Monday, 14 June 2021

The Day We Got to St Kilda!

Two years ago, I didn't go to St Kilda.

Nil desperandum, we rebooked for May 2020! But we all know what happened next...

The booking was re-arranged to May 2021, but the weather was bad, and our trip cancelled.

Would we ever get to St Kilda? Never mind, our holiday base on Lewis was nice enough.

Compensation: Above Reef, Lewis:

Then came a call out of the blue. Someone had cancelled - could we make the trip on Friday? Could we ever! 07:45 on Friday saw us at Leverburgh pier full of anticipation on a day of promise.

The journey to St Kilda needs preparation. Wet-weather gear for the boat deck, sunscreen in case the sun comes out, food and drink for the day: there's no shops or water stoups on St Kilda, and just one toilet for the public. Our boat was a giant RIB with a cabin, but with views and seasickness in mind, we spent the entire journey on deck. The boat bashes through the waves at 20kt, so it's 'hang on till you see the stacks!'

The unfamiliar western shore of the Long Isle disappeared out of view to the east, and still we hadn't seen St Kilda ahead. Where was it? And then, approaching a fog bank, a dark line of cliffs appeared.

The Enchanted Isles approaches foggy St Kilda:

Sea-mists covered all but the lower 50m of St Kilda, hiding the magnificent sea cliffs from view. I was disappointed, but we approached the cliffs of Boreray and the sensual assault of thousands of gannets screaming and circling overhead, the overpowering smell of their guano, brought back the sense of awe, as did seeing the cliffs rise unnaturally out of the sea into the fog.

Stac an Armin:

As a Marilyn-bagger, I'm interested in the sea-stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin: they are both well over 150m, and so count as Marilyns in their own right. The most challenging Marilyn I've climbed to date is the Inacessible Pinnacle on Skye: but in the mist, these sea stacks made the In Pinn look as accessible as a stroll in Princes St Gardens. 

"There's the landing spot the St Kildans used on their expeditions to gather guga," pointed out our guide Iain Angus.

"Where?" I couldn't see any landing spot, just cliff face.

"There," pointed Iain at a marginally less sheer ledge that would require co-ordination jumping out the boat at the right moment then clinging on.

Feck me!

Leaving Boreray:

Then we motored to Village Bay and took the surreal action of landing on Hirta! I have always wanted to climb Conachir, St Kilda's highest summit. The National Trust for Scotland warden warned us not to leave the bay due to the mist. I had a map and compass and am familiar enough with the inside of clouds on the edge of windy cliff faces. However on such a foggy day there didn't seem much point, especially when there was so much else my wife wanted to see: I would have to return on a clear day. Four hours ashore is nowhere near enough.

Village Bay:

In some ways the most unusual aspect of St Kilda is not the dramatic cliffs and stacs, but the fact that people used to live here. Eating dried gannet every day and only ever seeing your nearest neighbours must have been a particularly tough life. When Victorian tourists in steamboats started to appear to gawp at the St Kildans' Iron Age lifestyle, it was the beginning of the end, hastened by their introduction of money. The last islanders were evacuated at their own request in 1930. Hirta is now home to an MoD base, its road, vehicles, earthworks, and cabins an incongruous note on an island the National Trust literature exhorts us is special and needs to be protected. The Soay sheep, looking half sheep, half deer, are cute though! 

Soay sheep:

Eleven hours after we set off, we were back at Leverburgh. It had been glorious all day back here on the 'mainland'. 

Approaching Harris: 


blueskyscotland said...

Well done. Big tick on any outdoor lovers list. I did see a TV programme once about the evacuation where a lot of the older St Kilda folk that left passed away once on the mainland- either homesick, too old to adapt properly, or catching illnesses they would not have been as exposed to on the island. I've been out on a small RIB in rough seas in open water- similar to riding a very large and angry bull. Not a comfortable experience at all as you spend half the journey in mid air, slamming down hard, freezing cold even in summer as you get washed by waves and spray every few minutes. Very glad to get back on a flat, non moving surface after it.

Robert Craig said...

To be fair to Sea Harris, their RIB is a lot bigger than what you went out on and far more comfortable, no slamming up and down being bounced off your seat! There is a round-Britain RIB race for the smaller boats which sounds like the ultimate endurance challenge - you'd have a ruined lower spine by the end of it.