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Issue 18 - Land of legends

Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005

 

This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Land of legends

Robin McKelvie makes the journey to the remote island of St Kilda

For many Scots St. Kilda, the mystical string of islands that lie 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, have something of the Holy Grail about them.

Many dream of making it out to this UNESCO World Heritage listed outpost, but few actually manage to conquer the Atlantic and land on the islands. It is an oasis that swirls in myths and legends, awash with tales of a long lost way of life, where man is very much outnumbered by swathes of eagles, puffins, dolphins and whales.

The journey out to St. Kilda is part of its legend; a stomach testing 16-18 hour cruise from Oban or a four-six hour trip from the Outer Hebrides.

Soon it is clear that the effort is worth it, though, as the unique landscapes of this archipelago rear into view, a sight unlike anything else in the British Isles.

St. Kilda was never tamed by the smoothing actions of glaciers and the rugged sheer rock faces and soaring stacs that shudder out of the Atlantic to puncture the horizon have more in common with the Faroe Islands or Iceland than Scotland. There are myriad islands and stacs in the chain, with the four main islands Hirta, Boreray, Soay and Dun.

Wildlife abounds on every inch of rock on St. Kilda and the flora and fauna is truly unique, making the islands very popular with wildlife enthusiasts and ornithologists.

Around one million birds call St. Kilda home with 140,000 impossibly cute puffins occupying the cliffs and Boreray boasting the world’s largest gannet population with 60,000 nesting pairs.

Elsewhere in the air swoop eagles, terns, guillemots, gulls, shags, oyster catchers and cormorants while below seals, dolphins and various species of whale frolic in the chilly waters.

On land the scraggy soay sheep are a form of primitive sheep found nowhere else in the world.

For centuries man shared St. Kilda with the bountiful wildlife, with Mother Nature weaving the local men extraordinarily large and rugged feet to aid them in hunting for bird eggs on the cliffs, without which they would never have survived through the winter.

The way of life on St. Kilda until it was finally abandoned in 1930 was rudimentary and some even think Utopian as there was no money and no government, with the Gaelic speaking people all just mucking in to help each other and do what work needed to be done without all the complex machinations of the modern world.

Going ashore on the main island of Hirta – the only island ever to have been inhabited – the first thing visitors see is the rather unappealing military installation, but this facility is essential to allow the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish National Heritage to continue with their research and preservation work.

The military, rangers and volunteer workers are the only ones who actually ‘live’ temporarily on St. Kilda these days, though visitors are more than welcome. The head ranger meets all arrivals, whether they be on tour boats, the cruise ship the Hebridean Princess or private yachts, and then provides a brief introduction to St. Kilda.

Further back from the shore is the original village, whose main street, with its old stone and traditional ‘black houses’, can be seen stretching along the hillside.

A thorough insight into the history of the island is on offer at the small museum on Village Street in one of the houses that has been renovated. The tough lives of the sturdy people who eked out a living on St. Kilda are fleshed out here with displays and photos that trace their story all the way through until their final departure, when they were forced to leave as there were not enough young men left to sustain the community.

There is a heritage walk that weaves through the village illuminating how the local people lived. Stops include the site of Lady Grange House, a sorry place as this unfortunate woman was banished here for eight years by her husband to avoid her leaking a Jacobite plot.

The walk comes right along Village Street where it is easy to make out the 1830s state built houses from the distinctive old ‘black houses’. The latter are much more cramped, but have very thick walls to combat the worst of the savage winter weather.

Touchingly in some of the houses there are messages from the original inhabitants who returned later to dwell on their memories and lost way of life.

Hanging omnipresent above the village is Conachair, a 430m peak with Britain’s highest sea cliff dropping off it that offers stunning views of the islands and back east towards the Outer Hebrides. The hike to the top is not arduous with a road part of the way up and the only difficulty avoiding the great skuas, the hulking brown birds that swoop down to buzz walkers and keep them away from their nests.

The effort is worth it as the views on a clear day stay with those who do forever.

While Hirta is relatively easy to land on and easy to get around the other isles are much more problematic and most visitors have to be content with seeing them from the sea. Taking a boat around Boreray is a stunning experience as 40 per cent of the world’s gannet population swirls around the hulking rock island and its protective stacs. The rocks at first look like they have been splashed with white paint, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that the white expanses are the squalling mass of gannets.

There are hundreds of Scottish islands, but none of them are anything like St. Kilda. Mention the name to an old Scots sailor and often there will follow a tale of how they never made it out to the most legendary of Scottish islands. Fortunately these days anyone can delve into this remote oasis and enjoy the epic beauty and intoxicating history of St. Kilda, whether it is only for a day or for a longer stay.

FACT FILE
The official St. Kilda website is at www.kilda.org.uk

Getting There
Boat charters operate from Oban and the Outer Hebrides (www.kilda.org.uk)

The MV Cuma (www.island-cruising.com)

Kilda Cruises start regular day trips in 2005 www.kildacruises.co.uk) using a new purpose built vessel

Private yachts are also welcome. Helicopter landings are possible, though permission must be sought in advance. Hebridean Princess www.hebridean.co.uk) include St. Kilda on their week long luxury cruises

TRAVEL FACTS
Staying Longer
There is a small campsite that can cater for those who have arranged a visit ahead through the St. Kilda website. Boat charters often allow the opportunity to spend a few nights moored in Village Bay. Each year between May and August there are six official working parties. The volunteers pay either £555 for the archaeological or £645 for the restoration two week trips, which includes return transport, accommodation in the restored houses and food Tel: +44 (0)1463 232 034

Kayak Trips
Twice a year Canoe Hebrides (www.canoehebrides.com) run week long sea kayaking trips around St. Kilda for £810 including kayaks, full board and soft drinks. The trips are led by very experienced instructors who can look after all levels of paddlers