Sunday, July 26, 2009

APPROACHING ST KILDA . Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin

Now that the Sunday ferry has sailed for the first time, the public opposition seems to have disappeared and daily routine on the Island is getting back to normal. There is a resigned acceptance that life has changed and among some people I've spoken to, the belief that an important part of local culture has been lost for good. There is already a demand for the golf club to open on Sundays and speculation that Tesco might try to do likewise before long.

In the meantime, before we're completely contaminated by the evils of the outside world, this is still a lovely and unique part of Britain, so please get on a plane or boat and come and visit.

Took a days holiday from work on Wednesday and went to St Kilda. There are two fast passenger boats operating out of Leverburgh in Harris, which make daily trips to St Kilda between April and September, weather permitting. I went with but also go there. It takes about two and a half hours to reach Hirta and after a welcoming chat from the resident archaeologist, we had about five hours to wander round. A recently acquired ankle injury prevented me from venturing far, which is one of the reasons why the photographs were all taken around the village. The other is that tragedy befell me when my camera battery failed halfway through the day. I charged it fully the night before and it seemed fine, but simply stopped working as we were on our way to Soay, Boreray and the Stacs, so no photos of them then. Why didn't I have a spare battery? Because they are very expensive and I don't use my camera sufficiently to justify keeping a spare. AA's don't fit. Bizarrely enough, I had camera trouble on my last visit to St Kilda twenty two years ago, when the shutter jammed and I had to steal number one son's Instamatic from him to use.

Enough of this boring prattle. Here are some snaps.

Cleit (plural Cleitan)

Prior to the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930, these stone cells were used to dry and store birds caught for food, mutton, fishing nets and peat. There are hundreds of them scattered all over Hirta and the other islands in the group. The sheep now go in them to shelter and die.

Village main street

It was along the village street here that the famous St Kilda Parliament met each day. A number of the derelict houses have now been restored for use as accommodation for National Trust work parties, researchers and other staff.

Unrestored houses.

Some of the houses in the village have been left derelict and I don't think there are any plans to restore these.

Straggling main street.

Many Cleitan in the background. Water storage tanks on the hillside for current needs of the island. A desalination plant has been installed to cope with Summer droughts.

Restored houses.

These houses have been made habitable again by National Trust volunteer work parties who have worked on St Kilda every summer for many years. The Soay sheep wander freely all over the island.

More houses

These first few restored cottages house volunteers, the Museum and some staff. There was a line of cottages on this street from 1836, but these houses were built about 1860, by the laird. They were considered to be of a standard 'in advance of most Outer Hebridean Dwellings of the time'.

Soay sheep.

These primitive sheep, like Moufflons, have lived on Soay, a small island next to Hirta, for thousands of years. In 1932, a couple of years after St Kilda was abandoned, a number of them were taken and released on Hirta, where they have lived unattended and have generally thrived, ever since. They are much studied and there are usually University researchers on the island chasing round after the sheep. The numbers vary from year to year because the sheep are prone to population 'crashes', which tend to occur in four or five yearly cycles. They breed, multiply and survive well for several years, before a combination of poor grazing, parasites and harsh Winters causes large numbers of the weakest animals to die. At present, there are about 1900 Soay sheep on Hirta and the resident researcher told me that over recent years, the numbers have been relatively stable at about 2000, with a few more in good years and less after a cyclical crash. Like the Wild White Cattle of Chillingham in Northumbria, these animals are left to their own devices and receive no veterinary attention.

Soay sheep.

Although the sheep are unmanaged and undomesticated, the researchers capture them and stick ear tags on them. Presumably this is to identify individual animals and keep track of their age, breeding activities and all the other things that researchers want to know about. The sheep are never wormed or treated for illness and they shed their fleeces each year, so don't need shearing. A very good book on the subject of Soay Sheep is 'Island Survivors' by Jewell, Milner and Morton Boyd.

Soay ram .

About two thirds of the sheep are dark with the remainder being light like this ram. They shed their wool in June and breed in October/November. The rams have horns, while the ewes can be horned or polled. Ewe lambs can breed in their first year and live till they are over ten with rams surviving until they are about five. Obviously a stressful job.

Fishing boat Spinningdale.

In February 2008, this Spanish owned trawler ran aground by village bay and has been there ever since. There was some discussion about whether it should be left to break up in Winter storms, but eventually, the decision was made to remove it. A team of salvors was brought in from Spain, presumably by the insurance company and they are now busy manually cutting up the boat. This was all that was left on Wednesday and you can see one of the salvage team working on the deck on the left of the picture.

St Kilda defences.

In May 1918, shortly before the end of the First World War, a German submarine entered Village Bay, Hirta. After giving a warning to the islanders, it opened fire and the Church, Factor's house, store and a couple of cottages were damaged. The submarine then left, but the Commander was foolish enough to return three weeks later, when an armed trawler fired on it, killing three German sailors. The submarines conning tower was damaged by the shelling to the extent that it couldn't submerge and it limped away to the Flannan Isles, where it was captured by a British destroyer. The sequel to this was that this four inch gun was mounted overlooking the bay, but has never been fired in anger from that day to this.

Church interior

Religion was important to the St Kildans and the pulpit in this little church by the bay was said to be the biggest in the Outer Hebrides.

The church was obviously used for births, marriages and deaths but I'm not sure how willingly they attended at other times.

One contemporary visitor wrote:

" The Sunday is indeed a day of intolerable gloom. At the sound of the bell, the whole flock hurry to church in single file, with dejected looks and eyes bent on the ground. They seem like a troop of the damned, whom Satan is driving to the bottomless pit. With no floor but mother earth, and with damp sticking to the walls like hoar frost or feathers, the women sit in church for about six and a half hours every Sunday, with bare feet and legs, even in winter."

Goodness. Strong stuff.

School room

The Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge set up the first school on St Kilda in 1709. The first schoolmaster arrived in 1884 and used a room in the factor's house to teach the children. At that time, there were fourteen pupils who were taught grammar, history, geography and composition. The schoolroom in the photo is attached to the church and was built about 1898. There were eight children attending school at the time of the evacuation in 1930.

Island of Dun.

This view, across village bay, shows a Cleit in the foreground and a number of moored visiting boats, including the one I went on. There was also another tourist vessel, a private yacht, a dive boat and a trawler. Cruise ships visit every Summer. Only a few years ago, St Kilda was considered remote and difficult to get to but there has been such an increase in visitors recently that the infrastructure and facilities available are not really adequate. A balance has to be struck between encouraging people to visit and maintaining the island in a manner that does no harm to the landscape. Whilst I was there, I heard it said that it might be better to ban tourists and keep the island in a time warp, but I don't think that is the majority view. The island staff I met were keen to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm about St Kilda, but obviously aware of the dilemma that more visitors means more pressure on paths, toilets, staff time etc. There are no refreshments available and the little shop is not well developed.

Should St Kilda become tourist driven or left as it is?

St Kilda is probably the most written about small island group on earth and there have been many books published about the natural and social history, geology, archaeology and sheep. Lots of books about the islands are readily available on the Internet and the National Trust for Scotland does a decent little guide.

Sunday, July 19, 2009





Life at Lewispot Towers has been fairly uneventful this week, but it's an extraordinary and historic time for the Isle of Lewis. Earlier in the week, Calmac let it be known that they would be putting on the first ever Sunday ferry from today, to take Hebridean Celtic festival goers back to the mainland. It was expected that this sailing would just be a practice run for a more regular service in the near future. That news, although unwelcome by some, was not unexpected. What was a complete surprise though , was an announcement from Calmac a few days ago that they had decided to start permanent regular Sabbath sailings from this afternoon. From now on, there will be a ferry leaving Stornoway for Ullapool at 2:30pm every Sunday. I have heard people talk of little else this week and there are clearly polarised and heartfelt views about Sunday ferries on both sides of the debate.
A couple of hours ago, I decided to take a drive into Stornoway to watch the first Sabbath ferry leave. It is a wet and dreary day, but all of the ferry lanes were full with cars waiting to travel to the mainland. The ferry can accommodate 970 passengers and 123 cars and seemed to be fully booked. About an hour before the sailing, a small group of ten or twelve protestors against the Sunday ferries arrived with a single placard. They conducted themselves with dignity, initially in silence, but then sang Psalm 46, 'God is our refuge and our strength'. They were heavily outnumbered by several hundred supporters of Sunday ferries, who clapped and cheered as the ship slipped out of its moorings and left for Ullapool. There was no trouble on either side and most onlookers dispersed quickly and quietly as soon as the boat left the harbour. It will be interesting to see how the island is affected during the coming months. There are wild predictions of buses running and the opening of children's playparks, shops and the Sports Centre on the Sabbath. All that seems very unlikely, but who knows. As I watched the ferry leave, I couldn't help but feel a bit sad and emotional at the thought that a way of life that is unique in the UK has just departed with the boat.

Although most attention has been on the ferry issue this week, another event of social importance is about to happen here. Tomorrow, the first ever Lewis 'gay wedding' will take place at the registry office in Stornoway. Two men, who are long term residents on the island and have been named in the local press, have decided to have a civil ceremony here. Each local authority is required by law to make arrangements to conduct such ceremonies, but the Registrars here are said to have refused to participate on moral grounds. The Council say that they will not force the dissenters to conduct the ceremony, but have said they will comply with the law and if necessary, fly in a Registrar. Only in Lewis?

Mixed experiences at the hebceltfest concerts I went to this week. Fred Morrison, who was playing Uillean and small pipes, was incredibly energetic, entertaining and skilful and it's a long time since I've enjoyed myself so much.

Not so impressed with Karen Matheson though. She sang well and seemed to be having a good time herself, but I thought her performance was a bit pedestrian and her choice of songs dull. What do I know though? The concert was sold out, most of the audience obviously thought that she walks on water and there was a clamour for her to do an encore, which she did.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


This is a small section of the Lewispot peat bank on the Pentland Road. I've really enjoyed my first attempt at cutting peats, which have dried well in recent good weather. The darker peats behind the peat iron were freshly cut when I took this picture, but the other lighter ones, in small piles, were cut 2-3 weeks previously. They are now rock hard and ready to burn, or alternatively, would be very good for breaking windows with.

Yesterday morning -6 o'clock. Woke up. Glorious day. Tide on the way in. Went fishing. Warm, sunny and barely a breeze. Skylarks singing overhead and no midges. Had a wonderful two or three hours catching Mackerel. Not a soul about but me and came home with enough fish to stock the freezer, have some for tea last night and a bag full for my neighbour. Best of all, managed to get all my Mackerel landed before the seals spotted me and came looking for breakfast.

The hot news on Lewis this week is a strong rumour that Calmac ( ) are going to start Sunday sailings a week today, to allow visitors to the Hebridean Celtic Festival ( ) to get back to the mainland. The Festival ends late on Saturday night and until now, anyone attending has been compelled to remain on the island until Monday, unless they are able to get the Sunday afternoon plane. It's hardly a penance having to spend an extra day here, but if you don't have a car, there's no public transport on Sundays to use to take in the sights and no possibility of getting to work on Monday morning if you are dependent on the Stornoway - Ullapool ferry to get you home.
It's being suggested in the local press that Calmac will sail next Sunday to test the viability of sailing every Sunday in future. Calmac deny this, but seem to be playing a cat and mouse game with the Lord's Day Observance Society and others opposed to Sabbath ferries, by refusing to confirm if they will put on a Sunday ferry next week.

After living here for a while, it's easy to conclude that these islands have more than ample religious representation and are not in need of any more. Not everybody agrees with that though and the Multi-Media Gospel bus has just arrived to make sure we've got the message.
The high tech bus, called Challenger 3, has a mini cinema seating 25 people, which will broadcast Biblical presentations via a 46" television and surround sound. The bus is touring local village Halls during the next week and hosting Gospel evenings with singing, talks and stories from individuals whose lives have been transformed by Jesus. In case you begin to think it's all earnest stuff, the bus also has a coffee lounge and a suite of computers with Christian computer games, Bible software and internet access.

Back in February 2008, a fishing boat called the 'Spinningdale' ran aground on St Kilda and has been there ever since. Concerns about the vessel have been twofold. Firstly was the danger that the Spinningdale would eventually break up in Winter storms, causing pollution and damage to the coastline and passing boats from floating wreckage. Just as worrying though was the fear that rats on board the ship would swim onto the island, colonise and cause major damage to the birdlife.
Consequently, a decision was made by the Maritime Coastguard Agency to take apart and remove the remaining wreckage and the work has now begun. The wreck is being systematically dismantled by a team of eight workers and is expected to last for two months. While the work is being undertaken, the workforce will live on Hirta, the main island of St Kilda and will store the wreckage there before transporting it to the mainland in October.
And the rats? The National Trust for Scotland have heaved a sigh of relief and say that there is no reason to believe that any rats have escaped on to St Kilda.

Woe is me. I purchased the CD player in my hi fi in July of 1988 and had begun to think of it as immortal. I talked to it regularly and fully expected it to last as long as me, but no, it's done gone and irretrieveably broken down on me. Can't live a fulfilled life without my CD collection, so have been looking on the internet for a replacement. Something of a shock to find that very few retailers stock them anymore and don't know what I'm going to do unless I can find another one at a reasonable price soon. Don't really want to go all ipod yet, just want my beloved shiny black CD machine back.