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.
Military 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.
Cleits 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.
Archaeology 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!
With short days and relentless stormy weather, summer seems a long time away. We’ve had very few outings this winter so I wrote this post to remind me of summer days on my favourite Hebridean island and paddling in the sea and picnics on The Prince’s Beach.
Eriskay is a small rocky island, only about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and lies off the southern tip of South Uist in the long chain of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.
It’s a beautiful island and a great place to walk, whether it’s along a white sandy beach or on the rocky hillsides where Eriskay ponies graze. Wherever you go there are magnificent views across the sea to other islands and interesting things to see along the way.
I have to admit that Eriskay is my favourite Hebridean island, despite not having the profusion of prehistoric remains that are found in the rest of the Western Isles. There is virtually nothing to be seen from this period and the only site worth noting is a group of 3 ring cairns from the Neolithic or Bronze-Age. They are situated up above the village on a level piece of ground on the NW slopes of Beinn Sciathan.
The remains are very scant and it’s difficult to make out much detail. There isn’t much to see and not much is known about them. Canmore has a single entry from 1965 which states that the cairns were found below 5 feet of peat (I wonder how they were found – peat cutting perhaps?) and that there are 3 circles of small boulders with small central mounds and a fourth small ring without a cairn.
While we were searching for the cairns we wondered if we would see some of the native Eriskay ponies as we hadn’t seen any so far that day. Sure enough, as we reached a grassy plateau, dotted with bog cotton, we found a large group of them happily grazing. Eriskay ponies are a hardy Hebridean breed and roam freely about the island.
Eriskay is linked to South Uist by a causeway and as you approach the island from the causeway one of the first things you see is St Michael’s Church, in a prominent position on the hill, overlooking the Sound of Eriskay. It was built in 1903 by the islanders themselves, under the guidance of their much loved priest, Father Allan Macdonald. Fr Allan, or Maighstir Ailein as he was known, worked tirelessly for his flock and campaigned for better rights for impoverished tenants, most of whom were living in terrible poverty at that time. He was only 46 when he died but he had already become famous as a poet and as a collector of local folklore, traditions and Gaelic language.
The church is beautiful inside and it has a very unique and unexpected feature – an altar created from the bow of a boat! This was a lifeboat that was washed overboard from the aircraft carrier Hermes and ended up on a nearby shore in South Uist. The church and the altar feature in Peter May’s ‘Lewis Trilogy’, a series of captivating crime novels set on the Isle of Lewis. In his book ‘The Lewis Man’ some of the book is set in Eriskay. On the Isle of Lewis, an old man with dementia talks about a church with a boat in it and the trail eventually leads the detective all the way down through the islands to Eriskay, where he finds that there is indeed a church with a boat in it!
On the wall outside the church is a special stone which has been hollowed out in the centre. It was specially made and placed here so that a fire could be lit in it and the smoke seen across the water in South Uist. In the days before telephones and long before the causeway, this was the way of signalling that the priest was needed on the island. When the smoke was seen, the priest would be fetched and a fisherman would take him over to Eriskay.
To make enough smoke to be seen, a fire was first lit with dry twigs or straw and once it was alight wet seaweed would be placed on it to create an abundance of smoke.
We left the church and walked through Am Baile, the main village. Following the road south you pass the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, erected on the site of the original church.
Looking down across Am Baile, with South Uist in the background
Eriskay will always be famous for the SS Politician which ran aground here in 1941 with its cargo of 22,000 cases of malt whisky. Bound for Jamaica and New Orleans, it’s cargo never made the Americas but ended up in the houses of Eriskay, South Uist and beyond. The story of the islanders salvaging as much as they could before the boat sank and then hiding it from the Customs and Excise men was immortalised in Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore and the subsequent Ealing comedy of the same name.
One of the buildings in the right of the photo above is the pub, Am Politician, which was built in 1988 and named after the ship. A couple of the original bottles of whisky rescued from the SS Politcian can be seen inside.
Over on the east side of the island is An Acarsaid Mhor, the Big Harbour. Walking round the sheltered bay you come to a clump of trees, some of the very few trees on Eriskay, and above them you can follow The Way of the Cross. The path follows a cliff face where the Stations of the Cross are depicted on slates along the cliff. They were created by a priest in the 1970’s but unfortunately most are looking very weathered now. At the top of the path stands a wooden cross.
Ruined houses on the hill above An Acarsaid Mhor
A short road runs across Eriskay, from the causeway to South Uist in the north down to the pier for the Barra ferry in the south. The road finishes at the southern end of The Prince’s Beach and from here, an hour long ferry journey takes you across to Barra.
This is the most well known broch in the Outer Hebrides and the only one to rise to such a height. It’s certainly a striking feature in the landscape, sitting up above the crofting township of Carloway, on the west side of Lewis.
The broch was probably built about 200BC but could have been in use up to about 1000AD. It was quite common for brochs to be used again as strongholds during medieval times and the Morrison Clan are said to have used Dun Carloway as a stronghold in the 1500’s.
The entrance is on the north side and most of the walls on this side have collapsed, leaving a view of the interior structure.
The door is only a metre high and would have had been well defended. As you go in the door there is a small guard chamber set into the wall.
The interior, showing a low entrance into one of two chambers on the ground floor.
A common broch feature is the scarcement which is when the lower part of the wall is made thicker so that it forms a ledge to support the wooden floor above it. Here the line of the scarcement can be seen about halfway between the lower and upper doorways. The lower wall would also have been made thicker to support the huge weight of the tower above it.
An artist’s impression of the broch shows how the space inside would have been used, with animals kept on the ground floor and living quarters on the floors above. Stairs and galleries were built between the concentric walls. The highest part of the broch is 9m high and it probably wouldn’t have been much higher than this originally.
There are extensive views across the surrounding landscape as well as out to sea.
Ruins of blackhouses in the field below the broch. No guessing where the stone would have come from! Blackhouses were the traditional form of cottage with thatched roofs and rounded corners.
A few miles down the road are the famous Calanais Stones and its surrounding ritual landscape of stone circles and other Neolithic monuments. There is nowhere like this small area in the remote west of Lewis to evoke such a connection with the distant past.
Beistean’s Grave and Leac Alasdair are two enigmatic stone settings hidden away in Langass Wood, a community woodland on the Isle of North Uist. There are footpaths through the wood and the Hebridean Way long distance footpath skirts round the edge of it but it is easy to overlook the path up to the stones. From the middle of the wood a path leads steeply uphill through a tunnel of trees – beware, trees frequently get blown down across the path after gales!
The path up to Beistean’s Grave and Leac Alasdair
At the top of the path, just before you come out onto the open hilltop, is the unexpected sight of the massive stone slab that is Leac Alasdair and beside it, the large flat stones known as Beistean’s Grave.
Leac is Gaelic for a slab of stone and this one is enormous! It is a glacial erratic, over 3½ m high by 3½m wide and propped up at a 45° angle – quite possibly its natural position. Wedged underneath are two large stones which rest on top of a squat upright stone. It is difficult to tell if this is how the stones were originally deposited or if man had a hand in their arrangement.
Underneath the large slab is a row of upright stones, partly submerged below the present day ground level and this certainly isn’t natural. They form a wall along one side creating a chamber underneath the overhanging slabs, like the edge of a stone cist. I’d like to think this is the remains of a prehistoric burial site, particularly in view of the cupmarked Beistean’s Grave which sits next to it, but it’s impossible to say for sure and it could simply be a shelter that someone had built under the stones at some unknown time in history.
Lying on the ground in front of the stones is this beautifully patterned piece of Lewisian gneiss.
It tapers towards a point at one end and looks as if it has been fashioned into this shape, making me wonder if it once stood upright in front of the other stones. Vegetation is beginning to obscure some of the surface but the swirling bands of pink and grey foliation can still be appreciated.
Next to Leac Alasdair is Beistean’s Grave. Beistean is a local name, a derivation of Archibald, but as far as I know there’s no local legend about who Beistean or Alasdair were.
Beistune’s Grave consists of two large slabs of rock, one on top of the other, with another smaller slab wedged between them at one end, raising the top stone up a little. The top stone has broken in half at some time, with one piece of it lying lower down and partly submerged by earth and vegetation. This slab would have been about 5m long before it was broken in half. Beneath the 2 large slabs there appears to be a hollow, with evidence of small stones along the edge of the hollow supporting the large slabs on top.
The most interesting feature of Beistune’s Grave is the cup marks on the corners of the slabs. There are cup marks on all 3 of the slabs and they are all on the corners (no cup marks are visible on the broken off piece of stone lying on the ground next to it). Some of the cup marks have grooves running off them and this one on the top slab is the most pronounced. There are some less pronounced grooves running off the cupmarks on the lower stone.
The rock art on Uist isn’t very impressive and it’s usually hard to say with certainty whether the few recorded cup marks are prehistoric or just natural features. This is one instance where they are most likely to be prehistoric, particularly in view of the other prehistoric sites nearby.
I’d like to think that these two stone settings could have been prehistoric burial sites. Possibly from the early Bronze Age – a time when building the great chambered cairns had come to an end, their chambers had been sealed and they were moving into a period where important people would be buried in single stone cists. These are unusual in that they appear to have utilised existing stones and modified them to be used as burial sites and it is difficult to classify them as they don’t fall into the usual categories of prehistoric burial monuments. They have never been excavated and we’ll probably never know for sure, but they are still an interesting feature in the prehistoric landscape of this part of North Uist.
Close by is the impressive Barpa Langais chambered cairn and on the southern slope of the hill is Pobull Fhinn stone circle, both being the most intact examples of their kind in Uist. There is also an abundance of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains scattered across the neighbouring hills.
Barpa Langais, North Uist
Pobull Fhinn, Langass Stone Circle
To appreciate their setting in the landscape and the view there would have been from Leac Alasdair and Beistean’s Grave before they were surrounded by trees, you need to go through the gate in the deer fence and walk onto the open hillside towards the summit of Beinn Langais. It’s possible to just make out some other prehistoric sites on distant hills (binoculars are useful here!), such as the standing stones at Unival chambered cairn and Tigh Cloiche cairn on Marrogh. Not only are there extensive views across Uist but you can also see across the Minch to Skye.
View from Beinn Langais
Gate in the deer fence beside Beistean’s Grave
Another surprise in Langass Wood is the life-sized sculpture of Hercules the bear. Hercules was a grizzly bear who became famous and made Uist the focus of media attention in 1980 when he went on the run during filming for a Kleenex advert. He was missing for over 3 weeks, despite searches by his owner, many volunteers and the army and navy but was eventually spotted swimming in the sea by a local crofter, 20 miles away from where he’d gone missing.
A very hungry and tired Hercules was rescued and brought back to health by his wrestler owner and he went on to have numerous appearances in TV and film, his most famous role being in the James Bond film Octopussy. After he died he was taken back to Uist and laid to rest in Langass Wood.
Most entries for the Western Isles are about chambered cairns and other prehistoric remains but this one is about a very moving memorial to the Iolaire disaster, one of the saddest but least known tragedies from WW1. As the memorial is in the form of a temporary artwork which will only last as long as tides and weather allow, I thought it deserved to be recorded here in a post.
100 years ago, on 1st January 1919 the Naval Yacht HMY Iolaire was bringing sailors back home to the islands after the war when it hit rocks and sank as it approached Stornoway harbour. The young men, most of them naval reserves on leave after the war, would have seen the lights of Stornoway ahead of them and there would have been great excitement at seeing their families again and celebrating the New Year. Families were waiting at the pier to welcome them but in the darkness and gale force winds the ship hit rocks and sank, about a mile from its destination and only about 20 yards from the shore. Of the 280 crew and passengers on board, 201 were lost.
There wasn’t a district or family left untouched by the terrible loss of so many on the Iolaire. The islands had already lost a higher proportion of its young men to the war than other places and the loss was so great that it could barely be spoken about for generations.
A hundred years on, islanders have been commemorating the disaster. Apart from events to mark the anniversary, a special exhibition has been running at Stornoway Museum throughout the winter and this sculpture was commissioned by Stornoway Port Authority and erected on the shore by the ferry port. It was only intended to be a temporary installation for a few months but it has survived better than expected and hopefully will be in situ for a little while longer as it has been so popular with local and visitors.
The life-size outline of the 189ft long ship is depicted by tall posts, one for every man on the ship. 201 have been left plain to represent the number lost and 79 are painted white to represent the survivors. At low tide the posts are revealed, rising starkly from the mud like the ribs of an old ship. As the tide comes in the posts disappear under the water, the white tips just visible under the surface. If it isn’t too sunny, you start to see spots of blue light appearing under the surface, like phosphorescence. It is at night time that it looks most dramatic, when the tide is in and ethereal green and blue lights from the posts reveal the outline of the ship under the water.
Sheòl an Iolaire – The Iolaire Sailed (Iolaire is Gaelic for eagle)
Along the top of the wall by the pavement is a long plaque with the names of the many districts in Lewis and Harris who lost men. After each place there is a number in black for the number lost from that area and a number in white for the survivors.
Across the harbour is Lews Castle which houses Stornoway Museum and around it are the Castle Grounds whose trees provided the posts for the sculpture.