A visit to St Kilda

A hillside view of Village Bay on Hirta, the main island of St Kilda, with Uist just visible on the horizon. Copyright C. Kennedy Mills

Ken Mills is one of a select number of people who have visited St Kilda under sail and under motor. Here he recalls his experience of what is now the standard way of seeing the isolated archipelago — on a day trip by fast launch from the Outer Hebrides.

My first visit to St Kilda was in the late 1980s. Three of us sailed by yacht from Harris to the isolated archipelago 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, anchoring late afternoon in Village Bay at Hirta, the main island. We had sailed with a good forecast and had planned to stay the following day. In the evening we went ashore and after a short walk visited The Puffin, the Naafi-style pub and shop established for the servicemen then stationed on the island. It was good to enjoy beer there at almost duty free prices! Unfortunately at midnight, when back on the boat, we got a poor forecast for later the next day so the decision was made to leave at first light and return to Harris. I knew I had to to go back and see more of these intriguing islands — but when?

Intrepid cyclist-sailor Ken Mills

In 2012, by now boat-less, I decided to explore ways of returning to the island and eventually homed in on Sea Harris who, along with Kilda Cruises, offer day trips from Leverburgh. Contact was made with Seumus of Sea Harris and two successive dates were offered in May (the idea being that if the weather was poor on day 1, you would possibly get out on day 2). B&B accommodation was arranged, but on the weekend before I was due to go Seamus phoned to say the forecast was not good and he was unlikely to sail. He offered me another two consecutive dates in June and I was able to unscramble and rearrange my accommodation. The weather this time played fair and the visit was successful.

To get to Leverburgh I drove to Uig, where I left the car and took my bike on Hebrides to Tarbert. I hadn’t previously cycled the Golden Road from Tarbert to Rodel (so named when it was made up as a road at enormous cost to the taxpayer), so I took the opportunity to fulfil this ambition.

The forecast for the following day was good and so it turned out. After a safety briefing we left Leverburgh at 8am sharp on Enchanted Isle with a full complement of 12 passengers. The vessel was fitted out with comfortable bus-type seating with seat belts, the facilities including a small galley and an open deck area at the stern. On the way out Kilda Cruises’ Hirta, a similar type of vessel, was also heading for St Kilda, having left Leverburgh shortly before us. During the voyage we saw two whales and numerous pods of porpoises.

We arrived at Hirta anchorage shortly after 10.30. After being tendered ashore we had a briefing from the National Trust warden to tell us what we could and couldn’t do, particularly with regard to rubbish disposal. We were then left on our own for more than four hours. The island was busy that day: as well as the Kilda Cruises boat, there was an open RIB from Skye and the supply landing craft from Rhu, and there was also a dive boat at anchor.

St Kilda village schoolchildren with their teacher, as pictured by late 19th century photographer George Washington Wilson. The island was evacuated in 1930

There was much to see and do on the island in the time available. I was keen to see the other anchorage used by the St Kildans when Village Bay was untenable, so that was my first ploy — to climb Connachair, the highest hill and view Glen Bay. This bay, with its northerly exposure, offered shelter from southerly and easterly winds but landing was difficult because of the high cliff faces. Thereafter I visited some of the houses on Village Street. How the islanders managed to survive the cold winter gales in these stone houses with only a small fire I’ll never know.

I inspected some cleits. These were stone sheds with a grass roof where the villagers kept the gulags they harvested in late summer and used for food in the winter months. Peat was also kept in cleits sited high above the village. I visited the museum (showing life as it was before the 1930 evacuation), the schoolhouse and the church, these last two being in pristine condition. The Puffin was no longer in use. Since my 1980s visit the Services establishment had been much reduced and privatised to Qinetiq. I was interested to see the First World War gun, still standing on its mount and looking as if it could be fired if charged.

There were lots of Soay sheep around and of course the St Kilda wren. I visited the cemetery, and some of the inscriptions could still be read. The National Trust have a small shop which was opened by the warden for the sale of souvenirs before we left. All too soon it was time to return to Enchanted Isle, where we were served a cup of tea and a scone by the skipper.

Busy day at Village Bay

Then it was off to visit Boreray and the outlying St Kilda islands, including the monolith known as Stac Lee.

The sea cliffs here are claimed to be the highest in the UK. There was a voluminous amount of bird life on the rocky crags — predominantly gannets and fulmars, but also razorbills, puffins and others. Cameras clicked non-stop, and then we were on our way back to Leverburgh, which we reached shortly before 8pm — a great late afternoon/early evening sail with very little sea running and a virtually cloudless sky.

What was my verdict? Well, the day was one of the most memorable I have experienced in all my travels, and quite the best for the mixture of scenery, wildlife and history. I used to say when sailing on King George V to Iona in her later years that it was like living history — and so was this trip to St Kilda.

It is not a cheap excursion. The current price is £185 (plus £5 landing fee charged by the National Trust for Scotland), but it is good value for a very full day and I urge anyone with an interest in St Kilda to try and take the trip. Since my visit Sea Harris have replaced Enchanted Isle with an updated boat of the same name and from the same yard — Redbay Boats, County Antrim.

I had a spare day before returning to the mainland, so I decided to cycle to Scarista and Luskentyre, both of which have fabulous beaches. I was well rewarded.

The following morning it was time to head for home. Instead of retracing my steps via Tarbert to Uig, I joined Loch Portain at Leverburgh and cycled from Berneray to Lochmaddy, where I boarded Hebrides for what proved to be a very stormy passage back to Skye — a day when there certainly would have been no St Kilda sailing.

The street overlooking Village Bay, with the old schoolhouse, church and museum on the far right. Copyright C. Kennedy Mills

Hebrides at Tarbert

Enchanted Isle at Leverburgh

Leaving Harris behind

Cabin cover

First sight of St Kilda

Glen Bay

The Village

Wartime canon

A cleit

View of Boreray and Stac Lee

Caves and bird colonies

Between the islands

Stac Lee

Beneath the cliff

Exclusive tour

Loch Portain at Leverburgh

Return to civilisation

Lasting memory: Boreray (centre) with Stac Lee

ALL PHOTOS COPYRIGHT C. KENNEDY MILLS (except GWW photo of schoolchildren)

Companies offering day trips to St Kilda:

Kilda Cruises  Sea Harris  Go to St Kilda


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