IT is for many the single most evocative place on earth, with a mystique that is difficult to understand…until you go there.
This wild and untamed outpost was once home to as many as 180 hardy souls who endured its hardships in the heaving North Atlantic 115 miles west of the Scottish mainland.
St Kilda’s sad story – a monumental tale of human endeavour – is as tragic as any. It was on August 29, 1930 that the dwindling population was evacuated when life became unviable.
These days it is mostly visited by ornithologists wanting to witness the great, raucous colonies of seabirds; diving parties who have heard of its stunning underwater attractions; curious cruise ship passengers or National Trust for Scotland volunteers.
For most, it’s the getting there that sets the greatest challenge.
And, sometimes even that is not so easy.
The 41-mile journey across from the Outer Hebrides could certainly be described as character-forming.
We ended up caught in a Force 8 gale and had to turn back and seek shelter as the MV Cuma, although a 67-footer and built to withstand big seas as a fisheries research vessel, was tossed about like a rubber duck in a Hotpoint front loader.
The hardier passengers, still fresh-faced and with stomach still intact, boasted it was enjoyable – like going through a car wash on a bucking bronco simulator. Ha!
I had a different impression: Imagine being on one of those leaping carousel horses which was somehow still going up and down but connected instead to a fairground waltzer, then that combination turned into crazy contraption that took us for a ride on the rails of a roller coaster – all at the same time.
Squeamish didn’t come anywhere close to describing how I felt as skipper Murdo Macdonald finally delivered his human cargo into the semi-stillness of Village Bay.
The only thing which stood any chance of redressing the balance was the weather.
Prayed for calm
After surviving the washing machine, I prayed for a spot of calm and some sunshine to at least help make it seem that maybe it had all been worthwhile.
There’s a sadness that hangs over the little empty crofts once occupied by those who populated this desolate remnant of volcanic fury.
When eventually our captain turned the ship’s wheel to round Hirta and enter this edge-of-the-world place so few go to, a veil of low cloud too was happed like skull caps over the hilltops of Mullach Mor and Conachair.
The weather at Britain’s remotest archipelago is as fickle as can be. It was looking good when we set sail from Loch Roag all those hours earlier but midway, that storm blew up and forced us to run for cover back in Loch Resort, sheltered behind the island of Scarp.
Those who have made it there and back before say you should savour the experience of the journey by sea, no matter how rough. It sure brings the whole mindboggling question of human existence out there sharply into focus.
Where St Kilda’s concerned, although survival packs are not essential, proper preparation is a must. One July it was shirt sleeve warm one moment then snowing the next.
From 2pm until the dusky-summer darkness drew a veil over its presence around midnight, the low cloud draped itself there defiantly. Then in the morning as if to herald the start of a theatre show, the curtain lifted to unveil blue skies. Once ashore, I clambered far too hastily in my eagerness to take in everything I could, through the little street long since deserted by the St Kildan’s who could take no more of what this cruel place had to throw at them.