While out walking near Huisnis on the Isle of Harris on a particularly clear day last summer, my husband Pete and I caught sight of St Kilda – a mesmerising silvered smudge on the horizon. It’s easy to think you’ve seen St Kilda, only to discover later that you were contemplating some other outer isles that do not excite the imagination in the same way. That day there was no mistake; those distant vertiginous outlines could be nowhere else. We realised then both how stupid and wrong our previous ‘sightings’ had been, and that it was inevitable we would now go to St Kilda.
We travelled there in mid-June aboard the MV Cuma, a restored 12-berth former marine research vessel operated out of Uig on the Isle of Lewis by Murdo Macdonald, a former fisherman and sure-handed skipper. The Cuma chugs across the permanent swell between the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda at a stately pace, allowing passengers to grasp something of the archipelago’s remoteness.
"It is St Kilda’s shimmering farawayness that constitutes its allure"
Along with its haunting human history – Hirta, the main island of the St Kilda archipelago, was inhabited for 4,000 years until the 1930 evacuation – it is St Kilda’s shimmering farawayness, the difficulty of spotting it even from westernmost points on the Outer Hebrides, that constitutes its allure. It seemed absurd, then, to batter across the Atlantic in a RIB – the other option – as fast as swell and maritime regulations would allow.
As the Cuma steered between Boreray and Stac an Armin and on to Stac Li, the seemingly impenetrable rock fortresses four miles northwest of Hirta that the St Kildan men used to scale each year to take sea birds, we felt richly rewarded in our choice. Burnished by the late evening light and attended by a cacophony of fulmars, puffins and gannets (St Kilda is the word’s largest gannetry), the sheer-sided stacs formed a magical and mysterious landscape.
It was then on past Hirta’s forbidding north face, which houses the highest sea cliffs in Britain, to the calm of Village Bay. Here we berthed for the night and ate dinner looking on to the village, now a weird mix of St Kildan remains and MOD barracks (the MOD set up shop on the island in the 1957), and the enclosing hillsides.
The hills are dotted with some 1,200 cleits – stone, turf-roofed storage cells unique to this place. The St Kildans used them for everything from preserving sea birds to eat in winter and drying turf for fuel to storing the wood from which their coffins would one day be made.
"Precipitous cliffs scream towards a churning turquoise sea both beautiful and terrifying"
Thanks to favourable weather and tides, we had two full days on Hirta. It is a wild and beguiling place full of contrasts. The verdant bay that cradles the village is backed by hills whose precipitous cliffs scream towards a churning turquoise sea both beautiful and terrifying. A particularly enchanting spot is the remote peninsula of An Campar, where you can sit on the cliff edge and watch puffins and fulmars flying past a few feet from you.
But St Kilda is also a sad place and not just because the people are gone. The mothballing of what remains of their unique way of life is also oddly tragic. One National Trust for Scotland (NTS) volunteer we met said she was disappointed not to feel the St Kildans' presence more. In truth, their presence has been erased as much by the NTS and UNESCO preservation drive as by the evacuation.
The village reminded me of Pompei (not least because of the culverts on the main street) or the Jewish Ghetto in Kraków: everything to see there, lovingly restored, except the people who gave it life. All the island's many contemporary visitors – MOD staff, NTS volunteers and tourists – are a species of invader.
"It is ironic indeed that these days St Kilda is a busy place"
This is not to say that the preservation of the village is wrong or misguided. But there is a certain – perhaps inevitable – packaging up of the St Kildans into a couple of neat clichés that pushes them ever further away. There is too an incongruous obsessiveness to the preservation of the vestiges of a way of life that was full of risk and hard work. A dry stane dyker, on Hirta to rebuild cleits and sheep fanks, told us he was required to replace every stone exactly as it had been – which didn't make sense, he said, as the original configuration had fallen down.
On our last afternoon on Hirta, we stood on Conachair, the highest hill, looking down on the MOD helipad and watching five or six different craft steaming towards the island. It is ironic indeed that these days St Kilda is a busy place. Had it been possible to institute a regular boat service from the mainland when the St Kildans were still in residence, the evacuation might have been avoided. As Murdo, our skipper, put it: everything came to St Kilda 20 years too late for the St Kildans.
But the St Kildans' way of life would surely have died out anyway. Globalisation may have its benefits but it crushes difference. As we sailed away from St Kilda on the Cuma, we speculated as to what life on there might have been like today if the St Kildans had remained on Hirta.
They'd be dashing about on quad bikes attending to their cleits, we decided. Groceries would be supplied by Tesco, and there'd be an obesity problem. Health and safety would require any hanging off cliffs to harvest sea birds to be done in hards hats, steel-toed boots and hi-vis jackets.
In other words, the life as it was – the danger and thrill of it – would still be gone.