St Kilda, Scot­land

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS PHOEBE SMITH

All aboard the Bessie Ellen! Help sail one of the last wooden trad­ing ketches on a jour­ney to the Bri­tish Isles’ re­motest out­post – St Kilda – just watch out for its di­ve­bomb­ing skuas!

For cen­turies, peo­ple lived on Bri­tain’s re­motest isle of St Kilda. Now the chance to bat­tle the el­e­ments and sail there on a wooden ketch shows just how unique their lives were…

The fly­ing jib con­nects to the cleat, here’s the sheet for the main sail; to tail it, you have to coil it – clock­wise and at least three times. Then there’s the hal­yards...” Stood on the deck of the sail­ing ketch known as Bessie Ellen, lis­ten­ing to the words of skip­per Nikki, never be­fore had I felt so out of my depth.

Though only leav­ing the har­bour in Oban, on Scot­land’s west coast, it was as if I’d been re­leased into a par­al­lel uni­verse; one where ev­ery­one still spoke English but, for some rea­son, I didn’t un­der­stand a sin­gle word of it. All the while the At­lantic air breezed through the weak spots in my cloth­ing, per­me­at­ing ev­ery stitch.

I al­ways knew get­ting to St Kilda, the re­motest of the Bri­tish Isles – flung out into the North At­lantic over 64km west of the near­est Outer He­bridean isle of North Uist – was go­ing to be chal­leng­ing, but when I signed up for a sail­ing trip to try and make it there on what would be my fifth at­tempt, I had no idea what I was in for.

Be­ing a lover of re­mote places, the idea of the Bri­tish ar­chi­pel­ago had in­trigued me for over a decade. I re­mem­bered read­ing about how a com­mu­nity of peo­ple had lived on this 6.7 sq km patch of rugged vol­canic land since the Bronze Age – over 5,000 years ago – and how its ex­is­tence was first doc­u­mented in 1697 by a man called Martin Martin, who jour­neyed there by the only method avail­able at the time: a long­boat over sev­eral days. I re­called read­ing in awe the story of how the last of its 36 lo­cals were ‘evac­u­ated’ to the main­land in 1930, and be­ing in­trigued by a sepia im­age that showed a St Kil­dan foot that ap­peared ridicu­lously nar­row and long next to a main­lan­der’s. It was said to have evolved that way due to cen­turies of climb­ing the ver­tig­i­nous sea stacks to col­lect the eggs of seabirds (and in­deed the

birds them­selves) – their only food source for many years. I didn’t so much want to see this in­trigu­ing place, I had to with ev­ery fi­bre of my be­ing. And so, over the years, when­ever I headed to the Isle of Skye, I would en­quire about the speed­boat that takes vis­i­tors there in a four-hour trip. But ev­ery time I signed up, it was can­celled due to bad weather. I had started to think I would never make it there. And then I heard about Bessie Ellen.

Set­ting sail

Lov­ingly re­stored by her skip­per, Nikki Alford, the 1904 tall ship known as Bessie Ellen is one of Bri­tain’s last wooden trad­ing ketches, with huge can­vas sails that look like ev­ery child’s dream of a pi­rate ship. Its main belly cargo hold had been trans­formed into a din­ing/ living area where guests’ bunks are built into the walls (with cur­tains for pri­vacy) and hot show­ers are – lit­er­ally – on tap.

On a ten-day St Kilda trip, get­ting to the proph­e­sied isle was by no means guar­an­teed. But with guests ex­pected to get hands-on as much as they could, the ad­ven­ture would be earned what­ever the out­come. It was a re­al­ity I quickly dis­cov­ered on my first night, as we an­chored along­side the town of Tober­mory on the Isle of Mull.

“We won’t make St Kilda in the next cou­ple of days – that’s for sure,” pre­dicted Nicki as the sun turned the sky a deep shade of pur­ple be­hind her. “The wind is too strong, the sea too rough. But if we all muck in and start early, we should be able to land on Canna to­mor­row, take shel­ter there and then head to the Outer He­brides the day af­ter. If we’re lucky, the weather will change.”

I eyed my fel­low would-be sailors cu­ri­ously. There were four old hands, who had been on Bessie Ellen pre­vi­ously and be­come hooked; a phar­ma­cist cou­ple and their re­tired best friend, who had never winched so much as a jib be­fore in their lives; an­other re­tired cou­ple, also new to sea­far­ing; a mother and daugh­ter ea­ger to try their hands at the ropes; a solo 40-some­thing Scot­tish woman in search of an ad­ven­ture; and a Ger­man cou­ple in their 30s, who had been in­trigued by Bri­tain’s mys­te­ri­ous far-flung is­land. Con­ver­sa­tion flowed ner­vously over shared din­ner that evening as many of us con­fessed to be­ing over­whelmed by the sail­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy. But de­spite our trep­i­da­tion, the one thing we all had in com­mon was a de­ter­mi­na­tion to make it to St Kilda.

Nikki hadn’t lied about the early start. The sun had barely risen when the shout was made to grab break­fast be­fore head­ing up on deck. This time I put on my sea-is­sued wa­ter­proof trousers and jacket, and though I looked dis­tinctly Min­ion-like in my yel­lowand-blue shiny rub­ber, I felt in­stantly warm and at ease.

Along the way we were shown some knots – bow­line, fig­ure-eight, reef, clove hitch – taught how to hoist (raise) and trim (ad­just) the sails, and learnt how to read our po­si­tion on the GPS and com­plete the cap­tain’s log each hour. By the time we reached the Canna, part of the Small Isles, I was starv­ing. We in­haled a hearty meal

‘Get­ting to the proph­e­sied isle was by no means guar­an­teed. But with guests ex­pected to get hand­son, the ad­ven­ture would be earned what­ever the out­come’

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