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Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Mullach an Eilein (Boreray)
Date walked: 15/05/1996
Time taken: 3 hours
Distance: 3 km8 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Boreray is part of the St Kilda archipelago which is some 41 miles west of Benbecula. I’d got the St Kilda bug, read the books and finally got to go there in 1992 as part of an NTS work party. So first I dreamed of St Kilda then once I’d been there I dreamed specifically of Boreray. It was partly its legendary inaccessibility and partly its fantastic turreted and pinnacled shape.
Boreray is very hard to get to. There’s no easy landing place and often the Atlantic swell makes it impossible. You need a very calm day, several hours, a boat and permission from the NTS warden on the main island Hirta.
On this trip the warden Stuart told me that the NTS kept a record of landings and that more people had been on top of Everest than had landed on Boreray since the NTS took it on in1957. Apparently there’s not even necessarily a landing once a year and the Wardens generally take the chance to land and check bird numbers, take eggs for testing etc as the opportunity arises. So it’s like getting all the planets in a line.
I bought the book St Kilda by David Quine from Colin Baxter’s firm and later that year got a mailing from Colin saying he was going on a 2 week photographic expedition in the Outer Hebrides on the Jean de la Lune in the following May and offering places. It was pricy but I had one thought: “Boreray!”
Well you know life is a strange business and often what we want and dream of is far from what we get, for good and for ill, but this time my dreams came true. I met up with the Jean de la Lune in Oban the day after an amazing walk along the Ben Cruachan cirque in blazing sunshine. The weather was actually great for the whole trip – there was a single brief shower in the whole fortnight.
There was a group of around 12 passengers, including Colin, his wife and two sons. We sailed up the sound of Mull, stopped at Tobermory then on the next day to North Uist where we stayed overnight, finally through the Sound of Harris and over to St Kilda.
When we landed we were greeted by Stuart Murray the warden and one of the first things he said to Colin was “I guess you’d like to go to Boreray” and so it was settled, if the weather was good we’d go. Well the weather was good, sunny and very calm and so we set off round about 9.00, with a few extra joining us – one of the soldiers from the radar station and one of the “sheepies” – researchers into the feral Soay sheep that inhabit the main island.
Boreray is four miles north west from Hirta, so we were over in less than an hour and started to size up landing places.
We couldn’t land at the usual slabs on the south west of the island opposite Sgarbhstac due to the swell so, guided by Stuart (who’d spent many days on the island in the seventies and then co-authored “Birds of St Kilda”) we went to the east side which was more sheltered and looked possible.
The boat rode on the slight swell under the intimidating bulk of this huge island for quite a while without anything much happening. To start with there was a fairly general consensus that most people would go. To be honest I was bit concerned as to how some would manage but as the boat sat there one by one they decided against it. I must say that I had the strangest mixture of emotions. I was so scared by its size and steepness but I also could almost taste my hunger to get ashore.
In the end the shore party was myself, Colin Baxter and his friend Geoff, Stuart Murray, a soldier and a “Sheepie”. The zodiac took us over in small groups and we landed on rocks 150 metres north of Creagan na Ruhbaig Bana and scrambled up the gully running from right to left up to the broad, steep southern slopes. Without Stuart’s local knowledge we wouldn’t have made the landing even on such a fine calm day so you see how precarious getting there is.
It was steep and a bit loose, a lot of poorly rooted grass and other shifting material and it was a stiff effort up to about 200 metres – I was breathless but exultant – “I’ve done it”
We then crossed the island at about 200 metres, above the collection of cleits and got the to the East side between the three pinnacles of Creagan nas Gruachan and Clais na Runaich.
Cleits are unique to the islands. They are dry stone shelters used by the native St Kildans, evacuated in 1930, for storing and drying sea birds, crops etc. They visited Boreray and the Stacs to get sea birds which were a major part of their diet. It was wonderful to see them still standing, untended as they have been since the 1920s.
The grass was close cropped by the feral blackface sheep that have lived on the island since the time the archipelago was inhabited. We didn’t see any – they were probably all over in Sunadal, the islands other broad grassy slope to the north east. The difference the sheep make is remarkable. On my previous St Kilda visit I’d been able to land on Dun, where there are no sheep and the grass was thick, matted and very springy. Boreray was almost as cropped as a bowling green, tilted sharply so you felt like you’d roll the whole way down to the sea if you ever fell over.
The views to Dun, Hirta and Soay were amazing and as we came towards nas gruachan we saw the Jean de la Lune sail by Stac Lee, dwarfed by this incredible rock.
There was bird life all around, gannets on the ledges, puffins on some of the sheltered slopes, fulmars, all calling and flying about.
We could see the sloping top of Sac Lee covered in gannets. They were whirling all around looking like little white dots, though they’re very big birds.
In this traverse we’d looked up to the summit high above us on this twisted green ridge but the straightforward way was not for us.
Again we benefited from Stuart’s local knowledge as we headed up towards Na Roachan and went out on to the western face of the island. There is a ledge or gully running from south to north from above Clais na Runaich to the steep and deep gully that separates the two tops.
This path is an ancient St Kildan route, used to get access to the gannet ledges. It lies against the main face with a protective wall of rock jutting out. In some pictures you can see it as a high notch in that gulley. I imagine this might be some kind of volcanic feature what it did mean is that we could cross this huge rock face easily and safely at about 250 metres. There were occasional lower bits and gaps in this wall and believe me it was a very long way straight down to a sea white over myriad rocks, calm as the day was.
We then turned round into the summit gulley to scramble up the last 100 metres or so, It was dark and damp and really steep. Actually on Boreray you can pretty much take the “really steep” for granted but this was probably steeper than anything else I did that day. Some of the grass was quite long which was bad news – it means it’s too steep for sheep.
When I glanced down between my legs I could see the water far below, tiny sea birds in scattered groups and Stac an Armin looking like a mad witch’s hat. In the 18th century a group of St Kildans had to stay on the Stac all winter because a smallpox epidemic on Hirta stopped them being picked up. I guess they played a lot of “I spy”.
As I toiled up I could feel stuff shifting under my feet and started to fear that the whole thing might head downhill with me stood on it waving goodbye. Geoff who was with me said “it’s a bit loose” which strangely made it all feel safe. This is magical thinking, I know: if you name something you’ve got power over it! Still it worked for me.
We came to the top of the gully and the summit, Mullach an Eilan is a short pull to the north. So there we all were at 364 metres surrounded by the wide open sea, with the rest of the archipeligo to the south east, the Outer Hebrides to the East and the Flannan islands to the North West.
Running north and just below the summit is an undulating grassy ridge about 1 to 2 metres wide running further to the north, out towards An t-sail and the huge rock pillars and pinnacles at the end of the island.
Everybody walked off along it one by one and I was left on my own on the summit. I looked at the ridge and the ridge looked at me. I’m not sure either of us liked what we saw. I gathered my courage together and it didn’t look like enough so I added some pride and stubbornness and set off.
As I said it was about 1 to 2 metres wide and really unproblematic, except for being 1250 or so feet above the sea on either side! It was really airy and exposed. When I looked around all I could see was the blue sea and sky and what seemed like this green knife blade I was walking on.
I really badly wanted to get on my hands and knees and crawl! However I was also so elated and awestruck by being there in all this grandeur and wild beauty that the idea of crawling seemed demeaning, so I walked with my head held high in the glory – very, very slowly!
One of the things we all realised at this point was that we had very little food and water with us so we had to scrape together what we had and share. We then set off back down to the sea with Stuart talking with the Jean de la Lune on the radio – oh I forget as well as weather, boat, permission etc you also have to be able to communicate with your transport in case the weather changes.
All was fine until we got down to the slabs where it became apparent that less swell could still mean quite a lot of swell. There was a tense period of consultation over the radio – should we go back the way we came which had the problem of going up and over the island, taking time and risking the sea getting rougher – or should we risk a ducking?
The risk of getting wet seemed less worrying than the thought of actually having to climb some more and make our way down the gully at the end so we went for that.
The process was that the zodiac from the Jean de la Lune came in on the swell and you ran and jumped into it just as it reached its highest point – a real white knuckle departure. Well it was quick when it was your turn is what I can say in its favour, that and feeling like Indiana Jones!
Anyway off we all came and no one fell in – all credit to the crew. Then it was a quick trip round Boreray with the shore party all buzzing with excitement. The cook had produced home made Cornish pasties and fruit cake and I can tell you that they went very quickly, accompanied in my case by a couple of ice cold lagers!
As you can tell from this very wordy post this was really one of the great walking expeditions of my life. For a while afterwards I used to dream that I was sleeping on Boreray and wake expecting to see the cliffs and to hear the sea and the birds. I’d go back tomorrow. Actually I’d go back in half an hour!
Really enjoyed reading your post. Amazing, your one lucky guy. Never heard of this wee island before, looks like ill be looking up some of the history on St kilda/Boreray.
liked the scary ridge picture.
davetherave wrote:looks like ill be looking up some of the history on St kilda
I found this book on St Kilda fascinating
I am trying to climb the Scottish Marilyns and to achieve Boreray would be a gigantic tick to say the least. Hirta would be good but Boreray! Very,very jealous.
Ta, almost forgot about my flu for a minute there
of course to get the Scottish Marilyns you also have to get Dun, Soay, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin! It can be done but....
If doing the Marilyns theres a hell of a lot of uninhabited islands to reach before this ultimate challange. Kind of makes the Inn pinn or Cobbler summit boulder a bit of a joke in comparison.
Cheers again for sharing your pics and experience.
- mountain coward
Was once able to see St Kilda from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean on Skye. It was avery hazy, steep sided block on the far horizon, barely visible unless you stared in the right direction for a few seconds. A check of the map when I got home revealed that it was about 95 miles away as the crow flies!