A few years ago I fulfilled a long lived ambition to visit Rapa Nui, or as it’s more commonly known by the outside world – Easter Island. I remember thinking that had it not been located on the other side of the planet that I would return regularly, but as it stands, it is over 10,000 miles away, so not easy to justify the trips. A few years on and I recently found myself about to fulfill another similar ambition as I was on a boat heading out into the North Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides. We’d been cruising west for over a couple of hours into a seemingly endless ocean when the majestic outline of St. Kilda suddenly appeared through the mist like a huge castle on the horizon. I’d seen many photos of it before, but none had prepared me for what I was about to witness. At first it was difficult to get a sense of scale of the place as there are no features of known size to give reference. The first clue however was the fact that for what seemed like ages it didn’t get any closer despite rapidly speeding towards it. Then eventually it loomed big and tall in the sky before we turned into the shelter of Village Bay.
The first thing I noticed was the amazing clarity of the azure coloured water which is more reminiscent of the Maldives than the UK. It’s not possible to dock large vessels on the pier, so the final few meters had to be done by dinghy. Once on firm land I had a chance to take in the surroundings – a vast natural amphitheater of what remains of an ancient volcano. I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu as though I had been here before, but put this down to all the photos I had previously studied.
There are no shops, hotels, or restaurants on any of the islands, so I had bought everything I needed to self sustain for a few nights. This meant quite a heavy load, so my top priority was to set up camp and get everything organised. With this done, I eagerly set off to explore the island of Hirta.
The first area of interest is the abandoned village which has now been quiet for over 80 years. Walking down the main street gives a real sense of what the place would have been like in its heyday. It also made me appreciate the modern amenities we all take for granted in today’s world – running water, electricity, insulation, memory foam, and stripy toothpaste. There’s no doubt that the villagers here would have had a hard life, constantly worn down by the land, sea, and weather.
Continuing past the village lead me up through a glacial valley with a viewpoint at the top which beckoned me forwards. I couldn’t actually see the view before I reached the top but it was obvious that it was going to be an epic one. No matter how great your expectations are, this place would never disappoint. The mystical and majestically shaped island of Boreray, flanked by Stac Lee (the tallest in the UK) and Stac An Armin is one to saviour. From this distance it was difficult to get a sense of scale, until I noticed a tiny boat between the stacs. To say it was insignificant would be insignificance itself. It was like an ant crawling around a world of giants.
I noticed that the stacs looked almost as though they were snow capped, and it was only upon looking through binoculars that revealed this area to be thousands upon thousands of gannets. These are not small birds (wing span of up to 2 metres) yet they looked like bacteria infecting the rock. I stood there and found it difficult to accept what I was seeing with my own eyes. I later learned that I was looking at a quarter of the world’s population of gannets, which left me thinking how mistaken the other 75% must be to live elsewhere.
I had the choice to walk either left or right along the cliff face, but left was far steeper and higher, so naturally I chose this way. The ground was firm and good but the incline was tough at around 40º, so with 20kg of camera equipment on my back this turned out to be quite a workout. The views however were endless and just kept getting better and better as I pushed on further and higher. At the top I decided to get my newly purchased map out. There’s something immensely satisfying about opening a map you have bought elsewhere whilst standing within its coverage area. It’s as though you have bought the map back to its origin and offered it the privilege to see its purpose. Such was the height of this cliff that the views from the top were more typical of the kind you would get from an airplane rather than from a cliff top. I wasn’t surprised to see that I was standing atop the tallest sea cliff in the UK at 427m, or 1400ft. Let’s just stop and think about that for a moment – that’s almost a third of the way up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Below me was a sheer drop to the water below.
The northwest peninsula of the island was now in view, and the Sun was starting to set directly behind the adjacent island of Soay in a manner which seemed suitably dramatic for the surroundings. I stopped to take more shots, shooting directly into the Sun. Thousands of fulmars were flying around in front of the camera, and it wasn’t possible to exclude them all from the frame, so I decided to include as many as possible.
With the Sun now below the horizon, I considered hiking out to the furthest point in the hope of catching the northern lights, but this would have meant a three mile hard tramp back to my tent in the dark. Not a problem with a decent head torch, so I went into my bag to locate it. I found the torch where it should have been, but immediately remembered that I had left the battery charging on my desk at home…. you know, the one I had made a mental note not to forget! This discovery made the decision for me, and I reluctantly headed back to the bay. Half way down, the village and bay seemed to be glowing in a twilight tinged with purple hues. I set the camera up for a final shot of the day before retiring to bed happy in the knowledge that I had some decent shots in the bag.
My alarm went off after what seemed like only a few minutes’ sleep, and I levered myself out of my tent to get into a suitable location for the morning light. With overcast skies I knew it wasn’t worth spending too much energy in climbing to distant viewpoints, so decided to concentrate on the beautiful sandy beach in the bay. This half mooned shaped stretch of golden sand would be a national attraction if it were anywhere else in the UK, but on St. Kilda it has to play fourth fiddle behind the stunning volcanic scenery, cultural history, and abundant wildlife. Its appeal however wasn’t going to be lost on me, so I invested a couple of hours of my time in capturing the changing light on the crashing waves.
After breakfasting on a Mars bar and a packet of Minstrels (well no one was watching), I spent the rest of the day exploring the Atlantic coast of the island in search of potential viewpoints for the coming days. It was whilst walking along the rugged cliffs here that it suddenly dawned on me why this place kept seeming so familiar. It was its uncanny resemblance to Rapa Nui which was fuelling my waves of deja vu. The similarity of the two small islands is remarkable – both are extinct volcanoes, both have significant cultural heritage of past settlements, both are noted for their absence of trees, and both are the stuff of legend and myth. The lack of trees on Rapa Nui helped to solve the mystery of how the natives moved their huge moai statues over great distances to now stand all over the island. The absence of trees on St. Kilda seems to be more natural though, and apparently when the school in the village was opened and teachers first came over from the mainland, none of the children knew what a tree was when shown a photo of one. Evolution has gone in its own direction, to the point where it now has its own subspecies of birds, rodents and plants. It is, if you like, a mini Galapagos.
The following morning I headed for a viewpoint I had discovered the previous afternoon, set up the camera, and waited. I then waited, before waiting some more. Finally the clouds parted briefly and shafts of sunlight broke through to illuminate small areas of the water in the bay. It was typical St. Kilda light – bold and dramatic. This is the kind of light which should be mandatorily accompanied by the soundtrack of chanting monks or a masses church choir singing a long sustained “aaahhhhhhh” in E sharp minor.
The bad news was that I was eating up camera memory like it was going out of fashion, and the four cheap batteries I had just bought off Ebay seemed to be running out after only a fraction of their stated duration. Note to self – never buy cheap camera batteries again.
Whilst making this note the cloud base suddenly descended to the point where I found myself shrouded in fog with less than 10 meters visibility. After some deliberation I decided I had a couple of options. The first was to descend lower out of the cloud, which would have meant returning down to the bay. The second was to try to climb as high as possible to see if I could break clear of the cloud ceiling to be in glorious sunshine. Naturally I chose the more difficult one, and before long found myself sweating and panting up a steep incline, swearing at myself for not taking the easier option.
The promise of standing above the clouds and getting a shot of all the island peaks emerging from the fog gave me incentive to push on. Although I couldn’t see where I was going, I figured that as long as I continued going uphill, I would eventually find myself back on the 1400ft summit of Conachair where I had stood in awe on my first evening. The theory worked well in that I did manage to successfully navigate my way there from a completely new direction in almost zero visibility, but I wasn’t so successful in fulfilling the image I had had in my mind, as I never managed to break clear of the cloud ceiling. I was tantalisingly close though, as the disc of the Sun was clearly visible through the thin layer of remaining cloud overhead. Another 50 meters altitude might have done it. Even though I couldn’t see my surroundings, there was still an overwhelming sensation of my height above sea level, as I could hear the distant waves pounding against the rocks a very long way below.
Descending back to the village, I broke free of the fog and saw the boat moored in the bay. This wasn’t scheduled for another couple of days, but upon reaching the pier I learned that the weather for the following week was going to be too stormy to make the journey. Basically it was a case of leaving today, or not for another week. I was almost out of camera memory and thanks to my bargain Ebay purchase was also in serious problems with power too, so the only thing left to do was to pack up and make a run for it. As we left the calm bay and entered the open Atlantic, the swell tossed the boat around as though to remind us of who is in charge in this environment. We departed the archipelago via the island of Boreray and accompanying stacs. The tops were shrouded in mist and the soundtrack of chanting monks was once again going round in my head.
A few hours later and I was back in the civilisation I call home (although I suppose that’s all relative). I found it difficult to believe that the magical island where I had spent the past couple of days is only 80 miles from my house. Despite this proximity, St Kilda seems like the other side of the world, just like Rapa Nui. The climate is different, the light is different, and even the geology and wildlife are different. St. Kilda is a double world heritage site, one of only 29 on the planet, and it’s ours. We should be shouting about it from our rooftops and telling the world about this spellbinding place. Or maybe this is why St. Kilda is so special, because it slips under the radar of the masses. If this is so, then let the masses continue going to Blackpool, and we’ll keep this as our own little secret.
St Kilda Diaries
Recently the diaries of Alice MacLachlan were published online. Written in 1906 they give a very interesting insight in life on St Kilda back then. Click here to access the diaries
Pictures and Text by Marcus McAdam. Follow Marcus on Facebook to find out more details.