St Kilda – the UK’s most remote group of Islands - lie 40 miles off the Outer Hebrides. I love the remote and the bleak so ever since I’d heard about them 20 years ago I wanted to go. I’d heard that the people who had lived on the Islands for 4000 years left in 1930. They had survived by harvesting the birds that swarmed the sea cliffs. They had developed superb climbing skills and the men’s toes had specially adapted for the job. Through the ages the tragedies that struck them were on a human scale.
They were almost an image for the happy uncivilised community living in harmony with nature destroyed by “civilisation” and it’s trappings. But not in some far flung corner of Africa – this was and is Scotland. So I wanted to go. To see the place where this had happened. To venture into the remoteness of the Antlantic.
I considered hiring helicopters and boats, idly, but I could never make the cost benefit equation work in my head. A couple of years ago I was surfing the web when I found that you could now do a day trip to St Kilda. I phoned and asked if I could go maybe next week or the week after. I wasn’t fussy. No they said – we are fully booked this year. This year! Try next year.
So in April 2008 I emailed and asked for availability. The email came back on the 22nd of April “Now regarding your dates the planned trips are fully booked until the 3/4th September where there is spaces for you for that week. Let me know if you would like to go ahead with this option regards Angus”.
I hurried to confirm that YES I wanted it and sent off my £60 deposit
Then I had to get there. There - being the Isle of Harris. Having played with all the options I booked a flight to Glasgow and then another to Stornaway and then I booked a hire car. All that remained was a hotel and I looked at Trip Advisor and the map. Harris isn’t overburdened with Hotels and the hotel had to be near to Leverburgh so I could drive to the pier where the boat sailed.
Eventually weighing up everything I took the plunge and phoned the Isle of Harris hotel and “yes” they had one room (but only one) on the dates I wanted. They confirmed that it had private facilities which I heard as their quaint way of saying "en suite". Wrong! So that was it I sat back and got on with my life for 5 months until September the 2nd dawned wet and raining, which every day seemed to be any way.
I drove to Birmingham international, caught the delayed Flybe plane. (I know I hate the bloody airline but they are the only way of flying to Glasgow) and landed in Glasgow having “enjoyed” some turbulence. One of the many bad things about Flybe is that because they fly Dash 8 planes with props they get turbulence that jets avoid.
At Glasgow we got our bags and caught the Loganair plane to Stornaway. A man appeared at Stornaway on time and gave me the keys to the little Ford Focus and off we drove down the 30 or 40 miles to Tarbert and the Isle of Harris Hotel.
The scenery was stunning and we stopped a few times to enjoy it. We came across a convenience store on the road and I stopped to buy some provisions. I picked up a 6 pack of beer and 2 bottles dropped and smashed on the tiled floor cascading beer over my trousers. The shop keeper wouldn’t take any money for them. We got chatting and it turned out he had lived just down the road from my house in the English Midlands. The views were stunning I envied him his situation. He said that they meant nothing to him and could just as well have been concrete.
We pulled out and drove down the near deserted road to Tarbert and the Isle of Harris hotel. I pulled in and the hotel didn’t look like it had on the web. It looked old and tired. We went in and asked for our room. Room 11 they said and handed over 2 keys. The one is for the room and the second for the facilities. The room was big and worn out. The furniture was circa 1940’s car boot genre. The carpet matched the décor and the sink was from a previous era.
The toilet (cracked) and bath (no shower) was of the same vintage but in a little room on the other side of the main corridor leading to the other bedrooms. They had thoughtfully provided robes for us to cross the corridor at night whilst we fought with the key in the lock to open the door. I’d travelled 500 miles on 2 planes and 2 cars to come to this.
There were no other rooms available. So we got in the car and drove south. I’d phone some other accommodation I thought pulling out the mobile phone. No signal. We saw a sign for a guest house and drove the ½ mile down the track and went in. Yes they had a room for the night but that night only- but they had a friend “Farky” who might be able to help.
They phoned him for us and yes he could indeed help. He had just the accommodation we needed. So we drove back to the Hotel, told them that the room was unacceptable and checked out. They were almost monosyllabic but in fairness they haven’t charged us. We then drove down to the guest house “Grimisdale”.
Afterwards we heard the tale of a lady who came down for breakfast and was asked to sit at a particular table. She said she preferred another one if that was OK. She was told that it was not OK. The thing escalated until she said that unless she got the table she wanted she was leaving. “The check out is over there, madam” came the reply. So she left. The reviews on the web had been mysteriously good but when we got back we saw a review where the poor guest had been given pain killers by another guest because of the rock hard beds.
The Guest House
After the debacle of the hotel we were greatly relieved that Grimisdale was clean and friendly. Farky was hospitality itself. He asked what time we would like breakfast. I explained that I would have to leave at about 7.30 so it would be too early for him. Nonsense he said he would do breakfast for 7.00am. We then drove out the mile or two to the pier where Angus and his boat the Orca 2 would meet me the next day. Then back to the guest house to sleep.
The next morning I was up bright and early, had the breakfast and drove the short distance to the pier. The Orca 2 was moored alongside. I was the first person on the boat and stowed my bags. Shortly afterwards the remaining 11 passengers arrived and the engines throbbed and the boat took off. It was calm at first but once we were out of the range of Harris the swell started and the boat rode up and down the swell with the giant motors forcing the craft through the swell. Outside the sea was bleak and you could see no land either before or after the boat.
The craft roared on, following the swell, up and down, down and up and on and on. Eventually a speck of land appeared on the horizon and the Captain Angus cut the engines at 10.45. Two and three quarter hours which proved that I didn’t readily suffer from sea sickness.
Thank the lord we had arrived at Home Bay, on the Island of Hirta in the St Kilda group of islands. Hirta I had seen a thousand pictures of this place but they didn’t portray it really. Yes there was the store house, yes there was the cannon pointed out to sea. But immediately in front was a dozen military huts painted military green. Slightly to the left was an industrial structure made out of profiled steel cladding that I know as crinkly tin. This was the military generating station that powers the radars that sit on the tops of the main hills.
We were ferried to the landing jetty on an inflatable launch and welcomed to the Island by the National Trust warden who said he would open the shop for us at 3.00pm. He handed out a leaflet on the island. There was a water shortage so we shouldn’t drink the water from the taps in the public toilets. This was all a bit civilised for me. At least we didn’t have a guide to show us where to go! I wandered off and up to the church and school room. All made up like a set out of Harry Potter.
I then wandered down main street, really a grass path, and into the museum. A very small museum it was and I had to turn the light on but it was still a museum which told again the tragedy of the islands. Some other people wandered in and I left. I walked further up the path and past the National Trust volunteers who were intent on doing whatever they were doing.
I walked on up the hill until I met the tarmac road which runs up to the radar bases. Two land rovers and a van passed me as I struggled up the hill. The weather kept changing from brilliant sunshine to dull cold winds within seconds. So at least that bit was authentic. This was getting to be the trip to the local tourist trap – not the awe inspiring journey to the place of ghosts and gales.
I walked out further up the road until it arrived at the radar post and then broke off the road and walked up the open hillside which was saturated with water. I kept sinking into the bog. As I climbed up away from the radar and there was no one in sight it began to feel a little remote. I climbed on up until I reached the highest point on the island marked with a triangulation stone, of course.
The panorama was awesome. Sun and ocean with the sea stacs rising in the distance. I ate my packed lunch and gazed off into infinity. I knew I had to be back by 3.30 for the boat and it was now 1.30pm. The walk up the hill had been quite steep and I had no idea if I could get back in time. I was hoping to simply walk down the opposite side of the hill to the one I had walked up. There were no paths and the ground was clearly very boggy. So I didn’t know if it could be done as I headed downward.
Buzzed by Birds
I was walking down avoiding the really boggy bits when WHOOSH a large brown bird buzzed me moving really fast. I saw him turn and head in for another attack. I ducked and he missed again. I grabbed the monopod for camera that I had in my bag. and deployed the pole in rapid time. The bird had circled again and was coming in again. I stood ready and with 30 yards to go or so he saw the stick in my hand ready to spoil his day. He called off the attack and went circling away.
I walked on with my stick above my head, making circling motions to deter any new attacks. I walked on and after a bit I felt foolish circling this stick and started to use it as a walking stick. WHOOSH he was back, it felt like a small supersonic jet had just taken a run at me. He came again and I held the stick ready and he broke off again.
I kept the stick circling after that. I guess that I should have appreciated what ever kind of rare bird it was that wanted to attack me but strangely I didn’t. At least it was something else that hadn’t been sanitised.
I walked on until I came to the sea cliffs at the point know as the gap and walked on down to the shore line and the beach where I sat sunning myself until it was time to visit the shop and catch the boat home.
So there it was, Hirta, the island with 4,000 years of history now a civilised place for a day trip. There was even tea and cake back on the boat.
The Sea Stacs
The engines throbbed and the craft powered away from it’s mooring. On we went to the Sea Stacs. They are a group of rocks including Stac an Armin and an island “Boreray” about 3 miles out from Hirta. The twin thousand horse engines slowed to a burble and the Orca 2 lost way.
The craft rolled in the light swell. Above us a huge tower of black rock rises nearly vertical out of the clear Atlantic. It rises higher than the Empire State building. Striated across the black slick rock are white veins which are the ledges on which uncountable birds sit.
They are white dots at the high levels as they arc out and back. Lower down you can see the forms as they launch away from the ledge into thin air, wheel, twist, soar and return. The air is full of white birds circling and weaving, soaring and diving. You may have seen images like this on TV but they cannot convey the scale. Ultra clean air leads to perfect visibility with no trace of distortion and the sense of space is awe inspiring.
The batteries on my camera had evaporated by now and I was reduced to using my iphone but in any case no camera could capture the true inspiration and majesty of the rocks. We went around the Islands and there on Stac an Armin was the famous bothy where in the winter of 1727, 3 men and 8 boys were marooned from October to June. When they eventually returned they found the population of Hirta decimated by smallpox.
The concept of living on that bare rock in the middle of nowhere is beyond imagination. However in many ways they had been the lucky ones – at least they survived. After too short a time the engines roared again and the Orca ploughed into the swell and we left for Harris. We eventually arrived back in the dusk with the memories of the sea stacs haunting.
For the next two days I felt the motion of the boat in my head when I stood or lay still. This is not a trip for you if you get sea sick. However if you do get the true power and awe of nature then it is a must. For me the sea stacs leave the Grand Canyon way behind in terms of sheer spectacle. Book it now before the ice cream parlour gets to Hirta.