Hirta: an island of two halves

P1010475

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:

P1010515

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.

P1010317

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.

P1010332

P1010349

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.

P1010429

P1010363

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.

P1010496

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:

P1010377

Looking across to Dun:

P1010376

We continued around to the western side of Ruabhal, to try out the view:

P1010384

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.

P1010387

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.

P1010456

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.

P1010419

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.

P1010422

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.

P1010440

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.

P1010446

P1010449

P1010453

Looking across the sound to Soay:

P1010471

P1010473We 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.

P1040258

P1040277

P1040312

P1040307

Looking across Glen Bay to Conachair and the sea cliffs:

P1040248

The Tunnel natural arch with Boreray, Stac Li and Stac an Armin beyond:

P1040317When we could finally drag ourselves away, we dropped down into Gleann Mor and after being subjected to sustained bonxie bombardment we climbed up to the bealach between Mullach Sgar and Mullach Mor.

P1010483

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.

P1010489

We carried on down to The Gap, where the sea birds wheeled around the cliffs:

P1010493

Oisebhal from the flank of Conachair, note the sheep fanks and cleits in the glen:

P1010497

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:

P1010413

24 responses

  1. That don’t look too bad a trip Pete! The scenery on the second day looks out of this world. However not sure that I would be keen on the long boat journey out there. If you felt that you needed to get some fresh air then I would probably have been heaving over the side.

    Just a question, are you allowed to wild camp on the island? And when you say the trip is expensive, is that expensive in the sense that you could have had a week somewhere tropical sort of expensive?

  2. Hello JB; it wasn’t too bad at all as trips go… The boat journey is likely to be an issue for peeps who are prone to sea sickness.

    Wild camping is not permitted on Hirta – or anywhere else in the archipelago, should you be able to get there. There is a small camping ground at one end of the village, which needs permission, booked in advance etc. On one level you can see the NTS motivation for protecting habitats etc, though it’s kinda paradoxical when you think of the St Kildans abseiling down the cliffs and throttling tens of thousands of birds on a weekly basis…

    The trip cost us £595. For that we had four nights on the Cuma with all meals, packed lunches etc. In my book it was worth every penny. Further info at; http://www.island-cruising.com/

    There are other ways of doing a trip like this; you could for example get dropped off, camp for a few days then get picked up again, but the boat journey is expensive any way you do it.

    We’re already thinking about another trip to some other outliers…

  3. This is a marvellous post, Pete. Although I’ve read a fair bit about St. Kilda over the years, you’ve brought a real warmth and sense of intimate place to the archipelago here. I can only imagine the sheer thrill of seeing so many seabirds wheeling above those blue waters, the evocative geometry of stone mapped out by the villagers. Thanks ever so much for this thoughtful journey, my friend. Beautiful.

  4. Hello Hoff! To quote yourself: ‘thanks for your kind words’. I should maybe have let my impressions of Hirta percolate for a while longer before knocking this post out as it really is a very curious place indeed. Curiouser still is the idea of St Kilda – the shape it has taken in the collective consciousness. In that context, I’m sure you must have read Kathleen Jamie’s chapters on St Kilda in Sightlines?

    I find the whole preservation/restoration/heritage thing very interesting, as I suppose many folk do. But I can’t quite put my finger on why rebuilding collapsed dry stane dikes according to the exact (down to individual stones), idiosyncratic manner in which they were originally built and subsequently repaired by the St Kildans, seems to me to achieve the opposite of evoking the long absent islanders.

    I hope all’s well with yourself and Joules

  5. Thanks, Chrissie. It was an absolute joy hanging out with the puffins and fulmars; they didn’t seem to bothered about my proximity. It was really thrilling when wee puffins came fluttering by, but I didn’t manage to get any snaps – just the odd blurred wing here and there and lots of empty frames…

    • It is, Phil; in no small part because of St Kilda’s remoteness, though even if it was just a couple of miles from the mainland coast you’d probably still be thinking ‘wow!’

    • Thanks, Shirley. Hirta is a peaceful place, though as alluded to in the post title, the village and Gleann Mor are very different. All the comings and goings from the radar base whether by sea or helicopter, as well as the base’s landrovers and tractors, can make the place feel surprisingly busy…

  6. Awesome, had no mental picture in my head of what St Kilda looked like. What an absolutely stunning place.
    I love watching the sea birds, I remember spending a happy half day lying on stomach peering over the cliffs at Durness and watching them on a wild and stormy day. Must have been fab to be right amongst them. I guess they are not used to humans so you get up close and personal.
    Cracking read 🙂

  7. Cheers Andy; I wonder if for some of us an interest in things like birds, flora, fauna, trees, gardening etc is a function of age? Once you slow down a bit you start seeing things and once you start seeing things an entire. previously overlooked universe becomes apparent…

    • I never fail to be excited when seeing any kind of wildlife, be it birds, mammals, insects or whatever. Pleasing that my kids are the same as well. Even my walking habits have changed. I used to be an obsessive peak bagged but nowadays I’m more interested in unusual walks, and places off the beaten track and just enjoying a walk just for its own sake.

  8. Hi
    I have found your lovely blog completely by accident. I live very near to Durisdeer and am in fact heading up there in about 15 minutes time for a spot of walking in the hills. So I was having a look at some pictures of Durisdeer and clicked on one for a closer look at there was your blog, so I clicked on that too. This in turn took me to your other blog posts, I must admit to just scanning through the pictures at present but will go back and look properly later.

    Very interesting to read an strangers point of view in where you live and wander. What happened about the house there? Did you go for it or not?

    Anyway off out now with my rather rumbustious labarador, who seems to be just like yours LOL

    The Selfish Giant story made me laugh I have a friend who sent a copy of the book to our local landowner who sent her a very nice thank you letter back. I wonder if he “got it” or not.

    Susan

    • Hello Susan

      Thanks for your comment. Is there such a thing as a non-rumbustious Labrador, I wonder?

      We didn’t go for the wee hoose in Durisdeer in the end; principally because we decided that we actually want to be near the sea, ultimately. I grew up on the south coast and this proximity to the sea might explain my obsession with islands and coast walks.

      Your local landowner being the Duke of Buccleuch? If the landed classes do get irony I imagine it would be beneath them to react to it.

      I hope you had a lovely walk at Durisdeer.

      Pete

  9. Hi Pete. My ‘TLF’ and I did the same trip on the Cuma about ten years ago, and as you know I was on a NTS work party there last year, and your account and splendid pictures bring it all back. We really enjoyed the Cuma trip – it’s a more comfortable ride than the fast RIB-like boats used on the day trips, and above all, you get more time on Hirta. I like what the naturalist James Fisher wrote back in 1947: that the future visitor to St Kilda would be ‘haunted for the rest of his life by the place, and tantalised by the impossibility of describing it to those who have not seen it’. It’s a place you don’t forget!

  10. Hello Dave, James Fisher would have seen St Kilda in that strange hiatus between the evacuation and the establishment of the radar base – that must have been eerie in the extreme. I’m glad we had and took the opportunity to head ‘over the back’ to An Campar and Gleann Mor, it gave a little of the sense of what Hirta must have been like in the pre-radar base days. Obviously the MOD presence/input can’t be dismissed out of hand, but as a visitor it doesn’t add much to the experience…

    I’d love to go again and it’d have to be the Cuma – still a few more outliers I’d like to visit between times. I think a trip taking in the Flannan Isles, North Rona and Sula Sgeir would be an exciting prospect.

    I’m still looking forward to your account of your NTS work party trip in Scottish Islands Explorer, Dave.

  11. Yes, I know what you mean about the ‘island of two halves’ – the atmosphere over the hill in Gleann Mor is different and quite powerful. You need to get to North Rona – it’s quite a place, especially when you stand in the remains of the village and think about people living there. We also tried to get to Sula Sgeir on that trip, but the weather got the better of us! Have you read Frank Fraser Darling on North Rona?

    SIE are not now going to publish my St Kilda DIary – but I’ll try and find another home for it.

  12. Hello Dave

    I suspected that you’d likely visited North Rona! I’ve not yet read Frank Fraser Darling, but will take up your recommendation. Have you read Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful collection of essays ‘Sightlines’? There’s a very interesting and evocative account of a trip to North Rona and another about three attempts – one successful – to reach St Kilda.

    How about Scotland Outdoors magazine for your St Kilda diary? They’re keen on articles with an environmental/conservation slant. Or The Scots Magazine?

  13. So much WOW! Images, words… amazing islands and wildlife. Such a special place. The cliffs look so dramatic and I love the puffins. And… guess who did the WCJ last week! 🙂 It was truly awesome, though the weather could have been better. We were too early for the heat and sun but what a place! Ardlussa round to Tarbert, with a whole day at Cruib hiding from the rain, then bussed to Craighouse for more food and then the Paps. Tarbert to Feolin will have to wait.. for now. I want to see the big raised beach near Glenbatrick. Sadly I lost “the bible” on the first day but I remembered lots of it 🙂 And Maggy at Lealt found it 🙂 Your book really opened up Jura for me – many thanks. Keep up the great travelling, photographing and writing!

    • Hello Archie

      Thanks for your kind words. I really am glad to hear that you had such a splendid time walking the WCJ – it really is the most spectacular place on Earth in its own quiet way, eh? I’m sure you’ll be back to walk the Glenbatrick-Feolin stretch in the near future… I’ve recently finished the updates and corrections for a 2nd edition of the guidebook (including some new routes) so I’m looking forward to it hitting the shelves.

      All the best

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s