Solitude on St Kilda

By Alistair Horne

At the end of June last year I was fortunate enough to travel to St Kilda, a set of isolated islands 40 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides for a commission. The islands are not only a dual UNESCO world heritage site, they are also home to over 1 million birds, making it one of the most important bird colonies in western Europe. With over 50% of boat journeys from Skye and the Outer Hebrides cancelled each summer due to the weather, I was incredibly lucky to not just get onto the island, but to get off when the weather was good, making the journey as calm as I could have hope for. Sunburnt in Scotland, who would have thought!

After a 4 hour boat journey, I arrived and met the National Trust rangers who call the islands home for 6 months of the year. Owned by NTS, the islands also have an MoD facility, meaning there are workers all year round on Hirta, the main island. After setting up my tent (I camped on the island for four nights, a night longer than intended due to the weather), I realised I was going to be the only person camping on the island for my duration, which I looked forward to in such a beautiful part of the country. Being the only person to explore for nearly a week, what a treat.

I started planning my hikes for my stay right away.The islands have the highest sea cliffs in the whole of the UK at over 400 metres, with stunning coastlines and endless views of the sea, I really had to make the most of my time on Hirta. It is one of the windiest places I have ever been, so you need to be careful when you walk around, so before each hike I met the rangers and told them of my plans for the day and expected time of return, so they knew my whereabouts. 

There is no service and internet access on the islands so you really are off grid for your duration, which is a great way to refresh your own batteries and really embrace the wild landscape around you. As I’ve come to appreciate after the trip, this is a great way to have no distractions and focus on your trip, not social media and meaningless scrolls through the twitter verse. 

The islands were evacuated in 1930 as the 36 people left on Hirta were struggling to keep their lives ongoing, due to the harsh weather and their extreme way of life. Their main source of food on the islands were the birds such as fulmars, puffins and gannets. One of the main reasons I had travelled here was to see these birds in their home environment and what hardships they have to put up with when they arrive for spring.

Stac an Armin, the highest sea stack in the UK at nearly 200 metres found just off Boreray, one of the islands, was climbed by locals via ropes to collect eggs, feathers and birds for their daily food source. After seeing not just the sheer cliffs on the main island but also the sea stacks up close, it’s incredible to comprehend what they had to do to get food for their survival. Lots of local males had left for the war and the mainland and the elderly and children were left behind and struggled to continue life, as a result voting to leave.

Thankfully during my stay I was able to climb the majority of the hills on Hirta. It is the only island you can stay on and get permission to visit in St Kilda, as the rest are off limits due to protection of the wildlife. One of my main reasons for my visit was to capture photos of puffins, which are my favourite sea bird. St Kilda has the largest puffin colony in the UK, at nearly 300,000 puffins, but the majority call the island of Dun their home. On Hirta, I was able to find around 100 or so that were living on a scree slope (they usually live in burrows so are difficult to photograph) and I spent the whole afternoon just enjoying their interactions and watching what they get up to on a daily basis. I completely lost track of time and had so much fun just being priviledged enough to see their routines up close. 

Being the only camper on the islands during my visit just emphasised how lucky I was to be on St Kilda, as it is one of the most beautiful places I have been in Scotland and it was so refreshing, enjoying it as it is meant to be enjoyed, as one with nature and with no distractions from social media or outside factors. From climbing almost all of the hills, to see the spectacular views from Hirta over to Boreray and the stacks, if you ever get the chance to visit the islands, try and camp. A day trip does not do the place justice and to really explore it you need a few days and some fortunate weather as well!

I was hoping to return this summer (2020), but with the current situation, that will have to wait. Here’s hoping next year I can return to embrace the remote, the rugged and the extreme. If you have any questions on my trip to St Kilda, or want more information on specific photos, please do get in via my links or my Instagram page to see more photos from the trip!

  1. jackcairney June 13, 2020 2:06 pm

    Great article Ali, so keen to get out to St Kilda, had to trips bumped last year due to weather.