From Perth to St Kilda: A Photographer’s Journey

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my first visit to an inspirational group of islands. To celebrate, I’ve taken a look back at the long personal journey I’ve been on with St Kilda, illustrated with my photography.

A chance fleeting moment can change your life.

Eternally grateful

In the summer of 2002, aged 16 and on my first visit to the Western Isles, I spent a day on the island of Berneray in the Sound of Harris. The sun shone as my parents and I crossed the machair and gazed west over a golden beach and turquoise waters. It was idyllic. Something on the horizon caught my father’s eye; two shapes, which I now know to be Hirta, Dùn and Soay on the left, and Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin on the right.

“That must be St Kilda!” he exclaimed; to which I answered, “What’s St Kilda?” He briefly told me about a remote archipelago in the North Atlantic, evacuated in 1930, where people had climbed cliffs and stacks to harvest seabirds and their eggs. That caught my attention. I lifted a pair of binoculars to my eyes and soaked up the view of the islands, knowing that I was looking at something special. That moment will live in my memory forever and I’ll be eternally grateful that St Kilda wasn’t shrouded in cloud that day.

West Beach, Berneray, looking towards the island of Pabbay

The life and death of St Kilda

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the average teenager doesn’t request a copy of Tom Steel’s ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda’ for their 17th birthday. Thankfully I’ve never been a fan of being average and this was one of the first books I acquired on the Scottish islands. My bookcase now groans under the weight of island literature and a disproportionate amount is dedicated to St Kilda. 

My well-thumbed copy of Tom Steel’s moving story of a vanished island community remains my firm favourite. When I finished reading it for the first time, I visited the National Trust for Scotland’s St Kilda website, posted a comment in the guestbook and vowed to make the trip one day. I never imaged that, less than four years later, I would stand on the summit of Conachair and gaze east across the sparkling sea to a golden beach on the island of Berneray, with Tom Steel’s book waiting for me on my bedside table in Cottage no.2.

Village Bay from Conachair
Village Bay from Conachair

Passport to St Kilda

Towards Boreray
Towards Boreray

I studied Geography at Edinburgh University between 2003 and 2007. As my final year approached, I racked my brains for a dissertation topic. Sitting in a lecture one day, still struggling for an idea, we students were advised to each choose a topic that genuinely interested us. I had a ‘eureka!’ moment when St Kilda popped into my head and I remembered reading about work parties when I’d visited the island’s website a few years previously.

I couldn’t exit that lecture theatre fast enough! I returned to my digs and filled out an application form to join a work party in the summer of 2006. Thankfully my application was accepted and my ‘Passport to St Kilda’ soon landed on my doormat.

From Perth to St Kilda

I had an epic journey across Scotland from my parents’ house in Perth all the way to St Kilda, involving a taxi, four buses and two boats, interspersed with a night in Uig Youth Hostel on Skye and a night in Drinishader Bunkhouse on Harris.

Each and every mile of my long journey was worthwhile when the boat, the Orca, finally anchored in Village Bay. I was immediately struck by two things: 1) the sheer scale of the place – a vast amphitheatre backed by spectacular cliffs; and 2) the vivid green colour of the slopes of Dùn, Mullach Sgar, Mullach Mòr, Conachair and Oiseval. I’d become so accustomed to looking at old black and white photographs of the islands that somehow I hadn’t expected to see them in glorious technicolour.

Gannets over Boreray, St Kilda
Gannets over Boreray

The ins and outs of my dissertation topic didn’t fall into place until a couple of months later, but I spent my fortnight on St Kilda as an archaeology work party member soaking up the atmosphere of the islands, filling my camera’s memory card, reading every last scrap of information I could find and scribbling notes in my diary each evening.

Thankfully I still had plenty of time for archaeological digs, island walks, a sunny boat trip around the entire archipelago (the best fiver I’ve spent in my life!), fine dining in Cottage no.1, and staggering back from the Puff Inn under the cover of darkness to the sound of Snipe drumming overhead.

Iconic status

Those two wonderful weeks passed by all too quickly and I was soon back in the capital immersing myself in several months of research and subsequent write-up. My dissertation had a bit of a wordy title: ‘Deconstructing the Iconic Status of St Kilda: Discourses of Distance, Mythology and Responsibility’.

In a nutshell, I was looking at the following. St Kilda has been elevated to an almost mythological status in the post-evacuation era, with many representations of the islands characterised by nostalgia for a lost way of life; growing scientific interest in the flora, fauna and archaeology; and conservation as a dual World Heritage Site.

However, despite being geographically remote, St Kilda and its history share similarities with other islands, both in Scotland and further afield, and the archipelago is not immune to the various pressing issues of the modern era, most notably climate change and marine pollution. At the time of writing my dissertation, this topic was under-studied but a number of publications addressing these themes have since hit the shelves.

The future

The cliffs of Conachair
The cliffs of Conachair

In 2010 I returned to St Kilda with my partner, Mark, camping and volunteering. I packed a copy of my dissertation and read it while sitting in our tent next to the Factor’s House. It’s a well-researched and well-written piece of work, even if I say so myself, however I made a decision not to attempt to get it published.

I don’t want to go down in history for detracting from the iconic status of these islands which I hold so close to my heart. I’d rather use my writing and photography in a more positive way, promoting St Kilda (and other Scottish islands) to a wider audience and hopefully encourage more people to put some island literature on their birthday wish lists, learn about the fascinating history of this World Heritage Site and help to secure a more sustainable future for it by supporting the St Kilda Club and the National Trust for Scotland.

A chance fleeting moment can change your life. The seeds of my Scottish islands obsession were sown during early childhood but flourished after a holiday on Harris in 2002, and particularly after a fateful day trip to Berneray with a pair of binoculars. The call of the islands will continue to pull me west for decades to come and it’s only a matter of time before I find myself back on board a boat bound for St Kilda.


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57 thoughts

  1. I love this autobiography by place: you write beautifully and apparently effortlessly. What a great thing to be able to dissertate on a passion, which you make completely contagious. Suddenly I think of a song I knew long ago

    The far Cuillins are pullin’ me away,
    As take I wi’ my crummack to the road.
    The far Cuillins are puttin’ love on me,
    As step I wi’ the sunlight for my load.

    I think I’ll have to get out my crummack and shoulder my load of sunlight and head your way to experience something of your western isles. How late in the year can I do it? That photo of the gannets was the clincher.

    1. Thank you Meg. I seemed to be one of the few students in a very large class of Geographers who really enjoyed writing their dissertation. Immersing myself in St Kilda for a year didn’t feel like work – more like pleasure. I haven’t come across these lyrics before but they are lovely. In fact, they have brought back another memory from my time on St Kilda. One day during the work party, I was on kitchen duty when a chap from the military base burst in and announced that it was possible to see the Cuillins on the horizon. It was my lucky day. The others were up to their elbows in mud on the archaeological dig whilst the cook and I were given a lift in the Landrover to the highest point on the road to look south east, beyond the Western Isles, to the Cuillins which were visible with the naked eye. Incredible.

      I’m delighted that you’ve decided to experience the Western Isles for yourself! The islands have something to offer regardless of the time of year but I would recommend any time between May and September in order to maximise the daylight hours and have a decent chance of getting some good weather. September is my favourite month. Many of the seabirds will be gone by then but the weather tends to be good despite the autumnal chill in the air and places are quieter than during the height of summer. Do get in touch if you need a second opinion whilst planning your trip. Otherwise, I look forward to reading about it on your blog in due course!

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey Karen; your enthusiasm for these islands really stands out. I’ve never been to the Western Isles, despite being born in Scotland (Edinburgh). I always remember some of the most interesting topics we studied in history at school were the remote communities – the Orkney islands if I remember correctly but I’m not sure now – but you really bring the Western Isles to life with your passion and authority in your writing – as well as your gorgeous photography. Definitely added to my list of places to visit😊

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words, Dan. I know many Scots who have traveled the world but have yet to venture into the Highlands and out to the islands, so you’re not alone! I’m glad to hear you’ve added the Western Isles to your list of places to visit. You won’t be disappointed! I’m going to Barra next month and am hoping to tick off a few other islands while I’m there. Orkney is well worth a trip too. I spent a week and a half there in 2013 and would go as far to say that it was one of my best ever holidays. Enjoy! 🙂

  3. An inspiring piece, Karen – Gannets over Boreray is a very special image. We looked at getting out there on our last trip but with limited time and sailings which are not guaranteed for specific dates we have no choice but to return … which is no bad thing 🙂

    1. Thank you Robin. ‘Gannets over Boreray’ was captured on that first trip ten years ago with only a compact camera! It’s hard to convey what it’s like when a huge cloud of Gannets lift off from the spectacular cliffs of Boreray but I guess this goes some way towards doing it justice. I hope you do make it out to St Kilda one day. It’s always good to have an excuse to return to the Hebrides! 🙂

  4. I am so happy for you, that you can continue to build on this youthful fascination, expanding it into your adult activities in ways that contribute to today’s world. And … continue to fascinate you!

    1. Thank you Penny! I could never have imagined that spotting St Kilda on the distant horizon in 2002 could have led to this chain of events. It’s funny how things work out!

  5. Fascinating reading but never be afraid to publish your experience, views and findings. They may not meet with everyone’s approval but will give you credit for telling it as it is! I enjoyed reading this post very much!

    1. Thanks very much! You’re right – no-one should ever be afraid to publish their experience, views and findings. For me, I think it’s less about seeking others’ approval and more about what sits well with me. You never know, I might do something with my dissertation yet! I’m really glad you enjoyed this post.

    1. That looks delicious! I have a tagine but haven’t gotten around to using it yet. I must try your recipe and substitute the fish for something veggie! 🙂

  6. Hello Karen,

    Very interesting article ! Can I translate like “Love Our Islands, save our Seabirds” ? 🙂
    I would like to go to St kilda next summer. This will be interesting to watch ! 🙂

  7. You have a way with writing Karen; it is is fresh and brimming with happiness and beauty. The images are beautiful beyond words. Your concern and love for these islands is endearing, almost spiritual:) Thanks for sharing!

  8. You have captured the magic of St.Kilda with your photos and words, Karen. We’re off to the Scotland and the Hebrides next May, now we’re even more excited about our coming trip. 🙂 Thanks for sharing. And thanks for the follow, It’s much appreciated! 🙂
    Have a great weekend,
    Dina & co

    1. Thank you, Dina. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. I’m off to the Hebrides next May too – to get married! I hope you have a wonderful trip. Have a great weekend too and thanks again for dropping by. Karen

  9. Your photos make me want to go to Scotland so badly! I particularly like the photo of Conachair.
    It’s funny when I saw the heading at first I thought you’d visited Australia as we have a city called Perth and a very popular tourist area in Melbourne called St Kilda (probably named after the Scottish Islands).
    Good work volunteering on your visit as well. The world needs more people trying to make a difference.

    1. Thank you! Yes, I had wondered if I’d get a few hits from Australia when I gave this post its title! The Melbourne suburb St Kilda is named after the Scottish islands in a roundabout way. Sir Thomas Dyke Acland purchased a ship in 1834 and named it ‘The Lady of St Kilda’ to commemorate his wife’s visit to the Scottish archipelago and in memory of Lady Grange whose estranged husband had her imprisoned on St Kilda between 1732 and 1734. The ship was moored in Melbourne in the 1840s and that’s how the suburb acquired its name! I hope you make it to Scotland one day and see it with your own eyes.

          1. No, only a few phrases. I did French at school until I was 16 but have forgotten most of what I learned. However, I did manage to order some coffee and cake in Charles de Gaulle Airport a few months ago without speaking English!! 🙂

          2. I was just passing through the airport on my way to and from Beijing for a family holiday (we were visiting my brother who lives in China). I will get around to writing up my Beijing blog sooner or later! I would love to visit Paris properly sometime though. 🙂

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