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St Kilda

You can easily miss St Kilda. To find it, locate Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and then head out fifty miles into the Atlantic where it sits as the last speck of Europe before it bleeds into the vastness of the ocean - an ocean wracked by storms and rarely still even on a fine day. On this lonely pinpoint humans have lived for millennia - until 1930 when the last of its inhabitants closed their doors and left: they didn’t lock them as a small community of around two hundred had no need of keys. The acknowledged elder, Neil Ferguson, had a job offer from the forestry commission. He had never seen a tree.





The life they left was one of hardship and isolation, and until the advent of steamships they received few visitors - and none during the winter. Such was the power of the winter storms that one ripped the roofs off three houses and left the population deaf for a week. Many of their sheep had been blown off the cliffs that are the third highest in Europe. They were never fishermen as the main bay is an exposed anchorage and they had another rich source of protein, the hundreds of thousands of seabirds that come to breed on the vertiginous cliffs - fulmars, gannets, puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes. During the winter they are at sea, pelagic birds that feed and live on the rich waters of the mid-Atlantic ridge, only coming to land to mate and breed. The puffin, famous for its clown-like beak (a collective of puffins is a circus), only develops its colour for the mating season: back at sea they revert to dull gray. Every ledge on the cliffs contains breeding birds and the men of the island would lower themselves on home made ropes of cow hide to grab gannets and puffins but particularly the fledgling fulmars who were valuable for their meat, feathers and oil. 






The feather down was the island’s export crop, used for pillows and also woven into blankets for the army where their anti-louse properties were greatly valued: the British army had an enviable reputation in that department. The carcasses were stored in the cleits - loose stone storehouses that still cover most of the island. There are 1235 of them and they dried both the seabirds for  winter food as well as the turf that provided their fuel. The oil was used for lighting - but skill was needed in wringing the bird’s neck before it spewed the oil over its attacker; the smell was disgusting and  inevitably everyone carried that perfume around with them. The sheep were, and are, Soay - small brown and black animals well adjusted to their harsh environment. 





From their wool was woven an island tweed. The only shoes worn (in winter) were made of gannet stomachs. There were lazy beds for oats but the climate was harsh and the thin soil barely fertile.





The population become Columban Christians before the first millennium but it was a Christianity that had plenty of Druidic roots and practices. There was a Gaelic tradition of song and poetry that withered with the advent of the Wee Free Presbyterian church in the mid nineteenth century. To the cross of already hard lives was added the nails of prospective damnation and sabbatarian gloom. It was this and the influx of tourists in the nineteenth century that changed island life, taking away its few joys and adding an unsettling awareness of another world over the horizon. Such a life appears unbearably harsh to us - but it would have been no worse than anywhere else in the Highlands and Islands where most lived on the edge of starvation. In 1793 the island was almost entirely wiped out by smallpox. It’s source was reckoned to be a St Kildan who died of the disease on Harris and when his clothes where collected and returned a year later, it is believed that they carried the deadly bacillus with them. With no one to pick them up, a party of men on a bird hunting expedition were marooned on nearby Soay and it was six months before they were rescued. The island was subsequently repopulated by people for whom such a hard and isolated world was better than their other prospects. Many emigrated - but the conditions on the ships going to the Americas or Australia killed off the majority before they got there. If all this was not enough, the island was renowned for its child mortality; only a fifth of babies survived, most killed by tetanus introduced on the knife, lubricated with fulmar oil stored in a gannet stomach, that cut the umbilical cord.






The archipelago - it is an ancient volcanic caldera - is over the horizon when you leave Harris for the three hour boat ride that is not for the faint of stomach. The main, and only inhabited, island is Hirta and the village settlement overlooks the anchorage. The modern arrival is, to say the least, a disappointment; a collection of portacabins and a generator building that has all the grace and subtlety of the South Bank complex. The bleep of reversing JCBs was louder than the sound of seabirds and cloud lay low over the mountain. The construction is part of a missile tracking system. It was cold and it was raining - and we were camping. It was not a promising start.






Alongside the weather, the next day improved, and we walked up a steep hill amongst the cleits that cover the island that is shaped like a wedge. 






The slope suddenly gave way to a drop that had us crawling to the edge of the cliff on our stomachs. The thought of lowering yourself down on a home-made rope - no fancy abseiling with carabiners here - almost made me sick with fear even thinking about it.






Some of the cleits are placed almost over the cliffs - which makes sense as the drying wind is strong there - and why haul your bounty of seabirds further than you have to?






From the top of the cliffs it was entrancing to watch the fulmars playing in the updraft - and playing is the right word as their flying seems to have no purpose other than pleasure. They are flyers of wondrous skill, using their feet as well as their tails to perform manoeuvres that seem to defy aerodynamics. One particular masterpiece was the ability to perform a 180 degree turn without banking - imagine a Boeing 747 being able to fly stationary and change direction by swapping the position of the tail and the nose. One skua - without a wingbeat, started about 300 ft below us and was almost out of sight within twenty seconds. Skuas are also fiercely protective of their nests and will attack your head with diving attacks that take some nerve to ignore.






The surrounding islands and stacs (rocks rather than islands) were never inhabited except for brief periods in the summer. On Armin, a stac, they would camp in a cave on the cliff face for weeks.






On Bororay, an island with the steepest of grazing pasture, flocks of black faced sheep still live an entirely feral existence.






St Kilda remains a place of ghosts and ruins. It is the edge of the world and as such exerts a peculiar fascination. Even on a beautiful sunny day it is a place where human existence would have always been a challenge. It is also a place of where you leave admiring those that made a go of it - but also counting your blessings that it is not you that has to live the hard life that the environment imposed. It is also one of the greatest concentration of seabirds in Europe and it is their wheeling, plunging and soaring babel against the background of some of the tallest cliffs in Europe that will stick in the memory.








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