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.
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.
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.
Passport to St Kilda
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.
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.
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.
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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