A few years ago while I was exploring the Hebrides, I stood on top of a small west facing hill. The weather was unusually calm and sunny, with a low mist skimming the sea. As I gazed out over the Atlantic, a sudden clearing in the mist revealed what I can only describe as a fairy king’s castle. Peak upon peak seemed to rise from the sea, seeming to float on the air.
This could only be the mythical island of St Kilda and its sea stacks that rise from the depths of the ocean to offer breeding space for countless sea birds. Then and there I vowed that one day I would reach uninhabited St Kilda, a vow I have twice managed, once on a fortnight’s National Trust for Scotland working party, and once on a day trip in a small boat from Harris. This account is mainly based on the latter.
Gradually a group of shattered peaks rose from the sea ahead of us as we butted our way through the ten-foot high north Atlantic swell. The day was perfect for a trip which started an hour or so before from Leverburgh at the southern end of the Hebridean island of Harris. We were travelling on Orca II, a state of the art boat capable of 29knotts, but then cruising at a steady 19knotts to help make life a little more bearable for those in our group of twelve who were already suffering from ‘mal de mer’. Overhead the cloudless sky was cerulean blue, while at sea-level a light mist added to the mystery of our destination.
Eventually the peaks resolved themselves into a group of sea-stacks, rocks reaching almost a thousand feet directly from the sea, and on whose ledges tens of thousands of gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots make their precarious nests, while tiny shearwaters and petrels who fish far out on the edge of the Continental Shelf make their nests in burrows alongside clown-like puffins whose tiny wings are more suited to swimming beneath the waves.
We sailed into the sparse shelter of Village Bay to land on Hirta, the main island, passing the tiny outlying island of Boreray and its attendant Stac Lee and the highest sea stack in Britain, Stac an Armin (average height above sea level 662ft). Swarming with birds and covered by centuries of their guano, landing on any of them seems impossible, especially when one learns that St Kildans frequently visited them to catch sea birds, the islanders’ staple diet. The story of a group stranded on Stac an Armin for several months when an epidemic broke out in their absence borders on the edge of incredulity. Disembarking for us was not without its excitement, climbing down into the pitching dinghy that took us on to the island’s tiny jetty.
Uninhabited except for a small permanent garrison of army technicians manning the radar station which monitors test rockets fired from the island of Benbecula to the east and snooping Russian spy ships; the island’s summer population is increased by a Nature Conservancy Warden and N.T.S working parties.
A haven for wildlife, the archipelago of St Kilda is all that remains of a volcanic complex erupting millions of years ago. Its oceanic isolation and the fact that it was not covered by the ice-sheet which smothered most of the rest of Britain make it unique among the Hebridean islands. Classed as a National Nature Reserve, along with the thousands of sea birds, it supports a distinctly unique wren and field mouse.
Scraggy Soay sheep which roam over Hirta and some of the larger outlying stacks are a primitive breed that has probably existed for many hundreds – perhaps thousands of years. Minerals in the soil and the moist Atlantic winds dictate the low growing plant species, modified by wind, grazing, and salt spray in winter and huge quantities of bird droppings.
Not only are the flowering plants of interest to botanists, but the fungi and lichens are also important. In summer the cliffs are alive with immense teeming colonies of breeding sea-birds, and the gannetry on Boreray is the largest in the world.
No one knows when the first people settled here, but there is history in every stone: some structures date from the Stone Age while others are probably from Dark Age, Viking or Medieval periods. It can be said with reasonable certainty that humans lived on St Kilda continuously over the past thousand years, and probably much longer. For centuries a small community existed here, isolated from the outside world but almost as well adapted to its environment as the seabirds forming a major part of their diet. Where the title of St Kilda came from is unknown, for while there are archaeological relics of early missionaries’ cells and the Irish St Brendan the Navigator’s saga speaks of a visit to the ‘Island of Birds’, there is no record of anyone by the name of St Kilda ever living here.
The first thing confronting a visitor is the group of army buildings that sit uncomfortably next to the old chapel, school room and factor’s house. Aware of its intrusion, the military does try to help keep the purity of the island intact and visiting N.T.S working parties can enjoy hot showers. Supplies of perishable food is also stored in the army’s massive refrigerators. Beyond this complex is the real St Kilda, a long row of mostly single-storied cottages at right-angles to earlier ‘blackhouses’, the primitive single-windowed and skin-doored, turf-roofed cottages that once provided accommodation throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The houses date from the 1860s, replacing the blackhouses and were once the most modern houses in the Western Isles. Six of these have been re-roofed to provide simple accommodation for visiting working parties. Organised on the crofting system, each house had its own strip of surprisingly good land running down to the sea, while behind the ‘street’, further ‘quality’ land was surrounded by a solidly-built dry-stone dyke (wall), in order to keep grazing sheep away from growing crops and hay fields.
Living a spartan life the inhabitants of St Kilda followed an existence entirely different to anywhere else. Not the best of sailors, and it was rare even for visiting fishing boats to call, often as not bringing epidemics such as small-pox. The male islanders were adept at rock climbing in their search for seabirds and their eggs. In fact a young man was not allowed to marry until he had stood on one leg, arms outstretched on the ‘Lover’s Stone’, a rock overhanging Hirta’s western cliffs .Poor sailors St Kildans may have been, but at times of population imbalance they were not beyond making forays to Hebridean islands in order to bring back wives. Such was their isolation that their only way of communicating with the outside world was by the precarious method of sending messages in hollowed out logs in the hope they would be found.
Something which visitors soon become aware of are the hundreds of small stone, turfed roofed prehistoric-looking buildings that dot the landscape around the village and along the ridges of its highest peaks. Known a ‘cliets’, they were presumably made as stores, but why so many is a mystery. To the rear of the village ‘street’, a tall circular stone wall surrounds the graveyard where simple upright stones mark the last resting place of generations of St Kildans. Set amongst these in unmarked graves are the sad remains of babies who died of tetanus caught from the bizarre practice of binding new-born children with cloths soaked in bird guano. Despite the installation of a district nurse, this practice continued almost until the island’s evacuation in 1930.
One of the cleits is known as Lady Grange’s House. This is where she was exiled for eight years between 1734 and 1742 after falling out with her husband.
During the late 1800s and as recently as the 1920s, St Kilda became a popular port of call for both private yachts and cruise vessels. As a result the islanders were treated rather like creatures living in a zoo. Along with their resentment, St Kildans began to realise there was a wider world beyond their storm lashed shore and in August 1930 following a petition to HM Government, they were evacuated to settle all over the western seaboard of Scotland. Most of the men were found work by the then newly formed Forestry Commission, a strange occupation for men who until then had not seen anything growing taller than a cabbage.
St Kilda was in the news again a few years ago when a Spanish trawler with engine failure was driven ashore in a gale. The fear was that it might have rats on board and if they escaped on to the island, it would be a disaster to the population of ground-nesting birds. Fortunately this was not so and after the trawler’s fuel was pumped out and its valuable components removed it sat incongruously on a ledge until the following winter’s storms washed it away. We sailed past its red hull on our way back to Leverburgh by way of Boreray and its attendant stacks, shining beneath a still blue sky filled with sublimely soaring gannets, peering at us with their wicked looking eyes constantly on the alert for unwary fish. With the Atlantic swell now behind us, the journey back was far more comfortable, a journey made memorable by the sight of a minkie whale cruising lazily across our wake.