The Extreme Isolation of St Kilda

‘St Kilda in sight!’ Kees calls out, his head around the cabin door. His glowing face makes me jump up and grab my shoes, ignoring my nausea. Despite a calm sea I feel rather queasy. Last night, the skipper told us the ocean was as smooth as it could be. This was terrific news. St Kilda is only accessible by the weather’s grace, and many travellers have been disappointed by their inability to get there.

Even at force zero, however, the gentle North Atlantic swell can upset your vestibular system. ‘Next time, sleep with your shoes on,’ suggests a seasoned fellow traveller. Promising my body seasickness pills for the return trip, I conquer the metal stairs up to the deck. Here I join the twelve other participants in this working expedition of the NTS, the National Trust for Scotland. Volunteering with the NTS is the only way to spend a few weeks on Europe’s westernmost archipelago of St Kilda, which has been uninhabited since 1930. You won’t even find the remote islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray on most maps. Nearly 165 kilometres off the Scottish coast, cartographers either fail to fit St Kilda’s islands on the page or simply consider it too irrelevant to include.

In the early morning light, the grassy island vegetation turns itself into blue-green velvet, reflecting patches of blue sky. Clouds attempt to caress the largest island of the four, Hirta, tracing its contours. Creating moving shadows, they’re adding yet more hues to countless shades of green. There are no trees.

Slowly we sail into the horseshoe-shaped bay. Puffins bob alongside our boat, their brightly coloured beaks up in the air. Matching orange-red flippers appear as they fly away, belatedly startled.

During the summer months, an estimated 55 thousand pairs of fifteen different species of seabirds nest on the island’s cliffs and on the countless cliffs and rocks that protrude from the ocean: puffins, fulmars, gannets (the largest colony in the world), guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. It means nearly half a million birds are flitting around St Kilda by the end of each summer.

St Kilda’s importance as a nesting site prompted UNESCO to place it on the World Heritage List in 1986. Moreover, it lies on the migration routes of more than twenty species of whales and dolphins. The only blemish is the military radar station, which tracks test missiles fired by the British military from the nearby Hebrides. A contracting company runs the radar with thirteen employees on permanent shifts. The NTS, owner of the islands since 1957, points out that without them, there would be no electricity and no communication with the mainland, so probably also no working vacations such as I am on here.

The elements have played with the archipelago’s volcanic rock since lava solidified here sixty million years ago. Particularly the sea and the wind, but the sun and precipitation are passionate sculptors too, always eager to reuse their materials and create new shapes. Where granite and the darker, coarse-grained gabbro crumble, solid rocks turn into caves, tunnels and natural buttresses. Eventually, they disappear or are separated from their parent rock, like the sixty-foot-high Levenish, which was once attached to St Kilda. Now, this cubical rock lies four kilometres off the coast of Hirta’s former village bay. It is a relatively safe anchorage, with the island of Dun acting as a natural breakwater.

We disembark in a rubber dinghy. Backpacks and food are brought ashore and a short climb takes us to ‘The Street’, where at number 2, the women divide the beds between themselves. The seven male group members spend the night at number 4, which, like all the restored cottages, is a peasant farmer’s former home. Number 3 is furnished as a museum for groups of cruise ship tourists who — weather permitting — occasionally may set foot ashore for a few hours. At number 1 is the kitchen, with a large dining table, a fireplace and a small bedroom for the group leader.

We imagine how an entire family had to stay inside one of these tiny cottages during inclement winter weather, where winds could be so strong that their sheep sometimes literally blew off the cliffs. Luckily by then, seabirds and seabird eggs (for consumption and export) were already stored in cleits. These dolmen-like structures kept supplies dry and shelf-stable. The whole island is littered with them, including seemingly inaccessible cliffs. Men and boys used them to temporarily store their harvest during breakneck maneuvers to pick away birds and eggs from precipices.

Cleits restoration is an essential part of the working expeditions. The architecture of loose bricks did not originally require any adhesive, and so it shall remain. Rebuilding is a job requiring patience that begins with collecting the rolled-away blocks, boulders and pebbles, before this three-dimensional puzzle can be solved. The better the fit, the longer the structure can withstand the unforgiving climate.

A destination popular with the expedition members is The Gap, twenty minutes steeply uphill from the village. It’s where Hirta abruptly ends and people intuitively lie down on their stomachs to look over the cliff edge. Far below, waves splash against the rock walls; in the distance is the island of Boreray, with its freestanding rock formation known as Stack Lee and Stack Armin. Here the ocean is not ocean but landscape. Clouds, patches of fog and fans of rain give a chameleonic quality to the seawater.

A quarter of an hour’s climb northwest from The Gap lies the highest point, the summit of the Conachair, at 426 meters. Its rugged north face is the highest cliff in Britain. A disused path, where a Belgian journalist fell to his death in 1999, winds across it, now only used by wild Soay sheep. These native animals are dark, goat-like beasts. Right now, in May, they look like escapees from the hands of a shearer who hadn’t quite finished. But since the last islanders were evacuated from the island, the animals have not been shorn. Their winter wool now sheds by itself.

That tourists and their germs had an unintended hand in the last islanders’ final departure seventy years ago is a popular myth. Epidemics had indeed thinned the population with regularity, but there were always new arrivals from nearby islands such as Skye and Harris. The leading cause of depopulation was in fact the arrival of Puritan preachers from 1822 onwards. The population began assembling in church for hours each day and were not allowed to work on Sundays, despite the need to use every minute of daylight to stock up on food. Traditional poetry, music and dance, critical counterweights to the hard island life, became taboo. When the popularity of exports from St Kilda also declined, young people, in particular, took advantage of improved sea transport to cross over to a life with prospects; in 1852, 36 islanders emigrated to Australia. St Kilda did not recover from that demographic blow. Tourism caused a temporary economic revival until the novelty of St Kilda as a destination wore off.

On the first day, over a cup of tea and a glass of whiskey, our cook Mary, who knows other Scottish islands well, confesses she feels claustrophobic on this archipelago. ‘The isolation is so extreme that I find it unpleasantly oppressive. Yet I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.’ I can’t tell whether she is a little mournful as we finally sail out of Village Bay, two weeks later. Everyone has damp cheeks from the rain.

‘There’s a heavy storm coming,’ says the skipper. ‘Gale to strong gale’.

It sounds like a warning. I go to bed with my shoes on.

Published in the Travel section of Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant, 7 October 2000. Translated by me. (The Dutch original is still available in their online archives Dutch archives here: https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/het-extreme-isolement-van-st-kilda~bf6affea/. It was published under my Dutch pen name ‘Marja Kooreman’)

© Sitara Morgenster

I specialise in not knowing, I find out by writing. * Off-grid in New Zealand native forest. * You can support what I do at https://ko-fi.com/sitaramorgenster

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