NATURE NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND
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
In his series exploring the unique landscape and way of life on remote isles, Patrick Barkham travels to St Kilda, off the Outer Hebrides
This month: ST KILDA, THE LONELY ISLE
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.