Where sea birds cry

IN AN EX­CLU­SIVE EX­TRACT FROM HIS NEW BOOK IS­LAN­DER, PA­TRICK BARKHAM VIS­ITS THE EVAC­U­ATED AR­CHI­PEL­AGO OF ST KILDA AND DIS­COV­ERS A LOST LAND TEEM­ING WITH LIFE

Sunday Herald Life - - TRAVEL FEATURE -

OUR lit­tle boat lurches through the Sound of Har­ris and past Bern­eray and Pab­bay, which had been de­serted like St Kilda. An hour and a half be­yond, a tiny grey tri­an­gle of rock ap­pears on the hori­zon. Gan­nets in groups of five, six, eight, move like syn­chro­nised swim­mers in im­mac­u­late white, fol­low­ing the con­tours of the swell with a per­fectly co-or­di­nated float, soar and beat-beat-beat.

Ex­pe­ri­enced mariners reached St Kilda by fol­low­ing the birds. The Hior­taich (peo­ple of Hirta, the ar­chi­pel­ago’s largest island) fore­cast the weather by their move­ment. In the 17th cen­tury, one of the stew­ards who reg­u­larly sailed from Har­ris to St Kilda to col­lect rents from the is­lan­ders watched a gan­net mis­cal­cu­late its dive for fish, plung­ing into the open boat. It de­scended with such force that it died with its beak and head im­pal­ing the wooden hull, wings al­most stretch­ing from one gun­wale to the other. For­tu­nately for the stew­ard, the gan­net’s head se­curely plugged the hole it had made in the hull, and the feath­ered bung re­mained in place un­til he reached Hirta.

The tri­an­gle of rock draws closer – an islet, Levenish, be­side which emerges a much larger land mass: Hirta. In its shel­ter, the swell drops and we ease into Vil­lage Bay, a nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre be­tween two moun­tains, filled with buzzing in­sects that turn out to be puffins. The grassy slopes are cov­ered in daisies, which are ac­tu­ally the heads of ful­mars. The rocks all around are stained with guano as pale yel­low as a gan­net’s head. Not many species have colonised this re­mote moun­tain­ous island – just two hu­man-as­sisted mam­mals and 180 flow­er­ing plants com­pared with 600 on the Isle of Skye – but St Kilda’s wealth comes from the sea. West of the Bri­tish ar­chi­pel­ago, the con­ti­nen­tal shelf drops away to deep ocean and up this edge rise nu­tri­ent-rich waters that sup­port vast re­serves of kelp, plank­ton, fish and sea birds. Hu­mans once com­pleted that food pyra­mid, and we are fas­ci­nated to­day by the Hior­taich’s un­usual diet: not fish (the sea was usu­ally too hazardous for fish­ing), but sea birds. A 1764 cen­sus recorded 90 is­lan­ders each de­vour­ing “36 wild fouls eggs and 18 fouls” daily, which I can’t quite be­lieve, but other doc­u­ments record that 89,600 puffins were slaugh­tered for meat and feath­ers in 1876 alone, and the typ­i­cal adult ate about 115 ful­mars each year. Puf­fin was boiled with por­ridge oats to liven up break­fast.

To­day, the sea birds are un­har­vested and St Kilda is home to the largest Bri­tish colony of puffins and ful­mars, the largest Leach’s storm pe­trel colony in the east­ern At­lantic, and the se­cond-largest gan­netry in the world.

Wob­bly with the swell and with grat­i­tude, we are de­canted into a lit­tle Zo­diac – to min­imise the risk of ac­ci­den­tally in­tro­duc­ing rats to the island – and put­ter over to the small stone pier. We walk up the ramp at Vil­lage Bay, and our first vista is not of the ru­ined cot­tages that are St Kilda’s pub­lic im­age, but of a

low mass of olive-green pre­fabs like the mo­bile class­rooms of my child­hood. It’s ironic that af­ter the 1930 evac­u­a­tion, the island was un­in­hab­ited for just 26 sum­mers. This moun­tain in the At­lantic was too use­ful to ig­nore in­def­i­nitely. It was re­oc­cu­pied in 1957 when the island was given to the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land and the RAF built a con­crete road zigzag­ging up the moun­tain­side of Mul­lach Mòr to ser­vice a radar sta­tion.

The sta­tion is now op­er­ated by a pri­vate con­trac­tor, QinetiQ, which tracks mis­siles test-fired from Ben­bec­ula. An air-and-sea dan­ger area that ex­tends 260 kilo­me­tres by 95 kilo­me­tres into the North At­lantic is cleared of boats when­ever a mis­sile needs fir­ing.

“Please don’t go in these build­ings, you might never come out,” says Kirsten Dal­las, the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land ranger whose job is to meet all ar­rivals. “We don’t know what hap­pens in there.”

Be­tween the low pre­fabs, ship con­tain­ers and oil tanks is a taller chim­neyed unit con­tain­ing diesel gen­er­a­tors that emit an in­ces­sant grind­ing hum. These are omit­ted from the tourist vi­sion of St Kilda, but they sus­tain mod­ern life here.

On the slopes above are the build­ings that sus­tained the older life: dot­ted all over the hills are hun­dreds of cleits, win­dow­less huts of ta­pered stone with green turf roofs: store­houses for fish, turf and ev­ery­thing else that got the Hior­taich through the long win­ters. Their curved walls re­mind me of the beau­ti­ful bee­hive struc­tures I’ve seen in western Ire­land, built by Celtic monks. In Ire­land, some of these clocháns have been used into mod­ern times, and the St Kil­dan cleits were de­ployed un­til the is­lan­ders’ hour of de­par­ture. Be­side and in­side them tread Soay sheep, a dainty brown breed prob­a­bly in­tro­duced by the Vik­ings. Gag­gles of lambs gather on the cleit roofs, danc­ing around like teenagers at a party. Since the evac­u­a­tion, these beasts have roamed wild, munch­ing Hirta’s heather and or­chids into per­ma­nent minia­ture. Un­like most do­mes­ti­cated breeds, they shed their fleece nat­u­rally; dur­ing their late-spring moult, the Hior­taich sim­ply pulled at their gin­ger-brown dread­locks to ob­tain soft, waxy wool, a process known by the lovely word, “roo­ing”.

Day-trip­pers fan out in a frenzy along the el­e­gant cres­cent of sin­gle-storey stone cot­tages built in a style fa­mil­iar across Scot­land and Ire­land’s west coast. The trip­pers are lim­ited to four hours on the island, but as a camper I have the lux­ury of time. The cloud lifts and I erect my lit­tle tent in the empty camp­ing field and hang my food in the cool in­te­rior of a cleit, sur­prised to feel a breeze waft­ing through cracks – a de­lib­er­ate de­sign to dry what­ever is stored in­side. I hope my hung food will evade the at­ten­tions of the island’s third mam­mal (af­ter sheep and hu­mans): the St Kilda field mouse. When the peo­ple left, the house mouse quickly died out, but the more in­de­pen­dent field mouse thrived in its niche.

The first I see of an­other is­lan­der is the ver­mil­ion in­sides of its mouth. Singing loudly, bounc­ing be­tween the cracks of a cleit, the St Kilda wren is spar­row-sized and brightly speck­led, hav­ing evolved into its own sub­species dur­ing its time here. As­sured, noisy and dis­tinc­tively large, the wrens hold Vil­lage Bay in a se­ries of ter­ri­to­ries.

IS­LANDS are places of gi­ants and pyg­mies and the wren is evolv­ing to be larger, while the sheep get smaller. Would this wren’s de­scen­dant, like a mighty ea­gle, one day clasp sheep in its claws? Sci­en­tists study­ing the Soay sheep have linked their shrink­ing to warmer win­ters: they no longer need to be so bulky to sur­vive.

The wren is ac­com­pa­nied by the retch­ing-into-a-tin-can chat of the ful­mars. The epit­ome of el­e­gance in flight, wings spread so flat they look like glid­ers, they are less grace­ful on land, squat­ting on rocks around Vil­lage Bay, chunter­ing and com­plain­ing. Au­thor Comp­ton Macken­zie reck­oned they pos­sessed a cold dis­dain­ful eye”; he pre­ferred kit­ti­wakes, “the pret­ti­est and dain­ti­est of all the gulls”.

The trip­pers de­part and I join the ful­mars, sit­ting on a rock, sur­vey­ing the scene. I’m ren­dered mo­tion­less by an evening that un­rav­els like tis­sue pa­per, be­com­ing softer and softer. The land dark­ens, but the sea shows all pat­terns of light. Sil­ver traces of cur­rent wig­gle like snail trails over the calm At­lantic. The sun spins cu­muli into gold and the clouds cast golden shad­ows on the blue wa­ter. The gold turns pink, pur­ple and then the palest of grey. I feel a great weight press­ing upon me and sub­mit to it, long be­fore the dusk has dark­ened.

Soft rain wakes me soon af­ter 5am, and I wan­der the ru­ins of Vil­lage Bay. Later I make a day-long cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Hirta, feel­ing my way along its edges. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, I drop to my knees and peer over the cliff, grey-green lichens as prickly as a door­mat un­der my hands. A kalei­do­scope of ful­mars turn against the dark wa­ter, cry­ing over the whitenoise men­ace of surf meet­ing rock a stom­ach-lurch­ing dis­tance be­low. The cliffs aren’t al­ways sheer, but I can no more scale them than fly like a ful­mar. We main­lan­ders live on the flat. Land is hor­i­zon­tal. Here, half the island is man­i­fest in the ver­ti­cal. If your ter­rain is half-cliff and you don’t climb, you are only half alive. And the Hior­taich climbed to stay alive. “The in­hab­i­tants look as if they had been all tarred and feath­ered, for their hair is full of feath­ers and their clothes are cov­ered with feath­ers,” wrote John MacCul­loch in 1819. “Ev­ery­thing smells of feath­ers.”

A sus­tain­able har­vest of sea birds sup­ported life on St Kilda. Gan­nets, or guga, were a sta­ple of ear­lier times, but af­ter the 1750s the is­lan­ders ate more ful­mars, which pro­vided fatty meat said to taste like beef. Ful­mars – “foul gull” for their habit of vom­it­ing a stinky fluid over in­trud­ers – also pro­vided an oil sold on the main­land as medicine, re­puted to pos­sess sim­i­lar prop­er­ties to cod liver oil.

An­other cash crop was ful­mar feath­ers, which the Bri­tish army used as lice- and bed­bug-re­sis­tant bed­ding in the 19th cen­tury. Tough sea bird flesh was ob­served to be good for the is­lan­ders’ teeth.

They also ate plenty of eggs, par­tic­u­larly gan­net and guille­mot, of­ten keep­ing them for six to eight weeks to im­prove their flavour. Other species – oys­ter­catcher, tree spar­row and es­pe­cially the egg of the St Kilda wren – were sold to col­lec­tors. I ad­mire the guille­mots hud­dled on ledges, their backs turned to the wa­ter.

There is a giddy ex­pe­ri­ence to be had in wild places, which Alas­dair Gray in La­nark de­scribes as be­ing “drunk with spa­cious­ness”. It is in­tox­i­cat­ing to walk along An Cam­bir, the north-western arm of Hirta, where it stretches towards the un­in­hab­ited island of Soay, and it is also in­vig­o­rat­ing.

I share a drunk’s ex­ag­ger­ated sense of his own reach, but I imag­ine I can see and feel with new pre­ci­sion, which is not a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the ine­bri­ated. I have the light, the air and the land­scape to thank. Comp­ton Macken­zie wrote of the “clar­ity” of He­bridean days when “the is­lands seem to float sus­pended be­tween earth and heaven in a crys­tal globe”.

I climb to the high­est point of Hirta, above the three white eggs in con­crete cups be­long­ing to the radar sta­tion. They could be an art in­stal­la­tion, an aes­thetic re­sponse to the eggs all around us. The last cloud van­ishes as a stage cur­tain lifts, and sud­denly is re­vealed the full grandeur of this world. I can only gasp at its splen­dour. A vast ex­panse of empty sea glit­ters for miles around. Then, along the east­ern hori­zon emerges a chain of is­lands. In the fore­ground, the low islets of Haskeir. Be­yond are the moun­tains of Har­ris, and the hum­mock-backed hills of North Uist, Ben­bec­ula, South Uist. Fur­ther away to the south, a paler grey, is Barra. Be­yond it, per­haps Vater­say or even Min­gu­lay. I can’t see an­other soul. This is an edited ex­tract from Pa­trick Barkham’s Is­lan­der, pub­lished by Granta Books on Oc­to­ber 5. He is at Wig­town Book Fes­ti­val at 10.30am , Satur­day, Septem­ber 23. Tick­ets: www.wig­town­book­fes­ti­val.com

Gan­nets on St Kilda

Pho­to­graphs: Pa­trick Barkham

St Kilda’s mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions tend to be omit­ted from tourist brochures

Pitch­ing up on St Kilda

Pho­to­graph: Anne Camp­bell/Na­tional Trust for Scot­land/PA

Pa­trick Barkham and his new book, Is­lan­der

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