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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 05:46 GMT 06:46 UK
Islands at the edge of the world
St Kilda
Cottages stand as testimony to the past

St Kilda is arguably the most remote part of the British Isles on which anyone has ever lived.

People eked out an existence there, based on trapping and eating sea birds, until 1930.

Now the National Trust for Scotland - which owns the islands 45 miles west of the Outer Hebrides - says it will need 5m to secure their future.

It will launch the appeal next year, when St Kilda is listed for the second time as a World Heritage Site, making it a member of an elite club that also includes the Taj Mahal and Mount Athos in Greece.

Grass that shone, bright green in contrast to the different greys of the sea and the sky

I travelled out to gain a unique glimpse of the "islands at the edge of the world".

I travelled with Murdo Macdonald, master of the converted fisheries research vessel the MV Cuma, who has been sailing the waters round the Outer Hebrides - off the west coast of Scotland - for about 30 years.

He looks the part, with his craggy, red face, and neatly trimmed beard.

He's not a man given to wild exaggeration.

So when he said the sea was a little bit "rocky and roll-y", I paid attention.

It turned out he meant that it was blowing a force eight gale.

And, as more and more of his passengers - including me - started turning green, Murdo decided we should abandon our first attempt to make it to St Kilda.

Murdo Macdonald
Murdo Macdonald: Force eight gale

We took refuge in a sea loch, in the shelter of the island of Scarp, and set off again the next morning.

Amid the rather forced laughter over breakfast, there was the distinctly audible crackle of foil, as people pushed sea sickness pills from their packaging.

And there was much repetition of the advice that - if feeling queasy - you should stare at a point on the horizon.

But there was nothing to stare at.

For miles... for hours... nothing to stare at.

Boil puffins

Then suddenly, out of the high mist and low cloud ahead, the sheer cliffs of Boreray... the first of the islands of the St Kilda archipelago.

Alongside it, Stac an Armin - a massive wedge of rock which looks as though it has been dumped down in the sea, and which is home to thousands of birds.

The St Kildans used to eat them, boil puffins in their porridge to give it flavour, burn oil from the fulmars crop in their lamps, and sell feathers to the mainland.

Not much longer, and we were anchoring in Village Bay, just off the main island of Hirte, which is what most people mean when they talk about St Kilda.

Grass that shone, bright green in contrast to the different greys of the sea and the sky.

More steep cliffs. More sea birds. Black and brown sheep - the unique Soay breed - clambering on slopes that seemed practically vertical.

Hugh Williams on the MV Cuma
Huw Williams on the MV Cuma

And signs of human habitation, too. The street of houses where the people lived until they abandoned the island.

And the radar tracking station that is now based there, complete with utilitarian temporary buildings, and its ugly power station.

The people that ran it used to call themselves the Kilda Generating Board, or KGB. So, naturally, the open area next door is called Red Square.

And you get the sense that jokes like that, which are repeated so often they either get funnier and funnier, or make you want to kill someone, have been an important part of life on the island recently.

Belisha beacons

After the Ministry of Defence put in a road up the highest hill, so engineers could construct masts and antennae, some joker decided to paint a black and white pedestrian crossing across the road, just below the summit.

It's still there, though the belisha beacons have gone.

Living in a tiny community on an island that is so remote its original inhabitants asked to be moved must do strange things to you.

And strange things seem to happen in St Kilda.

Like the time a crate of food being air-dropped for the base burst open, sending a frozen chicken crashing through the windscreen of a waiting vehicle.

It dislocated the driver's shoulder - the story goes - and he had to be discharged from the army.

But no one can quite remember exactly how they explained that on the paperwork.

welcome to St Kilda
Arriving in St Kilda

During the voyage across, Murdo told me St Kilda was an almost mystical place, which keeps drawing him back.

He'd be happy to go there every day, he said.

And St Kilda has been exercising that power over visitors since the first cruise ships started calling in the 1830s.

To begin with, the visits were not a success.

One group brought a brass band, which terrified the islanders and their stock. The first steam yachts caused alarm too, as the St Kildans assumed they must be on fire.

Later, islanders came to rely on selling souvenirs to tourists.

However, one woman is recorded as complaining that she had sold a whole winter's-worth of tweed production to a visitor for an orange.

Light labour

She had never seen the fruit before and kept it - until it became so mouldy she had to throw it away.

In 1838, a writer described St Kilda as a utopia, whose inhabitants enjoyed late slumber and light labour.

I'm not sure that can have been true, even then.

So, back to my conversation with Murdo on the Cuma. Would he want to live on the islands?

Deserted houses

He was quite definite. No, he would not. Thanks very much, but no thanks.

And after a century of organised contact with the outside world, the last 36 St Kildans petitioned the government to send a steamer, because they could see no future for themselves on their island home.

The last man to board the Harebell, on 29 August 1930, described walking down the village high street, looking into the deserted houses.

It was, he said, like staring into an empty grave.

One family left a bible behind. It was open at the book of Exodus.

See also:

31 Jan 01 | Scotland
29 Oct 00 | Scotland
19 Oct 00 | Scotland
16 Oct 00 | Scotland
Links to more Scotland stories are at the foot of the page.

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