Labour of love
The working holiday on an abandoned Scottish island that sells out in a flash
Wanted: DIY-er with retail skills – or shop assistant handy with paint brush. Fit outdoor types preferred. Must be happy to be marooned on a remote Scottish island for a fortnight in May with 11 strangers and minimal sanitation. No wifi. Abundant sheep poo.
Ever since the National Trust for Scotland was bequeathed St Kilda in the 1950s, volunteers have taken the wild, three-hour Atlantic boat ride to the four “islands on the edge of the world”. They have reroofed the cottages on the main street, restored the church, and restacked stones that years of gales had toppled from the cleits, or bothies, that dot the volcanic landscape.
I knew some of the islands’ sorry story: illness and privation leading to the evacuation in 1930. When I first heard it was possible to volunteer on Hirta, the main island, I – a rather unfit, self-employed mother of two grown-up children – immediately signed up for a dry stone walling course. I’m reasonably handy with hammer and paintbrush, and St Kilda was the kind of wild, awkward, outof-the-way place I craved. As it turned out, an ability to operate the till in the little souvenir shop was to be rather more important than experience of “drystane dyking”.
Volunteers labour knee-deep in ancient field systems, clearing drainage channels under the eye of an archaeologist, or undertake painting, tarring and patching in a heartwrenchingly beautiful site (Unesco listed for both nature and culture). They stay in the old cottages, and clean the two toilets shared with day-trippers.
Three or four days a week in summer, weather permitting, tiny boats heave and roll across from Harris or Skye, with a dozen travellers paying £210 each to see tiny Boreray island, with its stacks rising like a cathedral from the sea, and walk through the abandoned village on Hirta. A cruise ship might glide into Village Bay for an hour or so, disgorging a hundred or more passengers and triggering a rush on the shop. Visitor numbers have trebled this century to 5,000 a year: many of them may have waited days to get here. But by midafternoon they are gone, and the islands belong to the volunteers again.
Two weeks living in wellies, sharing snores with strangers in a draughty 19th-century cottage, may be a rather radical antidote to crowded streets and trains, but it suits those who like to get well and truly off the beaten track. There’s ample free time to tramp the ridges and coves and distant caves, or sit watching seals and swirling seabirds.
In June, I slipped into a two-week NTS working party by the skin of my teeth after a late cancellation. We were five men and five women, all handy and “outdoorsy”, aged from early 30s to 60s, plus a top-notch cook and a volunteer leader, who guided us safely among precipitous crags I would never have attempted alone.
We worked a minimum of 24 hours a week, and with dusk not falling until 11pm, had lots of free time to roam the bits day-trippers never reach – equipped with a stout hat and walking pole to fend off the “bonxies” or great skuas, hen-sized brown seabirds that dive-bomb intruders, all beak and outstretched webbed claws.
Down Gleann Mor we yomped, bonxie poles up, past the iron age Amazon house to the bay where seal pups bask and puffins bob in rafts beneath perpendicular cliffs splattered white by guillemot droppings.
We walked the escarpment towards Soay in the north-west, saw sunset from the Mistress Stone on the south coast and heard seals “sing” off craggy Dùn. We were serenaded by the St Kilda wren and charmed by the (protected) St Kilda mouse at dusk. A basking shark and a minke whale came into Village Bay, a seal pup lazed on “our” beach, and while clearing ditches we found a bronze age tool, pot shards and five healthy young eels.
Today’s St Kilda inhabitants are three NTS staff who live in the old Manse from May to September, and a handful of defence contractor staff living in 1970s green military prefabs. With no wifi or phone signal, the general election passed us by. But the helipad on Hirta means a lifeline to the Scottish mainland 100 miles away, and the generator by the jetty provides light and hot showers that would have been unimaginable to the St Kildans. Slates by each empty cottage list who lived there: by the time the last 36 gave up the struggle in August 1930, there were only five surnames left.
Toiling up the main street one afternoon with a wheelbarrow, I met some St Kildan descendants who had come on a day boat. “Our granny, Annie Belle, was born here,” said Martin Macleod, looking around the tiny museum that was once a home to a large family. She met a naval officer stationed on the island during the first world war and moved to Lewis. The rest of the family cleared out in 1924.
“Young people have always left: they had more opportunities on the mainland,” said Susan Bain, the NTS manager, who picks volunteers for the two annual two-week working parties. “I’ve met several St Kildans. Norman John Gillies said, ‘I thank God the day we left St Kilda.’ We romanticise.”
It is hard not to, in this volcanic bowl with its sheer sides, swooping birds and surging seas. But it is also impossible not to be moved by the empty homes and the little graveyard.
For several days in June, gales and high seas meant no one knew if Angus, the Harris boatman, would be able to fetch us. Two of us had planes to catch but we would have happily stayed.
The NTS doesn’t advertise the St Kilda working parties, but they are usually five times oversubscribed, despite the £895 cost (including an extra week’s worth of food, just in case).
The visitor book in the museum testifies to the pull the islands still exert. “Fulfilment of a 40-year dream at third attempt,” reads one entry. “Made it!”, “Lucky, lucky, lucky”, and “A privilege”, say others. Would I go again? Like a shot.
• Applications for May-June 2018 open this month, deadline 23 January, kilda.org.uk
Stone island … Village Bay on Hirta
High times ... volunteers tarring a cottage roof