Fifty miles west of the Outer Hebrides lies the remote archipelago of St Kilda. It’s stormy, windswept and spectacular: and for thousands of years humans lived on these islands, living off seabirds and very little else, until the last few were evacuated in 1930.
Jen and I went there during our second week of honeymoon, and it required a bumpy three-hour sea crossing to get there. We had indifferent weather which wasn’t great for photography, but certainly enhanced our appreciation of the wildness of the islands. Shortly after arriving, we walked up the main arc of hills. For a while it was fairly sunny – until we started to climb the highest peak of Conachair, at which point the clouds descended, and we ended up getting soaked before we got back to the village!
There are a large number of stone structures around the island known as cleits. These are the larders which the villagers used to store the dead seabirds (of which they killed tens of thousands every year), where they were protected from the rain but not the wind, so they could be dried out.
After we’d explored the island, and before we returned to the island of Harris, we were given a tour around the islands.To us, the island fortress of Boreray is imposing and largely inaccessible, as were the nearby sea stacks – but the islanders would make annual trips there to harvest the seabirds.
Currently they boast the largest gannet colony in the world, as well as large numbers of puffins on Boreray. One can’t help thinking that these locations are now about as safe as they could be, being inaccessible to humans and other land-based predators (although well within reach of skuas).
One story of Stac an Amin has impressed me considerably… in 1727 a boatload of Kildans landed there (three men and eight boys) for the annual seabird harvesting. There’s a bothy on the stack, as well as a fresh spring, so they were planning to stay a few days. Unfortunately their boat was destroyed. This was not a unique event, and signalling back to the main island they expected to be rescued – but instead there was no response. They were stuck there all winter, and then into spring and early summer. They were there nine months in all before they were rescued. When they returned home they discovered that they had been the lucky ones. There had been an outbreak of smallpox which wiped out all but one woman and 18 children. They had only escaped because they had got stranded and couldn’t get back.