There’s the middle of nowhere, there’s the back of beyond, and then there is St Kilda. St Kilda is an archipelago located 50 miles off the coast of Outer Hebrides, and has the honour of being both the Western most British Isle as well as the most remote British Isle. It is also one of UNESCO’s 39 dual heritage sites around the World – and the only UK site on the list.
This was to be the destination of our day trip, during our week long holiday on the Isle of Harris, in May 2019.
0745: Early start at the Leverburgh pier. The trip was being run by Sea Harris, a boat-charter company located on the Isle of Harris. We found ourselves climbing on board the Enchanted Isle, a small vessel (a Redbay Stormforce 1650, if case you are a boat buff) carrying just 12 passengers and 2 crew members; purpose built for the Harris to St. Kilda day trips.
After a safety briefing (where the salient points were to wear your life jacket if you go out on deck, and hold on to something when you move about), we set off promptly at 0800.
0930: The Enchanted Isle is small, but packs a punch when it comes to speed. Travelling at 20 knots per hour, it ate up the miles and soon we were at the halfway point. We could still see the Outer Hebrides, but St Kilda appeared in the distance, like a shadow.
Few facts about St Kilda:
- St Kilda consists of 4 islets – Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray. Hirta is the only one with a settlement.
- St Kilda is also home to the highest sea stacks in Britain. A sea stack is a steep column of rock in the sea, formed by wave erosion.
- The islands are also home to the most important seabird breeding station in North-West Europe. The World’s largest colony of gannets nests on Boreray and the surrounding sea stacks.
- There is evidence that the islands were inhabited by humans as long as 5000 years ago. But there are no permanent residents on St Kilda today. The last of the permanent community was evacuated in 1930.
1030: After a 2.5 hour boat ride, we have arrived on Hirta. The water is too shallow for the boat to dock directly, so they ferry us ashore on tenders, six people at a time. The boat leaves again at 1530, so we have 5 hours to explore the island.
1045: On-shore. To welcome us is the resident archaeologist, Craig. He gives us a quick briefing on the lay of the island, what to see, what you can and can’t do (no smoking, don’t drop litter, don’t touch any wildlife, beware of the nesting birds, don’t step on any eggs, and best of all – walk with someone taller than you, so if the birds decide to dive bomb, they’ll go for the tall ones first :).
After the briefing, we set out to explore the village – or rather, its remains. The village was originally laid out in the 1830s. The houses built in the 1830s were typical Hebridean black-houses; single-roomed, with the cattle being accommodated inside them in winter. In the 1860s new houses were built. These were of a standard Hebridean design with an entrance lobby, small closet and two main rooms. The houses were laid out in a crescent, with associated cultivation plots, all within a head dyke.
Across the island, there are also hundreds of “cleits” scattered around the village area. Cleits are dry-stone storage structures unique to St Kilda; they are found across all the islands and sea stacks in the archipelago, and there are around 1,400 in total. They were used to store birds, eggs, feathers, harvested crops, peat and turf used for fuel.
There is also a museum, which is housed in one of the restored houses. This tells the story of St Kilda; its history, flora and fauna, and about the lives of those who used to live here.
In many ways, the lives on those on St Kilda was similar to those elsewhere on the Outer Hebrides. They were Christian, spoke Gaelic, kept sheep and cows, grew cereals and vegetables, and fished. They also hunted wild birds and their eggs.
But the unique location of the archipelago brought problems. They were exposed to harsh weather and contact with the outside world was limited. They had to rely on boats from outside world for supplies. There was no hospital on the island, and it could take up to two days to get someone to a mainland hospital, even in an emergency. Life on the islands was not easy. There was no electricity or running water. The people had to hunt or farm all day, and then at night, by oil lamp, they would have to pluck the birds and weave the wool and get them ready for sale. The population on St Kilda dwindled until there were only 36 people left and the last of the inhabitants were evacuated to the mainland in 1930. Today, the island is home to a military installation, radar station and small team of rangers and archaeologists.
After the museum, we set out to explore the village a bit more. Here we saw some new born Soay lambs. Soay sheep are unique to St Kilda, having been bred here in isolation. Unlike normal sheep, their wool is brown in colour. Also, as there are no sheep farmers on the island, for all intents an purposes, they are wild sheep. We saw some older sheep with huge coats, having never been sheared.
We also climbed to the top of the mountain. We enjoyed the great views over the whole island, whilst eating our packed lunch.
1530: After buying the obligatory mug at the gift shop (yes, there is a gift shop and a post office, even in this remote corner), it was time to leave the island. The boat crew had a welcome cup of tea and a slice of cake waiting for us. Once watered and fed, the boat took us to the nearby sea stacks. The wind had picked up by this point, so there was a fair swell on the boat.
The sea stacks shrouded in mist look other-worldly. They would not look out of place in a Lord of the Rings film. Each stack was full of hundreds of thousands of birds and nests, and I don’t mind telling you, they make quite a racket.
Inhabitants of St Kilda would make regular hunting trips to these stacks. They were excellent craggs-men, capable of scaling the vertical rock face, with bare hands and legs. We were told the story of how a group of hunters survived on one of these stacks for months, eating bird meat and drinking rain water. They were stranded here on a hunting trip – because the plague wiped out every able-bodied man on Hirta who could bring the boat back to pick them up. It was only 8 months later when the tax man turned up from the mainland, they were able to send a boat to see if any one had survived. Happy ending to the story, everyone did survive and made it back.
1630: As we had a two and a half hour journey ahead of us, it was time to head back. Unfortunately we were as not as lucky with the weather for the return trip. Rain and wind pelted us all the way, and it was a much bumpier ride as a result.
1900: Back on Harris. Long day, but we thoroughly enjoyed it!
Tips for Visiting St Kilda
- Book well in advance. Trips tend to sell out weeks in advance. You can book with Sea Harris or Kilda Cruises.
- Keep two days free for the trip. When you make a booking, you will be allocated two days (e.g. Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday etc.). This is so that if the weather is no good on day 1, you can go on day 2.
- Bring a packed lunch and water. There is no where to buy food or drinks on the island.
- Wear good outdoor gear – water and windproof shoes and jacket are a must.
- Take binoculars – there are lots of birds to see. If you are an avid bird watcher, go mid or late season. We went early season, and apparently it is significantly quieter in terms of birds.
- Do take the radar station walk to see the whole island.
- The boats tend to sway a fair bit and travel fast, so if you you get sea sick, be wary of this trip. As my husband will attest, it is no fun hanging over the side of the boat throwing up in the cold and the rain, whilst travelling at 20 knots per hour!
So, was it worth it? The trip costs around £200 per person, so not a cheap trip by any means. It’s a far cry from your typical tourist destination. But it is a once in a lifetime trip, and it was interesting to see this remote British Isle, hear about its former inhabitants, and how they lived. Most of all, it left me with a deep appreciation of my creature comforts that I often take for granted.
About Sea Harris
Sea Harris was a fabulous company to make this trip with. They are a relaxed and friendly crew, and we felt well looked after and safe the whole time.
About Kilda Cruises
Kilda Cruises also operate day trips to St Kilda, with a very similar timetable. They have a slightly slower boat, so you might come back a bit later, but otherwise the day is very similar to the Sea Harris trip. I actually rang Kilda Cruises first to book the trip. They put us on standby for the Saturday trip, but couldn’t take us, so asked if we liked to go with Sea Harris. I said yes, so they transferred our booking to them with no hassle and we got to make the trip after all.
I have no affiliation with Sea Harris or Kilda Cruises, and paid the full price for this trip. They are independent companies local to Harris, providing an excellent service.
Have you been to St. Kilda? What’s the most remote locate you have been to? Leave a comment below and let me know.