On the Waves: St Kilda


Our boat left the Sound of Harris at 5am. I had awoken when the engines started up but fell asleep again until breakfast time. The weather was improving and blue sky appearing among the clouds. Just before the St Kilda archipelago came into view, we were overtaken by some small, fast daytrip boats. The first island to come into view was Boreray with Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.

On arrival at Hirta, a cruise ship came into view.

I had not expected this and had to remind myself that St Kilda has been a tourist venue since the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, these ships also brought smallpox and cholera and in 1913, influenza. Emigration also contributed to population loss. In 1851, 36 islanders emigrated to Australia and a suburb of Melbourne is called St Kilda. After the First World War many young men did not want to return. Zealous church ministers who expected high levels of church attendance left less time to run the island and harvest food. The demand for goods which the population had previous given to their factor in lieu of rent such as feathers for mattresses and tweed made from Soay sheep wool had declined. Midwifery skills were rejected and tetanus infantum lead to infant mortality rates up 80% because putting fulmar oil on the umbilicus was a local practice. This may have been stored in gannet or sheep stomachs and is thought to be the origin of the bacterium. In 1877 a midwife was brought to the island and maternal and infant mortality levels reduced.

Packed lunches collected, we were taken in the dinghy to the village pier where a red carpet was laid out. This was not for us but for the cruise passengers.

The street consists of the 1860s cottages with the old blackhouses in between and a small cemetery behind.

Cleits are everywhere and were used to store peat, food and clothing. Some on the hillside are now used by the sheep as shelter.

The current shop is also the Post Office and mail is collected by helicopter twice a week. The helicopter also transports workers to and from the military base which is being renovated at present to turn the buildings into some more in keeping with the others on the island.

We walked up to the gap which overlooks the cliffs below, past the storehouse and gun emplacement but the tops of the hills were still in the cloud.


After descending we had our lunch on the seat outside the small museum where this Lesser Black-backed Gull was observing us hoping for some food.

I also chatted to one of the cruise ship passengers who was from the San Francisco Bay Area. At least she was used to grey days and fog. After lunch I returned to the cliff edge near the gun where fulmars were nesting, and some puffins were visible.

On our return to the boat we saw a basking shark in the bay and after our evening meal enjoyed the sun going down.


On our second morning we walked up the road which was built in the 1950s when the military arrived.

The base has a pub but it only opens from 7pm as a previous earlier opening time had led to behaviour problems and drunkenness.
It was sunny and warm at first and we walked as far as the scree.

Back at the street, I briefly saw some St Kilda Wrens before it began to rain.

Our skipper told us that we had to leave the island at 3pm due to an approaching storm which was predicted to have up to 50mph winds. It was too windy to get to Soay so we passed around the stacs and Boreray where northern gannets nest. St Kilda vies with the Bass Rock as to which has the largest gannetry in the world.


before heading to Lochmaddy on North Uist to shelter for the night.

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