A traveler explores a remote Scottish island known for its beauty and sense of isolation.
The mist-covered silence of the Atlantic was interrupted by a shout from the stern of the boat:
A jagged edge, like a torn edge of paper, traveled from the mist and dropped into the sea off the port bow. It didn’t seem real: a cliff edge that seemed to float in mid air. Dark, igneous rock, formed by a volcano 55 million years ago, broke the sea line. Then, it disappeared into nothingness.
Foam frothed at the rocks’ base. The gray of the cliff edge rose steeply and was part covered with the green of grass and moss. Loose stones seemed to teeter impossibly on the bottom of the slopes. The pure white forms of sea birds dropped from vast cliff tops somewhere up in the gloom and then melted away into the mass of low cloud.
It was the first land we had seen for twelve hours.
Everything was silent. The ketch idled while waves lapped at the bow. There was a gentle creaking of the timbers underfoot. The masts seesawed from side to side like a slow metronome. My eyes looked to the rocks, straining for any clues as to what these islands held in store.
This was my first sight of Hirta, the largest and only ever inhabited island of the St Kilda archipelago. St Kilda lies 40 miles or 64 km from the next nearest land of the UK, North Uist. 40 miles on land doesn’t sound or seem like much. Yet 40 miles of the Atlantic Ocean between two places can make somewhere feel worlds away.
This small group of islands is the only dual UNESCO world heritage site in the UK. This reflects its significance both for its history and its wildlife. For more than two thousand, years a community survived on this outpost, the most remote community in the UK. The population was never more than two hundred people, and when the final inhabitants were evacuated in 1930, the community numbered just 36.
St Kilda is also home to the second largest colony of gannets in the world and has the largest population of Atlantic puffins in the UK. It also has two species of animal that are unique, the St Kilda wren and door mouse.
I have arrived as part of a voyage aboard a tall ship along with eleven other guests and a crew of six. It is a ten day trip from Oban around the Outer Hebrides, with St Kilda being the main goal of the voyage.
My transport and temporary home for this trip is Bessie Ellen. Built in Plymouth in 1904, she is a hundred and twenty feet long with two masts and a total of eight sails. She is painted black with bright green lines at the water line and along her gunwales. Her wood is newly varnished; the bronze of the fittings are polished to perfection. For her age she is immaculate.
The following day, the cloud has lifted and it is a bright, warm summer’s day. The sky is a uniform blue to the horizon.
From the sea, Village Bay is a horseshoe with two peaks at the end of each peninsula and a ridge forming the bottom of the U. I know behind the horseshoe is the rest of the island. It is less than 7 square kilometers and stretches roughly northwest, after which there is the smaller island of Soay.
The slopes of the ridge slope down to the U of the bay, and as the land flattens it becomes The Street, a line of sixteen cottages built in the 1830s where the last inhabitants of St Kilda resided until their evacuation on August 29, 1930.
The final residents here opted to leave after years of hardship exacerbated by the failure of their crops, increased illness, and the outbreak of World War I.
On arriving at the Village Bay jetty, we are greeted by Sue Loughran, the National Trust for Scotland ranger. She spends six months a year here either alone or with only one other. Various other people, some working for the MOD and others conducting scientific research, also live here temporarily.
She is emphatic about St Kilda’s appeal. “It’s an iconic, wild, and beautiful place.”
Sue hints that its remoteness is part of St Kilda’s magic. “Many tourists say this is on their bucket list because they’ve heard or read about it. I meet people for whom it is their eighth attempt, or they have been trying for years to get here.” Conditions in this part of the Atlantic can be notoriously harsh, and the only way to get here is by boat, mostly day trip boats that leave from Skye or Harris.
Sue tells me that many descendants of the original habitants like to visit. “Often, they make up our work parties.”
There is an obvious sense of the wildness of a place which is no longer uninhabited. The local Soay sheep wander here, and they’re oblivious to our party. Skuas are also nesting here and aren’t shy. Sue warns us, “If a skua flies towards your face, just put your hand up and at the last second it’ll fly over the top of your head.”
I start to explore. The street is a line of one-story, two-bedroom cottages that stretch in a line parallel to the bay but up the hillside. Outside each one is a piece of slate commemorating the names of the families who lived here, including the last person who lived here until the evacuation.
At the back of the street, a network of dry stone walls still marks the fields where the inhabitants farmed their crops.
Dotted all over the hillside are the dry stone cleits, neat piles of stones that look like ancient burial chambers where the St Kildans stored the fulmars, the sea birds that ensured their survival for so long. From the boat out to sea, there are so many cleits they look like polka dots on green cloth.
I climb up to the middle of the saddle at the back of the island behind the village. When I reach the top, I’m stopped in my tracks. The land falls away hundreds of meters to the sea. Conachair is the main peak on Hirta, its side creating the left upper curve of the U I’ve been walking towards. Yet, the entire north face is a sea cliff that drops vertically into the sea. At 427 meters it is the highest sea cliff in the UK.
I love that “air” at the end of the name. That is what I am most aware of here: elevation, space, air. As I edge to the side, my legs and feet quiver.
Fulmars perch calmly in clefts in the cliffs or swoop and wheel away from it out over the ocean. Often, their intense black eyes fix unblinkingly on me. This is where the men and boys of Hirta would harvest these birds every year, lowering themselves down on ropes.
When I look out, there is flat blue sea in all directions. Vague outlines of the Outer Hebrides are just smoky blue apparitions on the horizon to the south east. The island of Boreray and its neighboring sea stack, Stac an Armin, sit four miles east. Stac an Armin is the rocky outcrop famous for being home to thousands of gannets.
There is only a tiny sheep track to the summit of Conachair. There are two bedraggled sheep at the top and a cairn. The sea stretches for miles in every direction. If a fulmar were to fly due west from here, it wouldn’t make landfall until it met Newfoundland. There is a sense of being on top of and on the edge of the world. A sense of excitement, fear, and wonder rolled into one.
I feel a sense of the sublime in the traditional sense. Edmund Burke described it as, “The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature,” which he defined as “astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”
As if to emphasize this sense, the brown form of a skua rises out of the moor and clears my head by a couple of meters. Here, as the locals must have once felt, humans aren’t so obviously at the top of the pecking order.
The next day the world has changed again. The sky is gray, the air is cool. It’s like yesterday never happened. The motor of the Bessie Ellen has started up again. We leave as suddenly as we arrived. Village Bay, The Street, and Conachair recede into the gray just as they must have done to the final evacuees leaving in 1930. I think of Sue almost alone with the island, the wildlife, and the hundreds of miles of ocean for company, wondering if there is anywhere that has the same emotional impact as this strange, remote outcrop.