St Kilda is one of those places that many people dream of visiting all their lives. My late sailor dad was one of those who never made it. I’ve been lucky enough to get out to this ultra-remote, utterly unique archipelago three times, most recently on one of the new Hebrides Cruises trips. They venture out to the world’s first dual UNESCO World Heritage listed site aboard the Elizabeth G, a sturdy ship that could have been forged with getting out to St Kilda in mind.
Getting to Ultra Remote St Kilda
St Kilda could scarce be more remote. If you think Skye is far away imagine bashing much further west across the famously tempestuous Minch to the Outer Hebrides. Then you’ll have to eke through the rocks and narrow channels of either the Sound of Barra or Sound of Harris before finally leaving the inhabited world far behind on a voyage of faith deep out into the Atlantic where St Kilda beckons a full 41 miles further out.
Getting out to St Kilda is no mean feat in itself. Many day trips from the Outer Hebrides are cancelled and even vessels that make it as far as the main mooring at Village Bay sometimes have to turn tail if the wind turns at all to the east. The beauty of the Hebrides Cruises adventures is that you have a whole week aboard so that skilled captain Rob Barlow can plan the week around a suitable window for making it out to the archipelago. The Elizabeth G is a sturdy vessel, an old Norwegian rescue ship who can handle the big seas and whose stabilisers allow her guests some comfort.
Aboard the Elizabeth G
Life aboard the Elizabeth G is far from the privations of expedition cruising you might imagine. She takes a maximum of a dozen guests with proper two bunk cabins. As well as skipper Rob there is Helen Ricketts, who has worked with Rob for years. She looks after the passengers and there is a skilled chef too. Handily the skipper is also a qualified diver who on our trip dived down to provide fresh king scallops for dinner.
Also aboard was an expert wildlife guide, Chris Gomersall. The Hebrides Cruises trips often have a wildlife guide aboard. He was on hand to help with tips on the rich bounty of flora and fauna encountered, as well as to offer advice on wildlife photography.
Journey to the Islands at the End of the World
Getting out to St Kilda is all part of the fun. We pushed out from Oban, spending the first night getting acquainted with the ship before a few wee drams in a boisterous pub in Tobermory on Mull. The second day saw us push out from the Sound of Mull towards the Minch with Coll visible to port and Skye and the Small Isles rising to the west after we rounded Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly land on the British mainland. En route we were joined by porpoises, hulking bottlenose dolphins (the largest dolphin species in the world), rarer white beaked dolphins and playful common dolphins, who frolicked in our bow wave.
Wildlife was a serious highlight of our trip. As well as these cetaceans you can also look out for whales. Minke whales are often spotted, as are massive basking sharks and even killer whales. Our second night saw us moor in the Monarch Isles to the west of the Outer Hebrides. Here starched white beaches tempted and a large seal colony accompanied a typically spectacular Hebridean sunset with their haunting wails, which local legend has it are actually the cries of lost sailors.
Onwards to St Kilda
With a gap in the weather Rob turned us towards St Kilda and we pushed on west. Finally the otherworldly shape of Hirta and Dun reared into view with the stacs of Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin rising just to the north. Soon the water and skies started to fill with all manner of seabirds. St Kilda is home to the largest colony of puffins in the UK, the largest population of gannets in the world, as well as the UK’s oldest and largest colony of fulmars. In summer St Kilda teems with a staggering one million seabirds.
As we eked into Village Bay – home to the archipelago’s only village – its single street of stone houses and old crofts unfurled ahead. The ramshackle jumble of MOD huts that service the radar tracking station here cannot detract from the epic beauty of this deeply special place, a slice of the world that beguiles with its otherworldly landscapes, swathes of wildlife and its intriguing human history.
The Inhabitants of St Kilda
The MOD workers and National Trust volunteers are the only people who temporarily inhabit these testing islands today. For thousands of years, though, man somehow found a way to survive in this deeply challenging wildscape, a world where storms could set in for weeks, every boat trip risked death and hunting for birds on the UK’s highest cliffs was an essential death defying necessity for the fragile community.
Tough as the life of St Kildans was, their lifestyle is often romanticised these days. It is hard not to be charmed by a community who used no money, where the local government consisted of all the men of the village meeting every morning to decide what work had to be done that day and also a community where your scant resources were always pooled with less fortunate souls than yourself. Ironically it was the modern world – in the form of tourism and religion – that finally brought human habitation here to an end, with the last residents eventually evacuated in 1930.
Exploring St Kilda
Rob had timed our trip perfectly. We savoured two nights and three days in and around St Kilda. The first trip ashore just saw a quick jaunt around the village and the old cottage that houses a museum illuminating the archipelago’s history.
Our second day had us ashore early to venture up to Conachair, the islands’ highest point at 430m. We battled through swirling mists and dive-bombing great skuas to reach the welcome military road that took us down towards the path to the Lover’s Stone. The sun started to break through the clouds as we attempted to recreate the scenes when local men would stand on one leg on this rock above a precipitous drop. Blue skies and brilliant sunshine then accompanied us as we hiked on towards the rocky summit of Ruival, where I sat for an hour gazing over the Tolkien-esque crazy rock formations of Dun.
Time to Leave St Kilda
All too soon it was time to leave St Kilda and the Elizabeth G steamed out of Village Bay. St Kilda wasn’t finished with us yet. We swept right around the island of Soay before a circuit of Boreray and its twin sea stac sentinels. All around whirled gannets, some of them unfortunate to be plucked out of the sky right before our eyes by the hulking great skua predators.
As my phone and cameras both yet again overflowed with images we finally set a course east away from the islands that so many people dream of visiting. If you get a chance in your life to do what my sailor dad never managed and head out to St Kilda I’d grab it firmly with both hands. I’d go back in an instant.
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