I heard it hurtling overhead before anything else. Woosh! Fear burnt through my body like molten lava, erupting in a short draw of breath. Instinctively I dropped my quivering body to the ground as a darkening shape etched itself on the grassy hillside. Its shadow surged towards me, the black silhouette seeking me out. Then it hit.
I’d arrived on Hirta, the main island in the St Kilda archipelago, a short while earlier. Its spindly curvature rose up from the half moon bay as we approached on the boat. It was a rocky outcrop from first glimpse, shards reaching out to the cloudless sky. As we sailed closer, a vibrant green blanket wrapped itself snuggly to the top of the ridge which ran the length of Hirta’s western side.
“Welcome to St Kilda, Scotland,” the National Trust ranger smiled as we stepped from the dinghy onto the island. “Make the most of the weather, it’s not every day we get this!”
Birds of a Feather
Lying 45 miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, it wasn’t the weather I was expecting, either. The postcards and tales of this island are synonymous with atmospheric mist, darkening clouds and rain. It goes with the territory; I was standing on Britain’s furthest outpost in the Atlantic Ocean. And yet the sun was blazing.
I cast my eyes around the small landmass, deciding my hiking route in the few hours we were there. Round stone huts dominated the grassy slopes, there must have been hundreds. “You’ll probably notice the cleits,” the NT volunteer continued, gesturing up to the stone huts, “they were used to store the birds which the locals caught. They even paid their rent in feathers and bird oil!”
The men of St Kilda were skilled cragsmen, nimbly scrambling onto ledges, sometimes with ropes, other times without, to seize the birds. Seabirds were the staple of their diet, including gannets and fulmars as well as guillemot eggs. Once a year, selected men from Hirta went on a prestigious trip to an even more isolated and perilous rock, Boreray. For two weeks they would deftly climb up slippery crags, hanging off overshoots to catch gannets and return to victorious applause in Hirta. The men had now showed their prowess and, if they were single, could now take the hand of a willing bride.
Watch the humorous video about the chaos that ensued after my visit (watch it right till the end when you see the Filmora logo – 2.05 mins)
“Just be aware of one bird in particular here,” the friendly NT worker added, “The skuas. They are very territorial and will dive bomb you if you go near their nests. You won’t even know you’re near their chicks until they attack.” And so it was to be. The ground nesting skuas were to rule that day at St Kilda. Not just one, but always in pairs, the large, brown birds would suddenly fly into the sky, circling unlucky tourists. Then they’d attack. Their streamline bodies slicing through the air at an incredible speed. You’d get one warning flyover and then the dive bombing began.
“They’d be the first birds I’d have caught and eaten,” I mumbled to myself as I ran in an awkward hunched-to-the-floor kind of manner. I scuttled off the hillside every time I attempted to scurry up. Reaching the cairn marking Britain’s highest cliff at 430 metres was not to be. I reached ‘the gap’ and peered down 200 metres to the crashing ocean as the waves hurled themselves against the granite. Then I retreated.
Destitution & Hardship
Lower down, I had a wander through the stone foundations that once would have marked ‘the street’ where the locals lived. Their existence was one of absolute hardship and pure survival. The old blackhouses that they shared with their livestock were choked in smoke from chimneyless peat fires. The rooms, built without windows, were a world of damp and darkness and represented their complete existence. Thankfully, new houses were built after 1860 and each family was given a croft for rearing their sheep.
Tourism arrived in the late 19th century, and along with the teachings of a monstrously zealous Christian missionary, the locals’ traditions were washed away from the volcanic rock. Their folk songs and stories were sadly lost and by 1930 the population was just 36. The British government decided to intervene and evacuated the hardy St Kilda locals to mainland Scotland.
Today, the group of islands are home to the wild, and very cute, Soay sheep; the oldest primitive sheep in Britain.
The island and surrounding stacs (giant rocks looming up from the sea) are a magical place, not least because they were once joined as a volcano. Now National Trust staff and the MOD join the wildlife as St Kilda’s only inhabitants where life is much easier than it was 100 years ago.
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.