Day 6 |
May 30, 2011

St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, UK

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 57°48’N – 008°34’W
Weather: Bright sunshine, interspersed with rain and hail showers
Air temperature: +8°C

It was quite a rough night and we all held our breath as we drew near St Kilda at about 7am today. This is a very special place, very difficult to reach and not somewhere most of us will be visiting again. And we were in luck. The brilliant sunshine was accompanied by a manageable swell and the staff boat went ashore in the harbour of Village Bay, Hirta – the largest island of the St Kilda archipelago and the only one to be inhabited continuously from 3,500 BCE until 1930 CE.

The resident ranger on Hirta boarded Silver Explorer to brief interested guests on what they would see during their morning of exploration and then it was time to go: disembarkation began at 8.50am. I met the first two Zodiacs and led everyone up the slipway to St Kilda’s church and school-room, both still as they were in the late 19th century, when they were built. The church is a small, sparse building with a plain white interior, reflecting the austerity of the St Kildan community’s lives and religious practices. As for the delightful schoolroom, complete with slate tablets and teacher’s desk with quill pens – some of our British guests claimed to have “lived” it themselves, not so very long ago!

After pointing out the World War I gun (never used, but installed for defence of the islanders after a German submarine attack) I headed off down “Main St” for my next stop, next to a “cleit”. These are typical of St Kilda and there are nearly 2,000 in the archipelago. They are dry-stone structures with turf roofs and were used for storage, especially of peat and wild fowl. They were water-tight, but allowed air movement to dry whatever was placed inside. If we raised our eyes to the hill slopes above the crescent-shaped village street of St Kilda, we could see hundreds of near-identical cleit structures dotted about the hillside, interspersed with a few “planticrubs” (enclosed areas for growing crops and a few miserable vegetables, protected from sheep).

Next stop was at one of St Kilda’s dwellings from the 1830s. These were traditional turf-roofed black houses (so-called because they had no chimneys, causing a rapid blackening of their walls from soot) and built end-on to the village street, with sheltered entrances onto side alleys. Unfortunately, despite this shelter, most of them were severely damaged by storms of the late 1850s. A visiting philanthropist took pity on the sufferings of the small St Kildan community (about 85 souls) and new rectangular houses were built for them, with slate roofs and chimneys, fronting the main street. Some of these have been restored and one converted into a small, but informative, museum. Others are inhabited seasonally by volunteers who come each summer to restore St Kilda’s crumbling structures and run a small tourist shop and post office. We could enter all the “ruined” houses, and each of the 1860 buildings contained a plaque with the name of the last family to live there – a poignant touch.

After this I attempted to locate “Lady Grange’s House” for my group, though as it resembled a cleit, this was somewhat challenging. Poor Lady Grange had been exiled to St Kilda from 1734 – 42 by her jealous husband; he believed she would betray him to the British authorities for his Jacobite sympathies, and so isolated her from the world for the rest of her life. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t enjoy it very much and referred to Hirta as “a vile, neasty stinking poor isle”!

Our final communal stop was the walled graveyard, sheltering the remains and very weathered tombstones of St Kilda’s more recent dead. From here we had sweeping views both down to the bay and across to St Kilda’s other islands, and up the slope behind the village to the cliffs. As sunshine gave way to rain, we dispersed to enjoy St Kilda at our own pace – some to climb way up to the bird cliffs backing the village, others to wander once more down the village street to soak up its unique atmosphere. Sadly, by 1930 the population of St Kilda had dwindled to only 36 people, with hardly any able-bodied young men (due to illness, accident and emigration). This was no longer a viable community to exist nearly 50 miles away across the Atlantic Ocean from the nearest land and evacuation en masse came on August 29th, 1930. Most of the islanders were rehoused on the Scottish mainland and ended their days working in forestry, though they had never even seen a tree!

From 10.45am onwards, Zodiac cruises past spectacular scenery and St Kilda’s famed bird cliffs were on offer. The St Kildans had lived from seabirds (mainly fulmars and gannets), paying rent to the laird of the archipelago in bird oil and bird feathers and relying on seabirds as their main source of food. Fortunately, the birds have survived their depredations and we were fascinated to get up close to nesting fulmar, gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins, also enjoying watching these birds wheeling in flight over our heads and settled in rafts (mainly puffins) on the surface of the ocean. Not forgetting marine mammals, quite a few grey seals were spotted too.

Once back on board it was lunchtime and afterwards Conrad announced a special treat: Captain Peter Stahlberg was able to bring Silver Explorer in close to St Kilda’s world-renowned gannet colonies (60,000 breeding pairs — the world’s largest). Light conditions were perfect and we could easily see the gannets, packed in along the cliffs, row upon row. Even I, with my small point-and-shoot camera, was able to get great shots of gannets resting on the sea or gliding past. It was a magical experience.

We had done so much today that a lazy afternoon was enjoyed by many – it had been a totally fascinating, but energetic morning. For those who wanted to learn more, Shoshanah Jacobs, one of our naturalists/biologists, spoke on the topic: “Birds are fowl: the Landbirds of the UK”. Her lecture examined the anatomy and physiology of landbirds, using birds we have seen/hope to see on our journey as vivid examples.

After this, hard-core expeditioners joined Claudia Holgate and the Expedition Team in the Panorama Lounge for a second “Team Trivia” event – always a combination of challenge and relaxation and always fun! Scores were impressively high this afternoon.

At 5pm most of us reconvened in The Theatre for our daily Recap & Briefing. Expedition Leader Conrad Combrink introduced us to the Faroe Islands, our next destination, and outlined our planned activities for the next two days. This was followed by Victoria Salem’s recap of the lives of the St Kildans whose village we had so memorably explored this morning.

It was time to retire for a short break and an opportunity to dress “casually elegant” for tonight’s Venetian Dinner, a Silversea tradition to honour returning guests. All enjoyed the delicious food and it was a joy to see The Restaurant full of happy people and loud with animated conversation this evening after last night’s rocking and rolling. And so we departed the UK for a few days in Denmark, or more specifically, the Faroe Islands.