Beyond the Hebrides Part 1: St Kilda

I first became interested in St Kilda nearly 40 years ago and there it sat, like a distant star, tantalising but seemingly out of reach.

We awoke to a glassy calm and watery light. With Martin on the helm we made our way down the flat calm Sound of Sleat. Ian, in Guiness hat, on watch. Stewart and Gordon preparing breakfast.  Rounding the Point of Sleat we put Eigg abeam, Rhum floating ethereally above a ring of low cloud and the summits of the Cullins wreathed in clouds. As the morning wore on the wind filled in and the clouds over the Cullins slowly lifted to reveal the fearsome saw-toothed ridges and a pair of Minky whales, mother and calf, rolled by.

The 24 hour + forecast was questionable for St Kilda with East winds making Village Bay untenable. Our tactical decision was to head for Leverburgh on the Sound of Harris to await the next forecast while considering Taransay or the sea lochs off the Minch.

Under the cliffs at Gob na Hoe

Close in the under the cliffs at Gob na Hoe gannets were fighting with a skua and Black guillemots flying low while we listen to Celtic band Daimh (pron Dive) on the stereo. Once past David Alan Stevenson’s 1909 Niest Point lighthouse, we took our point of departure to cross the Minch to the Sound of Harris passing just to the north of the Niest Point TSS. 

Off Rodel we started running our pre-planned transits into the Stanton Channel through the Sound of Harris. Transit marks include small cairns on distant islands, Jane’s Tower (a painted cairn), the left hand end of a building, and the top of one of the many rocks. We anchored in Leverburgh Harbour off the pier with 4.9m below the keel.

Leverborough

Landing we got chatting with the lifeboat crew, just returning from a shout, then wandered through the village listening to cuckoos, being followed by a dog with children playing on their bikes. As we passed the Church of Scotland church the minister for “South Harris, St Kilda & Rockall” David Donaldson and his wife Jean invited us in. Over tea & banana cake we shared common connections and found how seriously religion is taken with five churches serving Levenburgh’s sparse population. David painted an apocryphally picture of cockerels being separated from hens from Saturday night until Monday and children’s swings being tied up on Sundays in Free Presbyterian Church households. All pondered as we strolled gently back to the harbour and an amazing sun set.

A sunset full of promise for a new day

 When it came the weather forecast was good enough for a passage to points west and delivered by the loveliest of lilting Gaelic voice from Stornoway Coast Guard.  Departing at midnight, we ran a watch system with Gordon and I each taking 2 hour watches turnabout and the crew taking 2 hours on and 4 off. Passage through the Leverburgh channel and out into the Atlantic was straight forward.

Our guiding star (Jupiter) set into the haze ahead just before a spectacular red moonrise. The International Space Station arced across the stars to the south while Venus & Mars rose from astern. It was never completely dark. St Kilda became a smudge slightly more solid than the clouds on the horizon in the twilight.

Back on watch at 06:00 a pair of grey mottled (Risso’s) dolphins passed to the south of us. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills, gannets, fulmar passed close by as they headed away from St Kilda.  Boreray, Stack An Armin (Gannets) and Stack Lee like a Bishops Mitre stood out ahead. We tracked north of the rum line to approach the archipelago from the ENE.  I started sketching the islands in the monochrome light, then adding the colours as they started to fill in with the rising of the sun.

Boreray, Stac An Armin, Stac Lee, and Hirta

With the sea so calm we were able to put Stewart in the sea on his surf board with his cameras to film the birds on Stac An Armin & Boreray from the water. Thousands of Gannet’s started circling Stewart as he made his way towards the stacks totally ignoring the boat. Skuas, fulmars and guillemots joined the circling throng. Seals basking on the rocks ignored us, while one kept watch from the water. Gannets and skuas were fighting over fish caught by the gannets. A gentle swell broke over low lying rocks as we kept well outside the line of pot buoys tucked close to cliffs.

Stewart filming from his surf board
Keeping the boat outside the pot buoys Stewart was able to get much closer to the cliffs

Leaving Boreray, we crossed towards Soay and Hirta, then turned into Glen Bay. Puffins abounded skimming close past the sea caves which punctured the cliffs. Glen Bay is described as a possible anchorage but with 20m under the keel very close to the cliffs even at the head of the bay it would only be worth considering for a yacht in ideal or desperate circumstances.

Leaving the bay we passed close to the mighty arch through the cliffs then kept close under the northern cliffs of Hirta. Fulmars and guillemots nesting on narrow ledges while walkers occasionally appeared high above us on the horizon and the radar station sat silent above all.

Dropping sail to enter Village Bay we anchored off the restored old feather store.  Gordon had partied there with the army detachment during his visit in 1977, a disco and bar set up in the ruin left roofless following a submarine attack in WW1.  As we ate our lunch a pair of Minky whales were feeding further out in the bay and a male Eider Duck dabbled along the water’s edge.

Too excited to catch-up on sleep, we landed and walked up through the village, then fell asleep in the sun on the grass in front of the Museum.

Asleep in the sun,

Refreshed, postcards were posted to friends and families, an old tradition for visitors to St Kilda. Then a wander round the Free Church of Scotland and adjoining school room. Both filled with an overwhelming sense of the sadness and constraint they had inflicted on the islanders. Demands which coupled with influxes of Edwardian steamer tourists, whose life view and ideas were so incomparably different from the way of life the islanders, had ultimately precipitated the evacuation of the last 36 remaining islanders in 1930.

Refreshed on “The Street”

Around the head of the bay below the old village lie the 1960’s MOD prefab buildings strapped down to their concrete foundations to serve the radar station on the summit of Mullach Mor.

Village Bay

We climb past the dry stone cleits used by the islanders to store the dried fulmars they lived on and the walled enclosures used for their sheep up to “The Gap”. A pair of Great Skuas mating and ragged Soay Sheep grazing, then from the ridge we looked down onto Fulmars nesting a few feet below and the sea far below. With stunning views out over to Boreray and the stacks, the mountains of Lewis, Harris and the Uists just visible on the horizon.

Stac Am Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray from The Gap

The Shipping forecast warned of strong winds to come so time to head for shelter. We departed for a lively overnight passage south to the Sound of Barra, leaving St Kilda to drop into the twilight behind us.

Leaving St Kilda to drop into the twilight behind us.

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