Why travel to a collection of cliffs and stacks when the passage is never short, often rough and sometimes dangerous? The bait that attracted me was the history of the seabirds here. Thirty years ago I read of the spread of fulmars from the only british breeding site – St Kilda. Then I learnt about a population of people who scaled sheer cliffs and rowed to offshore stacks to harvest seabird that provided food, oil and feathers – the St Kildans. Nowhere else in Britain has this relationship been so well documented with witness accounts and photographs.
There is always anticipation as a new place is approached, but the rough crossing denied me a first glimpse of the islands breaking the horizon. Instead I emerged on deck when we were anchored to see a cove cradled by hills and ridges. A group of green buildings like shipping containers behind a small, rocky beach stood out stark against the barren slopes. A road ran into the hills leading my gaze to a radio mast on the skyline. The St Kildans may have left but the stamp of a modern community is clear. Spreading out from the new village are softer shapes formed of coalesced boulders. Grey lines and circles wash across the low land around a single line of grey houses.
Once ashore I soon find the echoes of the old community now faded. The walls of the houses are intact but inside the floors are marshy grass or covered by fallen rocks. Where the people lived, sheep now wander and shelter. Starlings, dark and almost spotless, and wrens, grey and scruffy, now converse where parliament used to be held. Despite the isolation, the islands are crowded. Cruise ships anchor in the bay sending a continuous flow of tourists in black inflatables to race around the village and slopes. People wander without restriction, sometimes apparently without respect. On returning to the shore I hear talk of being struck by skuas and of finding nests with eggs.
After exploring the old village I explore the surrounding steeper ground. The slopes are covered by shrivelled heather and grass that barely reaches my ankles. Tiny dots of colour break through the brown mat like sparkles of sunshine on the sea. Blue violets, purple lousewort and pink heath spotted orchid crouch close to the soil. In wetter patches sphagnum moss shines green, clubmoss forms inch high forests and pale green rosettes of butterwort wait their insect prey. In a gully, primrose spatter the wall yellow whilst purple saxifrage is almost spent. There is a constant sound of birds. The chip,per,chip,per,chip,per call of snipe and grouse like growl of fulmar sound like they are coming from the plants whilst parachuting meadow pipit twitter softly and wheatear sing their short, chat like warble from rocky perches. Occasionally the stuttering whistle of whimbrel catches my ear.
Unlike the lost crofting community, the seed of seabird abundance that inspired me to visit is still here. Every piece of steep ground is dotted white where fulmar sit on their egg. Bonxie patrol the ridges like raptors looking for victims. Out to sea, uncountable numbers of birds appear as smoke blowing from rocky crags. As our boat pushes out of the bay rafts of puffin rise like shimmering black sheets and the nasal call of kittiwake echoes around cliffs. In open water gannets spear the water in a fountain of spray, dodging fulmar that bank and shear like fighter planes. The seabird heritage is alive and flourishing.