St Kilda: island at the edge of time

by Brian.Pedley

Gettting to remote St Kilda in the Atlantic Ocean has never been easier - you can now tour the UK`s remotest island (and Scotland's first UNESCO World Heritage Site) in a single day

In the warmth of a spring afternoon, I watched newly born lambs butting at their ewes. The village green had been grazed smooth. A line of rock-built cottages swooped gracefully along the village street that snuggled into the hillside. Below, in Village Bay, the sea glittered.

Sheep are the major population on St Kilda - apart from a couple of dozen defence workers and a resident team from the island`s owners, The Scottish National Trust. Except for one cottage, which is now a museum, the properties, roofless and defiant, have lain unoccupied for more than 75 years.

Bronze Age travellers came to the St Kilda archipelago 5,000 years ago. A Gaelic-speaking community existed here from medieval times, competing against weather and isolation – and ultimately losing. In 1877, Victorian ship-owners began regular summer cruises to St Kilda. The fragile population of 180 gradually surrendered its self-sufficiency, selling sheepskins, tweeds and other souvenirs.

The First World War provoked a mass migration of able-bodied young men. Diseases such as tetanus and influenza weakened the community still further. Finally, in August 1930, the last 36 St Kildans asked to be evacuated to the Scotttish mainland, never to return. Alone in the Atlantic, 40 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, thumped by winter waves that explode to 100 feet in height, St Kilda was inscribed as Scotland`s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 to become an official `wonder of the world`.

Getting here used to involve a sea voyage of around eight hours. Now, thanks to Kilda Cruises, of the Isle of Harris, the back of beyond has never been closer. As a passenger in Angus Campbell`s fast, 12-seater motor boat, Orca, I was here in two and a half hours from the island port of Leverburgh. Riding at a steady 20 knots, I caught my first view of St Kilda`s main island of Hirta, as it dozed on the horizon like some grey, jagged-humped sea monster.

A lone puffin swooped across Orca`s bow. Hirta and her sister islands of Bororay to the north and Dun to the south-east are home to 140,000 pairs of these beguiling birds - the largest colony in Britain. The sheep, I learned, belong to no one. Originating from the neighbouring island of Soay, they roam wild as the direct descendants of flocks that grazed here at the time of Christ.

Our life-jacketed party of hikers and trippers from all over Europe disembarked by inflatable dinghy. Apparently it reduces the risk of rats being imported and destroying St Kilda`s ancient eco-system. I learned how St Kildans owed their survival to the sea birds, with the men risking death to leap barefoot over rock faces to trap an annual harvest of thousands of gannets, fulmars, puffins and guillemots.

The hillsides remain scattered with the hundreds of stone hive-shaped `cleits` that the St Kildans used for the winter storage of dried birds and the oil and feathers with which they paid their rent. At one time, each St Kildan apparently ate around 115 fulmars each year.

I explored the 19th-century schoolroom, with its row of desks and writing slates, where teachers struggled to explain the existence of trees to St Kilda`s children. One early photograph shows a class of eight children, grim-faced, bare-footed and squeezed into hand-me-down sweaters. Next door, I found the spartan kirk where islanders thanked God for being allowed to live. I threaded myself through the doorways of the 16 single-storey cottages that were built in 1830. In each fireplace lies a slate, marked poignantly with the name of the last St Kildan to live there.

Afloat with Orca, we steamed to Hirta`s north side. There, Conachair, at 1,410 ft the highest sea cliff in Britain, almost overwhelmed us. "From up there, we`re just a speck in the water," said Angus, the skipper.

Hundreds of feet above us glided thousands of fulmars, suspended with single wing-beats, like stray flecks of confetti. Off the islet of Bororay, we craned our necks at the great stone tower of Armin, the mightiest of Kilda`s sea stacks, punching the sky at more than 600 feet above the waves. 

This weirdest of seascapes was created from an erupting volcano 60 million years ago. Yet the St Kildans survived here, with their own parliament, music and culture for more than 700 years. Now the so-called "islands at the edge of time" belong to the wildflowers, the seabirds, the sheep and the rare St Kildan mouse. I`d spent a day here, watching the fulmars glide and the lambs leap. I`d found my personal back of beyond to be a true wonder of the world.


Getting there

Kilda Cruises runs daily return trips to St Kilda from Leverburgh, Harris, during the spring and summer months for around £180 return. The Isle of Harris and the adjoining isle of Lewis have good connections with the Scottish mainland, via the main airport of Stornoway. Flybe operated by Loganair runs flights four times daily, Monday to Saturday, to Stornoway from Glasgow and Edinburgh (from £39.99 one way) and Inverness (from £33.99 one way). There is also a Sunday flight from Glasgow. From Inverness to Stornoway, you can also fly with Highland Airways. Eastern Airways have one return flight Monday to Friday from Aberdeen to Stornoway.




A working journalist since 1969, I run my own freelance office in Cornwall, delivering travel and general feature articles to the national and regional press. Assignments have ranged from tours of Cornish communities in Wisconsin and South Australia for The Times to cruising the Galapagos Islands for the Sunday Express. Closer to home, I specialise in history and heritage-based pieces from around the UK. Favourite places: Scotland, Herefordshire, Normandy, Vermont.