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A day trip to St. Kilda with Seatrek

Probably the most isolated group of islands in Scotland, St Kilda is now inhabited only by Ministry of Defence personnel and researchers, and was evacuated of its original residents in 1930.
This story of a day trip to St Kilda is hyperlinked to the most significant sets of pictures, so you can read as far as you want, then click a link to see pictures of that topic.
Alternatively you can just read it all then look at the pictures later.
The pictures are in approximately the order they were taken.
To find them, go to the map and click the red dot for St. Kilda (which is not in the right place but actually off the map to the west!).
Alternatively, you can do a text search for St Kilda (which will bring up 135 pictures!), or more sensibly for Hirta, Boreray, Soay, the Dun, Stac Lee or Stac an Armin.
The pictures are peppered with keywords, including the English and Scientific names of the wildlife, and the English and Gaelic names of the islands, so try a search and see how you get on.
So now to the story:

We had booked our tickets and paid a deposit a month previously.
This booking was made just in time (it's advisable to book earlier to get a choice of date), and we were hoping for good weather.
Now at last the day - 24th June 2011 - had arrived. What a way to celebrate exactly one year of retirement from teaching!

Having parked our camper van on the Quay at Miabhaig, Lewis the previous night, we checked in with Katie Buchanan at the Seatrek office on the quay.
Katie was only too happy to take the rest of our money off us!
We were up at 6am in preparation for a 7.15 for 7.30am start.
A long day lay ahead of us, and the excitement was building. After a light breakfast, a final check on warm, waterproof clothing, packed lunch and camera equipment.
A full boatload of 12 people arrived, and everyone was ready for an exhilarating trip on what was the best day of the week.

The sun shone as our experienced skipper, Iain Angus Macaulay, ably assisted by crewman Keith, pointed the sharp end of the fast cabin cruiser MV Lochlann towards St Kilda.
Suddenly the boat stopped to have a look at a Basking shark on the way off Gallan Head, and afterwards we had good views of the Flannan Isles out to our starboard side.
To port the hills and cliffs of Uig, Lewis, including the site of the new St Kilda Centre (Ionad Hiort) to be built near Mangurstadh, because the landscape here most resembles that of St. Kilda, while still being accessible.

Going at 17 knots it was a bit bumpy, but tolerable, and after two hours and some cups of tea and biscuits, over the horizon through binoculars we could see just the top of Boreray, still another two hours away, and jumping up and down (well, actually, that was us!).
Being the Atlantic, it wasn't exactly a flat calm, but good enough that although a couple of people had to lie down for part of the time, unlike the previous day, nobody was actually sick!

As we approached Boreray, we could see Gannets, Shags, Bonxies (Great Skuas) and Fulmars and a few Puffins.
Boreray has one of the largest Gannet colonies in Scotland, and therefore one of the largest in the World.
A tour round Boreray followed, with its impressive stacks Stac an Armin and Stac Lee.
Leaving Boreray we could see the whole of the main St Kilda archipelago stretched out in front of us 5 miles away - from the small stack Leibhinis in the east, across the Dun and the main island of Hirta to Soay in the west.

Rounding Oisebhal into Village Bay there were caves and ledges with Shags on them.
Keith had warned us that Village Bay contains Misistry of Defence buildings, and not be disappointed if the scene did not live up to the pictures we had seen in books, which tend to avoid the modern buildings.
In fact, it was easy to ignore the modern buildings (we were not allowed in the MOD pub anyway!), and concentrate on the history, scenery and wildlife, of which there was far too much for a short visit.

With MV Lochlann at anchor, we disembarked into a rubber dinghy for the landing on Hirta.
That wasn't because Lochlann couldn't have tied up at the pier, but as a safety measure to prevent rats from colonising St. Kilda and killing the unique bird and field mouse population.
The bay shone a deep turquoise colour in the sunshine.
Landing about 11am, and greeted by the NTS warden, who introduced the island to us, and gave some sensible advice, such as not going within 6 feet of the cliff edges.
We then had four hours to do what we liked, within reason!

We headed up through the village, stopping to see St Kilda Wrens, a subspecies more barred and larger than their mainland counterparts, the hardy and agile Soay sheep, and even finding a large St Kilda Field Mouse (unfortunately a dead one, which we were assured by some students, was very unusual to see).
Strangely for St Kilda, it was hot and sunny, and Village Bay was sheltered, so we ditched our warm waterproof clothing in the Museum, and head out in shirt sleeves.

On the way up to the Gap, between Oisebhal to the east and Conachair to the west, (at 430 metres the highest point on Hirta), the easiest point to get a good view of Boreray, we looked at the stone structures known as cleits, of which there are 1400.
These are ancient stone storage buildings, used to keep food for the winter, mainly Gannets, Fulmars and Puffins, but also used as a peat store.
The wind would dry out the contents, but the turf roof would prevent the rain entering and spoiling the food or wetting the peats.
From here also, you could see, 40 miles to the east, Eaval in North Uist, and Ben More and Hecla in South Uist.

On top of some cleits, Fulmars were perched, presumably nesting, although we didn't disturb them to find out!
St Kilda Wrens sang from the top of other cleits, and were definitely nesting in them, as we saw adults flying in with food for the young.
Further up the slope was a pair of Arctic Skuas of the dark morph variety.
Fortunately their territory was not on our direct route up to the Gap, and we did not get dive-bombed!

At the top, there was a fantastically clear view of Boreray, but it was difficult in the time available to get far enough up Conachair to achieve a complete separation in the photo between Stac and Armin and Stac Lee.
That view is obtainable from the top of Conachair, but wanting to see the village, we headed back down.

The village consists mainly of "The Street", and contains a mixture of ancient ruined black houses, sensibly facing end-on to the sea and to the south-westerly prevailing wind, and having extremely thick walls (the St. Kildans knew a thing or two about survival!).
Interspersed with these old houses are new houses built in the 19th century, but not so cleverly built.
Their frontages face on to the sea, so they must have been relatively vulnerable to the weather.
Like the ancient black houses, their 19th century replacements are mostly ruined too, apart from those which have been restored, for example to be made into a museum.
How long the modern roofing felt would last here is anybody's guess!

All too soon it was 3pm, time to rendezvous with the rubber dinghy again, and we rejoined MV Lochlann in Village Bay, and sped off.
Rounding the slopes of Oisebhal, we were confronted by the sight of Great Skuas (Bonxies) harrying Gannets and Fulmars.
Bonxies are the pirates on the hugh seas, trying to steal food from their unfortunate victims.
Working in gangs, they harass their victims, either forcing them into the sea, or simply chasing them until they give up a crop full of fish.

Arriving at Boreray again, we had a close-up view of Common seals, the magnificent cliffs, and the Gannet colony before heading back again towards Lewis.
On the way back, after passing the hills of Harris and within sight of Lewis, we were greeted by Common dolphins jumping out of the water.
Then off Gallan Head, a Basking shark again, this time really close to the boat, but unfortunately, it was too choppy to see the detail of the fish with its white mouth.
However you can see photos of basking sharks under calmer conditions here.

After a long but thoroughly exciting day, (made longer by stops for dolphins and basking sharks), we returned through Loch Roag (click here to see photos of a wildlife trip round Loch Roag on MV Lochlann) to her home port of Miabhaig, to replace the 900 litres of diesel used on the trip, and berth for the night.
By now it was nearly 9pm, and we were tired and ready for a good night's sleep!

In conclusion, there can be few better experiences, (or events to save up for!), than a trip to St Kilda.
Unfortunately, you can't see evrything on a one day trip!
There's only one remedy for that - we'll have to go back!

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