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.