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Travel
The islands of Boreray, Stace Lee, and Stac an Armin (left) from the heights of Conachair

St Kilda: a lifelong friend

There is an island archipelago some 55 miles off the west coast of Scotland that spawned Peter Holthusen’s lifelong passion for wildlife and remote island habitats – the spectacular islands of St Kilda
The tortured topography of its islands with their towering cliffs and exceptional sea stacs form one of the most important seabird breeding stations in Europe. In the summer months, the islands belong to the birds

"Isolation was the safeguard which nurtured the St Kildan race and the way of life whose remnants we now stroll among"

Living as I do on the rugged west coast of Ireland we are blessed with an abundance of isolated offshore islands worthy of visiting, including Skellig Michael, with its famous 6th century monastic settlement, the distant islands of the Blasket group, the imposing pinnacle of the Tearaght and the breathtaking Aran Islands in Galway Bay, yet there is an island archipelago some 55 miles off the west coast of Scotland that spawned my lifelong passion for wildlife and remote island habitats – the spectacular islands of St Kilda.

It was my good fortune to first visit the island as a schoolboy in the 1960’s as a volunteer for The National Trust for Scotland while taking part in The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, which is still in operation today and is now the world’s leading youth achievement award.

The imposing pinnacle of Stac Lee is around 4 miles (7 kilometres) north east of Hirta, the main island in the archipelago, whose precipitous cliffs are home to part of the world’s largest colony of the northern gannet

 

For those youthful participants who were privileged to visit St Kilda with me, the memory lasted a lifetime; this remote extremity of Britain holds a long-lived fascination. The rock, the sea and the millions of seabirds combine with the island’s isolation and poignant history to make St Kilda one of Britain’s most intriguing places, and the magnetism it exerts is far out of proportion to its size.

I have since made a point of returning to St Kilda as often as I can, which I did this summer although with the benefit of maturity, a relatively successful career and the skills of celestial navigation, I am now in a position to sail there more or less due north direct from my home port of Portmagee in my trusted 40ft Spey Class motor sailer ‘Tempest’, where in the 1960’s I was compelled to travel to St Kilda on the slow and positively aged ferry from Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, via Uig on the Isle of Skye … a long and often nauseous voyage lasting 6 hours.

The stark grandeur of the towering sea cliffs, the highest in the British Isles at 1,410 ft (430 metres) rising sheer from the ocean, strike awe in the most seasoned traveller. No matter the direction of approach or in what weather, the first contact with St Kilda looming on the horizon is unforgettable!

St Kilda is an isolated archipelago 41 miles (66 kilometres) west-northwest of Benbecula in the vast storm-lashed wastes of the North Atlantic. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides group. These specks of land represent the outermost regions of the British Isles and at times they are virtually inaccessible. Modern navigational aids locate them with ease but the weather can be so atrocious that landing is often impossible. Yet long ago prehistoric man arrived in his flimsy craft, settled and maintained some sort of intermittent communication with the mainland.

There are four main islands – Hirta, the largest island in the group, Soay, Boreray and Dùn; three spectacular and almost inaccessible sea stacs – Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Stac Levenish; as well as a great number of smaller stacs, islets and skerries.

In modern times, St Kilda’s only settlement was at Village Bay on Hirta. Gleann Mòr on the north coast of Hirta and Boreray also contain the remains of earlier habitations. The sea approach to Hirta into the anchorage at Village Bay suggests a small settlement flanked by high rolling hills in a semicircle behind it.

The origin of the name ‘St Kilda’ is a matter of conjecture, but it is widely believed to be a relatively recent corruption of the Old Norse name for the spring on Hirta, ‘Childa’, since the Norse meaning for the term “sweet well water” is ‘sunt kelda’. There was never a person called Saint Kilda and the Norsemen knew the group of islands as ‘Hirtir’.

The scenic grandeur of St Kilda is matched by the outstanding character of the islands as a sanctuary for its wildlife and as a tiny human microcosm with its own curious antiquity, history, social and economic traditions. The sense of history which St Kilda generates is tinged with tragedy. The story of the struggle for survival of the St Kildans and of their ultimate evacuation in 1930 is a sad epic in Scottish history, which has since become symbolic of the wider effects of depopulation in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as a whole.

Nonetheless, this remote island archipelago presents an evergreen, happy challenge to young and old as an “ultima thule” in islands, possessing a magic, colour and gaiety epitomized by the puffin and tempered by a feeling that St Kilda is a place of superlatives – the loneliest, stormiest, most dramatic, possessing the largest number of seabirds in Europe, the most primitive feral sheep and, being the little world apart that it is, its own mice and wrens found nowhere else on earth!

There have been people living on St Kilda since prehistoric times, exploiting the rich resources of the sea, growing crops and keeping animals. It is not clear when the first settlers came to St Kilda, but simple stone tools found on Hirta suggest that Bronze Age travellers may have visited the island from the Western Isles some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

In the 1830s the Rev. Neil Mackenzie found what were reputed to be remains of burial cists in Village Bay. Excavations in 1995 revealed the first direct evidence of an earlier Neolithic settlement, when shards of pottery of the Hebridean ware style were found to the east of the village. The subsequent discovery of a quarry for stone tools on Mullach Sgar above Village Bay led to finds of numerous stone hoe-blades, grinders and Skaill knives in an old cleit (stone storage building), which are probably of Neolithic origin.

The first written record of St Kilda dates from around 1202 when an Icelandic cleric wrote of taking shelter on “the islands that are called Hirtir”. Early reports mentioned finds of brooches, an iron sword and a quantity of Danish coins, and the enduring Norse place names indicate a sustained Viking presence on Hirta, but the visible evidence has been lost to history. The islands were historically part of the domain of the MacLeod’s of Harris, whose steward was responsible for the collection of rents in kind and other duties.

St Kilda has a greater literature than any other small island group of comparable size in Britain. The late Kenneth Williamson and Morton Boyd cited some 230 publications in 1960 alone and since then many more have been added. Perhaps the most noted was Martin Martin’s book ‘A Voyage to St Kilda’ first published in 1697 in which he wrote “… Our crew were extremely fatigued and discouraged without sight of land for sixteen hours; at length … We put in under the hollow of an extraordinary high ‘Rock’, which was all covered with a prodigious number of Solan Geese hatching in their nests.” His account gives a most vivid description of the lives of the islanders and provided the inspiration for many subsequent travellers to the islands.

The spell that they cast is still potent, luring around 3,000 visitors a year: scientists, yachtsmen, archaeologists and those with no particular reason beyond a desire to see the remotest of Britain’s inhabited islands.

The history of St Kilda in the immediate past has been eventful. In 1931 the islands were purchased by Lord Dumfries, the 5th Marquess of Bute, from Sir Reginald MacLeod, the chief of the Scottish Clan MacLeod. For the next 26 years the island experienced quietude, save perhaps for the occasional summer visitor or a returning St Kildan family.

On his death on 14 August 1956, the Marquess of Bute’s will bequeathed the archipelago to The National Trust for Scotland provided they accepted the offer within six months. After much soul-searching, the Executive Committee agreed to do so in January 1957. The slow renovation and conservation of the village began, much of it undertaken by summer volunteer work parties. In addition, scientific research began on the feral Soay sheep population and other aspects of the natural environment. At that time two important events also took place – the Trust leased the entire archipelago to the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and the area was designated a National Nature Reserve, but the NCC sub-let a small area of Hirta to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) who set up a missile tracking station on Mullach Sgar. The main island of Hirta is still occupied year-round by a small number of civilians employed by the British defence technology contractor QinetiQ working in the military base on a monthly rotation.

In 1986 the islands became the first place in Scotland to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its terrestrial natural features. In 2004, the WHS was extended to include a large amount of the surrounding marine features as well as the islands themselves. In 2005 St Kilda became one of only two dozen global locations to be awarded mixed World Heritage Status for both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ significance.

The tortured topography of its islands with their towering cliffs and exceptional sea stacs form one of the most important seabird breeding stations in Europe. In the summer months, the islands belong to the birds: they are key to a sizeable part of St Kilda’s history, and by way of an ironic preamble, partly secure its future. Between them, the island of Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee form one of the largest colonies of northern gannets in the world.

Around 50,000 pairs breed in what must be one of the most spectacular settings: giant rock pinnacles, whitened during the breeding season by the gannets and their guano, and dwarfed beneath the sheer west face of Boreray.

From the first week of April, puffins litter the waters beneath their main colonies on Boreray, Soay and Dùn. They arrive after a winter spent at sea, to start their breeding season. Close to 136,000 pairs, amounting to about 30 percent of the total UK breeding population, bob around offshore in ebbing rafts, waiting to reclaim and excavate the burrows they occupied the previous year.
On St Kilda, the gannet (Sula bassana), Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) and the 49,000 breeding pairs of Leach’s petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) form the nucleus of Britain’s premier seabird breeding station. The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) has long been associated with St Kilda. Until 1878, the largest of our petrels bred nowhere else within the British Isles. Since then, the fulmar has colonized our entire coastline and on St Kilda has recently made advances to expand its range from the cliffs, to ‘inland’ nesting sites in some of the archaeological remains and on the only ‘man-made’ cliff, the Ministry of Defence quarry.

Around 67,000 fulmars now breed on St Kilda, but it’s not just the numbers that carve the birds niche in St Kilda folklore. To the islanders the fulmar meant food; it also meant light and heat gained from the oil found within its crop. Fulmar feathers, by the sackful, were the currency by which the rent was paid to the Laird. While admiring the spectacular cliffs of Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee where the main gannet colonies are located, early visitors to St Kilda must have looked in wonder at the skill of the native fowlers who leapt from their heaving open boats to the slippery ledges at the bases of the cliffs and faced the constant hazards of scaling and descending the great crags, hunting the gannet or ‘Solan Goose’, as it was often known to the St Kildans, aided only by ropes of plaited horsehair or even straw.

The physiology of the St Kildans was evolved through centuries of rock-climbing. The islanders were short, stocky, very muscular and agile. The bone structure of their ankles was most suited to climbing; their toes had a wide set and were almost prehensile. By a process of natural selection, the community was by and large very strong and healthy. Those who perished on the island’s cliffs were fated, or were otherwise the victims of genuine accidents.

All climbing was done barefoot, or in coarse socks. It was more a matter of lowering on good ropes than in ascending from below. Generally a fowling party moved together rather than singly over the hunting rocks. In more difficult places one man moved at a time, the slack in the rope being taken up by the others. The man on the rope gave his full attention to the serious business of either snaring the birds with a long-noosed fowling rod, or reaching for palatable eggs of birds such as those of the common guillemot (Uria aalge). I have actually eaten the egg of a guillemot, which are still harvested today from the Látrabjarg cliffs in Iceland, and sold in many of Reykjavik’s flea markets, and to be honest, they have an acquired taste, to say the very least!

The puffins were mostly caught by the women and children on the island, the breeding colonies being in the more accessible horizontal cliff-tops rather than the faces. Puffin-snaring began with a curious rite. A bird was caught and removed of all its feathers except those on the wings and tail. It was then set free when it would be attacked by the other puffins.

The St Kilda wren (Troglodytes hirtensis) is a bird unique to the islands, a geographically isolated sub-species of our mainland wren. This bird was first mentioned by Martin Martin in 1697 and then by the Rev Kenneth MacAulay in 1764. It is larger and greyer in appearance and has adapted to be able to withstand the tempestuous rigours of the North Atlantic winters.

Not so fortunate was the now extinct great auk or ‘garefowl’ (Pinguinus impennis). This bird was large and unable to fly; it laid a single often heavily blotched egg on the bare rock of a low-lying ledge. Its meaty flesh was apparently delicious, its oil was widely used for lamps, and the feathers were a useful source of cash, which made it particularly vulnerable to predation. The last great auk seen in Britain was killed on Stac an Armin in July 1840, its captors being unaware of its identity.

Numerous factors led to the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930. The island’s inhabitants had existed for centuries in relative isolation until tourism and the presence of the Ministry of Defence induced them to seek alternatives to privations they routinely suffered. The changes made to the island by visitors in the 19th century disconnected the St Kildans from the way of life that had allowed their forebears to survive in this unique environment. Despite the construction of a small jetty in 1902, the islands remained at the mercy of the North Atlantic.

After World War I most of the young men left the island, and the population fell from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928. Following the death of four men from influenza in 1926 there was a succession of crop failures in the 1920s. Investigations by Aberdeen University into the soil where crops had been grown have shown that they had been contaminated by lead and other pollutants, caused by the use of seabird carcasses and peat ash in the manure used on the village fields. This occurred over a lengthy period of time as manuring practices became more intensive and may have been a factor in the evacuation.

The last straw came with the death of a young woman, Mary Gillies. She fell ill with appendicitis in January 1930, and was taken to the mainland for treatment. She later died in hospital. For many years it was assumed Mary had died from appendicitis, but her son Norman John Gillies discovered in 1991 that she had in fact died of pneumonia, having given birth to a daughter who also died.

On 29 August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were removed to Morvern on the west coast of Scotland at their own request.

The morning of the evacuation promised to be a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs of Oiseval. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7.00am boarded the ‘Harebell’. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the long silhouette of Dùn fell back onto the horizon and the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the last of the St Kildans gave way to tears.

Isolation was the safeguard which nurtured the St Kildan race and the way of life whose remnants we now stroll among, and about which we still know so little. Hearts would long for this ocean citadel for its beckoning familiarity, not for the challenge of their angrily jealous isolation.

St Kilda was not remote to them, but everywhere else was. It is a simplistic truth, perhaps, and one which is quite out with the compass of our own understanding, for although St Kilda is inhabited today by a few soldiers, technicians and scientists, by no definition of the term can it be considered lived in.

It is a recurrent theme in any consideration of today’s St Kilda … the island that I have known as a lifelong friend and whose towering cliffs, storm force winds, eerie mists and waves the size of dunes have always compelled me to return.

 

- Peter Holthusen

 

Visit St Kilda – The National Trust for Scotland or The St Kilda Club for more information

 

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