We went to St. Kilda on Saturday. It sounds almost normal when you say it like that - as if perhaps we went out to lunch. But lying 75 miles west into the Atlantic (from the Isle of Lewis) - this was no ordinary day out. Indeed, the sea journey is often arduous, and for that reason, it is not recommended for children under 12.
We have both wanted to go for some time, and so, finally, the required age having been reached, we set off on what felt like a kind of pilgrimage.
Its so easy to romanticise this far flung scattering of islands and sea stacks - and the story of the St. Kildans and their precarious lives, out there “on the edge of the world”. Although, I’ve come to realise that terms like “remote” and “edge of the world” are incredibly subjective. Remote from where? Edge of what? Surely West is always East of somewhere else?
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating tale. For four thousand years, people lived on Hirta, the largest of the islands. They grew crops, kept sheep and cattle, and harvested the sea birds and eggs. This way of life more or less continued until the 19th century when summer tourist boats began to visit the island. This led to the islanders becoming more reliant on income from the visitors, as well as the goods brought by the boats. As a consequence, their traditional way of life was abandoned in favour of tourism. The problem here was that the boats could only call in the summer months, and so life during the rest of the year became extremely difficult, without the supplies they had come to rely on. The visitors brought infectious diseases with them too, and this led to a rise in mortality among the local population. This fact, and increasing rates of emigration exacerbated the situation. A sad but familiar tale of many indigenous populations.
In 1930, things reached a critical point and life there had become untenable. The remaining villagers asked the government to be evacuated to the mainland. This request was granted and at the end of August that year, the 36 remaining souls left their homes for the last time .
The archipelago is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and has double world heritage status, for culture and natural environment. Today, there are wardens in residence, as well as a seasonal archaeological team. There is also an Ministry of Defence radar base there.
Anyway, after that rather dry introduction, and a very bumpy voyage, we finally chugged into the relative calm of Village bay, on Hirta. The building here is known as the Feather Store, and was used, as it’s name suggests, to store feathers, harvested from the gannets and fulmars, which the islanders used to pay rent to their landlord.
Heading up from the shore, into the village, we noticed that the hillside was covered in stone beehive structures, which are know as cleits (pl: cleitan). There are over 1000 of these on Hirta, and remains of cleitan on the other islands and sea stacks. They were used as storage spaces for everything the islanders needed to store, as well as shelter for sheep and probably islanders too, and have been in use from neolithic times until the evacuation in 1930.
If something works….
The village itself is strung out, like a necklace, across the bay. Some of the houses have been restored and are in use as accommodation for the summer volunteers. One has been converted into a small and very interesting museum.
The native Soay sheep are wild and unmanaged, and seemed totally unfazed by our interest in them. They’ve seen it all before, a thousand times.
Further on up The Street, as it’s known, the houses are falling into ruin. In every fireplace is a small plaque bearing the name of the last inhabitant and the date they left. Evoacative names - Macdonald, Macqueen, Ferguson - names that can be found on our own family tree. Although we don’t know of any direct relation, we felt connected to these folk. We visited each hearth in turn, and wondered about the families who had lived there.
A pilgrimage indeed.
The awe-inspiring sea cliffs are the highest in the British Isles and a haven for seabirds. After our time on Hirta, we took a tour round the sea stacks and the uninhabited island of Boreray.
There were just so many birds - gannets and guillemots nesting on the edges; puffins flying back and forth to their burrows. The sight and sound of the sheer amount of birds was just incredible. Puffins darted around like swarms of flies, gannets sat on their precarious nests, clucking like hens, and the guillemots stood huddled together, balancing on the ledge, looking for all the world like penguins on the Antarctic ice.
We gazed up at the wonder of it all, and the skipper had to remind us to close our mouths…
And the colours! Just stunning. I think that was what struck me the most about Boreray. Those deep, deep greens shot through with red, silver and gold. It felt majestic - sacred even.
Then there was the magnificence of the sea-stacks. Stac Lee, pictured here, rearing precipitously up out of the ocean bed, 50 metres deep at this point. Time and again, words fail me in trying to describe this place.
And finally, reluctantly, we turned for home. I thought about those last St. Kildans, standing at the back of HMS Harebell, as it steamed them towards their new lives on the mainland, sobbing and waving goodbye, as their home faded into the distance for ever.
I felt privileged to have had this day.
( there are more photographs and videos of our day on my instagram story highlights and grid if you care to visit)