Title image: Din Lligwy Iron-Age Farmstead, Anglesey While I was stranded away from home during lockdown I wrote the ‘Sea Interludes’ posts as a change from writing about archaeology and historical sites. I quite liked… More
When St Kilda is visible from the Western Isles it’s usually Boreray that you notice first, with its distinctive shape and sea stacks.
It rises vertically from the sea, reaching 1,260ft (384m) at its highest point. The island is home to thousands of gannets, puffins and fulmars but there are also steep grassy slopes where feral sheep graze.
Boreray is seldom visited because it is so difficult to get on to. There’s no landing place and conditions have to be absolutely right to make the jump from a small boat onto the slippery rocks. Then there is the ascent up steep cliffs to reach the grassy slopes. Despite the difficulties of landing there, evidence of a settlement and field system dating back to the Iron Age have been found and St Kildans used to keep a reserve flock of sheep there and go to the island to hunt seabirds.
There are cleits here too and some of them were tiny bothies that the men from Hiorta used for shelter when they were on the island.
St Kildans visited Boreray and the stacs to hunt seabirds, which were a major part of their diet.
Back in 1727 there was an incredible story of survival when 3 men and 8 boys were marooned on Stac an Armin, the largest of Boreray’s sea stacks, for a whole winter. After being left there to hunt seabirds, there was an outbreak of smallpox on Hiorta which killed almost all the population and they didn’t get rescued until the following May. Being stranded on Boreray would have been bad enough but to spend an entire winter marooned on a sea stack, exposed to the north Atlantic gales must have been some feat of endurance and something that only St Kildans would have been equipped to survive.
They had limited shelter in a small bothy and lived off birds, eggs and fish. When they were finally rescued they returned to Hirta but their ordeal wasn’t over, as they found that nearly everyone had died of smallpox and the houses were empty.
An exciting boat trip round Boreray!
I can’t put into words just how atmospheric St Kilda can be in bad weather. When Boreray is shrouded in mist and the cliffs disappear up into the clouds. Being in a small boat beside these enormous cliffs, this is a place that belongs to the birds and the elements and humans feel so insignificant here.
As remote as it gets! An island archipelago 100 miles from the Scottish mainland and 40-50 miles further out into the Atlantic than the Outer Hebrides.
On a clear day St. Kilda can be seen from the Outer Hebrides and the closest place to it is North Uist, where there’s a Kilda viewing point. The photo below was taken beside a Neolithic cairn near the viewing point. Two islands can be seen faintly on the horizon and the one on the left is Hirta and the the one on the right with the very distinctive shape is Boreray.
The archipelago is volcanic in origin and is made up of four main islands –Hirta is the main one, and the others are Soay, Boreray and Dun. The islands are the most dramatic you’ll find anywhere in the British Isles, with towering cliffs rising vertically from the sea and land so steep that it’s more suited to the hardy indigenous sheep than to humans. The sea cliffs, at 1,410ft (430m) are the highest in Britain.
There are three spectacular sea stacks, also the highest in Britain – Stac an Armin, the highest, is 626ft high (191m) and there’s also Stac Lee and Levenish.
When you arrive at St. Kilda you are ferried ashore to the pier at Village Bay on Hirta. This is where the St. Kildans lived and their abandoned cottages stretch out in a long line round the bay.
People had lived here for at least 2000 years and there is some evidence of human activity going back much further than that.
It was an exceptionally hard life and St Kildans faced many dangers from disease, starvation and accidents on the treacherous seas and on the vertical cliffs which they descended in order to capture seabirds. By 1930 the population had dwindled to an unsustainable 36 and the last residents were evacuated at their own request.
There are no permanent residents today but there are people working there – civilians who run the radar tracking station for the missile range on South Uist, scientists studying the wildlife, particularly the native Soay sheep, and during the summer season there’s a resident National Trust warden and volunteer work parties.
Some views of Village Street
The island is owned and managed by the Nation Trust for Scotland and volunteer work parties have renovated some of the cottages to make accommodation for the seasonal volunteers and researchers who work there. One of the cottages houses a small museum.
In 1957 the island was resettled by the army when it became an outpost of the army rocket range in South Uist. In 1997 the army pulled out and the operation of the radar tracking station was taken over by civilians. They work there on rotation for a few a weeks at a time and a helicopter makes twice weekly visits to ferry personnel between Benbecula Airport and Kilda.
Work has been going on over the last few years to replace the old MOD buildings with buildings that will blend into the environment and be more suited to the harsh weather conditions.
Despite the juxtaposition of old and new, there is still a feeling of being far removed from everyday life and a sense of true remoteness. Once you leave the MOD base and walk along Village Street or wander up the hillsides you are surrounded by history and the visible reminders of how people lived on St Kilda in days gone by.
All around Village Bay and scattered all over the island, the land is dotted with these stone storage huts called cleits. There are well over 1,000 of them and they were used to store anything from feathers to peats, climbing ropes to meat, fish and produce.
A steep climb up the hill behind Village Street takes you to The Gap, where the land suddenly stops and you find yourself at the edge of 200m high vertical cliffs.
The Gap, where the land suddenly gives way to an almighty drop down to the ocean!
There is nothing so breathtaking as the view of Boreray from The Gap.
Hirta, Dun and Soay sit close together but Boreray is over 5 miles away to the NE.
On the very edge of the cliff sits an intriguing archaeological feature, a boat-shaped stone setting which probably dates from the Bronze Age. Part of it has been lost to the sea due to cliff erosion and when it was excavated archaeologists had to use mountaineering equipment to keep themselves safe. The only finds from the site were some fragments of quartz and two water-worn pebbles. If this was a burial or ritual site, what a setting for someone’s last resting place!
St Kilda must provide endless inspiration for artists. I’m not much of an artist myself but I was inspired to recreate this spectacular view in some way. This was my first attempt at linocut printing and I must admit, I was quite pleased with the result.
Back down in the village, Hirta even has a pretty good souterrain! Testament to Iron Age settlement on the island.
The souterrain is sometimes called Tigh an t-Slithiche, The House of the Fairies, and it was discovered about 1840. It is 25ft long with a small 6ft long side passage on the right hand side. The walls converge towards the roof, which is covered by stone slabs.
Around the coast of Hirta and Soay
Calm seas meant we were able to go through the narrow channel between Hirta and Soay
St. Kilda is a National Nature Reserve and is Europe’s most important seabird breeding area. It is home to about a million seabirds, including the world’s largest northern gannet colony and large colonies of puffins and fulmars. It is also well known for its bonxies (Great Skuas) who get very territorial during the breeding season and will swoop low over the heads of walkers and even dive bomb them, sometimes making painful contact. It’s recommended to carry a walking stick or pole to wave above your head!
St Kilda is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it is a dual World Heritage Site, because it is recognised for the international importance of both its natural environment and its cultural qualities.
To put this in context, there are only 35 such sites in the world and they include places like Machu Picchu in Peru.
I haven’t written anything about the St. Kildans and their unique way of life because that would make this a much longer post, but more can be found on the National Trust website https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/st-kilda?lang=en_gb and there are many books about St Kilda.
Look out for the next post which will be on Boreray!
Malin Beg and the Silver Strand
A glorious hot day in south west Donegal, when the sea was shimmering and the beautiful Silver Strand was almost deserted. I took some photos as I paddled from one end of the beach to the other.
This was another June, in another year, and the weather was exceptionally good for Donegal. At the moment the Silver Strand is one of the Donegal beaches closed to visitors due to Covid 19.
The first few Sea Interludes posts were from West Wales and the west of Ireland. Now for the west of Scotland.
Well off the beaten track and tucked away on the northern edge of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Ardtoe has a beautiful sandy beach set in a rugged rocky coastline. The colours are vivid and the deep blues of sea and sky contrast with golden sand and weathered rocks.
On the horizon are the hazy purple shapes of some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides
There are views over to the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum
Just up the coast is Castle Tioram, one of those romantic castles perched on islands, that you sometimes come across on the west coast of Scotland. It’s only 2 miles away as the crow flies, but over 6 miles by road. To get there we had to drive back to Acharacle, cross the bridge over the River Sheil and then take the narrow road which follows the river back to the sea.
Heading back to the sea, alongside the River Sheil
Castle Tioram (pronounced cheerum) means the dry castle and you walk across a sandy causeway to get to it. The tide came in while we were on the island and had covered part of the sandbar, so it was off with shoes and socks and a little bit of a paddle back to shore.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path
A change from the usual subject as I’m stranded away from home during lockdown. Writing posts isn’t so easy because I don’t have my laptop with me. So, in the meantime, I’m just going to post a few photos from around the coast of Britain and Ireland (the coast is my natural habitat, after all). Starting with the stunning Pembrokeshire Coast Path opposite Skomer Island.
The road to the sea, with Skomer Island in the distance. From Marloes the road heads down to a promintory called the Deer Park, where you can access the coast path or take the boat over to Skomer.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Stackpole – Broad Haven – Castlemartin
What is there along this section of the route, apart from amazing scenery and stunning cliffs and beaches? Well, there are blowholes, tanks and a magical chapel built into the cliff face.
There’s a great variety of geology on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and many eye catching sites of geological interest. At the northern end of the coast path there are craggy volcanic outcrops but here in this southern section the geology is limestone. The land is mainly flat limestone plateau but go to the edge and you have some dramatic coastal scenery.
From the wide sandy beach at Broad Haven, the coast path leads up onto the clifftops. The flat, grassy terrain on top of the cliffs makes easy walking but you have to watch out for blowholes! Heading in the Stackpole direction you pass this enormous one.
Going in the other direction, the path heads south, up onto Castlemartin artillery range. If the range is active there’s an alternative path which takes a detour inland but it would be a real shame to miss this section.
St Govan’s Chapel
The highlight of this section of the path is the magical St. Govan’s Chapel, dramatically built into the cliff face. Its origins are steeped in legend but it is thought to be from the 13th century and to be built on the site of a much earlier hermit’s cell – possibly a St Govan from the 6th century. A steep path leads down from the cliff top and it was well worth the climb down. Hopefully this will be the subject of a future post!
Some stats: The coast path is 186 miles long. A lot of it is along clifftops and there is a total of 35,000 feet of ascent and descent.