St Kilda - the trip of a lifetime

Sub 2000s: Conachair (Hirta)

Date walked: 08/05/2020

This report has no pictures for a few reasons. I am not a good photographer and do not have a decent camera. Jane is a good photographer but did not take any pictures. The other reason I will explain at the end of the report so please bear with me till then.

St Kilda has held a fascination for both Jane and me for many years. We have both read about this amazing place and learned of its history and the harsh conditions endured by its inhabitants up to the island being evacuated in 1930. We have longed to visit there for many years. The time had now come for this eagerly awaited trip. Our plans had been well prepared, unintentionally coinciding with the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The boat from Leverburgh with Seumas and Anna at Sea Harris had been booked months ago and we were so much looking forward to it.

Jane retired from the NHS GP surgery where she had worked for many years on the 1st of May so this trip was to link in with that as a partial celebration and the start of a new life joining me as a retiree.

Following the revelry of the previous evening’s retirement party, the camper van was loaded up and we set off from Sheffield to initially spend a couple of days in Laide before heading off for the Outer Hebrides and our boat trip out to St Kilda.

As ever we enjoyed our drive up north. It is a long way but it is always so exciting to be heading towards the West Coast and our refuge by the sea. Although it is a drive we have now done hundreds of times the thrill never fades and my heart always skips a beat as we drive over the Fain from Braemore junction and we catch our first view of An Teallach, even more so on this occasion as we knew we had the lure of St Kilda beckoning later in the week.

After a couple of days in Laide, and having mowed the lawn, the first task I always do during the growing season, we drove round to Ullapool on the Tuesday evening to catch the ferry the following morning to Stornoway.

We have taken this ferry about half a dozen times before but this time was extra special. The sea was calm, unusual for the Minch, and as always I tried to pick out my house through binoculars as we passed Gruinard Bay. As Priest Island faded to our stern the line of the Outer Hebrides became clearer as we neared Stornoway.

The last time I had been out this way was only a few months earlier, in February, when I had come over on the morning ferry as a foot passenger. I then walked from Stornoway to Achmore and back, a circuit of about twenty miles, the last couple of hours being in the dark (for no other reason than it seemed a good idea at the time - which it was) before taking the night freight ferry back to Ullapool.

We arrived safely in Stornoway and, having stocked up in Tesco (other shops are available), we made our way south to Harris, stopping to enjoy the picturesque village of Tarbet before heading down to the southern tip of the island.

The next day, yesterday, was spent chilling around the stunning beaches of southern Harris before settling in at Leverburgh itself. It is a truly beautiful area. We kept looking out to the west, praying the weather would be good for our boat ride the following day.

And so the morning dawned of the day we had been looking forward to for over twenty five years, ever since the first time we had picked up that, now well worn, book on St Kilda and first learned of this world renowned place. It is one of the very few double world heritage sites in the world, for both its natural and cultural qualities.

We were up by 6.00am, not needing our alarms to wake us. There was no way we were going to oversleep today. We were down at the jetty by 7.30am, the first ones there. It was not long however until our fellow adventurers arrived. There was an eager buzz as we waited for our skipper, Seumas, to turn up which he did, just before 8.00am, our planned departure time.

We were soon safely ensconced on the boat, ‘The Enchanted Isle, a Stormforce rib which held twelve passengers. The boat had a covered cabin and was very comfortable. We exchanged stories as to what drew us to this trip. We all shared a sense of adventure and were thrilled to be embarking on our first trip to the westernmost point of the UK (Rockall notwithstanding).

Following a safety briefing we soon set off and sailed off to the west. Our prayers of the day before had been answered as the sun shone down and the swell was gentle. We made good progress and before the hills of Harris had disappeared from view behind us we could begin to make out the unmistakable outline of the St Kilda archipelago ahead. I couldn’t believe that we were looking at the real thing, no longer poring eagerly over photographs taken by others. The shape of the main island, Hirta, and the surrounding stacks seemed so familiar, as if I had been there many times before.

The swell which had been rhythmically striking the bottom of the boat on the two hour trip out to the islands eased off as we made our way into the bay, the island now laid out in front of us with the ruins of the old buildings of the main street forming a line behind the shingle beach.

We were about to set foot on St Kilda! We would have nearly five hours on the island. The only human residents are National Trust volunteers, scientists and a number of military personnel.

On the boat ride out Seumas had been telling us some of the history of the island, some of which we did know, some was new to us. We then transferred to the small tender which was to take us onto the island itself and after the short ride we came alongside the pier.

And then the moment came. It was so surreal. We stepped off the little boat and onto the place we had dreamed of for so long. Did it live up to expectations? Of course it did. We were met by the National Trust ranger and then left to our own devices.

We started by exploring the village and pictured how it would have been when the island had last been permanently inhabited, nearly a century earlier. We then made our way away from the bay and worked our way up the slopes, leading up to Conachair, the highest point of the island. The going was steady, with a faint path. We took our time. There was no rush and we kept stopping to look back at the village and bay gradually getting smaller behind us.

The view from the high point was breathtaking. The whole island and its surrounding stacks were laid out in front of us. We could just make out the distant outline of Lewis and Harris to the east.

There was a slight breeze but the sun shone as we sat and enjoyed the picnic we had brought with us. We cautiously explored the area to the north with the magnificent cliffs, the highest in the UK, tumbling down to the sea below. The birdlife was incredible. The noise and smell of the gannets, petrels, fulmars and puffins was almost overpowering. These, along with a few sheep were the main natural residents of St Kilda. We pictured the Old Kildans making their way perilously down the cliffs on home made ropes, risking their lives as they collected their eggs.

We then wandered back down to village bay and explored the museum, school and church, all giving us more insight into the history and wonder of this magical place. All too soon we met up with the others for our boat ride back to Leverburgh. We all enjoyed a hot drink and a slice of Flora’s delicious gingerbread courtesy of Sea Harris.

The treats were not yet over though. Once back on The Enchanted Isle our route took us past Boreray and the spectacular sea stacks. The thrill of looking up at their cliffs with all the birdlife will remain with us for years to come. An amazing experience, and the icing on the cake before finally heading back east to Harris and our camper.

So that was the end of our incredible trip to St Kilda. The whole day had been perfect. Perfect? Well, truth be said it had been perfect in all but one respect. The one aspect which spoiled the day, was also the reason that there are no photographs with this report....

Our long awaited trip, which was due to take place today, did happen… but only in my head, all in my imagination.

Jane and I are actually still in Sheffield. After an unpleasant week last month Jane has now recovered from the Covid-19. I have more than likely had it, although with very minor symptoms. We are keeping to social distancing measures. Jane has not been able to retire, the doctors have persuaded her to continue to work at the surgery a little longer, at least until this current scourge has passed. Our camper van is gathering dust at the farm where it is kept, unable to be taken out. The grass is growing out of control, uncut, in Laide, probably intermixed with its usual dandelions, daisies and other associated weeds.

I am sure the day would have been perfect, had it taken place. The silver lining in all this is that, hopefully we will be able to make this trip with Seumas sometime. Whether it is sooner or later, who can say? But sometime, sometime...

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Comments: 7

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Location: Sheffield/Laide
Activity: Mountain Walker
Pub: Clachaig or Drovers
Mountain: AMhaighdean
Place: Gruinard Bay

Munros: 281
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Wainwrights: 9
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Sub 2000: 3
Islands: 33
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way    Great Glen Way   

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