Monthly Archives: May 2014

The View

We’ve been back from Skye for a few weeks now, but the memory of, and the longing for, The View is not going away. Yesterday I made a collage of a few of the photos I made standing on the deck of Alavik Lodge. The only one missing is when it was really sunny and warm. I was out on a long bike ride that day. We are looking for a place to stay for four to six weeks in January/February next year, which will help us decide whether living on Skye is something we would like all year round.

Views Of The Cuillins

 


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St. Kilda Trip Pt. 5

The last part of the adventure was the trip back to Uig. Derek promised that there were some highlights still to come and he was right. We left Village Bay at 13:30 and had a closer look ar some of the cliffs of Hirta, including the Britain highest cliff, a sheer drop of 1400 feet below Conacher. The men of St. Kilda scaled these cliffs in search of birds and eggs using only ropes made from horsehair and their hands and feet.

 

Hirta Cliff

Hirta Cliff

 

We also had a look at Glen Bay, where Derek sat out the high winds on Monday. There is an arch through the cliffs there, which provided a look through to Boreray, the second largest island of St. Kilda.

Boreray Through The Arch

Boreray Through The Arch

 

We then went to look at the world’s largest Gannet colony and on the way had a wonderful view of Stac Lee on the left, Stac an Armin in the middle and Boreray on the right. In 1727 a small group of three men and eight boys went to Stac an Armin, as was usual, to bring back birds and they were stranded there for 9 months. The village on Hirta had been struck by an outbreak of smallpox and the men who were supposed to bring the group back could not do so. In fact most of the population died and new tennants had to be brough over from the Hebrides and mainland Scotland.

Stac Lee, Stac An Armin And Boreray

Stac Lee, Stac An Armin And Boreray

 

Some of the thousands of Gannets on Stac Lee checked out the boat and provided a great spectacle.

Two Gannets

Two Gannets

 

Stac Lee

Stac Lee

 

One of the cliffs of Boreray resembled a dog’s head, with a Gannet acting as the catchlight in its eye.

Dog's Head

Dog’s Head

 

Then it was time for us to begin the 5 hour journey back to Uig. Like on the way over to St. Kilda, I was lucky not to suffer at all with sea sickness. Others were glad of the short break on Berneray. After we got to Uig and siad our goodbyes, we quickly grabbed some Fish & Chips in Portree and Simon decided to spend the night in a comfortable, warm bed rather than a small, damp tent. It was quite an adventure and one that I will repeat at some point in the future.

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St. Kilda Trip Pt. 4

After spending the night in the museum (wasn’t that turned into a Hollywood movie?) I opened the door and was very happy to see that the weather had changed completely.

Welcome Sunshine In Village Bay

Welcome Sunshine In Village Bay

After a quick breakfast I went up the hill, to the gap between Hirta and Dùn. Along the way I got a sunny view of the cleits and Main Street.

Cleits And Main Street On St. Kilda

Cleits And Main Street On St. Kilda

Pretty soon I was near the smaller of the two radar stations where I caught up with Francis and Frank. The radar stations are used to track missiles launched from the MoD missile site on South Uist. This used to be done by army personnel based on Hirta, but that work has now been outsourced to Qinetiq.

Radar Station And Dùn

Radar Station And Dùn

The slope towards the bay was pretty steep in places and there was very little change of surviving any fall over the cliff at the other  side. I also got a good view of Levenish, one of the other little islands that make up St. Kilda.

Dùn

Dùn

The waves were still pretty big, as a result of yesterday’s gale force winds and they broke spectacularly on the cliff below  Claigeann Mòr. We could also see an arch above the sea and wondered how that had come about.

Arch Beneath Claigeann Mòr

Arch Beneath Claigeann Mòr

I then made my way up to the Mistress Stone. This is one of the site associated with a famous St. Kildan legend (the other one being the Lover’s Stone.) The story is that young men of St Kilda, before they could marry, had to prove they were able to provide for a family. They needed to show that they would be able to climb the rocks to catch birds for food. To do that they had to balance on their left foot over the edge of a protruding rock, place their right foot in front, bend down and make a fist over their feet. This balancing act was proof of their agility on the rocks. You will not be surprised to learn that I did not feel the need to prove my agility in this way.

Mistress Stone

Mistress Stone

 

 

I then peeked over the edge down to the gap between Hirta and Dùn.

Dùn and Levenish

Dùn and Levenish

 

To be continued with images from Stac Lee and Boreray…

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St. Kilda Trip Pt. 3

After a reasonable night’s sleep I got woken up by my feet getting wet and cold. A puddle of water had formed in my cheapo tent and had penetrated the bottom end of my sleeping bag. Day two on St. Kilda was forecast to be very windy and wet. Unfortunately, the forecast proved to be fairly accurate on this occasion, except that it was a bit wetter and windier. It gave us a good insight on how tough living conditions must have been for the St. Kildans and they did not have any electricity or hot water from a tap!

They lived in so called blackhouses that they shared with the livestock. One visiting clergyman described how he had to climb over a pile of manure to get to the section used by the human inhabitants of the blackhouse. There was an open fire in the middle of that space, but there was no hole in the roof to let the smoke out. The soot turned the inside walls, and most likely the people to some extent as well, black.

Remains Of A Blackhouse

Remains Of A Blackhouse

 

David, the National Trust ranger on St. Kilda, gave us a guided tour of the village area and shared his knowledge of the place. During the First World War a signal station was built on Hirta which attracted the attention of a German U-Boat. According to legend, one of the St. Kildans was very fond of tobacco and used every opportunity to trade for it. When he spotted the U-Boat he got in his rowing boat, looking forward to trading for a fresh supply of tobacco. The U-Boat captain was unaware of the totally peaceful and mercantile intentions of the approaching rowing boat and fired a few rifle salvos over the head of the rower. This quickly put an end to any prospect of trading and the U-Boat then proceeded to shell and destroy the naval signal station, carefully avoiding damaging the houses on main street. There were no human casualties and only one lamb was killed. A few months after the incident, a gun emplacement was installed to protect the village. It was completed in October 1918, but never used in anger. After the war ended the St. Kildans maintained it until the War Office stopped sending them payment for this work.

Anti U-Boat Gun

Anti U-Boat Gun

 

One of the oldest structures on the island is from the Iron Age. The purpose of the ‘building’ is not certain. There is one big central chamber with smaller spaces off it. It could have been a dwelling or a burial chamber. Whereas the openings of the cleits all point away from the prevailing wind, the ‘door’ of this structure points towards it and in fact may have lined up with the rising sun at one of the solstices, inviting comparisons with the much larger burial chamber at Maes Howe on Mainland, Orkney.

 

Iron Age Structure

Iron Age Structure

 

After the guided tour, at about 12:00, the weather deteriorated further. Derek had taken the precaution of moving the boat to Glen Bay at the other side of the island, leeward of some big hills. Landing there was not possible, so he spent the day and night on his own with only some curious and noisy seals for company. The rocky sea bottom meant that the anchor could not get a lot of purchase and Derek had to keep anchor watch during the night. It was just as well that he did move the boat though, as conditions in the bay would have been decidedly risky! There were gusts of force 7 winds.

Wild Water In Village Bay

Wild Water In Village Bay

 

I was not going to stay in my tent, or The Museum all day, so I ventured out for a short hike up the road towards the MoD radar station. At some points the wind nearly knocked me off my feet, so I did not go near any cliff edges.

Village Bay From Mullach Geal

Village Bay From Mullach Geal

 

David very kindly allowed us to use The Museum as our refuge and we had a good evening enjoying a few drams, some glasses of wine, cheese, nuts, laughter and good conversation. We felt like we were a little community, honouring the St. Kildan tradition of sharing resources. A few of us brought our sleeping gear inside (I had dried out my sleeping bag on a radiator in the ‘Ablutions Block’) and spent the night in relative comfort on the stone floor of The Museum.

Social Gathering In The Museum

Social Gathering In The Museum

 

To be continued…

 


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St. Kilda Trip Pt. 2

For the those who don’t know about St. Kilda I’ll start with some information which will explain why this is such a special place. It is not clear when the first settlers came to St Kilda, but evidence suggests that Bronze Age travellers may have visited St Kilda 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. One of the structures on Hirta (the main island) is either an Iron Age burial chamber or house. Records from more recent times indicate that a small community of about 180 people existed in 1697. They rented the island from the owner on mainland Scotland, latterly the Macleods of Dunvegan on Skye. The main produce that the islanders used to trade were seabirds (Fulmars) and a unique breed of sheep from one of the St. Kildan islands called Soay.

St. Kilda has always been a very isolated community as it was out in the Atlantic Ocean, 66km west of the nearest inhabited island Benbecula. In the 19th century contact was more frequent and their primitive way of life started to change. Their culture had been completely oral until then. There had always been a mix of pagan and christian religion, but when missionaries started to arrive and be based on Hirta they became part of the Free Church of Scotland, a very strict sect. More contact with the outside world also brought diseases that the St. Kildans had no resistance to and at times the population dwindled to very low numbers. Finally in 1930 the last 40 or so people asked to be evacuated as they were no longer able to feed themselves. For more detailed information and a good bibliography I would recommend you visit the National Trust of Scotland St. Kilda website: www.kilda.org.uk

 

I first learned about St. Kilda 30 years ago. I read a book of poetry by the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn which was entitled St. Kilda’s Parliament. I read a book about the history of the place and was intrigued by the way of life and its remoteness. Ever since then I have wanted to visit this beautiful place. When I got to know Simon it appeared we shared a love of Scotland and a fascination with St. Kilda. And now, finally, we made it there in the Integrity from GoToStKilda!

The Integrity In Village Bay

The Integrity In Village Bay

 

After overcoming the shock of arriving in this magical place and getting used to being on ‘dry’ land we pitched our tents. Campsite would be a bit of a misnomer for this patch of reasonably flat grass surrounded by stone walls. I pitched my tent leeward of one of the walls, as gale force winds were predicted for the following day. An absolute bonus and lifesaver were the hot showers that we could use: they provided unlimited powerful jets of really hot water!

St. Kilda Campsite

St. Kilda Campsite

 

The weather in the afternoon was showery and windy. The hill tops were in the cloud, but this did not deter Simon from racing up the hills. I was slightly less keen, but went for a short walk around the village and up the road.

Higher Fall Of Abhainn Mhor

Higher Fall Of Abhainn Mhor

 

One of the outstanding features of the landscape are the cleits. They are stone built storage huts and are unique to St. Kilda. There are 1,430 of them on Hirta and the other islands and stacs. The St. Kildans used them to store peat, salted bird carcasses, fish, grains, hay, manure, tools, feathers and others items of daily life.

 

Two Cleits With Dùn In The Background

Two Cleits With Dùn In The Background

 

The Soay sheep roam across the whole of Hirta and therefore they die all over the place as well. All in all I must have seen more than a dozen dead sheep. A lot of them perish after taking shelter in one of the numerous cleits, so sometimes when taking a look in one of them you get an unpleasant surprise. The lambs are vulnerable to attacks by Skuas if they wander off too far from their mother. Sometimes, when walking on the hills, you would get a whiff of dead sheep, but these two no longer gave off any bad smell.

Sheep Skulls With Dùn In The Background

Sheep Skulls With Dùn In The Background

 

Dùn is separated from the main island by a very narrow gap and at extreme low tide you can wade across. Bioda Mòr is its highest cliff at 176 meters (about 580 feet) and it was usually hidden by cloud.

Bioda Mòr In The Cloud

Bioda Mòr In The Cloud

 


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St. Kilda Trip Pt. 1

Well, what can I say. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, anxiously watching the weather forecasts for last couple of weeks, keeping in touch with Simon, deciding what to take. A few days before the scheduled departure it became clear that Monday might not be a good day for the journey and landing on Hirta (the main island of the St. Kilda archipelago.) Instead of cancelling Derek, the owner of GotoStKilda, offered us the option of leaving a day earlier, but still returning on the original Tuesday! Fortunately all 8 other passengers were able to take this offer, so we left for St. Kilda on Sunday morning.

Before describing the rest of the trip I want to say something about the Derek, Nicola and GoToStKilda. They were absolutely splendid, everything organised well, extremely good at communicating with their customers before and after departure. The boat, which is an immensely important component of the trip, was very fast and comfortable (as far as possible on a trip out in the Atlantic.) The safety briefing was thorough, life vests were compact and looked new and we never felt unsafe or at risk at any point during the three days. It all made for a fantastic three day experience. If you are considering going to St. Kilda, either on the day trip or a multi-day camping trip, you really should check them out. Derek is very flexible and will organise the trip around your needs and wishes as far as possible. Their website is very good and informative: http://www.gotostkilda.co.uk/

We set off from Uig at 9:30 and the boat cleaved through the waves at about 20 knots (Derek, please let me know if I get any of these details wrong.) I am fortunate in not suffering from sea sickness at all, so I enjoyed the ride and the bumps inside the cabin on the very comfortable leather seats most of the time. Others preventing feeling ill by staying outside on the aft deck in the spray and occasional cold shower. We broke the journey by stopping at the Rodel Hotel at the south east corner of Harris. I was there a few weeks ago and did not think I would be back that soon. The coffee and bacon butties were excellent and the interior was in total contrast with the bare, austere exterior of the place.

After a couple more hours of crashing through the waves anticipation was rising. From the SatNav we knew that St. Kilda was not more than 2 miles away, but it was totally obscured by the mist. Then, suddenly it was there, as if by magic.

Main Street On Hirta

Main Street On Hirta

 

To be continued…

 


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Walk On Coral Beach

Yesterday, the forecast promised the best of the weather would be in the North, so we decided to visit Coral Beach. This bit of coast just north of Dunvegan is known for the white beaches that are created not by coral, but by bits of seaweed. Unusually for a seaweed, maerl grows a hard outer skeleton by depositing lime in its cell walls, forming underwater beds made up of little branched nodules. These beds provide shelter for marine animals, young scallops in particular. Living maerl is a beautiful magenta colour, but when fragments of it are washed up on the beach they are dried and bleached by the sun. Slowly these bits are broken up and turn the beach white.

Maerl

Maerl

 

Coral Beach #1

Coral Beach #1

 

We engaged in a bit of beachcombing and I was struck by the beautiful forms and patterns created by the seaweed on the beach.

Seaweed On Coral Beach #1

Seaweed On Coral Beach #1

 

Seaweed On Coral Beach #2

Seaweed On Coral Beach #2

 

Seaweed On Coral Beach #3

Seaweed On Coral Beach #3

 

In one of the rockpools there were some jellyfish that survived until the next high tide would set them free.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish

 


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