Day 8 |
May 17, 2010

St. Kilda Archipelago, Scotland

By Chris Cutler, Naturalist

Coordinates: 57° 48'N and 8° 33’W

Weather: gorgeous, sunny, clear skies, virtually wind-less

Today was a day amongst superlatives. St. Kilda, that far-flung archipelago, a sometimes storm-raked outpost, today was ours – and in glorious fashion. St. Kilda did not disappoint and in fact showed us her best side. Our own wizened Expedition Leader Conrad even confessed to several times trying to get here and that today was the first time he’d been able to land. Expedition history was thus in the making!

Early in the day the Prince Albert II slipped between the island of Boreray and the monolithic Stac Lee. On rigid wings, fulmars glided past us as thousands of Northern gannets attended their high-rise nests, passed in lines, or with plant-matter in their bills for a bit of “home improvement”. Stac an Armin loomed close by, at 196 meters amongst the tallest such sea stacks in the UK, and the area itself supporting one of the largest “gannetries” in the world. After breakfast Chris (“Rocky”) Edwards presented “The British Isles in a Changing World” in which he discussed the fascinating geological history of the islands, from ancient volcanic activities to up-to-date tectonic plate movement.

We eased into the lovely half-moon of Village Bay on Hirta Island and a temporary warden for the National Trust for Scotland, Patrick, came aboard to introduce us to St. Kilda. Following lunch we went ashore where the weather was luxuriantly warm, the skies clear, and nary a wind blew, and we divided up in to various walking groups. Ian and Donald, two archaeologists working for the Trust, guided us around “The Village”, once the home of a remarkable line of people largely isolated from the rest of the world.

Scattered across the gentle apron-like slope were dozens of turf-topped, stone storage structures (cleits ) where foodstuffs were kept and sheep were afforded some protection from the ravages of winter. Relying largely on seabirds and the few crops grown, the lives of the human residents here must been fraught with hardships. The unkempt Soay sheep were everywhere to be seen and have roamed about unattended since the last of the St. Kildans were taken from the island in 1930. Just where the sheep originated is debated, yet what is known is that they once inhabited the almost inaccessible high plateau of neighboring Soay Island for perhaps as long as 2,000 years and that they are among the most primitive of all sheep breeds in the world.

On our nature walks we saw a few flowering plants that had somehow avoided the clipping teeth of the sheep, including tiny carnivorous sundews embedded amongst the sphagnum moss. Birdlife included wheatears, rock and meadow pipits, pied wagtails running after flies, and sometimes mellifluous St. Kildan wrens, the latter a species unique to these islands. A whopper swan landed close to the road and lumbered lazily toward a rock wall as our photographer Richard captured some excellent images.

On Zodiac cruises along the edge of Dun Island, jutting almost like a peninsula from the southern flank of Hirta, we passed by thousands of puffins preening themselves on the water. Beautiful sea caves had been carved into the granitic rocks and along cliff faces. Close by, kittiwakes called from their tiny nests and common guillemots crowded onto narrow ledges. At a large arched hole clear through the rock, a few razorbills were nesting and several turnstones and purple sandpipers, stopping over on their migration to breed in the Arctic, probed for food amidst intertidal barnacles.

We’d had a day to remember – a stunning day in fact – in one of the most scenically beautiful and historically compelling human outposts on the planet. Members of the Venetian Society gathered in The Theatre for a cocktail party where longtime loyal Silversea cruisers were feted for their loyalty by Assistant Expedition Leader Daniil Elterman. We cruised eastward on a gentle swell and over dinner shared stories of our memorable visit.