Previous Day WALKS ON NORTH UIST(Berneray beach)
Visiting St Kilda is one of the most remarkable and dramatic day trips you can make – I was going to say in the UK – but this savagely raw, difficult to reach archipelago on the North West Atlantic is one of a only a small number of Double World Heritage sites and must rank as a must see in world terms also. It has been recognised as unique not only for its landscape, but for its rich cultural heritage.
To see St Kilda is to glimpse a Stone Age landscape, an insight into life lived on the edge, impossibly hard.
Seeing Hirta – its Gaelic name – had been on my bucket list for years. We had tried three years ago to get out only to be foiled, as most aspiring visitors are, by wild weather and rough seas. In fact, the boats which offer the trip from the Isle of Harris only manage to get out on average twice per week between May and September. Cost per person for the long, tiring but unforgettable 11 hour day is £180 and you are also signing up to being available during a two day window, in case one day is cancelled. In practice that means being on Harris for 4 days ( no hardship as it’s gorgeous!)
The night before our proposed trip, I slept barely a wink, tossing and turning, racked by anxiety and convinced that, in the howling wind and belting rain which lashed the tent, there was NO chance the trip was on. AND – the following day’s weather looked even worse.Failure loomed once again.
It was a southerly wind too, problematic for accessing the bay and landing us by dinghy. Beside me , Chris slept like a baby, as he usually does.(The word ‘worry’ does not feature in my husband’s vocabulary.)
It was cold and gloomy but dry as we upped sticks and left our lovely wild pitch above a lonely bay near Northton and headed for the car at 7am on Friday 9th June. A bright summer’s day it was not! Ah, but me of little faith……a glimmer of sun had appeared by the time we parked at Leverburgh harbour, already with plenty of other prospective passengers all hoping to make the same trip.The wind had dropped considerably too.I noticed boat crew making phone calls (they were speaking to the Army base on St Kilda about landing conditions, I found out later).
To cut a long story short, at 8am, I couldn’t quite believe it when ‘The Enchanted Isle’ , our small boat(12 passengers)operated by Sea Harris, slipped quietly through the cold, dark waters, heading for the Islands on the Edge of the World.The trip was on!
In minutes, the boat’s engines powered up to 21 knots and we were off, heading out into the deep Atlantic, sitting comfortably in the boat’s high backed airline type seats.
We now had a 2.5 hour journey ahead of us on big seas, a 4 metre swell running after a week of high winds. I was mesmerised by those huge seas; never have I been out on such a relatively small craft in such a wild, seemingly endless ocean.
It was well over an hour before the outline of Boreray appeared on the horizon, part of the archipelago, impossibly jagged, rearing a sheer 1,200 feet out of the ocean.
This brought a few of us out onto the open rear deck(with life jackets on), fascinated at our first close up view. It looked unreal, like a child’s drawing of some fantasy island.
The moody, heavy grey skies of earlier had now cleared into a perfect blue as St Kilda itself came into view.
As we neared the island, it’s 1,400 foot sheer cliffs , Britain’s highest, had me tilting my head backwards, trying to see the top. Conachir, the highest point, which we hoped to hike up to, looked formidably steep and I doubted I’d have the nerve to make it up its sheer grass slopes with huge drops all around.
Birds wheeled and cried all around us. Gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins. The air was alive with countless thousands of them. We had arrived at one of North West Europe’s biggest breeding colonies of seabirds, including the second largest gannetry in the world.There were 300,000 nesting puffins alone. And all predated upon by marauding Skuas, powerful brown birds with hook – like beaks and highly aggressive – to humans also. We knew climbing Conachir meant negotiating the Skuas nesting grounds which they fiercely protect, attacking anything that goes too close. Hopefully the walking poles would fend them off!
All of these birds of course were a vital food and fuel source for the St Kildans, who harvested their eggs, dried and ate the birds and extracted oil from them also. The climbing skills of the men, scrambling up and down the impossibly sheer cliffs, were legendary.
Entering Village Bay had a sense of déjà vu about it. I’d pored over so many photos of it, and now, here we were.
We were encircled now by the sharp outline of Dun island and the sheer face of Oiseval. I had an incredibly powerful sense of how isolated it was out here, cut off and remote, 110miles off the Scottish mainland and 45miles from the Outer Hebrides.
We were taken to the slippery pier by dinghy, welcomed warmly by the National Trust’s resident Ranger and briefed on do’s and don’ts. For the next 5 hours, St Kilda was ours to explore.
Everywhere was stone. Stone walls, stone houses, thousands of perfectly preserved stone cleits with turf roofs, used for the storage of oil, fuel, dried birds, eggs and other supplies. The shore was a bouldery one with a small beach only at very low tide. The outlook from the village was simply the narrow bay itself, flanked by sheer hillsides.
The army buildings dominate the scene on landing, utilitarian at best – downright ugly.Once beyond these, we explored the interesting small museum and just soaked in the almost surreal surroundings.I have read quite a bit about St Kilda so felt I had a reasonable knowledge of the island’s history. It was at times a tragic one, occasionally dominated by strict bible thumping ministers and by practices which resulted, for a time, in half of all new-borns dying due to a belief that rubbing cow dung or fulmar oil on the cut umbilical cord was a safe practice. Infantile tetanus resulted.Evidence suggests that the men had also begun to develop differently shaped feet; the most successful men were those who were expert at scaling the sheer cliff faces to gather eggs and birds.Just as St Kilda boasts some unique species – the wren and mouse – so human physical adaptation was happening also. Disease was brought to the once- healthy islanders by the cruise ships which began to call in to see this incredible, harsh way of life. Flu and smallpox took their toll. In 1930 the remaining few islanders finally asked to be evacuated.
We strolled along the village ‘street’ flanked by a long row of stone built cottages.Behind them ,everywhere, were beautifully constructed stone walls and storage cleits, all in perfect condition. Dark brown Soay sheep , hundreds of them, grazed and roamed. The lambs were super- cute!
Had a rest on a rock in the warm sunshine and ate some lunch; cooked chicken drumsticks and some fruit. Then we made our way over to the military road which sweeps up steeply to the top of the island to the radio transmitters, giving us a good start for continuing to on to Conachir. At the top of this high point, the land fell away again before rising up to Conachir. Over a thousand feet below us, the dark blue Atlantic surged and boiled.
Climbing that last slope was the entertaining bit, as we now ascended the moorland through Bonxie (skua) nesting grounds.
They come at you at eye level, very intimidating, their gazed fixed on you intensely, completely silent. Chris would suddenly shout ‘left’ and I would spin round raising my walking pole in the air. The pole made them turn away immediately. You just couldn’t make it without a stick of some kind; it was an aerial assault course.Then I would shout to Chris as one came in for him. And so it went on. Stressful! We later heard that a guy on his own had been forced to the ground by them, breaking his camera in the process as he tried to protect himself. Nae stick!
The summit of St Kilda’s highest point was very grassy and spacious.All around lay wild views to Boreray and Stac an Armin.
WAY down to our right lay the emerald grasslands of the village. The hill opposite, Oiseval, was pockmarked with stone cleits, hundreds of them. It was an extraordinary landscape.
I have to admit that what I was seeing wasn’t beautiful though it was certainly dramatic. I think it was at that moment that I realised that while it was amazing to see this incredible place, I didn’t like it very much.It was too precipitous, too harsh – almost hostile.Not how I expected to feel.I’d always imagined staying out here for a few days, wild camping. But now, I was very glad this was a day trip only.
We walked down an almost impossibly steep slope – the type you feel you might easily fall off and which initially had me shouting to Chris ‘What?? No way!’ but as these things do, it looked worse than it was. It took us to a Trig point giving even better views over the village which sat almost vertically below our feet.
Then we contoured across very steep grass, fending off the Skuas again, until we reached a worn track which followed the cliff edge down, down, down to where the angle eased off and lots of people were having their lunch and relaxing on flat stones which lined the big drop. All during the descent, I was aware of that awful drop down into the ocean below…..it’s quite a sight seeing the sea so vertically beneath your feet at times.I was very glad to get that bit over with, being so unnerved by heights.
From here, it was only a short fifteen minute easy walk back down to the village.
Had a browse in the shop and bought some postcards, stamps and a rather nice fridge magnet of the island.
We still had half an hour to wait for our dinghy transport back to the boat and it was a relief now to just to sit in the warm sunshine and relax.We’d ‘done’ what I’d hoped to do and lived to tell the tale.
As ‘The Emerald Isle ‘ finally powered out of Village Bay, bathed in late afternoon sunshine now, I was very glad to have seen St Kilda but to be leaving it too.My grandmother from North Uist, had the opportunity to carry on out to the island during the 5 day boat journey she made each summer, travelling from Glasgow to North Uist.She always regretted not going out there, so part of me felt I wanted to make sure I, at least, made the journey. But I think she would have felt very grateful that she had lived on lovely Grimsay, North Uist rather than the harsh environment of Hirta. I don’t think I’m alone in having these feelings about the island; my Mum in Law told me that there is a common Gaelic response when someone is asked to do a particularly unpleasant task; it is to say – ‘I’d rather go to Hirta, than do…..x, y or z.’
We were served hot tea and large pieces of Seumas’s mum’s top notch homemade gingerbread.Magic!
The most magnificent part of the trip, however, was to come; a tour round Boreray and the Stacs.We spent an hour negotiating the wild, lurching seas which tossed the boat about close to Stac an Armin, a sheer wedge of rock covered in gannets and other nesting seabirds. The noise, the smell, the air was filled with these snowy white, flying torpedoes. Every now and again, one would be mobbed by Skuas, terrifying them into regurgitating their catch.
Then we ran alongside the arrow – sharp pinnacles of Boreray, unbelievable to think that men once landed here – somehow – and spent two weeks every summer gathering birds and eggs.
Then across to Stac Lee, another arrow head of hard rock covered in birds. The boat was being tossed around now like a cork and it was almost impossible to stand. I had to grab on to something every time I tried to move for a better shot. It was absolutely thrilling – wild! The whole area out here can only be described as awesome.
Two and a half long hours later, we arrived back in Leverburgh, Harris and Uist looking incredibly beautiful , as they always do, so much more welcoming and benign than where we had been.
Couldn’t thank Seumus and Ian Angus enough for this excellent trip, lovely guys and we felt very safe in their hands at all times.
We were starving now too at 7pm and enjoyed an excellent fish and chips in The Butty Bus beside the pier.There was a bitingly cold wind getting up now so we ate inside the Bus, relieved to be out of the elements after 11 hours in the midst of them.
Another bucket list wish ticked off this trip – what a sense of achievement! Not however, a trip I would do again.We were lucky getting warm sunshine and blue skies on the island – going out on a gloomy, wet day must take a lot of the pleasure out of it.Though perhaps that would add to the whole atmosphere even more? It must look quite something with mist swirling ominously around the cliffs and the hillsides.
We hadn’t a clue where to camp tonight – rain was forecast and strong winds so a bit of shelter was the thing. Eventually settled on a lovely grassy pitch hidden down amongst the dunes of beautiful Traigh Iar (another West Beach).
We were absolutely knackered by now and it was only a 5 minute walk from roadside parking, yet really tucked away.Out for the count by 9.30pm as I recall – age doesn’t come alone!