I AM on deck, cradling a warming cup of tea, when it
finally happens. I turn in to zip my jacket a little tighter, and
pull my hat down further, when, suddenly: "Land ahoy!"
After we have been plunging west for three days from Oban, on
the western coast of Scotland, a solid jagged triangle has finally
pricked the horizon. Although we have passed through the Outer
Hebrides, and called in at Tobermory, on Mull, for a night, we have
mostly been sailing across wild, churning seas.
With relief that this is soon to be over, I grip the handrail of
the Elizabeth G, and squint across the surging,
gun-metal-grey waters of the Atlantic at this pin-sized speck.
Eventually, it begins to bulk out and fill the sky, its rocky
granite cliffs bearing down over us.
This is St Kilda: once the most isolated community in the
British Isles. For more than 2000 years, it supported a settlement
on the main island of the archipelago, Hirta (the only one that is
inhabitable); its inhabitants were often cut off from the mainland
for months at a time, and had to be entirely self-sufficient.
Fortunately, St Kilda is home to the largest population of
fulmars in Britain, and the world's largest gannet colony, and
these birds formed the basis of the islanders' diet. In 1697, it
was estimated that the 180 islanders consumed 22,600 seabirds a
"This is the most important seabird colony in Europe," our
guide, Chris Gomersall, says; and, as we sail into Village Bay -
the only safe anchorage on the island - the occasional gannet
gliding overhead suddenly becomes hundreds, the air almost clogging
up with them as they wheel around the lofty cliffs, whose granite
crags are hiding nesting puffins in their thousands. (With 140,000
pairs, this is the largest colony in Britain.)
It is peaceful, the mass of birds an alluring sight. But our
arrival brings turmoil: a starburst spray of wings as the birds
scatter, soaring over the water or diving across the
almost-velveteen green slopes of the central saddle of Hirta,
towards the squat dry-stone remains of what were once the St
Kildans' homes, huddled along just one street.
St Kilda is one of only a handful of places worldwide to have
been awarded UNESCO World Heritage dual status, for its natural and
cultural significance. The heart of it all is this street, where we
begin our exploration.
We land on a small concrete dock, built in 1901 with govern-ment
funding to help connect the islanders with the outside world. Just
29 years later, it proved to be in vain: the last remaining 36
islanders asked to be evacuated, their self-sufficiency ended by
illness, crop failures, and the emigration of too many of their
young, able-bodied men, tempted away to the mainland and a "better"
life. They were accompanied off the island by the last in a long
line of missionaries, and his family.
The Times reported of the evacuation that: "The very
last night the villagers have held family worship in their
respective homes, reading and praying and singing the Gaelic psalms
in the traditional manner which has endured for centuries." When
they left, they reportedly left a Bible on the table of each house,
lying open at the first page of Exodus.
TODAY, the homes of the last St Kildans sit in varying stages of
restoration and dilapidation, some housing National Trust for
Scotland volunteers, one (Number 3) housing a small museum. Most,
though, sit roofless, and, as we wander through their eerie
remains, the gusty wind is whipping through their open windows, and
the grass grows wild in their front rooms. The most enduring signs
that these were ever homes are the bulky stone hearths, fireless
now for decades.
The village is home to a small church, where a missionary, the
Revd John MacDonald, first preached in 1822. A zealous man, he has
been given the credit for establishing Christianity on an island
that, having depended on nature for its livelihood, had Druidic
tendencies. After him came the Revd Neil Mackenzie, who reorganised
the island's agriculture and introduced formal schooling.
Then, in 1865, the Revd John Mackay arrived. He stayed for 24
years and imposed so many religious services on the islanders that
too little time was left over for essential tasks such as growing
food. The inhabitants never fully re-covered.
Behind the village looms Conachair, the island's highest point,
and our goal for the day. Its desolate peak seems unattainable at
first, shrouded in swirling mist; but, as we make our way up the
hill that the St Kildans called The Gap, the clouds start to clear
in patches. Awe-inspiring views are unveiled, out over the bay and
towards the Elizabeth G, now swaying in the stiff
Stopping to grab a lungful of air - some of the freshest I have
ever breathed - I look back over sweeping grassland to the waters
of the bay, now winking back at us in the emerging sunshine. The
weather on this wild and windy island can never be predicted.
I peel off a layer, and hike on up. Although the climb gets
tougher, I am determined to reach the summit, and grit my teeth,
plunging first one foot and then the other into Conachair's grassy
haunches, using its clumped grasses like a ladder, until the
hillside finally flattens out and I can see its crest. At that
moment, I spot my first great skua: it sits in the grass a few
metres away and watches me with undisguised contempt.
I have been told that these aggressive birds are called
"bonxies", thanks to their habit of "bonking" people on the head to
push them from their territory, but it is not until we descend
across the island's saddle that bird after plunging bird wheels
above us, flying lower and lower on each approach. We huddle
together almost desperately, and thrust umbrellas, handle up, into
the air to ward put them off.
With every heartbeat, another bonxie approaches, passing so
close that we can hear the air move between their wings and our
The onslaught stops only when we stagger into the protective
shadow of the radar station, at the saddle's other side. Not all
the birdlife on St Kilda is as cute as the puffins, it turns
THOSE skuas would not have made for easy hunting, but the fulmars
did. These gull-like birds spend much of their time sitting on the
cliffs (the high-est sea cliffs in Britain), and it was here that
the islanders captured them.
The island's men were taught to scale the cliffs as soon as they
were old enough. Their ability to do so was inextricably linked to
their ability to gain a bride; and our last stop on the island is
at the Lover's Stone, a point high above the Atlantic where young
men would allegedly stand on one foot to prove their agility on the
rocks, and, therefore, their ability to feed a family.
Ultimately, of course, this impressive agility was not enough to
sustain a community. But, with the humans gone, the birds are
flourishing. As we leave, we see this for ourselves: we sail out
towards the sea stacks of Stac an Armin and Stac Lee, where they
appear white on our approach. I assume they are covered in bird
droppings; but I am wrong. They are, in fact, covered in birds
-thousands of them.
This time, the sky really is clogged with gannets, and I cannot
do anything but stand on deck and stare. The best birdwatching in
Britain may take some getting to - but it is well worth the
Helen Ochyra travelled as a guest of Hebrides
Hebrides Cruises (www.hebridescruises.co.uk) sail out to St
Kilda several times a year, departing from Oban. In 2015, there are
departures on 23 May, 11 July, and 29 August. The six-night cruise
costs from £1450 per person, and includes all meals, plus tea and
coffee, and wine with dinner. Guests sleep on the boat in basic
private cabins, sharing bathroom facilities.
The National Trust for Scotland also operates a cruise, "Shadows
of St Kilda", which takes place on 14-21 May 2015
(www.nts.org.uk/culturalcruising). Otherwise, there is a small
campsite on St Kilda (for up to six people, for up to five nights
only), bookable through the National Trust for Scotland. It is also
possible to apply to join one of the National Trust for Scotland's
summer work-parties to St Kilda (www.kilda.org.uk). Scotrail trains
(www.scotrail.co.uk) run to Oban from Glasgow Central. Journey time
is approximately three hours, and tickets cost from £9.80 each