St Kilda: the UK's most remote island

Britain’s most remote islands are the goal of many travellers. James Fair spent a week trying but failing to reach St Kilda, and would do it all again at the drop of an anchor.

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Explore the Hebrides article spread

Britain’s most remote islands are the goal of many travellers. James Fair spent a week trying but failing to reach St Kilda, and would do it all again at the drop of an anchor.

It was May 1997. I was standing on the west coast of North Uist, and my friend Paddy remarked that he thought he could see St Kilda. Given that the archipelago was some 70km away, it’s more likely that Paddy had imbibed a tot too much of the local whisky, but that’s not the point. Until then, I had been shamefully ignorant that these four wind-lashed islands even existed, way out in the North Atlantic.

Paddy really wanted to go to St Kilda, and he made a trip there sound adventurous and something like a pilgrimage. I can’t claim to have developed a sudden obsession with St Kilda, but I did begin to notice that many well-travelled people want to go there but haven’t. So when wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall rang up and said he knew an excellent boat with a first-rate skipper who was dying to take a journalist out there, I simply had to go.

I started to fill the void of my shameful ignorance. The history of St Kilda’s colonisation and its final evacuation in the 1930s is interesting enough, but for naturalists there is also the lure of the world’s largest gannetry, the largest puffin and fulmar colonies in the British Isles and an endemic subspecies of wren Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis, a tougher version of its mainland cousin.

Then there’s the ancient practice of ‘fouling’, whereby the St Kildans lowered themselves down cliff faces to collect young gannets – gugas – and other seabirds (all regarded as delicacies) from their nests.

I know a lot more about St Kilda now than I did before, including that its field mouse (another endemic subspecies) weighs up to twice the norm and feeds on dead sheep, seabirds, snails, insects, seeds and moss. But it’s useless information, all of it, because I’m barely going to mention St Kilda again. This is the story of how I didn’t get there, not even within 120km of the blasted place.

 

JOIN JAMES ON HIS VOYAGE

Day 1

We’re sitting in Oban Harbour. As the other guests bring on enough luggage to sink an aircraft carrier, let alone the 70-foot Chalice that is their home for the week, a sinuous shape breaks the surface of the water. I look at skipper Chris Jackson – a redoubtable Geordie whose anecdotes invariably include the catchphrase “It gets worse” – and we both say, simultaneously, “Was that...?”

Of course, it wasn’t an otter, just a common seal, but it’s an omen all the same. We depart for Tobermory at 4.30pm, passing down the Sound of Mull accompanied by guillemots, gannets and other seabirds. Though I don’t yet know it, if there’s one image that will sum up the trip for me, it is the robust, dependable razorbill in flight.

 

Day 2

It rains all morning as we head for the Sound of Sleat. The forecast is unremittingly bad, and already Chris has practically banned any mention of St Kilda. He knows that unless meteorologists have confused the Hebrides with Cape Horn, we’re not going to make it.

We pass Sandaig, where Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bright Water, and then Glenelg. Here, hauled out on the beach, there are more than 60 seals, resembling fat, juicy sausages waiting to be put on the barbecue.

 

Day 3

Around midday, the weather improves and we’re able to land on Rona for a couple of hours. After we leave and head north for Loch Gairloch, there are great banks of clouds on the western horizon and the sun is shining through the clouds and lighting up the sea, creating a scene that is almost Arthurian in its intensity.

 

Day 4

In the early morning drizzle, I watch as four oystercatchers, their piping calls ringing out through the gloom, fly towards the boat, bank and then veer away into the mist. I go up to the bridge to chat to Chris. “So where are we going today?” I ask. Chris looks at me with an impish grin. “I think we’ll go to the Shiants,” he says.

There’s an island off the coast of Ecuador called Isla de la Plata. You can see blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses there and it’s predictably known as the ‘poor man’s Galápagos’ because it’s a much cheaper, one-day trip. Still, it’s a magical place, and when I visited 10 years ago, I saw the humpback whales that migrate down there to breed.

Well, I suppose the Shiants might be described as the ‘poor man’s St Kilda’. After three hours sailing, we arrive at a small bay ringed by three green-topped, rocky islands. They form a partial amphitheatre, an impression reinforced by the basalt columns that look like a church organ built by a cubist.

There’s a real hum about the place, with thousands of seabirds in the air, on the water and on the islands. The nesting birds are divided as if at a wedding – fulmars on the steep cliffs of Eilean an Taighe to the left, guillemots and razorbills on the more gradually sloping basalt columns of Garbh Eilean to the right.

It’s cacophonous and wondrous, and though not an absolutely outlandish spectacle, there is something intangibly special about the place. I don’t want to come over all mystical, but the Shiants do feel somehow blessed.

 

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