Going to the Edge of the World

The Outer Hebrides are the islands that protect western Scotland from the North Atlantic.  Barra, the Uists, Benbecula, Harris and Lewis form an almost continuous line of islands separated by the Minch from mainland Scotland. If you look even further out into the North Atlantic (another 40 miles or so beyond the Outer Hebrides), you will see another isolated little group of islands. This is St Kilda.

These islands were occupied by generations of subsistence crofters until 1930, when the falling population finally left the crofters with no option other than to petition to be relocated to the Scottish mainland.

Kilda Cruises, Hirta
The islands are now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.  A number of companies run boat trips to the islands, at least when the weather co-operates. I choose to travel to St Kilda with Kilda Cruises who aim to run boats from Harris three times a week.  My previous attempt to get to St Kilda several years ago got weathered off, so this time I based myself on Harris for several days to try and ensure that I had as good as chance as possible to get to the islands.

As I might have predicted, the first attempt to get to St Kilda (on this visit) got weathered off, with instructions to be at the pier at Leverburgh at 07:45 the following morning, when the weather was expected to be a bit better.

I’ll gloss over the details of the boat trip out – suffice to say that the trip felt much longer than three hours (and I always used to say I was a good sailor).  Once ashore I and my fellow day trippers got to spend about 5 hours wandering pretty much anywhere we wanted on the island of Hirta, the main island in the group.  The most recognisable images of St Kilda are either of Village Bay (on south-east side of Hirta) or of The Street, a string of 19th Century cottages. Many of the cottages have fallen victim to years of weather but six have been restored by the NTS to provide accommodation for researchers and volunteers visiting the islands and to house a museum telling the story of St Kilda.  The other feature of 21st Century St Kilda is the little military base at the northern end of Village Bay. This provides a home for staff supporting the various radar installations on the island.  On my first day on Hirta I opted to spend time around the Street (trying to take pictures without Goretex-clad visitors) and then climbed up to The Gap on the eastern edge of the island to see Boreray and its sea stacks about four miles away.

Village Bay and The Street, Hirta

Village Bay, Hirta

Once we’d been summoned back to the boat, we went out for a closer look at the sea stacks, and the vast gannet colonies on them before heading back towards Harris.

In an ideal world I’d have had a chance to work through the first batch of photographs before a return trip to take more, but North Atlantic weather doesn't often offer ‘ideal’ conditions. So, at 07:45 the next morning I presented myself at the pier again for another St Kilda fix. "I can't remember anyone going twice in a week" was my welcome.

The seas were a bit different for the second day, and I travelled on Kilda Cruises single-hull boat rather than the catamaran I’d used for the first trip.  The second trip was a little bit quicker, felt much like a high-adrenalin fairground ride that the first one had and I was a much happier sailor.  My main target on day two was to climb to the various radar installations on the island and to have a look at the islands of Soay and Dun.

The Street, Hirta, St Kilda
The Street, Hirta, St Kilda
The St Kilda story grabbed my imagination many years ago, and I'm really pleased to have finally been able to see the island myself.  As I was bumping back cross the water at the end of the second day, I was reflecting on the difference that decent communications might have made to the islanders.

In the 1920s postal services were unreliable at best, supply boats regularly didn't get through and any medical services were a complete lottery.  After 25 years of being abandoned, the UK’s need for a missile testing range during the Cold War lead to St Kilda being re-established as a military base in the mid-1950s, from that point on supply boats have been regular enough to support 10-12 service people during the winter, and upwards of 30 during the summer months, and there is even a regular helicopter service between St Kilda and Benbecula. It's not easy to see how the St Kildans would have been supported through the Second World War, but it does seem sad that the long term heritage of the island has been lost. It was particularly touching to walk round the little graveyard on the island and to see from the recent headstones that at least some of the evacuated St Kildans do eventually get to make it back to the island.

The Edge of the World label is from the 1937 Michael Powell film that tells the story of the evacuation of St Kilda - it's worth tracking down.

No comments: