I recently read a blog post describing St Kilda as ‘one of the most aspirational destinations in the British Isles’. There’s probably some truth in this, yet it didn’t put me off going. It seems that for some people the idea of St Kilda creates a powerful urge to visit this small archipelago of islands – or rather, Hirta, the largest of the island group where the ossified physical remains of a unique way of life stand alongside an incongruous MOD radar base. ‘The St Kilda story is like a modern myth’, according to Kathleen Jamie, on which some people become ‘perfectly fixated’. I was keen to visit, but not fixated on the idea; I’m of the view that investing too much expectation in something often leads to an underwhelming experience. Let’s go and see what we find when we get there.
The St Kilda story is well known and has stimulated a small library of literature – most people reading this post will know the nuts and bolts and I apologise for the simplistic potted history that follows:
The St Kildans were a small island community in more or less continuous occupation of their island domain for many hundreds of years, eking out a hard existence from the archipelago of isolated and frequently storm-battered small islands and sea stacks that rise like jagged shards from the Atlantic Ocean, 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. The St Kildans’ life was tough, but they were a joyful people who loved to make music, sing, dance and play together. The islanders lived from their land; the men abseiled barefoot down the sheer sea cliffs of Hirta and Boreray and climbed Stac Li and Stac an Armin – vertiginous sea-girt rock stacks – to harvest the sea birds and their eggs that made up a large part of the islanders’ diet, while the women spun wool from the islands’ indigenous Soay sheep and tilled the sparse soil. Those who could work did so for the collective benefit of the entire population.
The undoing of the St Kildan idyll arrived on two fronts. Victorian tourism brought significant numbers of sightseers, who came to gawp at the aborigines and turned their heads with the possibilities of commerce. They also brought diseases to which the islanders had little resistance. Arguably more pernicious was the arrival of the Free Church of Scotland. A succession of ministers brought doctrine and the sabbath and in return they eroded the islanders’ joyfulness and took up time they could ill afford with religious observance. The St Kildans became increasingly reliant on supplies from outside and less able to meet their own needs from the land and sea, as migration, disease and high infant mortality took a grievous toll on the islands’ population. The authorities failed to supply the regular supply ships that could have made the islanders’ existence viable, and in 1930 the remaining population asked to be evacuated.
In 1957 work commenced on Hirta to establish a radar base, with attendant barracks, roads, landing slip and other infrastructure and utilities. Since then, the island has had an itinerant population of military and civilian personnel at the base. In the same year, St Kilda became a National Nature Reserve with ownership transferred to the National Trust for Scotland. The NTS was able to influence the MOD’s plans for the radar base and limit its extent. Today, there is a permanent NTS warden on Hirta and during the summer months the population is increased by volunteers and professionals who work at the behest of the NTS, maintaining and restoring the physical legacy of the St Kildans. St Kilda became a World Heritage Site for its natural history interest in 1987 and latterly achieved dual WHS status with the inclusion of its cultural heritage. You might think that a a small island with dual WHS status and a MOD radar base might make for incongruity. It certainly does, but then to a significant extent, the infrastructure and utilities installed by the MOD have made the work of the NTS more feasible.
How the St Kildans would have marvelled at the constant coming and going of supply ships, personnel, volunteers and visitors arriving in a multitude of different craft.
Army landing craft delivering building supplies:
A popular way of visiting St Kilda is to travel on a motor boat or RIB from the Outer Hebrides for a day trip. This makes for a long day with more time spent at sea than ashore on Hirta. This is no cheap option either, however, there’s a market for these trips and as long as everyone is happy…
Not for me and TLF though; we wanted to be able to have time to explore as much as possible so we saved up all our pocket money for a long time and invested in a four day cruise on the MV Cuma which sails from Uig on Lewis and is skippered by the quietly assured Murdo Macdonald.
The Cuma is a homely and comfortable vessel and we were well looked after by Murdo and his mate, Gary, and granddaughter, Michaela. Murdo operates trips to St Kilda and other outliers throughout the summer months; the Cuma has berths for 12 passengers and is usually booked solid, as it is this summer – with the exception of the trip we booked, on which for some unknowable reason there were only three of us. Being mildly misanthropic, I have to say that this only enhanced my enjoyment of the trip. As it happens, our fellow passenger was an exceptionally agreeable and knowledgeable chap called Chris who had operated fishing boats out of Lochinver for many years. He’d turned his back on the sea some years ago, but he’d harboured (sorry) a hankering to visit St Kilda having sailed past the archipelago many times in his former life. From early on I could see what would happen…
Murdo collected us from Stornoway and drove us to Miabhaig where we joined the Cuma. There was a bustle of activity as Murdo, Gary, Murdo’s wife, daughter and granddaughters stowed supplies and readied the Cuma for the off. We were scheduled to sail down the coast to spend the night in Loch Reasort, but Murdo suggested that we head straight for St Kilda as conditions were good and this would mean that we’d get two full days ashore on Hirta. We weren’t inclined to argue.
Myself and TLF spent the six and a half hour crossing on the deck, largely because it was such a wonderful place to be, but also because the swell was rowdy enough to make being in the main cabin a wee bit nausea-inducing. Gannets and fulmars accompanied us the entire way and several dolphins put in brief appearances. In the distance the Flannan Isles came and went to starboard (see what I did there?) and we fixed our collective gaze on the horizon. It was somewhat cloudy and overcast, so we were only around 20 miles off when we caught sight of Boreray and Stac Li on the horizon. We drew steadily closer until eventually we passed by Stac Li, a vertiginous sea bird citadel.
It was nearly 11pm when Murdo steered the Cuma into Village Bay, and dusk was settling. We had a late dinner and soon retired to our cabins to be rocked gently to sleep.
Next morning, after breakfast, Gary took us ashore in the dinghy and we avoided the obligatory NTS ranger visitor briefing by dint of it being early on a Sunday morning. Before we headed for the hills we had a small mission to accomplish: by coincidence a friend’s mum was working as a volunteer conservator in the village so we were able to hand-deliver letters to her. She was quite surprised.
Several of the old houses along the village ‘street’ have been restored for use as accommodation for volunteers, which you can see in the pictures below. The small stone structures with turf roofs are known as cleits; these were used for storing everything from harvested sea birds to turfs drying for fuel. There are some 1200 of these intriguing structures dotted around Hirta alone – in the village, on the hillsides and on the cliff tops. Everywhere you look, there are cleits. They are unique to St Kilda – or at least they will be until I’ve built the one in our back garden that TLF has requested.
In the picture below the layout of the village is clearly visible with the MOD base on the left and the road leading to the landing slip, helipad and out onto the hillside. The Cuma and several yachts are moored in the bay.
Having delivered the post, we walked along the ‘street’, passed through the head dike and contoured around the hillside towards Ruabhal, a rocky hill overlooking the narrow channel separating Hirta from Dun.
Looking back to Village Bay:
Looking across to Dun:
We continued around to the western side of Ruabhal, to try out the view:
Having done so, we turned around and headed back through the curious rock window capped by a slab known as the Mistress Stone. Note the radar station on Mullach Sgar.
We continued up onto Mullach Sgar and joined the radar station access road which winds its way up to the radar station on Mullach Mor. The hill tops were shrouded in clag so there were no views to be enjoyed as we continued past the transmitting station and down a short way to a bealach before making the final steep climb to Conachair, Hirta’s highest point at 430m. The clag was dense. Nothing to see here. We descended carefully, aware that there are steep sea cliffs to the north. Emerging from beneath the murk we stationed ourselves by a cleit and took in the views with our sandwiches.
Thereafter we headed towards the cliff edge at The Gap – a col between Conachair and the neighbouring hill – Oisebhal. The sea cliffs are steep, towering, and mightily impressive, perhaps the more so in the cloud swirling around them on this very afternoon. Fulmars and bonxies swooshed back and forth, the latter frequently dive-bombing us with great enthusiasm.
We continued along the cliff edge and climbed to the summit of Oisebhal. Here we sat against a pile of rocks and contemplated the view. Lassitude crept in and we were both soon dozing contentedly. Perhaps it was all that sea air…
A little later, we zig-zagged down the steep flank of Oisebhal and returned to the village for a look around. Conachair cleared briefly, so I decided to head back up to The Gap and then on to the summit – who knows when I’d get the chance too see the view from the summit again? Well, the clag descended again and I sat by the summit cairn for 15 minutes before admitting defeat and slinking back down the hill. On the hillside, I chanced on the buckled propeller from a crashed second world war Bristol Beaufighter, which to my mind resembled bleached whale bones.
Back at the village, TLF had had a much more fruitful time exploring various fanks and cleits. Before long it was 7pm and time for Gary to fetch us back aboard the Cuma for our tea.
The next morning was a bit brighter and it looked like it might improve. We’d decided to head over to Hirta’s north-west to explore the peninsula known as An Campar and Gleann Mor. If it stayed clear we might also have yet another go at Conachair. We followed the radar station access road up to Mullach Sgar and then continued west, skirting the rim above Gleann Mor. This part of the island had been invisible to us in the previous day’s clag; the contrast with the other side of the island with its abandoned settlement, NTS accommodation and radar base was startling. We were soon climbing to Mullach Bi, at 358m the highest point on the rim enclosing the glen. There was quite a lot of unsolicited bonxie action and one of the pesky brutes actually clattered my heid; luckily I was wearing a beanie.
The views were stupendous as we descended the ridge above the western sea cliffs towards An Campar; the sky was clearing and our outing was turning into something quite unforgettable. The island of Soay detached itself from the end of the An Campar headland, which did little to detract from the wonderful vista.
Looking across the sound to Soay:
We sat for a while on the headland just absorbing the views and atmosphere of this astonishing place. Just us and the birds and the Soay sheep; an utter contrast with the relative hurly burly over the other side of the island. Eventually we got going again, keen to see as much as we could in the time left to us. However, we’d not got far before we were caught up in the business of watching the fulmars and puffins haunting the sea cliffs flanking Glen Bay. TLF sat on the cliff tops watching through binoculars while I shimmied down a steep slope and inveigled my way into the birds’ domain. Here I spent one of the happiest hours of my life.
Looking across Glen Bay to Conachair and the sea cliffs:
The Tunnel natural arch with Boreray, Stac Li and Stac an Armin beyond:
The day had become progressively clearer so there was no option other than to pay another visit to Conachair. From the summit all that could be seen in each direction was sea, save for the whale-backed chain of the Outer Hebrides on the eastern horizon. Descending from the summit of Conachair, we strode out along the narrow grassy slope jutting north from the sea cliffs, which would have been too dangerous to contemplate in the previous day’s clag. The views onto the sea cliffs were almost intimidating in their grandeur; I think I’m right in saying that these are the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles.
We carried on down to The Gap, where the sea birds wheeled around the cliffs:
Oisebhal from the flank of Conachair, note the sheep fanks and cleits in the glen:
We returned to the village and I basked in the sunshine while TLF took in a bit more of the cultural landscape. The NTS have a real challenge on their hands in preserving the St Kildans’ former home; preservation and restoration is a costly business – how long will the endeavour continue – and what exactly is it that’s being preserved, I wonder. Our friend’s mum, Ros, had said when we arrived that she had expected to feel more of sense of the St Kildans’ presence on Hirta, but they’re gone and only the stones remain. The cultural landscape is like a palimpsest, a stone tablet overwritten by the presence of the MOD base and its infrastructure, but also by the conservation work of the NTS. A paradox.
A fine example of a cleit with sea pinks: