The Angry Corrie 58: Jul-Sep 2003

St Kilda: Stupendous stacks and squat blackened chimneys

There has been much discussion in these pages of Scotland's most celebrated archipelago - its status, its access, its seabirds, its summits. So it was good to see a boatload of TAC readers chug out that way in early May for some first-hand experience. Here are the thoughts of two who braved some very turbulent seas.

As obsessive travellers, Rowland and I have embarked on many a voyage heralded as our "trip of a lifetime", but none deserved this accolade more than the prospect of a visit to St Kilda. It was indeed the culmination of a lifetime of peak-bagging, a chance to snatch one last summit and to see those rocky islands and stacks destined to elude me for ever.

Eight enthusiastic baggers embarked on the good ship Cuma with a forecast of stormy weather. We made it round the Lewis coast to Loch Resort with a landing for some of the local hills, but by evening the forecast had worsened to a prospect of storm force 11, so skipper Murdo decreed a quick and very bumpy dash back to home base at Miabhaig. Next day we made a car-based sortie into the cloud-covered hills of western Lewis.

On Tuesday morning the forecast had improved slightly and we dashed for St Kilda with Murdo promising us nothing worse than the rounding of Gallan Head as we headed out into the Atlantic. This prediction turned out to be rather over-optimistic and the least said about that uncomfortable crossing the better. At last, in the late afternoon, the violent lurching subsided to a steady rocking and we anchored in Village Bay. Despite obvious relief at getting there, the scenery was disappointing with the hills presenting a very bland and grassy face to the bay and the village itself dominated by ugly military buildings.

The landing took two trips in the inflatable dinghy, and as I climbed up the ladder on to the shore Alan [Blanco] remarked that I was smiling for the first time in eight hours.

We then had to stand around like schoolkids awaiting the bell while the newly appointed warden read out the rules from his crib sheet:

He then started to tell us about the layout of the village and threatened us with the museum as the sun sank all too fast behind the hills. At last Bert Barnett broke in with: "Now we'll tell you something. We are off up Conachair now while the sun is shining."

To our relief, the warden accepted this intervention quite happily and we were on our way, with Rob Woodall and Chris Upson running round all the hills in the two hours of remaining daylight and the rest of us content just to reach St Kilda's highest summit.

I have to admit that I found Conachair a disappointing grassy plod. Even the bonxies did nothing to enliven the ascent, watching warily from grassy tussocks but showing no inclination to drive us away. The summit was also an anticlimax after glowing descriptions read before the visit of spectacular views of the highest cliffs in Britain. The reality was that a cautious peep over the rim revealed only the sea far below and compared unfavourably with the sensational Biod an Athair on Skye and my all-time favourite island summit on the Isle of Noss. At least there were rather lovely views of a stormy sunset behind Soay on the descent.

We were looking forward to a more leisurely exploration next day, but morning brought a dire warning from the coastguard of a change in the wind direction, forcing us to make a quick escape. We were able to sail out of Village Bay alongside the island of Dun and to inspect it for a possible landing spot: this looked highly hazardous in the heavy seas but was judged fairly easy by the more competent members of the party. Then we sailed under the cliffs of Conachair, which certainly looked a lot more impressive from the sea.

After sailing along to the gap between Hirta and Soay, which contains two impressive sea stacks, we turned for Boreray and its attendant Marilyns. Of course this is just how those in charge of the islands want visitors to enjoy them, from a boat, and awesome it certainly was. Sailing right under Stac Lee in a very turbulent sea, it definitely rated "impossible" in my eyes with Stac an Armin and Boreray itself scarcely more feasible - although again I'm sure some members of the party were eyeing them for possible routes and vowing to return.

For myself, I know I shall never go back. Although I was very glad in retrospect to have visited St Kilda, I failed to fall under that spell which all the literature claims inevitably draws visitors back to these islands again and again.

Ann Bowker

The crossing was every bit as rough and unsettling as feared. The first hour out from Miabhaig was not too bad, but had I been asked, I'd have voted to turn back. As we hit shallower water over the Flannan ridge the winds and waves notched up a gear and it just seemed stupid to be at sea for eight hours in a howling gale, with monstrous waves and a cyclonic swell. By the time we sighted Stac an Armin and Boreray, only three of us were fit to have a look (although everyone was up for it on the return leg).

It has to be said that Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin were every bit as sensational as advertised. Fairy-tale, unreal, enormous, boggling, surreal, stupendous, unlandable-on. Their massive cliffs belong to the sea, the wind and the birds, and it's laughable to imagine that occasional landings will have any effect at all on this raw marine environment. Dun too looked amazing but not inaccessible, while Soay was a huge lumpen thing, impressive rather than exciting.

The only island we landed on, however, was Hirta. We were ashore for under two hours but there was plenty to see. A rubber dinghy ferried us from bobbing boat to concrete pier, where the iron ladder made landing easy. It was nearly 8pm and getting dusky, but we listened dutifully as the warden went through the St Kilda by-laws one by one. He emphasised the unique natural and cultural heritage of the island. We were asked to tread gently and to show due respect. As time ticked on and he was stressing the importance of not leaving so much as a breadcrumb or an apple core to interfere with the delicate island ecosystem, I couldn't help noticing over his shoulder a newish-looking van driving down the tarmac road towards the military installation.

Finally the lesson ended, with details of opening hours of shop and pub. Questions were invited, but instead of asking anything Bert Barnett boldly announced our intention to set off up Conachair right away. Three of the party wanted to climb Oisebhal (the easternmost top) first, so were given strict warnings about staying inside the wall and not going near the edge. The rest of us were directed to head for some large metal storage tanks near the barn with a corrugated iron roof. From there we took a direct line up to the Gap (between Oisebhal and Conachair). The going was easy all the way and we reached the top before dark, so were rewarded with a fine view of the masts and buildings of the rocket-tracking station on the summit of Mullach Mor to the west. This looked like it might offer useful shelter from a hefty shower that was approaching over Soay, but time was short so we took a direct descent over easy ground towards the disused quarry. We nipped through a gap in the stone wall and walked down the road for the last few hundred metres toward the helipad. As we headed for the metalled landing ramp across the expansive concrete apron adorned by two large rusting containers, we saw a shed with a sign welcoming us to St Kilda international sea and airport lounge. We hurried past a row of fixed oil drums towards the large generator building with its squat blackened chimneys. It was getting dark by now, so we didn't pay much attention to the grey rows of utilitarian barracks and sheds.

As we returned to the pier there was no sign of the dinghy or the rest of the group, so we thought about calling in at the brightly-lit pub where we could see a game of pool in progress and some QinetiQ contractors enjoying a smoke and a pint. But then the warden intercepted us to check on the whereabouts of the rest of our party. We assured him they'd be along soon, so he chatted amiably about access to the island. A squall earlier in the day had made it difficult for the helicopter to drop off its twice-weekly payload for the military base. As the unsettled weather was due to continue, it was possible that rough seas might deter some of the 600 tourists expected at the weekend from a visiting cruise ship.

We would have liked more time for further insights, but Findlay was waving from the approaching dinghy so we said goodbye and headed past the bulky gabions to the concrete steps and choppy sea. The next day's relaxed exploration was thwarted by storm warnings and a swift departure, but the brief visit left us in no doubt that Hirta is fully entitled to its place alongside Blaenafon in the world heritage rankings.

Alan Blanco

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