservation workers and scientific researchers.
We decided to use Harris, in the Outer Hebrides as our base. Because the trip is dependent on weather conditions, it is essential to book provisionally for two consecutive days, increasing the chances of your trip going ahead on at least one of these. We decided to stay on Harris for a week to increase our chances even further. There had to be at least one day out of seven that the weather would be kind to us.
We arrived on the Saturday and settled into our little Air B&B cottage for the weekend, before our trip on either Monday or Tuesday. The weather on Sunday took a serious turn for the worst, and it was no real surprise when we got an early phone call to say our trip was scheduled for Tuesday.
Monday was actually a beautiful day on Harris and we were a little perplexed as to why our trip had not gone ahead that day. Warm sunshine and cloudless blue skies from dawn till dusk. Turquoise blue waters and endless empty white beaches. If it wasn’t for the stiff breeze, and lack of people, it could have been the Caribbean. The stiff breeze, however, was the real reason our trip had been postponed. Boats are not allowed to dock on St Kilda in case they introduce alien rodents into the unique and delicate ecosystem. Visitors must therefore transfer to a small dinghy to reach the shore. In windy conditions, as we later discovered, the swell in Village Bay can make this a risky exercise, and sometimes albeit impossible.
There are a few companies that offer tours to St Kilda. We chose Kilda Cruises, based on Harris and run by Angus Campbell and his family. One of the crew called us on Monday evening to tell us the trip was almost definitely going ahead the next day. They had been having problems with windy conditions over the previous few weeks, and Angus was taking a run out to check the situation, before it could be confirmed.
A trip to St Kilda with Kilda Cruises costs £225 per person. Boats leave about 8am and return about 8pm. The 45-mile journey takes about three hours. Kilda Cruises have two boats, Orca III and Hirta. We travelled on Hirta, a fast and comfortable 55-foot motor cruiser with inside and outside seating for 12 passengers. You need to dress for all eventualities. The North Atlantic is an extreme and unpredictable environment. Warm layers, waterproofs and sturdy footwear are essential. You’ll need to take enough food for the day, and plenty of water, as there are no cafes or convenience shops on St Kilda. Cameras and binoculars go without saying.
We joined the Hirta with our 10 fellow adventurers at Leverburgh Pier just before 8am as planned. We were excited when it was confirmed that conditions were sufficiently improved, and we would definitely be travelling. We settled in and, following a short briefing and a few introductions, we were on our way. I don’t know much about boats but the Hirta felt like a sturdy craft that could handle whatever the elements had to throw at her.
There were three crew members on board. Angus and his deputy skipper (whose Gaelic sounding name I am ashamed to say I did not catch) and Neil, the Kilda Cruises equivalent of cabin crew. Under Angus’s watchful eye, the deputy, (let’s called him Hugh for sake of argument) steered the boat and Neil looked after the passengers. All the crew seemed to be ex-fishermen. They managed to strike the perfect balance between relaxed informality and quiet competence. Tucked in behind our little tables, browsing information about the islands and their wildlife, we all felt completely safe in their more than capable hands.
The only thing that could possibly spoil your trip to St Kilda could be seasickness. Even on a good day, the North Atlantic swell is formidable, and it wasn’t long before several of the passengers were making good use of extra-large disposable beakers on our tables. I had anticipated this as a possibility and had taken some prophylactic anti-sickness medication. My “macho” partner had declined my offer and let’s just say he lived to regret it and leave it there. When they said Neil would look after our every need they were not kidding. He was wiping up vomit, dishing out tissues and emptying beakers for the entire journey.
About halfway into the journey, with Harris long out of sight behind us, Angus pointed out the faint outline of Boreray, and the stacks, looming on the far horizon. Out there, with nothing but the dark rolling ocean around us for as far as our eyes could see, it’s hard to find words to describe how mysterious they appeared as they arose from the water. A few seabirds came out to greet us, growing in numbers the closer we got. Fulmars, gannets and petrels soaring and gliding alongside the boat, guillemots and puffins bobbing and diving on the surface. There was no doubt in my mind that we were now entering their world.
The majority of our time at St Kilda, was spent on Hirta, the main island. As anticipated, the transfer to the shore was precarious as the boat and the dinghy pitched in the swell, but it all added to the sense of adventure. We were met by the warden, who gave us a brief introduction to the layout of the island, some safety advice and some suggestions as to how to spend our four hours there. After being advised to be back to the pier by 3.30pm, we were free to wander at our leisure.
Hirta, is essentially a wide, horseshoe shaped, natural amphitheatre that encircles a bay. The old village consists of a small row of cottages that follows the natural curve of the slope a few hundred metres above the water. Wild Soay sheep, unique to the islands, roam between the dozens of cleits that litter the slopes and surrounding hillsides. Apart from the bleating of the sheep and the calls of the seabirds it is almost silent. The island is surprisingly green and, at first glance, its slopes deceptively gentle. However, behind the cottages a rough footpath, known as The Gap, rises to the top of the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom. The moderately strenuous hike up ends abruptly at the terrifying edge of a sheer drop into the churning ocean below.
As well as climbing The Gap, we spent our time on Hirta exploring the abandoned village and browsing the exhibits in one of the cottages that has been converted to a tiny but highly informative museum. Later, we ate our picnic sitting on the bench outside, basking in the afternoon sunshine, before a quick obligatory visit to the little gift shop run by the wardens, followed by tea and homemade cake back onboard the Hirta.
Boreray and The Stacks
Before heading back to Harris we sailed around the archipelago for an hour or so, taking in the magnificence of Boreray and the stacks, and their multitude of squawking feathered residents. This was the most spectacular part of the trip for me. Rough, dark seas, waves crashing and frothing against the bases of vast towering rocks. Rocks that rival the world’s tallest buildings in height but far surpass them in rugged magnificence, their peaks rising into skies that teem with millions of seabirds.
We finally headed home around 4.30pm, proverbially, rosy cheeked, tired and happy. Those who had suffered on the way out were suitably dosed up and calmer seas meant everyone was able to enjoy the return journey, and the added bonus of several sightings of different types of dolphin and a very special encounter with a young male Orca. The day was complete with a plate of the best fish and chips I’ve eaten for a long time, washed down with a glass of Skye Gold, at the Anchorage in Leverburgh.
If you want to read more about St Kilda I would recommend any of the following:
(click on the image for a link to Amazon)