The Angry Corrie 62: Jul-Sep 2004

More stuff about stacks

I HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING the St Kilda correspondence in TAC58-61 and am amused by the passions aroused. I particularly enjoyed Alan Blanco's TAC60 outburst - "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." I hope this was written with tongue firmly in cheek because it verges on piffle and pays little attention to the total reality of the situation.

I will not speak for the army, SNH or NTS - they can do that for themselves.

The stacks are not a marine version of the In Pinn. Stac Lee is 564 feet high and Stac an Armin is 644 feet high. Both are surrounded by the open Atlantic, in water which is as deep as they are high. No sensible boat owner is going to listen to a time-challenged peak bagger tell him to risk smashing his boat or inflatable against the rocks unless the weather is perfect, the sea conditions are perfect and there is time to get the bagger on and off the rocks.

The whole St Kilda archipelago is a dangerous place. Over the years there have been many deaths among army personnel, birders, egg collectors, climbers and contractors. Many of these deaths could have been avoided if folks respected the landscape and understood that years of breaking rules behind a desk does not qualify you to try and break the rules of nature.

Surely the readership of this fine magazine realises that this is more than an access problem. There has been a massive increase in visitors in the last 40 years, and the influence of the insurance companies and the possibilities of a massive compensation claim has done as much as anything to bring about restrictions to access and recommendations about where and where not to go.

I tend to agree with the argument that the wildlife is overprotected. When I first went to St Kilda in 1975 there were a couple of pairs of bonxies, but there are now dozens and I can't see why they are being protected. A warden I spoke to some years ago agreed that the nests should be trampled.

A lot will have changed since my last visit to St Kilda in the late 1980s. Contractors have taken over many of the duties of the army - they form a semi-permanent population and offer the chance of many experiences not open to the day visitor. They do not appreciate outsiders coming over all judgmental about why or why not the radar should be there.

No matter how competent you think you are, isn't it just good manners to learn about the local conditions, even if it comes from a warden who looks ridiculously young? Even if you are twitching like a kid waiting for his/her turn on the swings? Unfortunately the warden may be well qualified as a naturalist but not have Howard Dean's oratory skills when it comes to talking to a bunch of spew-spattered yachties, especially if he has given the same talk a dozen times before. It is not his fault if the visitors have not given themselves enough time. The St Kilda landscape is uniquely dangerous, so it is important that the owners give the visitors adequate warning about the dangers, a requirement which is probably necessary under the new access legislation.

The islands are not that big, but there is as much acreage on the near-vertical as there is on the horizontal. There are plenty of opportunities for the walker to wander up or down a gully and find themselves in an exposed position without an escape route. Compasses don't work on Hirta, because of the local geology, and GPS is not accurate enough to deal with the crumbling cliff edges. Maps are not detailed enough. Mists play tricks with the landscape. It is remarkably easy to go for a walk and end up on a 1000ft-high promontory, then slip to a bone-crushing death where the body will not be found, ever.

The army comes in for a lot of slagging but they usually don't deserve it. The main buildings and the roads have been there since the 1950s. The structures on top of the hills have come and gone with the years - some have been dismantled and removed from Hirta. The army footprint on St Kilda is actually being reduced. Readers may be interested to note that the buildings were originally destined for Libya.

Mike Harding, folk singer and comedian, once tried to launch a competition for the most violated nature reserve after seeing the generator block near the army camp. He had failed to notice that by walking 20 yards and turning your back on the buildings you were in a landscape which had hardly changed over the last 150 years. It is essential when on St Kilda to look at the larger picture. Give Mike his due though - he gave a cracker of a concert in the Puff Inn.

The boat trip to St Kilda can be hellish: tales are told of people who went into shock during the trip out and only came to after a few days. The most enterprising visitors I can recall are the group who went over by sea kayak and camped for a week. Those genuinely interested in St Kilda should go to and use that as the basis for arranging a proper visit, one that gives time to appreciate the place and take advantage of all the opportunities which present themselves. A flying trip leaves too much to chance.

Nick Aitken

image from The Angry Corrie

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