I’ve spent the last two weeks stranded most agreeably on an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. After a year of feverish studying; a fortnight without electricity, without clocks, without schedules, shops, traffic, and internet, could not have been more welcome. The sea around our island home provided much of the food; books and a pale beach the colour of moonlight most of our entertainment, and the combination of Atlantic storms and the island’s 200m hill, some welcome perspective.
The bounty of the sea, a fine cod on top
On the menu: lobster, crab, mackerel, cod, pollock (cod’s bland cousin) and eggs. Many, many eggs. We paddled with porpoises, boated with basking sharks and stumbled upon eagles and stags. Most days it was very near paradise. Then the wind drops and you realise that this utopia has a terrible secret: the Scottish midge.
It is a wonderful place to do almost anything, but especially to run. The hill in the middle of the island is a lung-crushing effort. The tussocks and bogs are unforgiving on the ankles, and extracting yourself from a warm duvet before breakfast to head into the gale outside is an exercise in willpower. I have never experienced runner’s high, and my propensity to sweat catastrophically is a consequence of my devotion to this sport. Nevertheless, it is wonderful.
Every stride makes my thoughts more symmetrical. It is the only meditation I have patience for, and induces a state of calm which lasts the rest of the day. Running, and listening to music, are the only times I enjoy being alone. The blisters on my feet ground me, the challenge inspires me, and the scatter of islands rising from the sea beyond my route is enough to make me cackle with glee.
The tempestuous weather makes for some spectacular evenings
I have always found myself frustrated by what appear to be the physical limitations of our species. It seems every animal of comparable weight is stronger, faster, harder and toothier than we are. But in long-distance running, we are worthy competitors. Our ancestors, and some hunter-gatherer communities today, hunted by running deer into exhaustion. Our legs are a bundle of springy ligaments, perfect for conserving the impact of the foot and re-deploying it for the next stride. When walking, I have a creeping suspicion that athletically, my species is a rung below the herd of stags I encounter, and perhaps on a par with the sheep that scatter before me. As a runner, the gap does not seem so large. We may not be as fast, agile or explosive, but we are energetically frugal; an ape capable of magnificent long-distance endeavours.
The white sand beaches of the Hebrides, complete with ever-present lowering storm clouds
I’ve been to this island quite a few times over the years, and very occasionally, if the weather is fine and some vagaries of humidity and pressure (which I have yet to comprehend) fall into place, the faint shadow of distant lands can be detected on the Western horizon, towering from the Atlantic. St. Kilda.
First contact with St. Kilda
The name fits it well. The archipelago has a mythical quality, endowed by its faded presence on the horizon, its volcanic history, the extreme isolation of the hardy folk who scraped a living there for over 2,000 years, and how turbulent the journey there remains even today. Lives spent at extremes have always held a potent allure for me, and staring out from the top of the island, it was clear this was a place I needed to see. So it was that despite my famously wobbly sea-legs, I was to be found a few days later skating over the heaving iron ocean, bound for a cluster of rocks in the middle of the Atlantic.
The journey is some 40 miles over rough seas, and the first sight of St. Kilda does not disappoint. It has not changed since these (slightly melodramatic) words were written of it in 1879:
Had it been a land of demons, it could not have appeared more dreadful… If inhabited, it must be by monsters.
The cliffs are the tallest in Britain, rising utterly sheer out of the sea, in places over 400m high and punctured liberally by caves in which the ocean boils. It has the presence of The Wall, from Game of Thrones; the set of Kong: Skull Island and the nesting sites of pterodactyls from The Lost World, all rolled into one. The feeling it gives is jarringly familiar from my time spent on Svalbard and Greenland. Here is another one of the edges of the earth, at the limits of human habitation.
Boreray: the 2nd largest island of the St. Kilda archipelago
It is infested with birds. As we sailed by, tens of thousands looked down from their lofty amphitheatre, and swarmed in our wake like flies. There are more than a quarter of a million frantic puffins. 60,000 gannets (almost a quarter of the world’s entire population). Almost 70,000 soaring fulmars, and uncountable hordes of petrels, guillemots and Arctic skuas.
The fulmars are my favourites. Among other abilities, they ferment a foul oil in their stomachs which they can squirt at aggressors (for avian predators, this may prove fatal, matting their feathers sufficiently to prevent flight). Above their nose is a nodule that functions as a desalination plant, allowing them to drink the seawater. Mostly though, there are no birds I know of that look so much as though they are enjoying themselves. They ride the turbulence whirling off the cliffs, hardly ever beating their wings as they wheel in splendid arcs.
Gannets circling our ship
The show the birds put on is enthralling, with the contest between the Spitfire-like gannets, and the more Stuka-esque Arctic skuas especially captivating (since having watched Dunkirk, everything has resembled dogfights). The two do not get along. It seems a gannet is not permitted to take so much as a morsel from the sea without being bludgeoned into the foaming waters by a mob of skuas. The gannets, in return, regularly opened up their machine-guns at any Arctic skuas for no reason other than their having taken the liberty of occupying the same airspace.
The contest is ferocious. At such concentrations, life is cheap and brutal, and at one point sailing beneath the stacks, a light snow of feathers dusted our ship, shed by the boiling maelstrom above.
The Isle of Boreray, home to an ancient breed of wild sheep, thought to be unchanged since the Bronze Age
The birds and the volcanic cliffs are staggering. The history, once you have landed at the comparatively sheltered Village Bay, defies belief. A journey which had taken me 3hrs in a high-powered boat would once have taken 3 days and nights of rowing. It is therefore unsurprising that this community has been uniquely isolated.
Village Bay, on the main island of Hirta, with a military base now occupying the left side
The remnants of Britain’s most isolated community
The St. Kildans did not see their first apple until 1875, and until 1822 were still practising a form of Druidism. One of the primitive breeds of sheep they used, the Soay, can still be seen roaming St. Kilda today, and is thought to be almost unchanged since the Neolithic. The drystone village they have left behind is remarkably well-preserved, with some of the buildings I explored thought to be as much as a thousand years old, and arrestingly atmospheric.
The unique St. Kildan cleits – hundreds of drystone store houses which stud the island
Life here, on a rock at the whims of the Atlantic, was hard. One particularly severe storm recorded in the 1800s was so powerful that it left the entire population deaf for a week. Fishing was difficult – the sea was rarely calm enough to brave (though the St. Kildans declared that the flesh of fish was not oily enough for their tastes anyway). The spray of the sea, to which every part of their island was exposed, made their crops feeble and unreliable. And there was scarcely room for husbanding sheep, which were in any case regularly blown off the cliffs by the wind.
Instead, the islanders relied on the birds.
The vertiginous cliffs, climbed barefoot by the St. Kildans to harvest seabirds
From birth, the young men would practise climbing Britain’s tallest cliffs barefoot and in the dark, harvesting the birds and their eggs. A visitor in 1697, estimated that each of the 180 islanders consumed almost 90 eggs per week (usually kept for 6-8 weeks before eating to add to the flavour) and 150 fulmars every year. Breakfast was usually porridge, with a puffin boiled in the oats for flavour. Lunch was spray-softened potatoes and a fulmar. This was all consumed near-raw: without trees, they had no firewood and the peat they used instead was a poor substitute.
A visitor in 1819 described the scene:
The air is full of feathered animals. The sea is covered with them, the houses are ornamented by them, the ground is speckled with them like a flowery meadow in May. The town is paved with feathers. The [inhabitants’] hair is full of feathers and their clothes are covered with feathers.
Stac Lee (Grey Stack) on which the St. Kildans would land to harvest the gannets
To secure this harvest, the villagers would sail out to the nearby stacks, sometimes staying for as long as 2 weeks on the inhospitable crags as they amassed stores for the winter. On one occasion in 1727, a team of 11 men and boys sailed to the 200m Stac an Armin (Stack of the Warrior) to harvest the gannets. When their 2 weeks was up, they waited patiently for collection by boat from the main island, Hirta.
It never came. As weeks became months, the 11 foragers were forced to exist on the rock, drinking fulmar’s blood for fluid and consuming their raw eggs for sustenance.
Stac an Armin, on which 11 men and boys became stranded, and once home to the now-extinct Great Auk
Unbeknownst to them, smallpox had broken out on Hirta, and nobody who remained was well enough to collect the 11 stranded foragers. When they were finally rescued after 9 gruelling months on the stack, they returned to find dozens of their close kin had succumbed to the illness.
The isolation of St. Kilda bred a way of life alien to us in the contemporary West, and in the end it was the isolation which did for these islands. After an estimated 2,000 years of continuous occupation, the final residents of St. Kilda were evacuated in 1930. The population had fallen below the critical level needed to sustain them, due in part to the turmoil of WWI, and partly to an influx of tourism which brought a stream of mainland illnesses for which the St. Kildan immune-system was ill-prepared.
A Soay sheep – a remnant of stone-age agriculture – grazes amongst the ruins on St. Kilda
I could write another 10,000 words about this haunting encounter. I want to describe the islanders’ famed generosity, their proto-communist social structure, their lack of crime, their primitive (though ingenious) methods of cooking, lighting and living; but I fear this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say that as we sailed away, I could not drag my eyes from the cliffs retreating into the distance, and have sat thinking about that view many times since. I mentioned at the beginning of this post how I am often frustrated by how feeble man seems compared to other animals. Our running is a strength, as are our brains. The tough folk of St. Kilda highlight another one. We are extraordinarily, incomparably adaptable. The St. Kildans more than most.
Till next time, folks.
Boreray, as it appears from the main island, Hirta. On the left is Stac Lee, with Stac an Armin behind it