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.


Cathy said...

Thank you for such an interesting post. I hope to visit Kilda some day. Your photos were beautiful.

Jill said...

Wonderful photos of St Kilda, better than any I've seen in books. What a pity your camera gave out! As a knitter I am curious: does anyone collect the shed fleeces from the sheep? It must be quite unusual wool.

Lewispot said...

Hi Jill

I think the fleeces are rubbed off or fall off a bit at a time and then just get blown all over the island. I saw a TV programme last night - Countryfile BBC1 - where the presenter, Adam Henson, was talking about the problem of selling fleeces from his rare breed sheep. They seem to make so little money that it's not worth the effort to sell them on. The fleece dealer he was talking to did say that Soay fleeces are good for mixing with other wool to make good knitting yarn.

ADB said...

Thanks for all those pics of St Kilda. Can thoroughly recommend Calum Ferguson's book on St Kilda's culture.

Lewispot said...


Don't know the book but will look it up. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and great to have more 'photos in the blog : these are truly excellent. I'm guessing - but will your next blog topic be "The Great Stornoway Tornado of 2009"!? I don't know about the sheep fleeces....but what does the meat taste like?! Many thanks.

Charminglochie said...

That was a really interesting post. The photos were fantastic despite your camera failing.

Anonymous said...

An interesting story and beautiful photos

Pat said...

What a wonderful story and amazing photos, I only wish I could visit for real!

Anonymous said...

....did anyone check out today's "The Times"? That's "The Times" (in London), for our American readers (no offence!). I quote the title : "Islanders buffeted by the winds of change but traditions still endure in hard times"....please go and read (not sure if it is online)'s interesting and provides an input to all that our host (capital "H" or small case, not sure?!) has been writing about here....