Much has been written about the St Kildans, the 'bird' people- they ate the gannets and used their carcases for slippers, ate fulmars and used the fulmar oil to light their lamps, drank as an expectorant,or to rub on bruises. The feathers they exported via the Factor, sent by their Laird (Lord Dunvegan in the Isle of Skye), to stuff mattresses. When synthetic fabrics killed this trade, the villagers' days were numbered and they finally asked to be evacuated in 1930.
52 miles from the nearest landfall of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda is an archipelago N/W of Scotland, out in the middle of nowhere (or on the way to the Faroes, depending on how you look at it). A remote community, first inhabited in the Bronze Age, then later by Irish hermits: it is on the edge of the world, an Ultima Thule, even perhaps a myth, like Atlantis.
I had been reading up about St Kilda for the last two years, and have already written a few poems inspired by the place and its history. Last winter, I attended a film showing organized by the National Trust for Scotland and learnt about the Puffin Club for those who have stayed a night on the main island, Hiorta, or at least moored in the bay. A friend of mine, K visited with her late husband when they learnt he had a cancer and this is where they chose to go as a special, last trip together. But more and more, the desire to visit a place I was obsessed with seemed an imperative. Yet who was to say that poems from the imagination might not be better than those which came out of the experience?
I wasn't sure if I'd get to St Kilda though. The yacht company I was hoping to sail with, 'Beyond the Blue Horizon', won't guarantee it. The weather is so unpredictable - it's the wind that matters, it seems, not so much the rain. If it's an easterly the yacht won't even attempt it as it's impossible to anchor in the bay. I had hoped to go late May or June but unseasonable gales put paid to that. And the Met Office website only gives 5 days' weather forecast in advance. So I waited till the last minute - a gamble since there might have been no vacancies left on the flight to Stornoway, let alone the yacht.
But luck was with me. I even got a double bunk to myself since there were 7 guests in the 4 double bunk guest cabins. A 5 day, 4 night trip on a 67 foot steel cutter, the Elinca, which I highly recommend. We were in experienced, steady hands with Angus Smith and son, Innes, our skipper and crew, who were charming hosts- our first day down Lewis in the Minches, via the Shiants, whose name means 'Enchanted Isles' in Gaelic, (owned by Adam Nicholson who wrote 'Sea Room' about them) blue skies, calm seas but no wind. We motored the whole way to anchor round the tip of Harris at Leverburgh. Drinks on deck watching the sunset and delicious organic, local food: poached salmon. What's not to like?
Angus, the Skipper, drinks, sun over the yard arm, on board the Elinca at Leverbugh, Harris.
The next morning was a Force 4 and choppy, 'short' waves, i.e. the distance between each wave so short a rolling, up and down, side to side, corkscrew motion which resulted in two of our members retching for the 7 and a half hour sailing. Luckily I was OK, wearing wrist bands which work on acupuncture pressure points and Traveleeze to make sure (two tricks learnt on the Fair Isle crossing last year). But the fog came down. On a clear day, Angus told me, St Kilda is visible from at least half way across the 52 mile trip from Leverburgh. So, just a little boring, 7 and a half hours of staring at fog, and looking out where the horizon might be(not down, or queasiness would follow)so no reading possible. However, I fell into a trance-like, meditative torpor and it's amazing what thoughts come in that state. I know I solved the world's problems. Pity I can't remember now what great wisdom was revealed to me.
On arrival at St Kilda (Hiorta, the main island) all we saw was a shadow and the base of Oisebhal (pron.Oisheval), to the east of Village Bay. Anchored for the night in Village Bay, the boat rocked from side to side (not up and down as well, luckily), with gurgles and bumps all night, and I had disturbing dreams.
The morning was brilliant though: blue skies and seas.
Me, Dun in background.
First view climbing up on deck was of the jagged silhouette of Dun (pronounced Dune), like two prehistoric monsters, one mounting the other, round to the open sea and a solitary island in the distance, Levenish, back round in a semi-circle to Hiorta - this semi-circle all that remains of a volcanic crater. Village Bay itself was a bit of an anticlimax - perhaps I have seen so many photos of it, there was no shock of the new.
Nor is it pretty, with the clutter of 'cleits'- 1400 of them (the stone 'fridges' as a Stornoway fisherman put it), where the villagers air-dried the gannets and fulmars to eat over the winter. Mankind seems to have a propensity to litter the landscape with excrescences, however practical they might have been. Then the mountains of Conachair and Oiseabhal did not look that high - though I knew that Conachair is the highest sea-cliff in Britain at 1400 feet (430 m), somehow they were not imposing.
Village from Bay
First, we sailed, luckily there was enough wind, to the stacks which are four miles to the east of the main island. The villagers (Hiortaich) made this journey to catch the gannets and I could imagine what an achievement that was in row boats, and to see the almost inaccessible sides - no ledges to act as jettys, and it made me realize their courage as the great swell would have thrust the boats perilously close to being smashed against the base of the rock as they leapt onto the rock.
Stac Li, Stac an Armin and some of Borerey
Stac Li (pronounced Lee) 564 feet/172 m high
The sheer scale of the stacks themselves, Stac Li, like a shield and Stac an Armin, more of a triangle from one view, and rugged, larger Boreray, bursting vertically straight out of the sea, did look more impressive than the cliffs of Hiorta, but even so, it was hard to appreciate that they are higher than the Empire State Building. Nothing to give a sense of perspective.
Stac an Armin
Thousands and thousands of gannets, fulmars, puffins, is an awesome sight though. On approach, white dots filled the skies, like motes before your eyes. Swathes of puffins flew by,or scooted over the surface of the water, fulmars glided by the halyards, and high above our mast the stately, outstretched wings of the gannets, like a pattern of white crosses, not quite touching, patterned the blue.
As we sailed between the two outer stacks and Boreray the swell grew, with the backswash in an alarming way and the jagged rock seemed to rise and fall. We were lucky it was relatively calm - easy to see why this trip would be too dangerous in rougher waters. Surprisingly I could not smell the guano and only hear a faint cacophony of birds - this must have been because of the direction of the wind, or the noise our sails made? I had read in Martin Martin's 17th c account of his voyage that the sea was white with guano - again I did not see this.
The rocks themselves are white from the birds (and guano) on the ledges, organized in distinct levels (rather like the tenements of 16th c Edinburgh's Royal Mile where the rich had the top apartments, ranging down to the poorest at the bottom.) Here gannets ruled the top ledges, then fulmars in the middle, puffins nesting in burrows in the grassy ledges(on Boreray) with the black, snake-headed cormorants on the rocks at the base.
The Stacks, Li, An Armin and Boreray
In the afternoon, we went ashore to the village - in a motor-powered inflatable dinghy since boats are not allowed to moor by the jetty, for fear of rats jumping ship. (I'm pretty sure there were none on Elinca but the NTS make no exceptions.) The indigenous species must be protected at all costs: we saw the wonderful, enormous wrens, big as sparrows, which hopped about unconcernedly on the ruined cottages instead of hiding between stones as they do elsewhere (Troglodites, their Latin name means cave-dwellers)and there's the famous St Kildan large field mouse (which I did not see.).);the ubiquitous, many coloured Soay sheep have been there since the Bronze Age and their genes never mixed with other breeds. Their wool peels off naturally, so the Hiortach had no need to shear them, only 'pluck' them - and a few wandered around in this semi-dressed state.
I talked to Jill who was there from a university (I forget which) studying the Soay but was sad to learn that she is briefed not to help in any way if the sheep are in difficulty. The academics are there to observe the sheep in their natural state. If they overbreed, many lambs die in harsh winters, and so a natural balance is maintained, it seems.
We explored the chapel and school room - part of the same building connected by a door - quite clear how the Minister ruled over everyone. The row of books on the shelf all Bibles. No getting away here. Even the view from the school room window was claustrophobic - of the steep sided mountain covered in cleits -no sky.
View from School-room window.
We then walked down the 'Street' - the one and only one, with 6 of the cottages now re-roofed and conserved by the National Trust for Scotland, lived in by the volunteers in the summer, then down past the ruined more modern Victorian ones, next door to the earlier bothy-like ones (actually more practical, the rounded sides deflecting the winds)which the villagers put their cattle in when they moved out to the newer houses.
I pondered on the hard life they led - the same as any other village in the Highlands, no doubt, except that the men, at least, had the excitement of abseiling the cliffs to catch the gannets. The women were literally beasts of burden, carrying all the heavy loads, as well as looking after the cattle (when they still had them) and the domestic chores. Strangely, the men sewed all the clothes.
Dun from ruined cottage
I felt claustrophobic imagining living in this tight, little community. People imagine they were 'away from it all'- but they were remote only geographically. Here, they were very much, part of the community with all its stresses and strains, however egalitarian it was in the early days, when everything was shared between them and debated between them (the famous St Kildan 'Parliament'- of men only, but the women had their own group too, led by a 'Queen'.)
Small-pox and tetanus (the latter causing the 'eight-day' death amongst infants), decimated their numbers, until only women, mainly old and a few childen, and a handful of old men were left- many of the young men having emigrated, lured by the glamour of Glasgow. Latterly, a too strict minister who imposed hours of services on them and prevented their crofting and time to look after their livestock, and the corrupting influence of tourists on Victorian steamers...there are many reasons for the decline of their society. It makes fascinating reading and there are many parallels with the fate of ethnic tribes in the so-called undeveloped world.
Stone of house number and family who lived here.
There is much debate nowadays between those who want to keep Hiorta (St Kilda) pure, untrammelled by man, and deplore the ugly buildings of the army and MOD barracks and who romanticize the previous inhabitants' way of life. On the otherhand, there are those who say St Kilda must adapt -there are interesting comments on the Ranger's website, c/o the National Trust for Scotland, on all these issues.
Personally, as I queued in the former Factor's House, now Ranger's house and shop with a crowd of visitors who had suddenly arrived on the motorboat day-trip, to buy a St Kildan drying-up cloth, I asked myself what the hell I was doing? Hadn't I come to St Kilda to get away from commercialism? Still, the NTS must raise funds, one way or another. The Ranger looked as if he'd far rather be out on a cliff counting the birds.
Myself and others in our group climbed up to the 'gap' between Conachair and Oisebhal to view the stacks from the top of the cliffs. There was no need to climb to the top of either mountain for the view, thank goodness, since I was not up to it. We were there about 5-6 hours - but not long enough to walk over to Gleann Mor -full of bonxies nesting, so probably a blessing.
On the way to the 'gap', cleit and Dun beyond.
Another night in Village Bay- then back to the mainland. This time, St Kilda and the stacks on view behind us for half the journey and then Harris ahead. No wonder the early Irish monks could navigate - not sailing into the unknown, so much as island-hopping.
On the way back, we saw the floppy dorsal fin of a sunfish (drifted over on the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean), and in the Minches, porpoises, even the elusive Minke whale which surfaces and sinks so quickly it is easy to miss, and above the cliffs two sea-eagles with their white rumps. Our last night, dinner on deck was in a remote, gneiss sea-loch, with dark green water, no sound except water lapping somewhere in Lewis - I'm not telling you where, and as we ate oat cakes with Stornoway smoked salmon on cream cheese sprinkled with black pepper, and even more special, we saw two golden eagles.
The trip of a life-time. I feel very privileged, especially when Angus tells me some of his guests have booked Elinca several consecutive years before actually reaching St Kilda. Yes, the voyage across was ghastly. But worth it to see this special, mystical archipelago. (There I go.) Somehow more enticing in anticipation and in recollection than in reality. Isn't that the way with dreams?
Leaving St Kilda. View of the Stacks.
As we sailed away in calmer waters, St Kilda was visible until half way across, as Angus had said. I watched till it was no more than a shadow, then a blur then so indistinct that you would not see it unless you knew it had been there, all the time thinking of those last emigrants and what they must have felt. Some only too glad to get away. Others filled with grief. We noticed in the grave-yard, some more recent graves. Emigrants who had asked to have their remains brought back and interred there.
Lots and lots of memories which will result in poetry, I hope- inspired not so much by the mystical aspect, I suspect, but the lives of the people...but the awe-inspiring experience of thousands, and thousands of gannets and fulmars on the stacks will surely be in there somewhere.
www.beyondthebluehorizon.co.uk/ for info and photos but book through co-organization: www.wildernessscotland.com/
www.kilda.org.uk for the NTS site and Ranger's journal
Topics Poetry Dance Jazz
Stanza Assynt Poetry on the Lake Save our libraries Shetland Iona Sense of Place Loose Tongues Norman MacCaig Festival St Kilda Makkin wi Wirds Strokestown Poetry Festival Venice Artists' Books Assynt Sense of Place Dance Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz course Merchant City Festival The 100 Poets Gathering
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