The taste of salt was strong on the wind as we sailed past cliffs that dropped to a wave-dashed tumble of stones below. Beyond this cluster of cliff-bound islands known as St. Kilda, open Atlantic stretched to the gray line of the horizon. The Hebridean Princess slipped into a little bay, sheltered in a semi-circle of cliffs.
As we waited for a tender to bring us ashore on Hirta, we could see a desolate arc of gray stone houses, nearly all in ruin. Abruptly behind them rose a rough landscape without so much as a shrub, webbed by stone walls among which shaggy, prehistoric-looking sheep searched for green sprigs. How had people lived for a millennium on these barren remnants of a collapsed volcanic cone surrounded by endless angry sea?
In Your Bucket Because…
- St. Kilda is one of few places to gain both cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage designations.
- Only about 2000 people can visit the islands each year.
- Good for birders and those who love remote, atmospheric islands.
The lonely archipelago of St. Kilda rises out of the North Atlantic, 41 miles from the nearest of the Outer Hebrides and more than 100 miles from the Scottish coast. The human and natural histories of these most remote of Scotland’s Western Isles combine to make St. Kilda one of the few places with both natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage status.
High Seas Can Prevent Landings on St. Kilda
We almost didn’t get to St. Kilda. Even before we boarded the small luxury ship Hebridean Princess in Oban, we’d heard that a storm moving across the North Atlantic would almost certainly leave seas too rough for our scheduled landing later in the week. Hebridean Princess schedules St. Kilda on only a few itineraries, and several of us had chosen this week in hopes of getting there — although the website was very clear that this depended on the weather. Which seemed to now conspire against us.
But while we were boarding, the captain and crew had also been conspiring. Before dinner they announced that instead of a quiet night en route to a nearby island, we would spend it headed full-steam toward St. Kilda. We would reverse our entire itinerary to beat the storm — never mind that it meant re-arranging every other shore stop and changing dates for guides, ground transportation and activities on other islands for an entire week.
All this kerfuffle to get us there only underscored the remoteness and utter isolation islanders had endured here for ten centuries. Perhaps even longer, recent archaeological finds suggest. Stone tools show visitors as long as 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and in 2011 archaeologists located an extensive system of agricultural fields and terraces dating as far back as the Iron Age.
Finding Ancient Stones
As we climbed the hillside behind the row of ruined homes to wander among the weathered headstones of the walled burial ground, we found the small stone-capped chamber of Tigh an t-Sithiche (House of the Fairies), thought to date from the 200 BC or earlier. Unmarked by signs, such discoveries await curious visitors. More than 1400 cleitean, round stone storage structures with earthen roofs, scatter among the islands. Most lie open to the sky, like the homes of the people who used them.
Islanders, by the 1800s, lived in “black houses” built of a double layer of unmortared stones, without windows or chimneys. These thatched dwellings were shared by people and livestock, until they were replaced by “white houses” of mortared stone, with windows and fireplaces. Six of these – the rest are roofless ruins – have been restored, one serving as a museum that explores the islands’ human history and wildlife, which, we discovered here, were closely intertwined.
Islanders and Sea Birds
Islanders scratched out their meager living with the unwilling help of the birds. St Kilda’s cliffs and sea stacks are home to 60,000 gannets, 62,000 fulmer and 142,000 puffins. Early in the spring, islanders captured adult gannets, in May men and boys scaled the cliffs and lowered themselves from the top on ropes to collect eggs, and in September harvested young birds to dry for winter food. They paid rent to an absentee landlord on the Isle of Skye in seabird feathers and oil, along with wool, tweed, milk and cheese from their sheep and cattle.
Landlords were not the islanders’ only contact with the outside world. Missionaries came in 1705 and by 1900 there was a schoolroom and teacher. In World War I German U-boats destroyed the town’s storage building and a naval detachment was posted here. A fellow passenger who had hiked the islands told us that high in Hirta’s interior lie the remains of a crashed World War II aircraft. By then, the population was gone, the last 36 having petitioned for resettlement to the mainland in 1930.
But their presence lingers among the stones they quarried, carved and moved. If sailing into Village Bay awakened our senses with scenery and taste of salt air, climbing among the rough surfaces of its ancient stones awakened others: the damp-wooly lanoline smell and occasional bleat of Soay sheep, squawks of an angry skua dive-bombing us for venturing too close to her nest, the chill of the steady wind.
As I read the panels inside the restored stone house, the thought of those North Atlantic winds whistling through unmortared walls made me shiver, and I was glad to step out into the June sunshine to sit on a crumbling stone fence. What, I wondered, would these islanders think of the luxury ship filled with people who’d chosen that cruise with the hope of stepping into their homes and wandering among the stones in their windswept cemetery?
The National Trust of Scotland owns Hirta, St. Kilda’s only landing site, and only about 2000 people a year can visit. Besides the few arrivals of the Hebridean Princess each summer, day charter cruises (about 12 hours) can be arranged from the isle of Harris, and four- or six-day cruises on a 12-passenger motor vessel leave from neighboring Lewis. Six-day sailing yacht cruises depart from North Uist. All vessels must anchor in the bay and land passengers by dinghy or tender.
The only overnight accommodations for visitors are five camping sites, which must be reserved in advance. There are no dining or other facilities on the island.