Sea Interludes 5 : St Kilda

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.

Hirta and Boreray, 40 miles from North Uist

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.

The St Kilda archipeligo
The island of Dun in the background. Only separated from Hirta by a narrow gap in the cliffs
The two boats that do day trips from the Isle of Harris. The journey takes 2¾ hours and is very weather dependent.

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.

Village Street

Village Street

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.

The power station and old MOD blocks (2017)

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.

The incongruous sight of a crane, as demolition of the old MOD buildings gets underway (2018). There is now a new building which is clad in wood and has a grass roof.

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!

The cliff here is over 650 ft high and the ones above are over 1000ft. The perfect place to stop for a picnic lunch after the steep climb from the village.
Boreray and Stac Lee

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.

A Soay sheep on the cliff edge

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!

Some of the stones nearest the cliff edge were lost to the sea during a cliff fall
The arrow shows the location of the boat-shaped stone setting on the cliff edge

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.

Looking out to Village Bay from the souterrain

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

Glen Bay, on the opposite side of the island from Village Bay

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 and there are many books about St Kilda.

Look out for the next post which will be on Boreray!


Two Midlothian Souterrains 1.Crichton

A day when we set out to investigate two souterrains but discovered that there were plenty more things to see in the areas around them! From searching the quiet country lanes for our first souterrain at Crichton, to the busy but wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, and from a castle with an unexpected Italianate interior to Castlelaw Hill Fort and Souterrain in the Pentland Hills.

Both souterrains were near Edinburgh, not many miles south of the bypass, but we found landscape that changed from rural farmland with sweeping views across the countryside to steep wooded valleys and then the Pentland Hills, which gave us even better views over the Firth of Forth to Fife.

3.Crichton souterrain
Inside Crichton souterrain

Crichton is a small hamlet with scattered farms along narrow country lanes. Apart from the souterrain, which is probably its least known claim to fame, it also has an interesting castle and a collegiate church.
The souterrain is of particular interest because it has some unique and distinctive features. Quite a number of the stones used to build it were of Roman origin and one of them even has a faint outline of a Pegasus on it – the emblem of a Roman legion.  I think I found the Pegasus but it was so faint I couldn’t be sure.

Souterrains can be very difficult to date, particularly if there is no evidence left of any other structure around it, such as an Iron-Age roundhouse or fort. This one sits on its own in the middle of a field, all trace of any associated dwellings long gone. However, due to the blocks of dressed Roman stone, showing their distinctive chisel marks, we know that this souterrain must have been constructed during or after Roman times, perhaps around the end of the 2nd century AD. This is quite a late date in Scotland’s period of souterrain building. Maybe after the Romans had left, the stone was plundered from nearby Roman sites or it was unused stone left over from one of their quarries.

4.Crichton souterrainDetail of Roman stones, showing chisel marks

Some ancient stones bearing  distinct cup marks have been used as lintels.

Cup marked lintel, CrichtonCup marks on roof lintel

The souterrain is situated in an arable field and care needs to be taken when accessing it. I couldn’t see an obvious farmhouse to ask permission but I did meet someone from a neighbouring farm who gave me directions and some more information about it. After walking up the track on the right hand side of the field, then along the top edge of the field it was a short careful walk over to the fenced-off souterrain.

2.Crichton souterrain

Steps lead down to a very low entrance where you have to crouch down and squeeze through. A short creep takes you into the main passage where there is plenty of room to stand up. The curved passage is about 15m long and the end of it is just squared off, rather than formed into any kind of chamber.


9.Crichton souterrain A previous visitor had placed tea lights along the walls of the passage!

Two familiar features of souterrains.  L. roots coming through the roof ,  R. a cubby hole                                                             

I’d looked at the entry for Crichton souterrain on the Modern Antiquarian website and  one of the contributers said that nearby Crichton Castle was a corker and not to be missed! So off we went to visit the castle.

Crichton Castle

After the rolling fields and farmland it was a surprise to find that the castle was perched on the very edge of a steep hill. Down below was the narrow twisting valley which is the source of the Tyne Water. Until then I didn’t know that Scotland had a River Tyne! This one flows into the North Sea near Dunbar, and at Pathhead where we had left the main road, there was a large railway viaduct across it, built by Thomas Telford.

The castle was certainly impressive but what a disappointment to find that it was closed that day and we could only look at the outside. We had to make do with looking at photos of it on the internet so we could see what we were missing and it was certainly not what you would expect to see in a Scottish castle.

Most of the castle is 15th century and what makes it really special is the ornate Italian design in the inner courtyard, influenced by the architect’s travels in Italy. If we had been able to see inside we would have seen the Italian-style arches and windows on the courtyard facade and the diamond studding effect on the stonework. All it needed was a Romeo and Juliet balcony – but perhaps it had one in it’s day!


Crichton Castle and a building next to it which was probably the stables

The car park for the castle is beside Crichton Collegiate Church. This is a Pre-Reformation church, contemporary with the castle and built by Lord Crichton to house a collegium of priests or canons. Mass would have been sung daily and the priests would have offered up daily prayers for the souls of Lord Crichton and his family.

Crichton Collegiate Church

Around 50 collegiate churches were built in Scotland from the 13th century until the time of the Reformation. They were secular churches, built by local chiefs and landowners on their own ground to increase the authority of the landowner and the crown at a time when the monasteries and the church wielded so much power. After the reformation some became parish churches while many others fell into ruin.

After exploring Crichton we set off to see the souterrain at Castlelaw Hill Fort in the Pentland Hills, visiting Rosslyn Chapel on the way.
see Two Midlothian Souterrains 2. Castlelaw Fort





Portnancon Souterrain

Portnancon is a well- preserved souterrain near the western shore of Loch Eriboll in Sutherland. It took 3 attempts to find it but after getting directions from a very helpful lady in Durness Tourist Information Centre we easily spotted the 2 large stones by the roadside that marked where to park. The souterrain wasn’t far from the road and I soon spotted the dark hole in amongst the heather.
Portnancon (Eriboll )Souterrain

This was my very first experience of a souterrain and would turn out to be the catalyst for much more research into the souterrains of Scotland and Ireland. It has also  remained one of my favourites.
Souterrains were underground storage facilities,and in Scotland, were usually built underneath or beside Iron Age round houses. There had been evidence of a round house here in the past but this was destroyed when the road was built.
There has been some speculation that they may also have served some ritualistic purpose, but mainly, they were for storage and possibly sometimes used for refuge as well.

With great excitement, I pulled back the heather and tentatively made my way down the 12 steps into the darkness, not knowing what it was going to be like inside. Like most souterrains, the roof was very low at the entrance but then got higher. I started to make my way along the curving passage and I must admit, it was quite scary when I turned the corner and was out of site of the entrance and would have been in complete darkness if it wasn’t for my torch.

Eriboll Souterrain 09
Into the darkness

It is a fairly typical design of the small souterrains found on the Scottish Atlantic coast. An 8.5m long passage curves in an anti-clockwise direction and culminates in a small rounded-off chamber at the end. It has dry stone walls and the roof is made from stone  lintels.
As the end of the passage came into view I had a heart-stopping moment! I’d seen a photo of it, so knew roughly what it would look like. However, down there at the end of the passage I could see what looked like two ropes hanging from the ceiling, one of which appeared to have a sack suspended from it. This was disconcerting for a few moments but I carried on and investigated. It turned out they were just roots from the ground above which had woven themselves into this sack-like shape –  it looked quite eerie, though.

Portnancon Souterrain
Approaching the end of the passage

A slideshow is a good way of showing the descent into the souterrain!

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Raitt’s (Lynchat) Souterrain, Kingussie

Raitts Souterrain (6)

The souterrains of mainland Scotland are found mainly in the eastern lowlands, with many in the fertile agricultural lands of Perthshire and Angus.
Raitt’s souterrain is further north, situated on a hillside above the wide flood plain of the River Spey, with views across to the Cairngorms.

Raitts Souterrain (4)
The original entrance, with the Spey valley and the Cairngorms behind

It is shaped like a horse shoe, with a short narrow passage at the entrance which leads to a much roomier tunnel with plenty of headroom. The rear of it is stump-shaped, rather than ending in a circular chamber, as many do.

After it was discovered in 1835 it was broken into from the side, destroying a good part of the side and roof but making easy access along the remaining passage.

The souterrain is on the Kingussie Paths Network and is a short distance up the way-marked route to Raitt’s Township,  a ruined settlement site.
Leaving the B9152 at Lynchat, the Raitt’s Township walk and the souterrain are both signposted.

Airidh an t-Sluic Souterrain, South Uist

Loch Sheileabhaig Souterrain  (1)

Another souterrain that was found on the second attempt. Situated in a rather bleak gully between Loch Sheileabhaig and Loch Sgioport on the rugged east coast of South Uist.
Most of it has collapsed in but parts of the stone-lined passage with roof lintels can still be seen.

Loch Sheileabhaig Souterrain  (2)

Loch Sheilabhaig Souterrain (4)

Scottish souterrains are usually situated next to or close by Iron Age round houses. Here the souterrain is at the foot of the cliff on the left and in the centre of the photo is the remains of what was probably a round house. Remains of a shell midden can also be seen.


Airidh an t-Sluic souterrain (1)

Caolas Liubharsaigh
The remote east coast of South Uist with the island of Rum on the horizon

Ullinish Souterrain, Isle of Skye

This was my second attempt at finding this souterrain. Last time was in late summer and I set off from the car park for Dun Beag Broch (on the main road) instead of driving a little way down the Ullinish road. In summer the ground was so thickly covered with bracken that I thought it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack anyway.
In March there was no bracken (and no cows to be seen!) and the souterrain was obvious after a very short walk towards the north side of Cnoc Ullinish. The last thing my husband said to me when I set off was “don’t go inside anything”. He really should know me better! So here’s a slideshow of some of the photos I took.

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