There is a small island group known as St Kilda perched precariously in the Atlantic ocean, and located about 70 km west of Harris in the Outer Hebrides - Scotland.
Famous for its towering cliffs, giant waves, and huge bird colonies, and fabled for humans who managed to survive on this rocky outpost of the UK for 2000 years mainly living off a diet of seabirds and their eggs for food.
This year I was lucky enough to help lead an expedition out to St Kilda, which has to be one of the most spectacular places I’ve paddled yet.
Our vessel to take us to the world heritage site of St Kilda was a tall ship named ‘Lady of Avenel’, which is a 100 ft long brigantine square-rigged ship, with all the comforts you could want.
The morning of our departure to St Kilda we set off early from the isle of Barra which is located near the southern end of the outer Hebrides, on an uncharacteristically calm and windless ocean.
The mist was thick and when dolphins appeared on the bow wake it seemed to break the eerie stillness of the day, and we all enjoyed the playful display that lasted for a wonderful hour or so.
The rest of the day was a relaxed mix of chatting, eating, reading, or taking a turn at the wheel, accompanied by many cups of tea.
When we did finally reach St Kilda it was even more dramatic than we could have wished for, the towering shards of rock that form St Kilda’s high peaks rose out of the mist in an awe-inspiring end to our days voyage, so we promptly went ashore to shake off our sea legs and have an explore.
Village bay, Hirta
It’s truly is an island like no other I’ve been to before, and village bay is the only bay with relatively safe anchoring as it faces east.
Green slopes rise dramatically out of the bay leading to high points that looked ideal for an evening hike.
St Kilda was formed by a huge and now extinct volcano, and over thousands of years of being lashed by the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, its sides eroded away now forming some of the biggest and most dramatic cliffs in the UK.
When sea ice engulfed most of Europe, St Kilda lying so far west, was spared, and so the cliffs remained intact, now home to thousands of sea birds.
As we got ashore there were a few man-made structures that were startlingly obvious, some ugly modern buildings near the shore, satellite dishes at the top of the biggest hill, and some igloo type domes that seem to be dotted around everywhere.
The ugly modern buildings and the satellite dishes are due to the presence of the Ministry of defense contractor QinetiQ, aptly named ‘deep sea range’.
Thankfully the ugly buildings were getting knocked down and a much smarter and more natural-looking building, complete with turf roof was getting built as a replacement.
There are no permanent residents on St Kilda, but with a military base and a construction site, there is a healthy number of about 70 temporary residents.
Probably the most interesting and most talked about feature of life on the island is the local bar, the ’Puff inn’!!
Now closed to visitors, but still catering for the local temporary residents, it’s very much a ‘locals only’ bar, after a few sailors in the past took a little too much advantage of the cheap and plentiful booze. And on the odd occasion, finding safe passage back to their own vessel anchored in the bay too much of a risk-laden challenge, ending up as less than welcome guests of the island for the night!
The other very noticeable man made presence on the island by earlier settlers, are the many stone igloo type structures, known as ‘cleits’.
These had a variety of functions and were used for storing peat, nets, grain, preserved flesh of young seabirds gathered in spring, eggs, manure, hay, and as a shelter for lambs in winter, basically, a garden shed St Kilda style.
Boreray rising out of the mist viewed from Hirta
Human existence on St Kilda lasted for about 2000 years, from the bronze age until the 1930’s, when a series of events led them to decide that their current way of life was no longer sustainable.
This was a rather sad end to a unique way of life that had lasted many centuries, but as the modern world had dramatically encroached on their life, the uncomfortable decision to abandon their island for good was eventually taken.
The gradual loss of self-sufficiency had started in the mid-19th century when cruise ships from mainland Scotland started to visit the island. Islanders then spent time producing goods to sell to tourists, including sheepskins and tweeds.
In 1852, 36 people emigrated to Australia and the population decline began, a food shortage followed, and a number of distress signals were sent, these were wooden boxes with a sheep's bladders acting as floats.
Disease such as cholera, tetanus, smallpox and Influenza were also a big blows to the community, bought inadvertently by the various visitors to the island.
Further emigration of able-bodied young islanders brought the community to its knees, eventually leading to the evacuation of the remaining islanders in August 1930.
However, stories and legends remain and this is their rich legacy.
One particular tribute to this is the Scottish Parliament Building, opened in October 2004 in respect of the St Kildans daily "parliament".
This was a meeting, held in the street, every morning after prayers and attended by all the adult males.
During the course of the meeting, they would decide upon the day's activities. No one led the meeting, all men had the right to speak, and never in recorded history were feuds so bitter as to bring about a permanent division in the community.
Arriving by sailing ship is possibly the best way to reach St Kilda, but exploring the coastline intimately from a sea kayak gives you a perspective few get to see. Luckily for us, the weather had held, and although not sparkling sunshine on the first morning, light winds and a small to moderate swell allowed us to circumnavigate the main island Hirta on the first day.
The bird life on Hirta is spectacular, and it's home to the UK’s largest Puffin colony, and the grassy slopes make a perfect place over the summer for them to dig their burrows and lay their eggs.
Life onboard the ship remained comfortable, and more importantly food and drink supplies were plentiful.
Ben and his sister Rebeca kept transforming raw ingredients into delicious hot and cold hearty meals, and on a ship the size of the ‘Lady of Avenel’ we were treated to home comforts not normally associated with a sea kayaking expedition.
The next day the conditions remained good so we decided to sail to Boreray, which lies 7km northeast of the main island of Hirta, and if conditions remained favourable, we would circumnavigate this too.
Boreray and the surrounding stacks are huge, towering and breathtaking, it’s difficult to imagine the folk living on Hirta made an annual voyage to Boreray and these stacks to collect young gannets known as ‘Guga’.
This was an annual trip that involved staying on Boreray and making nightly visits to the cliffs and stacks where they would harvest the young gannets.
Boreray and the surrounding stacks are home to the 2nd largest gannet colonies in the UK, some 60,000 breeding pairs.
Paddling around Boreray, with hundreds of gannets and the ship in the background.
From our kayaks, we stayed wide of the coast as there was a sizeable swell smashing into the cliffs, although by St Kilda standards this was calm!
The circumnavigation went well and when we got back to the boat, we were all a little awestruck I think.
Although some of the group decided they hadn't had enough of a morning paddle so went on to paddle the 7km back to Hirta and were treated by close sitings of minke whales.
We sat down to a welcome lunch congratulating our selves on what we had already achieved, and getting set for an afternoon paddle around a section of coastline called the ‘Dun’.
We set off full of confidence after having already circumnavigated most of the major islands, but very soon it became apparent that this paddle was to be the most challenging and adventurous yet, with a couple of capsizes in the first gully that passes from the relative shelter of village bay into the Atlantic Ocean.
When safely past the first obstacle, we proceeded as a tight group heading northwards towards the point of the 'Dun'.
The distance wasn't big, but the scenery and rock features were as breathtaking as we had now come to expect.
As we paddled around the next corner a huge arch became visible, it was pure animated raw nature.
The hard unforgiving bear rock of the arch, and within it the sea heaving and lunging in a more concentrated form.
I had decided that this was too good to miss, so as the group watched on I headed in to explore.
Going straight for the arch was the most logical route as I could meet the swell head-on, but as I approached a set of waves started to push the horizon upwards and I just found myself paddling up the rapidly approaching body of water.
The wave had been compressed through the arch and I hoped that it wouldn’t start breaking and explode into the cavern I had just paddled into. It didn’t, and in sheer relief when I reached the top of the first wave I raised my paddle above my head in pure adrenaline-filled joy, I spent a few moments more in the arch, enjoying what was possibly the greatest highlight of the trip.
Myself exploring the arch.
The next day we set sail early satisfied we had been so lucky with the weather, and St Kilda had allowed us to explore so much of its amazing coastline.
We headed for the Monach Isles which were a very different landscape indeed, flat and the promise of beautiful beaches.
The sailing passage was wonderful and we also enjoyed a great afternoon paddle.
There are many colonies of grey seals on the Monachs, and while we were landed on a beach we were lucky to see three young otters playing in the crystal clear waters.
The next day was a stunner, and after an early morning dip we hoisted the anchor and settled down into our usual and comfortable rhythm of reading, chatting, eating, snoozing and occasionally helming the boat!
The voyage back to Barra was relaxed and seemed a perfect end to the trip, made even better by an evening feast and some heart felt fare wells.
Chris Denehy of ‘Clearwater paddling’ runs annual sea kayaking trips to St Kilda and other islands as well as lodge-based and camping based multi-day and day trips from the wonderful castle bay on the isle of Barra.