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St Kilda: The Island On The Edge Of The World

Trip ReportJames HipkissComment

In a far corner of a United Kingdom, 40 miles from the Western Isles, lays a speck of land that has caught the imagination of many. Its thought that for two millennia St Kilda supported a modest population, which adapted to survive in such harsh and isolating conditions. With the influx of modern world influence the population begun to dwindle as religion, tourism, emigration and disease eventually contributed to the un-sustainability of this fragile society. It was the 29th August 1930 which saw the final evacuation of its inhabitants.

Now the archipelago is recognised as both a natural and cultural UNSECO World Heritage Site, its significance on a par among such sites a Machu Picchu in Peru. Trying to get from London to St Kilda, or the even Outer Hebrides for that matter, on a budget will mean youre not in for the most comfortable journeys. Its going to be long, uncomfortable, tiresome, but I say to myself; I it will be certainly be worth it! However if moneys less of an object you can fly to a number of small airports on the Western Isles with FlyBe, changing at Glasgow, or even get the Caledonian sleeper train from London Euston Station to Fort William (or Glasgow) where you carry on last few hours by coach. For me, however, it was on the 9pm overnight Mega Bus where tickets start from 5 from London Victoria Coach station which gets me to Glasgow for 5am, wait for a couple of hours for a connecting 7am Scotish CityLink couch to Uig (about 46 rtn) , the Ferry terminal which will finally take me to village of Tarbert on Harris. Opting for the coaches is cheap, but long and boring, its not really until after you pass Glasgow where the amazing Scottish highland scenery begins to tantalise your mind.

The mountains, valleys and lochs make for a lovely scenic ride, though made slightly harder appreciate after a sleepless night on the motorways of England. Its 2pm when I'm finally escape the confines of my coach seat at Uig, here the Ferry awaits to take me to Tarbert (5.70 single). Excited, here my short adventure starts as I board the MC Hebraises, a small roll on roll of ferry, similar to what you'd expect to cross the English channel, but way more exciting simply due to where its heading, one of the UK's most remote locations. As the sun shines and I go on deck to celebrate for making it this far with a can of Tenants Lager as I watch the Isle of Skye disappear below the horizon. After a short 1 hour and 40 minutes we arrive in Tarbert, Harris which will serve as my base of my short stay. Tarbert is a small and charming settlement, which acts as the capital and administrative area for Harris, you wont find too much here; a few of shops and couple of hotel bars. Its located on a narrow strip (an istalus) of land with the sea to either side of it and steep hills contain its spread.

Very scenic though and everything seems to be a few minutes walk away. As I walk off the ferry, instantly recognise the tourist office at the end of the street. I head there in the hope I can obtain some basic bus timetable information. Its closed so the second port of call, the Hebrides Hotel on the same road, not to check in as, as I suspect this place may be a bit out of my budget, however the hotel bar looks inviting and I'm a great believer in which ever situation you find your self in a short break to the closest pub will present a solution. I walk in and ask if they can know when the Bus leaves for Leverbrough (as that is where the boat to St Kilda will leave in the early morning), and I figured its best to wake up close by to where Id be leaving. Sorry weve no buses on a Sunday, I'm told by the young bartender. Ah.. Taxis? I ask. I senses a wee bit of hesitation when the bartender smiles and tells me shell check with her manager. Turns out Sundays may not have been the best day for my arrival. She disappears so I figure Id treat myself to a pint and a late lunch or perhaps an early dinner of fish and chips. As I've placed my order the supervisor appears and informs me that they've the next best thing to an official taxi She explains that one real taxi firm operates on the island and theyre based all the way in Stornoway, about an hour away, and hence the additional call out cost. So they offer to call me the next best thing a local man who sometimes offer s undertake taxi duties.

A pleasant 30 minutes ride starts to give me a feel for these islands. First, I quickly begin to realise a that theyre massive, looking at a map just doesnt do this place justice, I soon realise my backup plan of walking would have been foolish, instead I enjoy the ride as it takes me past wide deserted beaches, moors, highlands and lochs, occasionally passing a lone building or playing chicken with stubborn sheep on the narrow roads. 30 lighter after my ride I arrive at Leverbrough, Im told theres nothing open today, not that there is much there anyway. Im told I wont find anything to kill the time till the morning here, but why kill time here when it looks like time has stood still? Leverbrough is a lovely spread out village, with no person in sight, just a light breeze in the late afternoon and the evening sun reflecting off the coastline. My pre-arranged bunkhouse is hard to miss, a large red building with the large BUNKHOUSE sign on its side will be my home for the night.

I'm eager to dump my bags and set of for a little wander to the small harbour where I will be setting of the St Kilda the next day. A few boats more in the nearby waters but the highlight are to stunning vessels moored close to each other, the bright red hulls of the Orca III and the Hirta are the unmistakable hallmark of Kilda Cruises, who Ill be sailing with. As the sun begins to set on this sleepy place I find myself on the porch of the Am Bothen Bankhouse. Its a pleasant summers eve but has the sun continues to disappear it also becomes noticeably cooler and time to put on a jumper. The rest of the evening is spent sipping on a couple of bottles of beer Ive managed to pick up in the Hebraise Hotel Bar before turning in for my early morning. Now Im certainly not a morning person but today waking up at around 5.30am, showering and making my coffee wasnt at all a burden Im far too excited and anticipate my upcoming voyage to the edge of the world. A brisk walk towards the nearby harbour where a few people where gathering.

I'm approached by a man who seems to know who I am, he introduces himself as Angus; he runs Kilda cruises and captains the Orca III. A brief handshake and he explains the sea swell on St Kilda is much too high today and that we wont be possible to land today. An overwhelming sense of disappointment fills my gut, not really sure how to respond to Angus after all, Ive travelled up from London all this way only to be told I wont be sailing anywhere today. Of course, on the time of booking Kilda Cruises strongly advise I allocate an extra day into my itinerary in case of such circumstance, but still I cant help feel disappointed. Angus tells me that we can try again tomorrow though his voice didnt sound too reassuring that tomorrow will be any better condition. Perhaps tomorrow was down to luck or maybe years of experience have taught him to limit expectations. Angus kindly offers me a lift to Tarbert, where Ill find my way to another bunkhouse, Rock View, which is pretty much a self-service affair. Punch in a code to let yourself in and drop the money in a small box left downstairs, it reminds my old student digs so I feel right at home. Ive the place to myself but I wont spend much time here as Ive the day to explore. Ive a few choices on how to proactively spend my day. Not to far is the Clisham. A 799 meter high mountain whose peak marks the Western Isles highest point, or perhaps I could rent a bicycle and head to the beaches of Harris world renowned as some of the most stunning beaches on earth. Id driven past Luskentyre Beach beach and from my ride it looked like a scene out of the Caribbean holiday brochure, miles of flat white sands and turquoise waters hugged by green Scottish hills and moorland. Its a tough choice but instead I opt to make this tomorrows back up plan for today I decide Ill visit the Callanish Standings Stones and Stornoway, the capital of these Western Isles. First its a visit to the Tourist Office to formulate a travel plan. They explain to me the nature of the islands bus system. Essentially coaches service the islands public transport needs, they run few and far between but provide the vital link for many of the islanders connecting much of the settlements. I'm told Ill need to change coaches in what I assume to be the middle of nowhere on to another coach. Furthermore timetables aren't really printed to keep cost down and if I miss a connection then it could be a very long wait or walk back to civilisation. I'm told to let the driver know my plans and he can drop me off and tell me were to head onwards, so I do just that. The 50 seater coach races though the moorlands on narrow hilly roads like giant rally cars, these coach drivers clearly know the terrain and I'm sure they must enjoy ragging these massive vehicles across the empty roads. Miles and miles of barren, uninhabited landscape as far as the eye can see truly make an impression of unforgiving terrain should one be caught out, its not long before a new found respect for this place is thrust upon me. Yes, the emptiness is strongly beautiful but it could well be deadly.

The remoteness is occasionally broken up with scattered settlements and every so often with locals running from their front road to coach our bus, the reality seems to be local transport service offer a close to a door to door service and will pick and drop you along the route. After about 40 minutes I'm let off the coach to find another coach already waiting for me, its only another 20 minutes or so before I arrive at my first stop, the remarkable Callanish Standing Stones. I make my way up the path, conscious of the fact that the next bus leaves in 40 minutes or its a two hour wait, and while there's no rush I'm just not convinced that I could appreciate the forthcoming landmarks for that long. The standing stones come in to sight, massive grey rocks vertically planted in the green grass. Dated to about 5000 years ago, they represent an ancient burial ground. Like Stonehenge these rocks are impressive, unlike Stonehenge you can go straight up to these monoliths with no restrictions. Pretty impressed with my first replacement trip, I've almost forgotten about my cancelled sailing only a few hours ago as a coach takes me to the administrative capital of the Outer Hebrides , Stornoway. I arrive here and figure Ill walk around for an explore. Though the population is around 9,000 this seems like a bustling metropolis compared to the rest of the settlements Ive seen so far. One thing I do quickly notice is the abundance of pubs perhaps an attempt to make up to the scarcity of them elsewhere, I note to myself it would be rude not to visit at least one before I leave town, but first I wander the streets and make my way to the neo-gothic Lewis castle. Unfortunately during my visit the castle renovation work presence stops a more close up visit. Most of Stornoway can be covered on foot in not much time at all, its a modest town with a few high-street chains. Perhaps its the grey skies and the rain which contributes to my subdued mood here. For now its time to wait for the bus home well, after a pint of course. Its amazing how quickly the day seems to have gone, before I know it I'm back on a bus to Tarbert chatting to a native Glaswegian who settled here over eight years ago. The bus back to Tarbert is almost full as it again races for an hour across the barren landscapes of the western isles. Back in Tarbert the suns shining and I begin to formulate a backup plan for the next day should my voyage to St Kilda be cancelled again. Over dinner in the Harris Inn I think about tomorrows back up plan of climbing the Clisham and then ride to the beach or perhaps braving a dip in the north Atlantic Ocean.

At this point I'm even pretty excited by how tomorrow may turn out, and I even put St Kilda out of my mind. Then suddenly my mobile phone vibrates on the wooden table. Its Angus, Id almost forgotten to expect his call to let me know what the sea conditions are looking like for the morning and if we are due to sail. Its a yes! Were good to go first thing in the morning. For a moment I feel a bit of disappointment as my planned alternative day wont materials but this quickly passes and my excitement again returns. Angus kindly offers to pick me up from Tarbert as Im on route back to Lavenbrough, its much appreciated, even if pick up is at 6am. The next morning Im back in Anguss 4x4 along with his young son Alex and crew mate Murdur as we head back to the harbour at Levenbrough. I see another Kilda Cruises crew preparing the sister vessel, the Hitra. Im there before the rest of the passengers and while Angus, Alex and Murder refuel and prepare the Orca III for sail I wonder what kind of people visit St Kilda, and why.

Finally I'm called on board newer of the two, the Orca III. She holds 12 passengers, is very modern and with the open bridge Im fascinated by the vast array of monitors screens, radar, GPS positioned upfront. After an initial safety briefing, Angus takes his place on the captains seat, the engines roar into life and we begin to leave the land behind us as we head to the open ocean. Were allowed to go outside on the rear deck, providing weve our life jackets on. Im joined on deck by few middle age couples as well as a retired couple, a family of bird entrusts. Im the only solo traveller. It seems theres no stereotype of visitor to St Kilda, but one thing weve all have in common is that for whatever reason this fascinating place has caught our imagination for one reason or another. Often sailors will see a variety of wildlife from whales to puffins, but for this voyage its like were out of luck and all thats abundant over the long to two hour and forty minute trip with dark clouds forming overhead; it looks like the heavens could open up any moment. I half expect a shout land ahoy when the Island of Hitra comes up from the horizon, but no such cry is made. We continue our approach into Village Bay, anchors drop and we prepare to disembark on a small motor dingy which takes us to a small jetty. Im given a hand up were soon greeted by the Islands warden, an employee of the Scottish National Trust. The warden explains, that hes one of three employees of the trust, hes colleagues comprise of an archaeologist and in his words a bird woman. As for himself, he is a general dogsbody, filling multiple roles from maintenance to gift shop clerk which hell open later for us. He continues to explain that there are a number of Ministry of Defence contractors on the Island who are best not disturbed. They share the Island with a number of researchers and students who are here for the summer to study the unique species of Soay and Boreray found here.

The weathers not looking good and the sounding peaks are engulfed in cloud cover, he points to various directions suggesting where to go and where to stay away from. He emphasises the dangers of getting lost or worse, falling off a cliff. Wished a good day, we set off to finally explore the island. On first impressions I think to myself, this was not in the brochure, green porter cabin/container sized blocks used by the MOD, a large load ugly grey building disturbs the piece with what I assume to be the power plant or generator for the complexes. It takes a few minutes to navigate past these modern monstrosities before a visitor can finally make eye contact with the old village buildings and WOW, what a sight. Instantly I forget about the modern MOD structures barracks and offices just behind me as I get lost in the atmosphere. A lone street with the ruins of the houses that once stood inhabited along one side, the first five houses have been restored and have let to the researches as accommodation. House number three has been converted into a small and elegant museum with much information, illustrations and artifacts.

Many of my fellow day trippers have their packed lunches here, however Im much too excited to be in such an astonishing place to sit inside so after exampling information I carry on along the village street. To my left is the bay, immediately to my right is the single row of houses along the old village street, the backdrop to which are the steep hills which disappear into the mists. Scattered all along landscape are cleits. A cleit is small stone structure roofed with turf used for drying and keeping goods cool and dry. I stroll along slowly along my path, entering these now roofless buildings to truly get a feel for how the islanders lived. Fittingly each ruined building has a piece of slate, no larger than a roof tile, on the ground resting against the wall with the name, age, and year of the last occupant, Names like Ewan Gilles and Rachel McDonald really bring to life that this isnt just a ruin, but it was a home for someone, a home they were forced to leave. Leaving the village behind I follow now follow a concrete track laid by the MOD uphill.

It leads to a radar station positioned on one of the islands high points. I'm really eager to reach a high-point or ideally even the highest point on the island where I'm sure the views must be amazing, id see the village from high above and Id be able to see the sounding sea stacks in the ocean miles way which make up the this archipelago. Though with the current weather conditions once at a respectable altitude Id be luckily to see a metre in front of my feet, wishful thinking at this point but I'm not deterred. The walk is steep, and as I carry on upward I can see the village bay below, the grey buildings, the lush green grass with the slight turquoise ocean, with its deep blue further along the horizon even on such an abysmal day. A few more vertical metres and I'm completely swallowed up in the low cloud, visibility is a few metres, and the village below me has now completed disappeared. Its raining, windy and not at all pleasant as I persevere on for another half an hour or so when suddenly out of the white soundings buildings become to emerge. Its the unmanned radio stations atop of Hitra. Grey buildings with their domes and masts give this place ghostly feel, I'm half expecting zombies to come at me.