St Kilda: The island at the edge of the world

For centuries, people lived on Britain's remotest isle of St Kilda. Now the chance to battle the elements and sail there on a wooden ketch reveals just how unique their lives were...

8 mins

"The flying jib connects to the cleat, here’s the sheet for the main sail; to tail it, you have to coil it – clockwise and at least three times. Then there’s the halyards..." Stood on the deck of the sailing ketch known as Bessie Ellen, listening to the words of skipper Nikki, never before had I felt so out of my depth.

Though only leaving the harbour in Oban, on Scotland’s west coast, it was as if I’d been released into a parallel universe; one where everyone still spoke English but, for some reason, I didn’t understand a single word of it. All the while the Atlantic air breezed through the weak spots in my clothing, permeating every stitch.

I always knew getting to St Kilda, the remotest of the British Isles – flung out into the North Atlantic over 64km west of the nearest Outer Hebridean isle of North Uist – was going to be challenging, but when I signed up for a sailing trip to try and make it there on what would be my fifth attempt, I had no idea what I was in for.

Being a lover of remote places, the idea of the British archipelago had intrigued me for over a decade. I remembered reading about how a community of people had lived on this 6.7 sq km patch of rugged volcanic land since the Bronze Age – over 5,000 years ago – and how its existence was first documented in 1697 by a man called Martin Martin, who journeyed there by the only method available at the time: a longboat over several days.

I recalled reading in awe the story of how the last of its 36 locals were ‘evacuated’ to the mainland in 1930, and being intrigued by a sepia image that showed a St Kildan foot that appeared ridiculously narrow and long next to a mainlander’s. It was said to have evolved that way due to centuries of climbing the vertiginous sea stacks to collect the eggs of seabirds (and indeed the birds themselves) – their only food source for many years.

I didn’t so much want to see this intriguing place, I had to with every fibre of my being. And so, over the years, whenever I headed to the Isle of Skye, I would enquire about the speedboat that takes visitors there in a four-hour trip. But every time I signed up, it was cancelled due to bad weather. I had started to think I would never make it there. And then I heard about Bessie Ellen.

Bessie Ellen's restorer, owner and skipper, Nikki Alford (Phoebe Smith)

Bessie Ellen's restorer, owner and skipper, Nikki Alford (Phoebe Smith)

Setting sail

Lovingly restored by her skipper, Nikki Alford, the 1904 tall ship known as Bessie Ellen is one of Britain’s last wooden trading ketches, with huge canvas sails that look like every child’s dream of a pirate ship. Its main belly cargo hold had been transformed into a dining/living area where guests’ bunks are built into the walls (with curtains for privacy) and hot showers are – literally – on tap.

On a ten-day St Kilda trip, getting to the prophesied isle was by no means guaranteed. But with guests expected to get hands-on as much as they could, the adventure would be earned whatever the outcome. It was a reality I quickly discovered on my first night, as we anchored alongside the town of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

“We won’t make St Kilda in the next couple of days – that’s for sure,” predicted Nicki as the sun turned the sky a deep shade of purple behind her. “The wind is too strong, the sea too rough. But if we all muck in and start early, we should be able to land on Canna tomorrow, take shelter there and then head to the Outer Hebrides the day after. If we’re lucky, the weather will change.”

I eyed my fellow would-be sailors curiously. There were four old hands, who had been on Bessie Ellen previously and become hooked; a pharmacist couple and their retired best friend, who had never winched so much as a jib before in their lives; another retired couple, also new to seafaring; a mother and daughter eager to try their hands at the ropes; a solo 40-something Scottish woman in search of an adventure; and a German couple in their 30s, who had been intrigued by Britain’s mysterious far-flung island.

Getting to the prophesied isle was by no means guaranteed. But with guests expected to get hands on, the adventure would be earned whatever the outcome

Conversation flowed nervously over shared dinner that evening as many of us confessed to being overwhelmed by the sailing terminology. But despite our trepidation, the one thing we all had in common was a determination to make it to St Kilda.

Nikki hadn’t lied about the early start. The sun had barely risen when the shout was made to grab breakfast before heading up on deck. This time I put on my sea-issued waterproof trousers and jacket, and though I looked distinctly Minion-like in my yellow-and-blue shiny rubber, I felt instantly warm and at ease.

Along the way we were shown some knots – bowline, figure-eight, reef, clove hitch – taught how to hoist (raise) and trim (adjust) the sails, and learnt how to read our position on the GPS and complete the captain’s log each hour. By the time we reached the Canna, part of the Small Isles, I was starving. We inhaled a hearty meal of vegetables, potatoes and quiche followed by crumble and cake, then we took the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) over to the island.

Rain began to fall as I felt solid land beneath my feet, but it didn’t stop me spending several happy hours exploring, buying handmade soap from the local store – manned only by an honesty box – wandering the grounds, stopping by the grave of John Lorne Campbell (a Gaelic scholar who dedicated his life to preserving the Hebridean culture here) and watching grey seals frolic in the low tide.

The colourful town of Tobermory turning pink at dusk (Phoebe Smith)

The colourful town of Tobermory turning pink at dusk (Phoebe Smith)

Making a pit stop

The next day I rose easily and arrived on deck ready to have a go. Despite bad weather, and the occasional mixing up of which rope went to which cleat (aka peg), we were starting to look like – most of the time – we knew what we were doing. The next stop was only a few hours away at Rodel, a tiny hamlet on the Isle of Harris.

We boated to a hotel that was now closed and headed to the old church where reliefs of Viking ships (which reminded me of the sails on Bessie Ellen) were carved into the stone reliefs commemorating the life of the MacLeod clan who lived on this island. As I emerged from the building, some more visitors arrived by car – which seemed somehow at odds with our location. It felt right to have arrived over water, as the Vikings had all those years ago.

With more time to spare, four of us decided to follow a walking trail for half an hour up and over the headland, through crowds of curious (and posing) sheep, arriving at a small cluster of houses that looked out to the seemingly never-ending sea beyond.

Using my binoculars, I spied a small shop by the water’s edge. We detoured down to find a pop-up Harris Tweed business newly opened by a couple from Manchester; they had fallen in love with the island after a visit in 2009. News of our arrival – despite us seeing no one – had travelled fast here, for he already knew we had voyaged there by the tall ship in the harbour.

“There’s a storm coming, and it’s big,” said Nikki as we sat down to dinner that evening. “We have a small window to try and make it for St Kilda, but we need to leave early before it even gets light. We’ll have breakfast on the move and, with the wind in our favour, we should make Hirta by lunchtime.”

Excitement filled the cabin as we swayed to sleep that night. We were warned it might still not happen, but with the smell of the salty air in my nose and the sound of the waves washing along the sides of the boat next to where I lay, something inside me felt that we would.

Looking over to Bessie Ellen from the cleits of St Kilda (Phoebe Smith)

Looking over to Bessie Ellen from the cleits of St Kilda (Phoebe Smith)

The oncoming storm

“All hands on deck!” came the call at the ludicrous hour of 5am. Nikki had warned us that if we wanted to make landfall, it wasn’t going to be a leisurely day at sea. The wind was handily pushing us west and the sun was shining for the first time on the trip, but the swell was forcing many of my fellow voyagers to go below deck for a lie down.

Happiest out in the fresh air, I was told to take the helm. The wooden spokes of the wheel felt almost as heavy as the responsibility I’d been given. I had to take them in both hands and use one of my feet to hold it on course as the water fought to pull her left or right. The first few minutes were a combination of terror and exhilaration, but after a while I began to feel confident. I had the ultimate view of the entire ship and nothing but the ocean stretching out like a vast watery possibility in front of me.

Every so often I would shout out my compass bearing, and each time I felt a little more like a proper sailor. Hours passed and the speedboats that leave from Skye and Harris raced past us. Finally, the ring of an old volcano, the cluster of islands that make up St Kilda, appeared to rise from the sea like magic.

“Boreray,” replied crewhand Kristina, gesturing at the rock, one of the chain’s seven isles.

Seabirds soon began to appear. Gannets swooped overhead, their orangey-yellow heads looking as though blusher had been applied liberally to their cheeks, while black and white guillemots hit the water as though bullets fired from a gun, diving for the fish beneath the waves. The rocky tower of Stac Lee protruded white and tooth-like from the water. It was only as we got closer that we realised it was made of grey gabbro and dolerite but had been covered in white guano from the thousands of birds that nested in its cracks.

As Nikki foretold, we finally reached the shelter of Village Bay a little after 1pm. Stepping off the RIB onto land was a surreal moment.

The view from the top of Hirta looking over to Boreray (Phoebe Smith)

The view from the top of Hirta looking over to Boreray (Phoebe Smith)

“Welcome to St Kilda,” said the National Trust for Scotland warden who greeted us. After the island was abandoned nearly 90 years ago, when it was decided that life was simply too hard for residents, it was, soon after, bequeathed to the charity, who now have a small rotating team of volunteers. They stay here year round, maintaining buildings, looking after the Soay sheep that provide wool and a modest income, and conducting bird surveys of the islands’ many feathered residents.

Handing us a map, she told us where we could and couldn’t wander, though the latter mainly consisted of the ugly corrugated iron military base that has been here since 1957 – currently being rebuilt using more sympathetic materials.

After a mandatory visit to the gift shop – where you can get your passport stamped with a puffin icon and send a postcard home – I headed inside the church. Christianity was brought to St Kilda with the arrival of missionaries from the mainland in the 18th century; a church and resident minister soon followed, and a school was added in 1884.

There were notes inside the old classroom in which the minister had expressed surprise that none of the children knew what a tree was (given the island’s topography and strong wind, no trees can grow here or ever have). Reports told of the joyful, game-filled life of locals, which seemed to turn more sombre with the eventual conversion of everyone to religion.

I left to make my way along the one and only lane, known as Main Street. To the left, the grassy bank sloped down to the bay, laced with drystone walls and dotted with brown be-horned Soay sheep. To the right, a smattering of grey buildings – almost indistinguishable from the cleits where residents would store their bounty of seabirds and their eggs, as well as turf for the fires – formed a single line. Each had a number painted on a slate sign outside telling details of the former residents, including the famous Lady Grange who was abducted and incarcerated here for eight years by her husband when she tried to expose his Jacobite sympathies in 1734.

Though it had been decades since anyone tried to steal the eggs and chicks of the three-quarters-of-a-million seabirds that visited these islands every year, it seems that the skuas had never forgotten

Halfway along, inside a small museum that smelt of burning peat and baked bread, were black-and-white photos of the islanders, all looking both serious and surprised as they posed for the camera. Life on St Kilda – which was recorded as having a population of 180 from 1697 – was far from easy. An interpretation board told of houses filled with cattle, the smell of manure unbearable to the curious Victorian visitors who seemed to come almost daily by the boatload during summer to regard the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants with a rather politically incorrect curiosity.

Stories of gale-force winds blowing cattle off the land were retold, and tales of the capsized boats of would-be fisherman explained why seabirds offered the main diet here, their eggs feasted on as snacks and the birds themselves plucked and dried to last until the following year. Their bones were even used as tools, long before the trade of supplies in the form of produce and cattle came along with the tourists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was with perhaps poetic justice, then, that a short time later, while strolling uphill to take in views of the island from above, I was dive-bombed by overprotective great skuas.

“They used to hand out bamboo sticks in the visitor’s centre,” explained a volunteer who was clutching an umbrella, and whom I followed hastily after as another one of the brown birds shot towards us and skimmed right past my face, so close I could feel the disturbed air vibrate against my nose. As he headed back down, I watched the birds continue to attack him kamikaze-style, swooping upwards at the very last minute to avoid a full-on collision. Though it had been decades since anyone tried to steal the eggs and chicks of the three-quarters-of-a-million seabirds that visited these islands every year, it seemed that the skuas had never forgotten.

A gannet flies overhead as we leave St Kilda (Phoebe Smith)

A gannet flies overhead as we leave St Kilda (Phoebe Smith)

Earning your way

After the four days it had taken to get to St Kilda, I enjoyed spending the last of the four hours we had left on the land sat on a clifftop looking out to Boreray and down to the now-abandoned village, which, from high up, looked like the unfinished pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

It had been difficult to get here, a journey years in the planning, and it wouldn’t be plain sailing getting back, either. That evening, I would take part in two night watches, manning the helm for a series of shifts split among those of us well enough to take part during the oncoming storm, as the bow of the ship rose and fell with a mighty slap against the choppy sea. But there would be moments of serenity, too, from watching the sun set behind Hirta as we sailed away, guided by the light from the moon, to having a pod of dolphins follow us as we glided in calmer seas to an overnight spot at North Uist.

By the time we reached the shelter of Skye a couple of days later, ready to hunker down in the pub at Carbost against the elements – blown in on the strong westerlies – I realised that I now, too, seemed to be speaking a different language. I talked of climbing the bowsprit, sailing on a bearing, of wave heights and ‘apparent wind’, and of learning to tie a bowline knot one-handed in a man overboard situation. Before long I progressed to stories of a community who, against all odds, lived on a remote outpost and climbed sea cliffs in their bare feet until the final 30 were taken to the mainland and the island was forever left to the birds.

One local smiled as I spoke, and confessed he would love to visit. He said he was even offered a seat on the postal helicopter last year but declined. When I asked why, he replied: “Because I don’t just want to visit St Kilda, I want to earn it – like you have.”

I looked at him knowingly. Let the masses embark on their speedboat journeys, because the only way to appreciate the distance at which those hardy souls lived and the isolation they endured is to make your way there slowly, drawn by the power of the wind and at the mercy of the elements. Only then can you truly say you’ve been to St Kilda.

Sailing out to one of Britain's most remote islands (Phoebe Smith)

Sailing out to one of Britain's most remote islands (Phoebe Smith)

The Trip

The author travelled with Bessie Ellen (07800 825382), who offer a range of sailing trips around the Scottish Islands, including St Kilda, as well as long weekends in Cornwall and overseas in Tenerife and Portugal. The ten-day Expedition to St Kilda runs three times between June and August in 2018. Prices include all food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Getting there

The trip to St Kilda sails from Oban, which is served by direct daily trains from Glasgow (around three hours) several times a day. Regular domestic and international flights go direct to Glasgow Airport, from where the convenient Glasgow Airport Express bus will take you into the city centre (and the train station) in just 15 minutes.

Getting around

Unless taking an organised sailing trip, getting between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland is done via ferry. See Caledonian MacBrayne for details. The fast boats to St Kilda run from the isles of Skye and Harris, with the journey to Hirta taking around three hours each way.

When to go

Spring/summer – this is the only time that day boats and sailboats like Bessie Ellen will run to St Kilda. Any trip is weather dependent and can be cancelled at short notice, so be prepared (and persistent) – it’s worth it!

Loch Druidibeag and Loch Sgioport at sundown (Phoebe Smith)

Loch Druidibeag and Loch Sgioport at sundown (Phoebe Smith)

St Kilda and the Hebrides highlights

1: Hirta

From wandering the Main Street and avoiding the torpedo-like skuas to going inside one of the famous stone cleits, the main island is a truly special place that seems to whisper stories from its past.

2: Canna

Try one of the three waymarked routes (maps available at the harbour) taking in its early-Christian cross, ‘Punishment Stone’, the remains of Corogharn Castle or the 2,000-year-old underground chamber.

3: Harris

Pay a visit to Rodel, the historic former island capital founded by the chief of the clan MacLeod and linked via a wonderful drive to Tarbert known as the Golden Road.

4: South Uist

Spot white-tailed and golden eagles on one of the signposted Birds of Prey Trails that lead through Loch Druidibeag and Loch Sgioport.

5: Skye

Grab a shot of the local Talisker whisky at Carbost to toast the beauty of the Hebrides under the shadow of the Cuillin. Then take a bus up to the beautiful volcanic landscapes of the north to see the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing.

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