Scouring the horizon, again and again, concentrating, eyes aching, scarcely allowing lids to blink. Where was St Kilda? And then an unashamedly excited outburst, a land ahoy moment: ‘There it is, there it is.’ ‘It’ was Boreray, the second-largest of the St Kilda isles, climbing cathedral-like, jagged and forbidding, hundreds of metres high, from the greyness of the mighty Atlantic. Stac an Armin, a fearsome fang of rock, tilted like a monstrous leaning tower, emerged next, appearing off the northern prow of Boreray. The farthest-flung of all of the British islands, the islands at the edge of the world, were gloriously revealing themselves. St Kilda existed, St Kilda was real. The shapes of these islands, slight and indistinct at first, grew by the moment, becoming larger and larger, swelling to gigantic, fearful proportions. Another sea pillar, Stac Lee, the molar to the incisor of Stac an Armin, came into sight, then Hirta, the largest of the islands and our destination, its haunches sheer, its head lost in cloud.
If islands are a metaphor for the world, St Kilda is a metaphor for humanity: its frailty and its strength, but most of all its ability to self-destruct. This once Utopian, untainted archipelago of astonishing grandeur, and inhabited for more than 2000 years, was evacuated in 1930. The government was inundated with requests from people wanting to replace the 36 displaced St Kildans. Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod, the proprietor of St Kilda, and the Scottish Office, rejected them all. ‘It would be folly to remove one lot of people who know the island and replace them with a group of strangers,’ Sir Reginald insisted. So human life on St Kilda ceased.
There are umpteen thoroughfares named Main Street in the British Isles, though no other is quite like Hirta’s Main Street. This grassy road passes through The Village, with all the homes lining up on the northern side of the track, crafting land sloping seawards to the south. It is a road that witnessed the life and death of St Kilda. I walked in heavy rain, conscious of not wanting to waste a moment. Sheltering in the kirk or the schoolroom would have meant wasting moments, however cold and wet I became. Half a dozen of the houses had been reroofed and restored, of which one had been converted into a little museum. But the vast majority of the buildings were lifeless, with floors overgrown and covered by droppings. Eight decades of Atlantic weather had ravaged these places until they had become homes fit only for sheep. To the east of what is known as house five is the building that once contained the island’s post office, now also a ruin. This is where the so-called St Kilda parliament – made up of all able-bodied men on the island – would meet daily to decide what work needed to be done on the island.
Alone and with my back to the huts, I could imagine what life might have looked like on Hirta, and I was overwhelmed with the remoteness of such a life. Had I travelled directly to St Kilda from Edinburgh or London, that sense of remoteness would have been heightened still further. After three months of island-hopping, I was conditioned to lands surrounded by water. I had grown familiar to the sensation of being isolated from the rest of the world. But my notion of remoteness had constantly been redefined. Arran seemed remote in comparison with mainland Ayrshire, but I ridiculed such a notion when I visited Colonsay and Jura. Coll, in particular, and Tiree had seemed more isolated still – more Outer Hebrides than Inner – as did Rum. St Kilda took my definition of isolation and remoteness to new levels. This was the edge – a geographical edge standing at the frontier of north-west Europe, but also a cultural and social edge.
And the most extraordinary concept of all: people – hundreds of them – had lived on this island for centuries, a happy, organised, fulfilled, thriving community 40 miles from the next nearest humans and 110 miles from the Scottish mainland. St Kilda is so remote that it is nearer Rockall, an islet on the edge of the European continental shelf, than its capital, Edinburgh. Sharing a longitude with Portugal, the archipelago is so distant from the rest of Britain that the islands are either ignored by mapmakers or relegated to an inset. It is little wonder then that St Kilda is known as the island group at the edge of the world.
The boat rolled out of Village Bay. I looked back at Main Street and The Village, turned my eyes upwards to Conachair, wondering when, if ever, I would return. The cruiser gradually increased speed and bumped across a now lustrous sea to Boreray and the stacks. Hirta began to shrink in our wake. Sitting on the port side, my view of Stac Lee had been blocked for several minutes. I got up, motioning to change sides, but the Dutchman ushered me to sit again. ‘Stay where you are,’ he said cryptically, ‘you’re in the best place.’ Just then, Angus turned the boat on its side, so the port outlook now faced the direction we had been travelling. The view was a revelation. Stac Lee, colossal and smeared in guano, a titanic cliff adrift in the ocean, rose before us. Countless gannets glided effortlessly over the stack, like midges swarming around a human head. Together, Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee are the breeding ground for the world’s largest gannet colony, numbering some 30,000 pairs. The stack was a forbidding sight. Heathcote’s words came to mind again: ‘Grand and awe-inspiring.’
After sailing in these waters in 1879, the yachtsman R.A. Smith wrote: ‘Had it been a land of demons, it could not have appeared more dreadful, and had we not heard of it before, we should have said that, if inhabited, it must be monsters.’ A mile on, we came to Stac an Armin, fiercer, leaner and loftier than Stac Lee. Here was another place worthy of monsters. Soaring to a height of 191 metres and plunging a further 100 metres beneath the waves, Stac an Armin is the highest sea stack in the UK. The sides of the needle breaking the water were black and devilishly steep, often vertical. Landing a boat here or manoeuvring one as close as possible to enable those onboard to fling themselves onto the stack seemed implausible, a suicidal undertaking. The Gaelic translation of Stac an Armin – stack of the soldier or warrior – could not have been more apt. Yet St Kildans regularly went ashore here, hunting and building cleits.
We slipped silently through the narrow, rock-strewn channel separating Boreray and Stac an Armin until we were positioned beneath the ‘overhang’, a shadowy place where no sunlight pervaded. ‘Keep your mouth closed,’ someone shouted, as the boat slid under the rock. Guano fell on the deck like rain. The cry of birds was cacophonous, the stench, a foul mix of guano and rotting fish, overpowering. It was unfathomable that people could live on Stac an Armin. There seemed to be no shelter, no surface that was horizontal. Yet a group of St Kildans had somehow inhabited the stack for the best part of a year. They were not there by choice.
The group – three men and eight boys – had been deposited on Stac an Armin for a fowling mission in the summer of 1727. Such visitations to the gannet colony were regular occurrences and the group would have arranged to be returned to Hirta with the fruits of their labour several days later. Only no boat came. The men and boys waited. A week went by, then a month, then six months, and still no boat. The group had no vessel of their own. As on the rest of St Kilda, Stac an Armin was treeless; they could not craft their own boat. There was no way of breaching the four-mile chasm between Stac an Armin and Hirta. Swimming – even if they could – would be a death sentence. Even the possibility of relocating to better-resourced Boreray, a crossing of little more than 200 metres was made hopeless by the sheer cliffs of the larger island. The group were stranded, marooned, and Stac an Armin is no desert island.
One can only speculate on what thoughts they dwelt? They would not have been able to comprehend the reason for their mass abandonment. What about the prospect of the coming winter? Storms that engulfed St Kilda were dreadful to endure for those who had battened down the hatches in the relative shelter of The Village. A former islander described one storm as leaving the people ‘deaf for a week’. Mary Cameron said: ‘The noise of the wind, the pounding of the sea, were indescribable. This storm was accompanied by thunder and lightning, but we could often not hear the thunder for the other sounds.’ The horror of countless storms lashing their rock-home, the torture of the Scottish winter, is unimaginable. Prisoners on this dreadful fang of rock, their lives were surely of abject misery.
Yet they endured. The desperate 11 drank from the stack’s fresh water supply and ate birds, eggs and fish. Writing of the group’s experiences on the stack, Neil Mackenzie, the island minister from 1829 to 1843, noted: ‘They lived on fish and fowls, but at times suffered much from cold and hunger. They made fish hooks out of a few rusty nails, and also contrived to stitch together their clothing with feathers and patch them with the skins of birds.’ Somehow they retained hope, somehow they survived the winter. Hope was rewarded; salvation came.
The group was rescued on May 13, 1728, nine months after being stranded, the steward of St Kilda their saviour. Returning to Hirta, they discovered the grim truth of why a boat had never come back. In their absence the island had been devastated by smallpox, brought to Hirta in the contaminated clothes of a St Kildan who had died of the disease during a visit to Harris. The aged man’s relatives had brought retrieved the clothes, not knowing they harboured the deadly infection. The hunters had left the island before the plague strangled the island, sweeping from home to home, from islander to islander. The survivors had not forgotten about the men; there were simply too few able-bodied sailors to row the island’s boat to Stac an Armin. So, ironically, what must have been a godforsaken existence on the stack, their nine-month imprisonment saved them from an even worse fate – almost certain death – had they remained on Hirta. The population of St Kilda had stood at 180 in 1697. On the group’s homecoming, only four adults and 26 children – all of them orphans – were alive, with the epidemic thought to have wiped out 80 to 90 per cent of St Kilda’s entire population.
Despite their near-death experiences on Stac an Armin, St Kildans continued to return to the monolith to collect birds and eggs. On one of the visits in 1840, fowlers made an unwitting contribution to the annals of British natural history by slaughtering the country’s last native great auk. Believing the bird to be a witch, the superstitious St Kildans beat it to death with stones. By 1852 the great auk was extinct. High on the south side of Stac an Armin was a bothy. Climbers who ascended Stac an Armin in the 1990s described this bothy as being able to seat up to 15 men, as well as being free-standing and larger than a hut on neighbouring Stac Lee. From the deck it was possible to see the entrance, appearing as a dark hole disappearing into bare rock. This bothy was once called home: the crude and paltry shelter of three men and eight boys for nine long months. It was also the place where the last great auk in the British Isles was imprisoned for three days before being stoned to death.
Much has been written and published on St Kilda. Writers find the archipelago an irresistible subject. Indeed, a book could be devoted exclusively to Stac an Armin, an island that stands as a marker for all of St Kilda, representing bravery, fortitude and perseverance, but also hardship, misunderstanding and, ultimately, profound sorrow. Angus turned the boat to Harris. The outline of the archipelago grew hazy, becoming fainter and fainter. Then the islands were gone, swallowed up by the horizon, as if they had never existed. I went into one world, St Kilda faded into another. I felt a connection – a brief yet deep physical link – sever, but I knew the emotional bond, the stronger connection, would be lifelong.
Need to know
Accommodation on Hirta (the largest of the St Kilda isles) is limited to camping, with room for a maximum of six people. The National Trust for Scotland runs working holidays to St Kilda, typically in May and June. A number of cruise ships visit St Kilda; places can also be booked on charter boats departing from Mallaig and Oban, as well as ports on the Western Isles. These are heavily dependent on weather conditions. For more information about visiting Hirta and accessing the archipelago’s other islands go to www.kilda.org.uk
Isles at the Edge of the Sea by Jonny Muir (£8.99, Sandstone Press Ltd) is available from Amazon