Boy oh boy, was I excited when I got up this morning - I was going to St Kilda! I don't know how long I had known of St. Kilda - but it felt like somewhere I had always been aware of and this was just too good an opportunity to miss. Although it was quite expensive (£160 for the day), it really is a unique place that not many people get the chance to visit.
For those who are not aware of St. Kilda, it is a group of small islands and sea stacks about 45 west of North Uist. The islands have been inhabited, on and off, for many 1000s of years. Their isolation led to distinct customs and even unique animal species. The most recent islanders lived mainly by catching seabirds for food and enjoyed a tough existence on this island on the edge of the world. After many people leaving, the final 36 people asked to be evacuated in the 1930s and the island was abandoned. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both cultural and natural interest. The islands are now owned by The National Trust for Scotland and are the ultimate getaway.
After a good hearty bowl of porridge and a cup of coffee, a quick shower and then I wandered down to the pier. I turned up about 7:45 and Angus was there - but no boat! He explained that his boat (which is in it's first season and cost over £400000!) hit something on the way back last night and had broken it's propeller. He was awaiting a spare part and the boat was going up on a slipway later that day.
My heart sank - but then he explained that his old boat (which he'd sold to the guys at Sea Harris) was luckily not out that day, so Seamus and Coinneach of Sea Harris was going to take us that day. His old boat sat the same number of people (12) but is not as large or powerful as his new boat, but it was perfectly fine by me.
We all boarded - it was an interesting bunch of people, a couple of Japanese tourists, some locals, a couple of Danish students, other people traveling around the isles.
Off we went into beautiful sunshine. I was rather pleased to see the sea was looking very flat. I am not a great sailor and was worried that the 3 hour trip would be very tough. I had taken some anti-sickness pills but still I know how easily I can get ill. We gently left Leverburgh and passed a series of little islands. Some of them had seals relaxing in the sunshine.
As we left the Sound Of Harris, Seamus opened up the taps and got the boat up to speed - the 700HP engine could easily make the boat cruise at about 17-18 Knots.
The trip was very smooth and I enjoyed the sun as we all hung out on the back deck of the boat (near the back is also where the boat is moving the least, so minimised risk of sea sickness).
After about an hour and three quarters, a very, very small hump was visible on the horizon. This was the first sighting of the islands. But we still had another hour or so to go! The journey was interrupted by a school of common dolphins joining us for a brief while - it was great to see them jumping in and out of our wake. Sadly, I could not get a photo of them. There's an awful lot of marine life in these waters and they regularly see basking sharks, minke whales, killer whales (orca) and a whole range of dolphins. Today would hopefully be a good day to see whales as the sea was so flat.
The islands got bigger and bigger until you could start to make out the different islands - there are three major islands in St. Kilda - Hirta (the largest and the one where people had lived), Soay and Boreray. There are also several sea stacks including Stac Lee and Stac An Armin (the tallest sea stack in the UK at 196 metres).
Finally, we came towards Hirta and Village Bay. There was a beautiful sailing boat in the bay - this is used for a three day trip to islands (one day out, stay on-board, one day on the island, one day back - all fully catered etc.). There was also a reminder of just how harsh this spot is with the wreck of the Spinningdale lying on it's side in the bay - this ran ashore in February and made headlines around the world with the fear of rats getting onto the island and destroying the bird colonies. It's now been drained of fluids and will, hopefully, be salvaged next year as it is a little bit of a blot on the landscape and not so good for the UNESCO status!
We dropped anchor and headed to the jetty in a small dinghy (the boat can not come alongside the jetty to eliminate the risk of rats getting from larger boats to the island) and were then met by Bill Shaw the National Trust Warden. He gave us a quick introduction to the island and explained a few things - there were a few areas we could not visit as there is a quite large military presence on the island. I was pleased that there are now toilets on the island that can be used by visitors (my guide book had said that this was not the case!). He explained about a whole load of temporary fencing around the island - this was because there were 16 academics studying the soay sheep on the island. Soay sheep are an ancient breed and represent a window into early domesticated animals. They are a lot smaller than sheep we see on the mainland and there were poeple measuring them, studying their behavior etc. The ranger seemed to take delight in tales of these highly qualified academics running around catching sheep!
The weather was superb - really quite hot and sunny indeed.
After hearing from Bill, we were allowed to do our own thing for the next 5 or 6 hours. People obviously had different priorities and some people went straight off towards the bigger hills (Connachair is the tallest hill on the island) whilst others headed into the village. I headed towards the village - via the cliffs where it was possible to photograph Spinningdale properly.
The first site is the store house and gun. The store was used to store feathers - this was one of the 'currencies' the islanders used to pay their rent to the landowner. The gun was built in the First World War to protect the island from attack by U-Boat (the island was shelled in 1918 to try and destroy the radio masts).
From the store, you pick up the street and walk towards the Kirk (church) and schoolroom. Both were very plain and simple buildings - inside and out.
The street is a fascinating mix of new and old buildings. The newer houses were built in the 1860s and replace the older blackhouses. Of these newer houses, National Trust working parties have re-roofed 6 of them and made them habitable for people working on the island. You can not go into these houses (as they are in use by the sheep counters as their living quarters), but you can go into any of the abandoned houses - both the blackhouses and the new houses. Inside many of the houses are plaques showing who lived there at the point of final evacuation in 1930 - it's moving to see the names and think of the many generations of these families who'd lived on the island. Tellingly, most of the plaques indicate that there were not many men left on the island at the time of evacuation.
One thing that quickly strikes you are the cleits. These are storage buildings and look like small blackhouses - they were used to store the birds they'd hunted, ropes, wood (very rare commodity!), peats etc. There are around 1300 cleits on the island - and they are everywhere. Even as you look up onto the horizon of the large hills, you see them. Each family might own around 30-50 cleits and it was the owner's responsibility to make the cleit stock-proof. If a sheep got into your cleit and died, you had to pay the owner compensation.
The islanders menfolk would meet in the street each morning (except Sunday) to discuss what work needed doing that day. By necessity it was a very co-operative lifestyle.
There's a museum in one of the restored houses with lots of information on life on St. Kilda - truly fascinating. I finished my walk up the street and decided to head towards the Gap or Saddle - this is the bit between Conachair and Oiseval hills and is good for views of the village and looking over towards Boreray. There were dozens of cleits up there still. The views of the village were incredible. The cliffs even here at the saddle were very high - nothing compared to those around the back of Conachair - something like 427 metres high - the highest cliffs in the UK. I sat in the sun and ate my lunch looking down on the village - it was a very enjoyable experience indeed.
After lunch, I headed down the hill and towards the other side of the island towards Dun. There were lots of the soay sheep here and it must have been a lot of fun chasing them again here!
I walked up towards the Mistress Stone - one of two locations where the men of the island would show off their balancing skills in order to impress potential wives. I didn't fancy trying it myself!
Time on the island was running out, so I wandered down to the little shop - there were lots of great books there, but I was not able to buy any due to lack of room on the bike - I will order them on Amazon when I get home.
We got back on the boat with a cup of tea and some ginger cake waiting for us (ginger is good for sea-sickness).
In the harbour at this point was a RIB - apparently, you can get from Lochmaddy (in North Uist) to St Kilda in an hour and a half. I did not fancy that idea at all - RIBs are pretty scary and bumpy!
We set sail to what was promised to be even more exciting than being on Hirta - must be good! So we sailed towards Boreray via Stac Lee (a massive sea stack) and Stac An Armin (the tallest sea stack in the UK) - both of which have enormous gannet colonies. Both of these stacks were visited by the islanders to collect birds. There were bothies on both stacks. In 1727 a group of 10 men and boys ended up getting stranded on Stac An Armin for 9 months! The reason was that the entire population of Hirta had died of smallpox whilst they were on their (planned) 2 week stay on the stack. There are 74 man-made structures recorded on Stac An Armin - but it looked like a horrific place to stay for any length of time!
The birds were so noisy and there were millions of them flying around. Even on this relatively calm day, the swell near the stacks was huge. We went around the back of Boreray and there were hundreds of puffins sat on the sea and diving down for fish - amazing sight!
We headed back towards Leverburgh. The trip back was a little rougher and a couple of people were ill. I did not feel great - but was not ill. I spent time chatting with one of the Danish girls who was doing a PhD in Edinburgh on the ecology of the machair - so she gets out to the Hebrides 6 or 7 times a year! Coinneachtold us about all the whales and so on he'd see over the years sailing around the Hebrides. It really is incredible how much marine life is out there. Sadly, today we weren't being lucky.
I do have to say I felt very emotional leaving the islands - but I also knew I would have to come back some time in my life. I am already thinking about applying to go on a work party on the island which would mean 2/3 weeks on the island helping with refurbishing the houses etc. That really would be a great escape from the world!
The day really was unforgetable and the islands will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. I got back to my tent very tired, slightly sun-burnt and terribly happy. Today will undoubtably be the highlight of the trip - it has been a highlight of my life really!
Read about day 8 here!