No there’s not a lot to see upon St Kilda
Two dozen empty bothies and a wall
It’s a dreary little dot of desolation
One hundred miles due west of bugger all.
We can assume that the military gentleman who first penned these words was not a member of the SOC (Scottish Ornithologists' Club) nor had the advantage as we did of visiting the island accompanied by both Stuart Murray, author of "Birds of St Kilda" and Mary Harman, author of "An Isle called Hirte", a brilliant book on the history and culture of St Kilda.
As we board the good ship Poplar Voyager on the Friday evening we are aware that we will be too late in the year to see the enormous breeding colonies of Puffin and Guillemot but we will still be able to see the famous colonies of Fulmar and Gannet and much else besides including, we hope, some cetaceans. We sleep on board in Oban Harbour on the Friday evening so that we can weigh anchor early on Saturday and be on our way.
While sailing up the Sound of Mull and into the Minch our skipper, Bob Theakston, tells us that conditions are reasonably calm and the wind will be coming from the west. On this basis he suggests that, rather than overnight in the Outer Hebrides, we press on to St Kilda. Given the relatively foggy conditions as we cross the Minch and our enthusiasm to get to St Kilda we readily agree.
But even a gentle swell, if experienced for over 14 hours, can have a predictable effect so it is a reduced band of birders who see the magnificent sunset over the archipelago as we approach the islands. The Skipper suggests that the best way to ensure a decent nights sleep is to have a short walk on dry land and so most of us have our first encounter with the island of Hirta, the principal island of the St Kilda group. Fortunately Ian Andrews stays on board and so is able to rescue a bird that has flown against one of the boat’s windows probably attracted by the lights. As we return from land we have superb in-hand views of a Leach’s Storm-petrel before Ian releases the apparently unharmed bird. St Kilda has the largest colony of Leach’s in the north-east Atlantic with an estimated 92% of the British and Irish population.
Sunday is a day for exploring Hirta and so the 10 of us set off after a few words of welcome by the National Trust for Scotland warden. One of the first birds seen is the St Kilda Wren several of which we had heard from the boat while having breakfast. Although there are 79 species of wren in the world only one is found outside the New World. This is the Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes of which the St Kilda Wren T. t. hirtensis is one of several island sub-species (others are found on Fair Isle, the Outer Hebrides, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland) which are developing characteristics such as larger size, longer legs and plumage variations.
At the ridge behind the Village, a few of our group opt out of the trek to Cambir on the far side of the island from where we will be able to look onto the island of Soay. This was the home of the Soay sheep, a primitive native breed that appears to have lived on St Kilda since Neolithic times. When the St Kildans left in 1930 they took their domestic sheep with them and some Soay sheep were introduced onto Hirta. Given their genetic isolation these sheep are the subject of lengthy study and our stay in St Kilda coincided with the annual monitoring of the sheep flock. The scientists and students conducting the study hold a sweepstake as to the total number of sheep and we understand that the winner will have guessed somewhere around 1,200 this year.
While we cross the moorland to Cambir we are occasionally dive-bombed by Bonxies (aka Great Skua). Although they are now common with around 200 pairs, they started to breed on St Kilda only as recently as 1963. We see some dark juveniles and even come across a fledgling sitting in its shallow depression of a nest. Photos are rapidly taken before the adults return. The Bonxies will shortly be leaving for the winter, migrating out to sea and, in some cases, as far south as Brazil.
Our ever-dwindling group heads out across Glen Bay and up Conachair Hill while stragglers head back to the Village. As the nine of us gather at the jetty watching Stuart Murray striding down the side of Conachair towards us something comes to mind along the lines of "…and then there was one"
On Monday the weather is good and the sea is relatively calm so the Skipper suggests that we cruise round the islands. The main objective is the third big island in the St Kilda group, Boreray, and its two impressive stacs, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. This is the home of the largest colony of Gannet in the world with 19% of the world population. It is also the oldest known colony with breeding known prior to the 9th century according to Valerie Thom’s "Birds in Scotland". In 1994 over 60,000 occupied sites were recorded. It is a staggering sight as we sail around the island and close to the stacs. A few Bonxies are patrolling the approaches and we see several skirmishes where Bonxies harass a returning Gannet sufficiently for it to regurgitate its food.
In the afternoon we land on Hirta and pursue individual objectives whether searching for migrants, waders or that definitive photo of the St Kilda Wren.
After dinner on board a few of us head off to the world-famous Puff Inn, the most isolated pub in the world. It is surprisingly busy since we not only have the members of the military base (the Squaddies), the sheep monitoring team (the Sheepies) and ourselves (the Soccies?) but also a group of thirsty individuals who had arrived that afternoon by RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) all the way from the Old Forge Pub at Knoydart on what was later to be headlined by The Scotsman as "Intrepid drinkers sail hundreds of miles on unique pub crawl".
We have another cruise round the islands on Tuesday but this time we sail along the south-western edge of Hirta including another island, Dun, which has very large colonies of Leach’s Storm-petrel with an estimated 16-17,000 breeding pairs and of Puffin with over 55,000 apparently occupied burrows. Unfortunately, Leach’s are not seen during the day and the Puffins have already left although one or two are to be seen at sea close to shore.
Hirta is the main island in St Kilda for Fulmar. Fulmars have been on St Kilda for at least the last 800 years and, indeed, it was the only British site until 1878 when the species started to colonise Foula – a strange thought when one contemplates their current wide distribution. A total of almost 67,000 apparently occupied nest sites were recorded in 1999 on St Kilda.
We sail through the small gap between Hirta and Soay and, emerging along the north coast of Hirta we notice a large group, well over 30, of Grey Seal dashing about in a strange way. Shortly after we see at least two if not three Minke Whale and we spend some considerable time watching these magnificent creatures swimming around us as do the Grey Seal who seem to think this is all great fun.
Back in the Bay for dinner and a large landing craft is still disgorging supplies for the island. We must have depleted the Puff Inn stocks more than we thought last night!
Wednesday is our last morning on the islands and Stuart takes us for a cultural tour. The history of the island and the islanders is fascinating and for us it is particularly apposite that the islands could only support such a relatively large population of up to 200 souls because they exploited the rich bird resources of the islands, mainly Gannet, Fulmar and Puffin. The excellent museum gives a very good feel for what it was like for these hardy and unique islanders to live and survive on St Kilda.
After lunch we sail due east and pass through the Sound of Harris to drop anchor at Neist Point on Skye. Birds seen on the journey include Manx Shearwater, Storm-petrel and Pomarine Skua. We stretch our legs before dinner with a walk to the lighthouse and are rewarded with a sighting, admittedly somewhat distant, of White-tailed Eagle.
Our last full day on Thursday sees us sailing south to Canna and round the lighthouse on Oigh-sgeir. Here we come across an impressive group of Basking Shark, maybe more than a dozen individuals, and what a size they are. A Minke Whale eventually joins them and we spend a good time watching these superb creatures as Gannet dive into the sea around them.
We spend our last night in the Sound of Mull and after a hearty breakfast the next morning we tie up to the North Pier in Oban. What a great trip and what a great group of folk to be with on such a trip. We say our farewells but I’m sure that most of us will find a way of someday returning to these magical islands of St Kilda.
There’s an awful lot to see upon St Kilda
Fulmars, Gannets, Bonxies, Puffins are not all
It’s a fascinating dot of desolation
One hundred miles due west of bugger all.