Stuart Benn's TAC59 letter, in which he was heavily critical of the St Kilda-related pieces by Ann Bowker and Alan Blanco in TAC58, prompted a considerable reaction. Here are half a dozen responses - on the subject of personal motivation, public access, and cherries on the top of cakes (or is it cream on the top of strawberries?)
Stuart Benn is completely wrong in assuming that I visited St Kilda expecting to find fault. On the contrary, I went expecting something very special and perhaps it was partly because of the big build-up that I found it disappointing. Of course there were other reasons. I was certainly not feeling at my best during our very limited time on Hirta after a pretty horrific crossing, and there just wasn't the time, as Stuart suggests, to go the long way round to the top of Conachair. This was something we were looking forward to doing the next day. Quite likely my impression would then indeed have been rather different, but having been asked to write a brief description of the visit it would have been wrong not to admit my disappointment.
I ended my TAC58 piece by saying that I had not fallen under the spell of St Kilda, but bewitchment is a personal thing and this doesn't mean that I am just a blind bagger out for a tick. There are places to which I am drawn again and again and always feel their magic. Sandwood Bay is one such place, the High Arctic another. If there is a mountain to be added to this list it would have to be Snowdon which, despite its obvious flaws, has many special memories for me. As far as islands are concerned, I enjoyed Foula more than St Kilda despite visiting in awful weather. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it is inhabited by real people rather than by wardens, soldiers and ghosts.
I found Stuart's rant against ticks rather offensive. How does one choose a hill to climb? From a guidebook? By perusing the map? Or, as one of Hamish Brown's friends suggested, does one climb An Teallach 284 times? Or 1552 times? Basing expeditions on a list of hills is just one way of choosing and one which brings unexpected delights as well as the occasional disappointment.
Let me cite just one example. Egnaig Hill (in square 6675 on Landranger 40) is such an obscure summit that even Eric Yeaman failed to notice it when first compiling his list. On the map it is just a jumble of contours with no definite summit. On the ground it is approached through some of the toughest terrain imaginable, enormous tussocks interspersed with newly planted forest. A plaque explains that this is an attempt to restore ancient woodland, but there is no concession to easy access save a stile over the deer fence. The summit is just magnificent: bare rock above a substantial cliff and one of the most breathtaking views in the Highlands. I could cite hundreds of other superb hills, many of which we would never have thought of visiting had they not been in somebody's list.
It is quite true that my experience of St Kilda is unfortunately minimal, but my experience of the hills and islands of Britain is vast and I feel fully justified in expressing a personal opinion about St Kilda's shortcomings as well as my awe at its truly amazing sea stacks.
Did Stuart Benn get out of bed the wrong side the day he wrote to TAC59, or is he hoping to be talent-spotted by the Beeb for its next series of Grumpy Old Men? Ann and Alan's pieces on St Kilda were subjective views on a place they felt did not live up to the hype, a theme familiar to TAC readers. Nor are they alone. On Bill Oddie Goes Wild, shown on BBC2 in February, Oddie gave the distinct impression of not being overly enamoured with the place. We're all entitled to our opinion, Stuart, and everyone's opinion is valid, even if it doesn't agree with your own.
And, as if that wasn't enough, he then goes on to slag baggers, which is rich coming from a man who has climbed over 800 Marilyns (including four on St Kilda) and participated in several Hall of Fame meets. So, I have a question for you, Stuart. When you were doing that bird survey on St Kilda, which you likely got on because you work for the RSPB, was it absolutely essential as part of your work that you visited the summits of Dun, Soay and Boreray? I'll hazard a guess that the answer is no. You may have lost interest in bagging new Marilyns, but that doesn't give you the right to criticise others for wanting to do what you have done yourself.
Stuart Benn's letter condemns Ann Bowker and Alan Blanco for their St Kilda contributions. I was on the trip, and I know that Stuart's criticism is misplaced. The brevity of our visit to Hirta after a turbulent crossing gave little reason to be cheerful, and the tone of the writing was more to do with the experience than the place. The mood was set as we spent the "biggest half" of daylight time moored yards off the pier, with the landfall dominated by the military establishment. I had pored over books on St Kilda, but there is little to indicate the scale of this portacabin village, generator hall and storage containers. Sadly that view imprinted a lasting image, and Alan's description is not exaggerated. Stuart however has spent some real time on St Kilda, and I can understand why he resents the emphasis on this carbuncle on the face of this special island.
We each made the most of the available time according to our abilities on the night. Although Alan did mention that we went up the valley above the village, he failed to say that we stopped to look down the cliffs and over the sea to Boreray. We spent an exhilarating few minutes there and he deserves a good slap for not mentioning this highlight.
I can understand Ann's disappointment when climbing the grassy slopes of Conachair after years of anticipation, but the Bowkers were rightly concerned about the approaching darkness and sensibly made for the easiest line. That would not have been their route of choice on a full-day visit. Ann has certainly visited many remote corners of these isles, and she is well qualified to make comparisons with other seacliffs.
Stuart was right to assess that we were not happy. When you commit time and money to an outing, it is a rare occurrence when the weather denies all activity. I hope Stuart is being provocative when he suggests that a longer stay on Hirta would not have changed our impression of St Kilda. We cannot deny that the Marilyn drew us there - but, as always, the tick is only the cherry on the cake. No right-minded hill person would wish to repeat the crossing we endured, but in calmer conditions I am confident that everyone would return, whether or not access were extended. Like Skye, the Cairngorms or Torridon, even the most ardent ticker will find time to return to special places.
Stuart concludes that the baggers got what they deserved and claims to see through their philistine approach to the hills. I would suggest that his lofty views come from the smugness of someone with the benefit of privileged access. I wonder how Stuart would have spent his first two hours on Hirta?
I am puzzled by Stuart Benn's letter criticising the two ABs' pieces on St Kilda. If they were such blinkered baggers, surely they wouldn't have noticed, never mind cared about, the environment surrounding their tick?
Open-mindedness is desirable in many situations, but aren't expectations allowed on a pleasure trip? If I am going somewhere where access has been rationed and which is world-renowned for its natural and cultural heritage, I have high hopes (cf my experience of Rum, TAC54). The natural attributes of St Kilda are a given; concrete, oil tanks and corrugated iron are not.
Stuart Benn advocates that to really appreciate the place we should visit soon and visit often, but it's not that easy. I've wanted to go to St Kilda since I saw a TV programme about it in the 1970s. As a student, I had the time but not the money; now I could afford it but precious holiday has to be allocated carefully. If I do go, I'll have a much better idea of what to expect, but I'm more likely now to take the cheap option and give Rum another try.
It had been my ambition to visit St Kilda for quite a few years. By 6 September (when I went out of action, temporarily, I hope), I had made 14 expeditions this year - I dislike the word "holiday" since it implies being lazy - and St Kilda was the one that gave me the greatest satisfaction despite the rough passage, perhaps because it was the fulfilment of a dream. Stac Lee, Stac Armin and Boreray were spectacular.
The only thing I dislike about St Kilda is that it is under the control of the National Trust for Scotland. To be told that I may not walk alone for the sake of my safety is offensive. Fortunately there are many beautiful parts of Scotland that are not in the clutches of the NTS.
I certainly would have followed the cliff-top right round to the summit of Conachair had there been more time. Knee trouble has made me into a slow walker and all I could manage in the time available was straight up and down.
Stuart Benn is most insulting and talking rubbish when he accuses us of thinking "the tick is everything". It is merely "a little cream on top of the strawberries". I have climbed many beautiful hills that are not in any lists. A hill does not need a drop of 150m or 100m around it to make it interesting. I know of no one who has ticked more hills in tables than Rob Woodall, and from reading his log it is obvious that he usually enjoys the mountain experience.
The Cuma is a fine ship with a splendid crew and I would still have enjoyed the voyage had we been unable to land. I embarked on the Cuma feeling that I would be satisfied merely to have a close view of the stacks and cliffs, having often seen them from summits in the Outer Hebrides.
If I were young, I would return to St Kilda as I would to many other places and hills. Unfortunately the sands of time are running out and there still many hills I want to climb and quite a few more countries I hope to visit.
In response to Stuart Benn's slagging of me (and Ann Bowker) in TAC59, the first thing to say is that I've met Stuart a few times and found him perfectly affable, so I have no wish to get into a personal slanging match, though I know that's the kind of thing the editor likes. Instead I will try to deal with his misconceptions and omissions.
Firstly, I was surprised that Stuart regarded my account of St Kilda as "scathing". I have just read it again, and the only negative comment I can find concerns the sea crossing. Yes, that was desperate, but my description of Hirta contains no value judgements, so why does he think it scathing? I was simply cataloguing the things I saw. Others might find the military constructions ugly and intrusive. John Love, for example (the SNH officer who rigidly controls access), has been quoted as saying: "I still feel that St Kilda is spoiled by that military presence" (Scotland's Wild Land - What Future?, Oct 2002, p29). But if, as Stuart says, "the tick is everything and the experience seems to be a distant second", then why on earth would I be concerned that Hirta is festooned with military buildings, vehicles, roads, masts, oil tanks and helipads, as long as I got to the top?
Still, I'm aware that something did feel different about Hirta, compared to the dozen other Scottish islands with no permanent population that I've visited in recent years. I don't know if it was the lack of roads and vehicles on the other islands that made them feel sort of ... well, special. Perhaps it was the unusual and rampant plant and bird life, or the lack of clutter associated with modern human habitation. Or maybe it was the fact that any buildings seemed to blend in well with their surroundings. Or perhaps it was because we could get off the boat and just wander where we liked without having to first stand in line for a lecture like naughty schoolchildren. Could these be the sort of things that give a sense of freedom, a sense that a place is special, and that it is a privilege to be there? I wouldn't know of course, because I am a bagger and apparently insensitive to such things.
So I will change the subject and talk about something I understand a bit better, and that is access. Stuart barely mentions this, presumably because it is not a problem for him. He works for the RSPB, so is allowed to go where he likes. He was able to land on Dun and Soay and Boreray because of his job, and it's just coincidence that he happened to go to the top of each one, so it's nothing to gloat over, is it? The last I heard there were plans for him to land on Stac an Armin with a BBC film crew. I assume the cameramen would wear the same sort of magic shoes and invisibility cloaks as the RSPB people, allowing them to pass unnoticed by gannets and auks. I wonder how the native St Kildans managed without them?
OK, time to cut the smart-arse stuff and say what I think about what really matters. Unlike Stuart Benn, who gets to St Kilda for nothing, I paid £480 for a harrowing trip there, so why would I go "seeking fault"? I'm not that perverse. Sure, the main incentive was a bag, but I still hoped it would be a special place. Yes, my account was selective, but so is every other account I have read that ignores or understates the military presence. The parts of Hirta I saw were dominated by it, and it definitely detracted from the experience. I know there are bits we didn't see, and that was frustrating, but when the coastguard screams at you to get out, you get out.
From what I did see, my attitude toward the NTS/SNH/RSPB policy on access has hardened considerably. Before, I thought maybe, just maybe, they had a case. Now I see that they haven't. The blanket access ban on other islands is outrageous and indefensible. The RSPB employee on our boat pointed out that gannet numbers have soared wildly in recent years, that there are no rare bird species on St Kilda, and that a handful of occasional and difficult landings would have no effect whatsoever on the wildlife. Absolutely none. The only reasons for a ban are elitism and bureaucratic convenience. I'm no longer irritated by it, I'm appalled. Gannets are slaughtered on Sula Sgeir with SNH permission, yet are treated as sacred on St Kilda. Any amount of military tarmac, concrete and hardware is accepted and ignored, yet a few harmless baggers are banned. How hypocritical can you get? And I'm incensed by those privileged conservation workers who have one rule for themselves and another for the rest of us. It's a disgrace.
So, this is how I see things now. I have written to the NTS to ask about access and got fobbed off. I know others have tried being really polite and conciliatory with SNH and got nowhere. We're fed up with it. Formal channels don't work, so it's time to find an alternative. This is our land too. It does not belong to the NTS or SNH. With their blanket bans they have given up any tenuous moral right they may have had. I therefore encourage anyone inclined to go to St Kilda to go where you like, land anywhere you can, at any time of year, and ignore all the restrictions and warnings that are trotted out. Respect the wind and the waves and the rock and the wildlife, take care where you tread and leave no trace of your presence, but please don't be put off by the bullies with the power. Until they offer something more positive than a year-round access ban they deserve to be ignored.
This is what happens. By being arrogant, by refusing to negotiate or offer concessions, you incite resistance and hostility, and end up creating the thing you most fear. (I could say, just ask George Bush or Ariel Sharon, but I think they are similarly blinded by self-righteousness and also fail to understand.) But don't worry, we don't want to bomb the stacks, just bag them.
Having said all that, you won't catch me on Stac Lee. Looks far too scary. I don't mind losing out (well, only a bit) because I'm not good enough or brave enough to climb it, but I'm certainly not going to be put off just because I don't have permission. So please, someone, find a boatman who is not in fear of his livelihood being ruined by the "conservation" mafia, and go for it. It's time to bag those stacks.
Ed. - To date, there have been no letters in support of Stuart's views. Come on, there must be some out there who agree with him (or who disagree with the replies).
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