Thursday, 30 June 2011

Conachair and the cliffs

We spent all morning exploring the village and its immediate surroundings.  We had our lunch by the pier and dozed in the warm sunshine for a short while (Murdani's Cloud Lever was still in the "Open" position).  We could see there was still a swell running into the bay, so the unanimous decision was to go for a walk, taking in Conachair, at 430 metres the highest point of Hirta.

The climb to the Gap, a bealach (col) on the edge of the northeastern cliffs, goes initially up to the head dyke.  This wall separates the in-bye land from the open hill and like most of Hirta is dotted with dozens of cleitean, the work of many decades.

Above the head dyke we passed the irregularly shaped drystone enclosures at An Lag Bho'N Tuath.  The original purpose of these enclosures has been debated for some time; they are unusual in that some don't have entrances.  Originally thought to be livestock enclosures, it is now believed that they were used to protect crops.

The slope steepens above, the views back down to Village Bay and across to Dun provided a good excuse for regular rest stops!  Our walk would eventually take us to Ruabhal (western hill) above the Dun Gap and back to the pier above the eroded cliff and shore.

The climb ends suddenly at the edge of the cliffs where the St Kildans lowered themselves on home-made ropes to harvest birds and eggs.  We can attest that it's a fair drop!

The views to Boreray and the stacs are very, very fine

The most numerous birds of the upper cliffs here are Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis). Superficially resembling gulls, they're part of the Petrel family and have a wingspan of a little over a metre.  They fly with a distinctive stiff-winged style and use long effortless glides.

The tube above the bill provides a means of excreting excess salt as brine; Fulmars prefer the colder and more saline waters of the North Atlantic and North Pacific to feed, spending many months at sea.  Young Fulmars spend several years at sea before returning to their birth colony to set up a territory and find a mate.

Sea kayakers paddling around the UK will be familiar with these birds, they readily make close approaches to kayaks, planing past at head height and giving a long, cool inspection on the way by.  A less endearing trait is that they readily projectile vomit an evil smelling oily substance over intruders around the nest; if it gets onto clothes the smell never leaves!

The St Kildans killed thosands of fulmars each year, apparently with very little effect on numbers.  The birds were valuable for their oil, each Fulmar yielding about a quarter of a litre.  Feathers and meat were also prized and eggs were eaten too.  Nothing was wasted, the entrails were ploughed in as manure.  A report from the mid 19th century noted that the 180 St Kildans ate around 22,600 birds in a year, mostly Fulmars and Gannets but also including Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Puffins.  This didn't include the birds preseved and exported.

We skirted the highest sea cliffs in the UK on the very steep pull to the summit of Conachair.  Just below and to the east of the summit we came across this aircraft propellor and engine parts.  It is part of the wreckage of Bristol Beaufighter LX 798, a long range night fighter based at Port Ellen, Islay which crashed here on the night of June 3rd 1943 killing both crew.  Most of the wreckage slipped back off the cliff but parts were strewn across the hillside.  There is a memorial to the crew in the Kirk in the village.

We were almost at the summit of Conachair, but as we were to discover, it is defended by a different type of airborne combatant...

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