St Kilda – Islands on the Edge
St Kilda is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s gems. This tiny archipelago, some 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, takes the full force of the wild North Atlantic weather and and is truly an isolated and unique place. But it is renowned for not only its natural significance but also its cultural significance, one of only 24 places on the planet to be awarded dual World Heritage Status.
The story of St Kilda’s past is now well known although while day trips and cruises there are becoming more popular, comparatively few people have visited. It’s definitely high on many people’s bucket lists and a fascinating place. If this is a place you’d like to visit then hopefully I can both inspire you and offer some useful hints and tips from my visit there in 2009.
St Kilda – The Place
St Kilda is not a single island but an archipelago of three tiny islands (Hirta, Boreray, Soay and various sea stacks) some 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland. It is truly a place of superlatives:
- it boasts the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles (at almost 1,400 ft);
- it’s home to some unique species of wildlife including the St Kilda wren and the St Kilda field mouse, both larger varieties of mainland sub-species;
- St Kilda has the world’s largest colony of gannets and the largest colony of fulmars in Britain; and
- Stac an Armin, at 627 ft or 191m, is the highest sea stack in the British Isles.
To arrive at St Kilda by boat is to be faced with prominent, impressive cliffs and sea stacks towering up from the sea. Even using the modern ‘fast’ boats, a trip to the islands takes just under three hours – it took 16 hours of rowing in longboats prior to the arrival of steamships in the 19th century – and so the first glimpse of St Kilda is met with some relief.
Hirta, the main island and home to the former St Kildan’s settlement in Village Bay, is just one and a half miles wide and long. It has five peaks over 900 feet high, giving fantastic views over to the other islands (on a clear day !). Dun is a narrow, rocky promontory across from Village Bay and separated by a narrow sea channel only fifty yards wide. The rocky cliffs of Soay and Boreray (some four miles north of Hirta) rise abruptly from the sea while the several impressive sea stacks are home to thousands of raucous seabirds.
St Kilda – The People
Of course, the main reason why many people know about St Kilda is the incredible story of the community who lived there for hundreds of years before finally being asked to be evacuated in 1930 owing to failing harvests and lack of medical care. The St Kildans were an extremely close-knit community of crofters who, cut off from the mainland for most of their history, had a distinct way of life. They were entirely self-sufficient, living largely on a diet of seabirds and even eating puffins for a snack in the same way we have a bag of crisps !
St Kildan boys were taught to climb the cliffs from an early age for nine months of every year they killed puffins, gannets and fulmars as their staple diet. St Kildan’s grew up to be short, stocky, agile men who were natural climbers, with thicker ankles and wider spread toes than mainland Scots. They would launch their boats on hunting forays to Stac Lee and Stac an Armin to access bird colonies elsewhere in the archipelago. A visitor in 1697 estimated that the 180 islanders consumed 16,000 eggs and 22,600 sea birds each week !
They farmed on the lower lying land beside their settlement in Village Bay and stored grain, birds and eggs in stone-build stores (or ‘cleits’). Around 1,400 cleits exist to this day, scattered across Hirta. While St Kilda certainly experiences wild North Atlantic storms with up to forty foot waves that crash into the rocks, it is also a relatively mild climate which benefits from the Gulf Stream, and which supported agriculture.
In such an isolated spot, the St Kildans were often blissfully unaware of key events in history elsewhere in the world. It is said that having missed news of General Howe’s crushing of the army of George Washington in 1799 and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, their first question of a visitor in 1831 was “Is there any war ?”. In 1838, the minister realised that he had been leading congregational prayers for “His Majesty” for almost a year after Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne.
Gradually over the years the islanders received visitors from the mainland in the form of ministers, school masters and tourists, and they themselves ventured overseas. They become more aware of a different way of life, one which was less of a daily struggle than their own. After several crop failures which threatened starvation, combined with a high infant mortality rate, the St Kildans first asked to leave their homes in 1875 and a plan was hatched to evacuate them to Canada. However, it was not until some of the younger islanders drifted off to the mainland in search of a better life in the early 20th century, together with the disasterous harvest of 1929, that the final evacuation plan was drawn up. By that time only 36 St Kildans were left.
The St Kildans were moved to Morvern, a remote area on the Scottish mainland which had suffered badly from the Highland Clearances. But rather than living in a single village they were spread out on dispersed crofts. Living on the mainland was even more alien given that they were now given employment and had to learn to work for someone else to earn money rather than provide for the immediate necessities of food, warmth and shelter. Money hadn’t existed on St Kilda, only bartering, and so the discipline of earning a living was strange to them.
Today, St Kilda is owned by the National Trust and is designated a National Nature Reserve (as well as a dual World Heritage Site), managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. In 1957 a Ministry of Defence radar tracking station was established there which exists to this day. There are around 20 permanent residents employed by the MoD and SNH, and around 2,000 visitors each year.
I visited there with my Mum in 2009 on a day trip with Kilda Cruises, from Leverburgh in Harris and would highly recommend it. We travelled on ‘Hirta’ but now they also operate the Orca 111, a fast catamaran that also seats 12. It takes just under three hours each way and a day trip allows five hours on shore. Angus and the crew were professional, knowledgeable and took care of their passengers – some more than others since I’m not a natural sailor and was sick both ways, and spent most of the time as white as a sheet and focusing hard on the horizon ! (I should also point out that no one else on the boat was sick and the wind was only Force 3 the day we sailed, so please don’t let that put you off).
You can also now take a day trip to St Kilda from Uig in Skye with Integrity Voyages, run by Derek Gordon. While easier to access from the mainland it’s a longer distance to St Kilda and therefore a day trip allows four hours ashore. They do, however, offer camping trips allowing one night staying on St Kilda at a cost of two single journeys. This is something I wanted to do but somehow couldn’t justify two return journeys and so if you’re keen on staying in one of the remotest spots in the British Isles (second to Rockall) this is the way to do it. Camping is regulated; permission from NTS is needed and you can only stay in the small campsite at Village Bay for a maximum of five nights.
Other boat operators are available, together with charter yachts and cruises for the well-heeled.
Note that sea conditions, and particularly landing conditions in Village Bay, can be tricky. Generally, boats tend to operate in the summer months between May and September and crossings tend to be confirmed only the day before once weather conditions are known.
Exploring St Kilda
Once I regained my land legs we set out for the stone ‘street’ of houses overlooking Village Bay on Hirta. It was fascinating to imagine how life must have been living here in such an isolated community eking a subsistence living. While these particular houses date from the 19th century, and the schoolhouse is more recent, the many cleits date over hundreds of years.
I climbed to Oiseval, the hill overlooking Village Bay to get some fabulous views of the Bay as well as looking northwards to Boreray. Skuas dive-bombed me as I inched closer to the edge of the high cliffs to get a better view. Returning to the Bay we took our time exploring the cliffs to watch the nesting fulmars.
Back on the boat, the trip took us out to Boreray and Stac Lee to see at first hand the dark, towering cliffs ringing with the cacophany of seabird calls. There were literally thousands of birds nesting and circling the cliffs. The sea was noticeably rougher here – there is nowhere to land – and so I only caught glimpses in between focusing yet again on the steady horizon … and was relieved to return to Leverburgh by early evening.
It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I would strongly recommend a visit to St Kilda if you get the chance.
The National Trust for Scotland St Kilda website – History, how to get there, seabirds, quiz and more
Tom Steel ‘The life and death of St Kilda’ (book) – An excellently detailed account of the history of the St Kildans
A fascinating film showing the evacuation of St Kilda in August 1930 from the Scottish Screen Archive
Another film showing a visit by a boat from Glasgow in 1923, also from the Scottish Screen Archive. The arrival at St Kilda takes place at around 7 minutes
The Scottishten project which aims to digitally map St Kilda and other World Heritage Sites worldwide. The video gives a great introduction to St Kilda: