St Kilda - a bucket list trip, & you might need a bucket...
by denfinella » Tue Jun 19, 2018 1:30 pm
Route description: Conachair and Village Bay, St Kilda
Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Conachair (Hirta)
Date walked: 24/05/2018
Time taken: 5 hours
Distance: 4 km
Ascent: 220m8 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).
Apologies for the (very) long report - there are plenty of photos, eventually!
Today was a special day: we'd booked a trip to St Kilda: the isolated archipelago 40 miles west of the Western Isles, a dual World Heritage Site (natural and cultural) and chance to visit somewhere on our bottomless lifetime bucket list.
Successfully getting onto a trip isn't easy. We'd booked with Sea Harris: with the boat departing from Leverburgh at 8am sharp, an earlyish start was required to drive down from Scalpay. We'd originally wanted to book last-minute when we had an idea of the weather forecast. Each trip gets a two-day window (Mon-Tue, Wed-Thu, Fri-Sat), and the boat goes on whichever day has the better weather, if the forecast is good enough. But a couple of weeks before our holiday, I'd checked on the Sea Harris website and found that all their trips were full right through until September! However, they also offer "stand-by" trips, for which there were a few spaces remaining for our week. These only run if both days in each two-day window have a good forecast, and they run on the worst of the two days. So it was a bit of a risk, but given the settled spell of weather we were having, we booked a stand-by trip for Wed 23rd / Thu 24th May.
Fast-forward to holiday week and our luck was in: both Wednesday and Thursday delivered sunshine and light winds, meaning both trips could sail. Thursday was our slot, giving my foot an extra day to heal - it was still a bit swollen, but happily the pain had pretty much gone by now. And we had a camera again thanks to our last-minute trip to Stornoway the day before. The morning was cloudless: a perfect day for a long boat ride, with a calm sea...
...or was it? Emerging from the Sound of Harris into the North Atlantic, and the minor ripples at Leverburgh translated into a noticeable swell. I asked our skipper how big the waves had to be before trips were cancelled. "We'll usually still sail at Force 5", he informed me. I looked a little surprised. "Today is about Force 1", he added.
It didn't feel like Force 1 to me, though it probably wasn't anything like Force 5. Nevertheless, my other half (who's never been remotely seasick before) was soon feeling a bit peaky. He went to get some "fresh air" first (cardboard cups provided so you're not sick into the rubber dinghys alongside the boat ). I was feeling OK up to this point, then made the mistake of going to see if he was OK. By the end of the 5-metre trip between the seats to get outside, I was feeling equally dodgy, and ended up joining the several other passengers who were holding the cups of doom by this time.
The two-and-a-half hour crossing felt like an eternity. "Only 90 minutes to go", shouted a member of the crew helpfully; then what felt like an hour later: "Only another hour and a quarter to go!". You get the picture.
Finally though, we grew close to the islands. I was sitting outside on a seat looking left, numb and drenched from waves and sea spray by now, and still feeling so terrible that I couldn't even manage to turn my head to look at our destination, Hirta, which was to the right. Everyone transfers to the little rubber dinghys for the last few metres to the jetty, and (losing any remaining dignity) I managed to be violently sick one last time on the one-minute dinghy ride to shore!
Stepping onto Hirta at last, trying not to be sick and attempting to listen to the NTS ranger giving us an introductory briefing, I suddenly felt myself fighting to hold back tears, though whether it was from sheer exhaustion or the emotion of finally reaching somewhere I'd wanted to go for so long, I'm not sure. Lifting my head, I took in the views for the first time. Hirta seemed bigger than I'd expected, with big hills looming over the bay. Cloud was forming as wind reached the islands, cloaking the summits in thick fog despite sunshine over the sea and the lower slopes. And a peaceful oasis it was not: there's a large MOD base next to the jetty, and it's currently being rebuilt, so part of it's a noisy(ish) construction site. We were also sharing the island with passengers from a cruise ship anchored in Village Bay:
After a quick trip to the luxury of a flushing toilet, we went to explore Am Baile ("The Village") and "Main Street" in particular, where most Hiortans lived before evacuation (at their own request) in 1930. Some of the cottages have been restored, while others lie ruinous. Soay sheep were everywhere, as were cleits: stone-walled stores topped with turf and originally used to store supplies such as seabird eggs and fish over the winter months. All the photos are taken by my partner, who was feeling better by this point (I was still feeling awful!).
Most of the following photos of the village are from later in the day, when the cloud eventually lifted and the sun came out properly:
After exploring Main Street, we headed uphill - very slowly and with lots of stops for poor me - to The Gap, where the rolling hillside suddenly ends in spectacular sea cliffs. On the way up there were a number of old stone enclosures, and rows of the ever-present cleits leading the way to The Gap:
View out to Boreray and the stacks:
After I had (another) lie-down, we reluctantly decided to curtail our walk plans. I'd wanted to head up to Conachair before heading south and west towards the sea cliffs around Mullach Bi. But I although it seemed a massive waste not to make the most of the day, I just wasn't feeling up to climbing any further, and in any case the cloud base was only a few metres higher than The Gap, so we wouldn't be able to see much. Instead, we headed back down to Main Street, then south to the pebbly beach at the south-west end of Village Bay, where after watching eiders on the sea for a little while, I managed to fall asleep for nearly an hour on the very uncomfortable boulders! On the way down we met this little fellow:
I was eventually awoken by tannoy announcements asking cruise passengers to return to the jetty: the cruise ship was leaving. I was feeling a little better, and we wandered slowly back towards the village / harbour - it wasn't long before our five hours on the island was up. Suddenly the cloud lifted from all the hills around Village Bay, revealing the summit of Conachair. Alas, no time to visit it now!
I took the direct route to the harbour and bought a couple of postcards from the shop, while my partner ran back up to Main Street and snapped a few more pics in the sunshine (I wasn't quite up to that). All too soon it was time to get back on the boat - but that wasn't the end of the adventure. Next, we were taken north to visit the amazing sea stacks and seabird colonies a few miles north of Hirta. Feeling a bit better, I was able to enjoy this amazing spot fully - though I didn't enjoy the rain of bird droppings when a gannet passed over me
Now, I was of course dreading the 2 1/2 hour trip back to shore. Happily though, the wind had dropped and had changed direction, meaning they were coming from behind rather than from the side. I dozed for most of the crossing and seemingly in no time at all we were back at Leverburgh.
A fantastic day, despite feeling pretty awful for much of it! It was certainly very much worth the expense, planning and discomfort. Despite getting to see a bit of Hirta, a lot of the island remains unexplored for me, and maybe that's a good thing: St Kilda retains an air of mystery - perhaps, in a few decades time, we might want to return?
>> next day: Ceapabhal
by Sgurr » Tue Jun 19, 2018 1:57 pm
by weaselmaster » Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:36 pm
Got a good feel of the island from the photos - and those damned sea stacks which will prevent me - and I guess most - marilyn baggers getting finished.
by SAVAGEALICE » Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:59 pm
by dogplodder » Tue Jun 19, 2018 5:26 pm
Your photos are great. What a stunning landscape and the Soay lamb is adorable.
by Mal Grey » Tue Jun 19, 2018 5:30 pm
Sorry you had sea sickness, not uncommon I'm sure. I doubt missing the summit matters really, just getting there must have been an amazing adventure, and The Gap looks like the most remarkable spot on Hirta anyway.
I'd also love to canoe/kayak around the islands, especially Boreray, but I'm not really a sea kayaker. I'm also not as brave as some acquaintances of mine who recently paddled the entire trip to and from St Kilda in an open canoe! (http://source-2-sea.co.uk/canoe-to-st-kilda-and-back/# if interested) OK, Colin has history with this, he was one of the first two guys to canoe round the whole of Britain in an open canoe last year, and his other half Katrina has done much of this sort of thing too.
by rockhopper » Wed Jun 20, 2018 9:51 pm
by Arthurs Eat » Thu Jun 21, 2018 11:08 am
by denfinella » Thu Jun 21, 2018 8:32 pm
Fortunately I'm not bagging the Marilyns...