Pa­trick Barkham has a pas­sion for is­lands. In this se­ries, he trav­els to four around the Bri­tish coast to ex­plore their unique land­scape and way of life

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by an­gela hard­ing

In his se­ries ex­plor­ing the unique land­scape and way of life on re­mote isles, Pa­trick Barkham trav­els to St Kilda, off the Outer He­brides


A MIGHTY COL­UMN OF GRAN­ITE looms over our small boat. Above is a swarm of se­abirds – ful­mars with their glid­ing grace, guille­mots, like pen­guins of the north­ern hemi­sphere, and puffins with wings whirring like pro­pel­lers. The rocks are stained with guano, as pale yel­low as a gan­net’s head.

Stac an Armin is the high­est sea stack in Bri­tain and the slen­der sil­hou­ette of Stac Lee nearby looks as im­prob­a­ble as CGI from a fan­tasy film. Th­ese stu­pen­dous pil­lars and their seabird cities be­long to the vol­canic ar­chi­pel­ago of St Kilda, the most iso­lated frag­ment of the Bri­tish Isles, alone in the At­lantic more than 100 miles west of the Scot­tish main­land.

St Kilda is the ul­ti­mate small is­land, an ob­ject of ob­ses­sion and long­ing for many peo­ple. We are in­spired by its in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity, its sta­tus as Bri­tain’s only dual World Her­itage Site (pro­tected for both its na­ture and its cul­ture) and by more than 800 books and jour­nal ar­ti­cles that re­veal its com­plex his­tory. Par­tic­u­larly poignant is the col­lapse of its com­mu­nity in 1930, when its last 36 per­ma­nent res­i­dents de­cided that life in such a re­mote place, pounded by re­lent­less winds and ex­treme storms, was un­vi­able in the mod­ern age.

Even in to­day’s hy­per-connected world, St Kilda is hard to reach. It may be barely 50 miles from the Outer He­brides, but the sea is so fierce and con­di­tions so fickle that the three-hour boat trip is of­ten post­poned. I set out four days late when gale­force winds fi­nally re­lent. I’m lucky: one cou­ple is mak­ing the jour­ney after seven failed at­tempts. After three hours ne­go­ti­at­ing the gran­ite-coloured wa­ter and wild spray, I spot a tri­an­gle of rock. Through the gloom emerges the largest is­land, Hirta, and when we reach the calm wa­ters of Vil­lage Bay, a pale sun fights through slate-grey cloud.

Be­fore us rise steep, tree­less green hills. In the fore­ground, a ru­ined cres­cent of low stone cot­tages looks as though it was aban­doned in 1630, not 1930. Dot­ted all over the is­land are hun­dreds of tiny stone huts with turf roofs. Th­ese ‘cleits’ were the St Kil­dans’ fridges, where they stored sup­plies for the long win­ter months. Roam­ing among them are Soay sheep, one of the is­land’s two mam­mals (the other is the St Kilda field­mouse, a unique sub­species). The sheep are a dainty but hardy an­cient breed, with shaggy brown wool and curved horns, who live as wild an­i­mals.

Be­fore I pitch my tent in a small field, shel­tered by broad dry-stone walls built to shel­ter crops, I meet some con­tem­po­rary St Kil­dans. A dozen or so de­fence con­trac­tors work in olive­coloured pre­fabs over­see­ing mis­sile tests in the North At­lantic. A ranger, or­nithol­o­gist and ar­chae­ol­o­gist also work an Aprilto-septem­ber sea­son for the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land, the guardian of the is­land’s her­itage.

“It’s hard to ex­plain the feel­ing you get when you first set foot on the is­land,” says Gina Prior, St Kilda’s or­nithol­o­gist for the sixth suc­ces­sive sea­son. “Some peo­ple come and go, and that’s it. For oth­ers it gets into your soul. You al­most be­come ad­dicted to the place.”

There’s a rel­a­tive bus­tle around Vil­lage Bay: around three dozen daytrip­pers ex­plore ru­ins, and walls are be­ing re­paired by Na­tional Trust for Scot­land vol­un­teers on a two-week work­ing

hol­i­day. Stephen Mac­don­ald is fix­ing slates on the church roof. “It’s my eleventh time – I’ve got it bad,” he says. A builder by trade, he buys a bus­man’s hol­i­day to the is­land each sum­mer: he’s been fas­ci­nated by St Kilda’s his­tory since child­hood (his car num­ber plate reads SK11 LDA).

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists who still seek an­swers to the is­land’s many enig­mas (When was St Kilda first set­tled? Was it con­tin­u­ously oc­cu­pied?) have dis­cov­ered Bronze Age set­tle­ments. Vikings used it as a larder, de­posit­ing sheep here to sus­tain their voy­ages down Scot­land’s west coast. By the 18th cen­tury, the pop­u­la­tion was nearly 200. There was al­ways trade and peo­ple mov­ing be­tween St Kilda and its Outer He­bridean neigh­bours but, for cen­turies, the St Kil­dans lived in a unique way.

Is­landers grazed cat­tle and sheep, grew wheat and, later, pota­toes. But the wa­ters were too dan­ger­ous to fish, so the cru­cial com­po­nent of their diet was se­abirds. The men of St Kilda risked death to climb the sheer cliffs to catch ful­mars, gan­nets and puffins, which were dried and stored in the cleits. They killed thou­sands – 89,600 puffins for meat and feath­ers in 1876; it was cal­cu­lated that each St Kil­dan ate 115 ful­mars ev­ery year – and yet har­vested them sus­tain­ably. Vic­to­ri­ans, for whom the is­land and its ‘prim­i­tive’ peo­ple be­came a tourist at­trac­tion, ob­served that St Kil­dans had un­usu­ally thick an­kles and long toes, adapted to climb­ing the cliffs.

The rea­sons for the is­landers’ aban­don­ment of St Kilda are much-de­bated: crops failed and in­fant mor­tal­ity was alarm­ingly high but the com­mu­nity was also weak­ened by ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences. The clan sys­tem com­pelled St Kil­dans to pay crip­pling ‘rent’ to a Skye-based landowner in the form of pre­cious se­abirds or tonnes of feath­ers; de­vout Church of Scot­land min­is­ters who ar­rived to ‘civilise’ its peo­ple are ac­cused of erod­ing their re­silience; tourists in­tro­duced money and, ul­ti­mately, the young, cliff-climb­ing, seabird-har­vest­ing is­landers were drawn to paid work else­where, leav­ing an age­ing pop­u­la­tion un­able to sup­port it­self. Al­though the is­landers made the de­ci­sion to leave after call­ing their ‘par­lia­ment’, a daily gath­er­ing in which men­folk planned their com­mu­nal labour, many now crit­i­cise the au­thor­i­ties of the day for not sup­port­ing the St Kil­dans in their home­land,

in the way that many small is­land com­mu­ni­ties are given some fi­nan­cial help to­day.

The aban­doned vil­lage pro­vides a pow­er­ful im­age of how we do not al­ways en­joy do­min­ion over wild ter­rain. I climb the steep hill out of the vil­lage and take an el­e­vated ridge above Hirta’s western cliffs. Here, the is­land is ruled by the great skua, or bonxie, a brown bird with a gi­gan­tic wing­span that robs even large gan­nets of their food, and dive-bombs hu­mans who walk near its nest.

St Kilda may be a pin­prick on a map but I still feel like an ant, scal­ing its vast cliffs on the last day of my trip. In mirac­u­lous sun­shine, I climb to the top of Hirta, look east and see the cur­va­ture of the earth. It’s in mo­ments like this that St Kilda pro­vides a re­as­sur­ing re­minder of man’s in­signif­i­cance in both space and time.

Is­lan­der by Pa­trick Barkham will be pub­lished by Granta in au­tumn 2017.

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