St Kilda: remoteness and wildness

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.

Hirta - the main island of St Kilda. The village housed the 150 or so residents in the 19th century. A few of the buildings have been renovated by the National Trust, and the modern buildings and road were put in by the military for their remote sensing station.

Hirta – the main island of St Kilda.

The village housed the 150 or so residents in the 19th century. A few of the buildings have been renovated by the National Trust, and the modern buildings and road were put in by the military for their remote sensing station.

The village housed the 150 or so residents in the 19th century. A few of the buildings have been renovated by the National Trust, and the modern buildings and road were put in by the military for their remote sensing station.

Standing in the doorway of one of the houses in the village on St Kilda

Standing in the doorway of one of the houses in the village on St Kilda

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.

Cleits on St Kilda, looking toward Dun

Cleits on St Kilda, looking toward Dun

Stac Less, the highest stack in the archipelago

Stac Less, the highest stack in the archipelago

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).

Boreray, Stac Lee and a lower stack.

Boreray, Stac Lee and a lower stack.

Boreray and Stac an Amin

Boreray and Stac an Amin

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.

In a land of skuas and gannets

The sunniest day on our honeymoon was when we went furthest north. Hermaness is a stunningly wild and beautiful nature reserve – and because of the weather and the wildlife we saw it at its best.

The Hermaness coast - absolutely magnificent.

The Hermaness coast – absolutely magnificent. In real life it’s even better.

Bonxies - or great skuas... piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Bonxies – or great skuas… piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Puffins at Hermaness - as cute here as anywhere else!

Puffins at Hermaness – as cute here as anywhere else!

Hermaness coast, looking north. The rocks are white because they are covered in gannets...

Hermaness coast, looking north. The colour of the white rocks is because they are covered in gannets…

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles - and Out Stack (to the right) is the last solid surface before the Arctic ice cap. The rocks on the left are white because they are covered by a large gannet colony.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles – and due north of Out Stack (to the right), the next solid surface is the Arctic ice cap. The lighthouse on Muckle Flugga used to be the most northerly habitation in Britain until it was automated in 1995. The rocks on the left are covered in gannets.

Norwick Beach

Norwick beach - you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it's a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Norwick beach – you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it’s a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Just over 400 million years ago, an ancient ocean was being squeezed out of existence by the collision of two large landmasses (which in later ages, and after more geological dramas, would become Europe and North America). One of the results of this collision was unusual: a section of oceanic crust was thrust above the continental crust. Remnants of this form about a third of the Shetland islands of Unst and Fetlar. The boundary between the two bands of ancient crust can be found at Norwick Beach: in the photo, the continental crust is the dark rock to the left, the oceanic crust is the light rock to the right.

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach - but not for long!

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach – but not for long!

Lerwick Baptist Church

Both Jen and I were keen to find a good church on the Shetlands, so we decided to go to the Lerwick Baptist Church. This required a three hour trek from Norwick Beach, including a couple of ferry crossings but we were well rewarded by a lively and welcoming congregation and excellent preaching. They have a recently-built church and have about 150 in the mornings (there were about 50 that evening).

We then spent a night at Shalders guest house, which was a uniquely delightful place to stay. We were a bit puzzled by the St George’s flag that was flying outside, but all became clear when Jen asked Ann, the proprietor, the following morning: she has 23 flags in her cupboard, and flies the one appropriate for the home country of her guests.

Honeymoon in Shetland

Jarlshof - an extraordinary archaeological complex spanning 4,000 years. To the lower right are the remains of a 1st C broch, above which there are two 2nd/3rd C wheelhouses.

Jarlshof, showing the remains of a 1st C broch, above which there are two 2nd/3rd C wheelhouses.

Jen and I had a really lovely honeymoon, starting with a week in the Shetlands. This is a stunningly beautiful archipelago with many wild places, dramatic coastlines and impressive wildlife – but we also enjoyed some of the archaeological and geological riches. We were based mainly in a very well appointed chalet in Voe, which was ideally situated for travelling around.

On our first full day we went to Jarlshof, an extraordinary archaeological complex spanning 4,000 years. For example, there was a Bronze Age smithy (about 800BC), and remains from an Iron Age broch – a characteristic round double-walled structure that could have reached over 10m (30ft) in height (judging by a similar one on Mousa). The broch was largely taken over by wheelhouses from around the 2nd century. Later remains include Viking longhouses, a mediaeval farm and the laird’s house from the 16th century.

Rich & Jen on Muckle Roe

Rich & Jen on Muckle Roe

Shetland is renowned for its spectacular coastline, of which Eshaness is particularly notable. This is part of North Mavine, a region which would be a large island to the north-west of the mainland, but for a narrow connecting isthmus about 20m wide (with the intriguing name of Mavis Grind). We drove there on the Thursday, and then went for a short walk – which prompted us to plan on other coastal walks there in the future!

Dore Holm, a natural arch.

Dore Holm, a natural arch.

Eshaness cliffs

Eshaness cliffs

Red-throated divers on North Mavine

Red-throated divers on North Mavine

On our way back, the path took us past several small lochans, so I thought that there was a good chance of seeing red-throated divers. We were lucky: one of them did have a pair, and while we sat close to the lakeside the birds swam closer. These birds are rare breeders in the UK, with some nesting in the Scottish Highlands, but they are more frequent in the Shetlands.

The nearest port to Voe is Vidlin, which has daily ferries to Out Skerries (a collection of small islands to the north east of the mainland) – so we decided to go there. I thought this was going to the back of beyond, but I soon discovered that they were much more connected to international events than I had envisaged. We chatted with one of the residents in the community hall, who told us that the biggest immediate threat to the island’s economy was the strike at Calais. The island’s fishermen (they have five boats based there) need to be able to get their fish to market in mainland Europe, but there was a real danger that their catches would be destroyed by the wait at Dover to be able to get across.

The wildness of Out Skerries

The wildness of Out Skerries

Defending Jen from skuas...

Defending Jen from skuas…

We had a rainy day on Fetlar on the Saturday – though there were enough wild flowers in bloom for us to understand why it’s known as the Garden of Shetland. While there we had our first encounter with skuas… Crossing some open moorland where they were nesting, one of them took exception to us and flew directly at us. Fortunately, I had already armed myself with a skua stick (aka a camera monopod) to act as a defensive weapon! We continued to attract attention from other skuas until we left the area.

Our next day, on Unst, had exceptionally good weather… so I’ll describe that in a separate photo story…

Awesomeness

On Saturday July 25, I got married to my best friend, the beautiful and awesomely wonderful Jennifer Siggers. I’ve decided to use the official photos to tell the story of this incredible day.

Jen arriving at the church (All Souls, Langham Place)

Jen arriving at the church (All Souls, Langham Place)

The wedding was taken by Rico Tice, a senior minister at All Souls (and top bloke!). John Linney (to my right) was best man, and Jen's mum, Margaret Siggers, was 'giving Jen away'.

The wedding was taken by Rico Tice, a senior minister at All Souls (and top bloke!). John Linney (to my right) was best man, and Jen’s mum, Margaret Siggers, was ‘giving Jen away’. This is a great photo apart from my daft expression…

It was amazing to have a full orchestra at the wedding! Jen's been part of the All Souls orchestra over the last few years, and most of those playing were from this. Jen's boss at Imperial, Anthony Bull, led the singing with Nicky Woollatt, and it was all brilliantly led by the irrepressible Noel Tredinnick.

It was amazing to have a full orchestra at the wedding! Jen’s been part of the All Souls orchestra over the last few years, and most of those playing were from this. Jen’s boss at Imperial, Anthony Bull, led the singing with Nicky Woollatt, and it was all brilliantly led by the irrepressible Noel Tredinnick.

We did a tea after the service, including a cake cutting. It was a real honour to have so many of our friends and family there to celebrate the occasion.

We did a tea after the service, including the cake cutting. It was a real honour to have so many of our friends and family there to celebrate the occasion.

We did some of the photos in church before heading off elsewhere. On my right are Jen's mum and mine (the Margarets!), on Jen's left are Rachel & Andrew Siggers; the page boys and flower girls are Frederick Hill, Sophie Siggers, Geroge Siggers and Hannah Hill.

We did some of the photos in church before heading off elsewhere. On my right are Jen’s mum and mine (the Margarets!), on Jen’s left are Rachael & Andrew Siggers; the page boys and flower girls are Frederick Hill, Sophie Siggers, George Siggers and Hannah Hill.

After the service and tea we went off the Park Square West, next to Regent’s Park, where Jonathon took some more photos of us. Hard to believe this is central London, yes?

We had the reception at St Paul's, Robert Adam Street (another building owned by All Souls). From left to right: Satomi Miwa, Mum Siggers, John Linney, me, Jen, Katie Huggins (the chief bridesmaid), Mum Tweedy and Rachel Olney.

We had the reception at St Paul’s, Robert Adam Street (another building owned by All Souls). From left to right: Satomi Miwa, Mum Siggers, John Linney, me, Jen, Katie Huggins (the chief bridesmaid), Mum Tweedy and Rachel Olney.

Rachel Siggers did a quiz for us ('How well do you know Rich & Jen?'), and then Jen and I did a joint speech.

Rachael Siggers did a quiz for us (‘How well do you know Rich & Jen?’), and then Jen and I did a joint speech.

One of my favourite photos from the day.

One of my favourite photos from the day.

The whole occasion depended on the work of a large number of people, and we’re incredibly grateful to those who put in so much. We had a team of ushers (John Bardell, Anna Bishop, Nick Bradbury, Anna Marie Detert, Dave Doughty, Kiren Rajakumar, Jesse Stuart, Chris Thomson, Sharon Whitmarsh), as well as a host for the tea (Andrew Siggers) and a quiz presenter (Rachael Siggers). We’re conscious that the whole team went way beyond the call of duty, along with numerous others at various stages, adapting to the changing needs of the event iself. Without a shadow of doubt, though, the most hard-working throughout was Jen’s mum, Margaret Siggers, who did an extraordinary amount leading up to the wedding and then on the day itself.

The most amazing part of the day, though, is that I’m now married to such a stunning lady!

The photos were taken by Jonathon Watkins of Photoglow – a friend and an outstanding photographer.

Getting engaged to Jennifer

Last Saturday, I got engaged to the awesomely wonderful Jennifer Siggers! Here are a few photos that mark the occasion.

Getting engaged at Hampton Court Palace

Getting engaged at Hampton Court Palace

Jen had been keen to show me Hampton Court Palace. I thought that the venue had some potential for asking her, so I checked the website and soon saw that the Privy Garden had plenty of cosy nooks. When we arrived there, I was horrified to find that the trees there were no more than two foot high, and the whole garden was consequently very exposed… Shedding any pretensions to being cool, calm and collected, we then went in search of a more suitable location, and found an arbour that was just right.

Marking the occasion at Hampton Court Palace

Marking the occasion at Hampton Court Palace

Jen

Jen

Shortly after we first connected, it was obvious that our relationship could really develop. Jen is a lecturer in bioengineering in London, having originally studied maths – so we do occasionally have geeky conversations about science!  She’s also a regular at All Souls Langham Place (where John Stott was rector for many years) – so we’ve also been known to discuss theology…

Aunty Jen with George, only a couple of days old... photo by Andrew Siggers

Aunty Jen with George, only a couple of days old… photo by Andrew Siggers

I’ve greatly enjoyed being welcomed in by Jen’s family – which has included the privilege of meeting her nephew when he was only a few hours old! He was born on New Year’s Eve, and as I was driving Jen back home the following day, we ended up visiting Andrew (her brother) and Rachael less than a day after all the drama.

Jen and I have a shared love of wild places, which is fortunate as on an early date I asked her to crawl through a hedge. (This was near the Ullenwood long barrow – I hadn’t worked out where the field exits were!). Later I took her up into a howling gale in the Peak District. We agreed the walk would have been lovely on a hot summer’s day.

Ring-necked parakeet in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

Ring-necked parakeet in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

I have tried very hard not to indoctrinate Jen into the world of birdwatching, but in a bizarre but true twist I had a life tick within minutes of our getting engaged, at the very same spot! Ring-necked parakeets are unknown in Worcestershire, but very common in this part of Surrey. Indeed, later in the evening there were several small flocks of them flying around fast and squawking noisily.

The first two photos were taken by a couple of folk who happened to wander past at the right moment – and they were both really excited to be involved in marking the occasion!

Around the beginning of November we were both really wondering whether we would ever meet ‘the right person’: I could scarcely have believed that I was about to meet such a stunningly amazing lady as Jen, and it is even more incredible for us now to be able to begin to plan life together.