Labour of love

The work­ing hol­i­day on an aban­doned Scot­tish is­land that sells out in a flash

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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,

Stone is­land … Vil­lage Bay on Hirta

High times ... vol­un­teers tar­ring a cot­tage roof

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