Thursday 30 June 2011

Bonxies - big, brown and bad to the bone!

The summit area of Conachair is home to a colony of the largest, most powerful and predatory of seabirds in northern waters, Great Skuas (Cataracta skua), known in Scotland as "Bonxies".  As soon as we approached they got airborne in preparation.

They began a concerted series of low level attacks on us, normally at head height.  These are big birds, muscular and with a wingspan of 1.5 metres.  An attack, accompanied by a tearing rush of air as the bird passes, gets your full attention.  We were most careful to avoid any area where there was a possibility of a nest, but it seems that the mere presence of a human (or anything else) in the area is enough to trigger an aggressive response...

Everything about Bonxie behaviour and body language exudes menace, even when they are not attacking.

Relatively recent arrivals on St Kilda, Bonxies are predatory pirates, they will attack and kill smaller birds, kill lambs and make a speciality of ganging up on Gannets, grabbing wings or tail and forcing the Gannet to disgorge its load of hard-earned fish.

It's fair to say they don't mix well with others......

Amongst ornithologists, small and nondescript birds are known as LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs).  We christened this group of Bonxies as BBB's, which needs no further explanation!

In an attempt to get good pictures of an attack, Gordon and Douglas formed a team, Gordon standing as a target and Douglas taking the pictures.

I was having my own personal issue with a Bonxie.  One individual took great exception to the fact that I wasn't ducking under attack but standing my ground to take pictures.  Clearly this was a grave insult to his Bonxie pride and he attacked with renewed menace.  It became a battle of wills.

In this post, Douglas has captured the attacks from about 25 metres away, including the moment just before......

The bird powered in and hit me a resounding slap on the forehead with its feet.

Honour was restored, the Bonxie went off to perch on a cleit and  I moved away.  We were rather glad to move out of the combat zone!

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...

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Life and death in St Kilda

We left the Kirk and schoolhouse and wandered over to the most iconic view of the Village, simply known as The Street.

Again, it will be well worth reading this post on Douglas' blog along with the one here.

The view along the Street is instantly recognisable as the same view portrayed in old photographs, particularly those forming part of the George Washington Wilson collection held by Aberdeen University.
What is particularly noticeable is the alternating styles of house along the Street.  the older style "Blackhouses" are interspersed with newer cottages.

The Blackhouses had actually been rebuilt on their present site by the St Kildans in about 1834-1836, having originally been sited higher up.  Like most blackhouse designs they had a rounded appearance like an upturned boat, tiny doors and if they had windows at all they were heavily recessed.  The roofs were of turf and thatch held down with stones suspended on ropes of twisted heather or straw.  The smoke from the constantly burning peat fires exited through the thatch.  Simple and primitive they may have appeared, but they were well adapted to the environment.

In 1860 the Landlord, Sir John MacPherson Macleod of Dunvegan, had 18 new houses built at his own expense.  Historically, landowners have had a justifiably bad reputation throughout much of Scotland, but the MacLeods deserve much credit for their treatment of and support to the community on Hirta.  The St Kildans paid rent in kind in Fulmar oil, Gannets, Puffins, feathers, wool  and the like but the MacLeods put back far more than they ever received.  The MacLeods and their factors, in particular John MacKenzie, seem to have been good men.  As the community declined, rents were adjusted downwards and necessary supplies sent in addition.

The new houses were among the most advanced in the Hebrides.  They had two or three rooms, windows each side of the door and chimneyed fireplaces. They also had zinc roofs, which unfortunately carried away in a storm.  These were replaced, but were found to be unsuitable as they let in rain and acted as condensors, leaving the interior of the houses damp. The roofs were replaced with felt and tar which cured the damp, but the houses remained noisy, their hard edges resisting the wind and in gales the smoke couldn't rise from the chimneys.  The old blackhouses were retained as byres or stores, and some St Kildans moved back into these during the winter.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of the houses is that they were built by MacLeod's masons and used mortar, which meant that they had to be maintained using materials from outside; another blow to the St Kildan's independent way of life.

This baulk of timber was set into the drystone wall facing the houses on the street.  It is an old piece, polished from being sat upon and there seems every possibility that it is the same timber shown in Washington Wilson's glass plates.

The National Trust for Scotland has seasonal work parties on Hirta who are restoring some of the cottages and field drains.  A check curtain at the window was a homely touch amongst the stone landscape.

We moved to the end of the Street and beyond to the burial ground.  One of our team, Donald Thomson, led the first successful unsupported return voyage in sea kayaks to St Kilda and has since studied the islands.  He has a passion for and a deep knowledge of the history of  the islands and was an excellent guide. He pointed out that the level of the ground inside the burial enclosure is much higher than outside.  The ground was so thin and stony that earth and seaweed had to be piled up inside to permit sufficient depth for burials.

Bones often had to be moved aside to permit fresh burials in the confined area.  Most graves are marked with a simple stone bearing no inscription.  Later burials have more formal stones, and represent those who left the island but whose remains were brought back to be interred here. 

Yellow Flag Iris were in flower amongst the gravestones.

Disease played a part in depopulating St Kilda, the smallpox epidemic which left a party stranded on Stac an Armin for nine months because there were not enough people to man a boat to recover them is the best known example. Contact wwith Victorian tourists and do-gooders was probably a more potent factor. The Victorians seem to have treated the island as a zoo and its people as quaint exhibits. There are records of tourists throwing sweets at the St Kildans and entering their houses to gawp. Contact with the outside world also introduced the concept of a cash economy, and showed opportunity outside the harsh confines of the islands.

Between 1866 and 1928 the population halved from 77 to 37. Without enough manpower to catch birds, carry peats increasing distances and man boats the community was doomed.  Increasing dependence upon charity seemed the only future if they were to remain on Hirta. In 1930 and after after long discussions, the islanders petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland to be evacuated.  The catalyst seems to have been the death of Mary Gillies from appendicitis, she could not be moved to the mainland in time to save her life.

In April 1930 the islanders case was pressed by the MP for the Western Isles, T.B. Ramsay.  It was a painful affair. The press went overboard on the human drama, the Admiralty fretted about adverse publicity and a place had to be found for the community to resettle. Finally, all was arranged. On 28th August 1930 the people carried their possessions to the pier to await the arrival of the SS Dunara Castle and HMS Harebell the following day. The dogs were drowned, the sheep were transported to the mainland and the cats left to fend for themselves.

At 7am on 29th August 1930, each St Kildan family left an open bible and a small pile of oats in their houses, according to tradition.  They then walked down to meet the ships.  By 9am, HMS Harebell had weighed anchor and thousands of years of permanent habitation in St Kilda came to an end.  It was reported that the people bore their evacuation with dignity.

A well-meaning Argyllshire county Council settled the folk in Ardtornish, where they were given employment in forestry. None of the evacuated islanders had ever set eyes upon a tree.

The Kirk and School, Hirta

Although sheltered from the worst of the weather,Cuma rolled heavily at her anchorage overnight in the swell wrapping around Rubh an Uisge (water point) and there was little sleep to be had. 

The forecast was unpromising, but Murdani has a most wonderful possession, and one that is a rare thing indeed. Deep within Cuma, he has a "Cloud Lever".  It can be used only sparingly, but today he set it to Full Open and the day turned out much, much better than the forecast. A few of the team expressed a desire to put their feet on terra firma, and since the residual wind and swell would have made paddling close to the cliffs tricky, a morning ashore was decided upon.  Gary ferried us to the pier in Cuma's inflatable and we gathered to meet the NTS warden for our introductory briefing.

In order to show as many aspects as possible of the village, it will be well worthwhile reading this post alongside this one on Douglas' blog to get the full "St Kilda Stereovision" (tm) effect!

Village Bay provides the only sheltered anchorage in the whole archipelago, and in easterlies or southeasterlies even this is untenable.  Most of the habitation is clustered around the bay, though as we were to learn, earlier settlers lived right across the islands.

After visiting the Feather Store and the naval gun, we headed across to the largest of the older buildings, the Kirk and Schoolhouse

The interior of the Kirk is plain and simple with a cool, calm ambience.  It has been renovated, having been stripped of timber following the evacuation in 1930 and by all accounts is a much lighter and more pleasant place than for much of its history.  A Gaelic bible lies on the lectern, which totally dominates the kirk.

One of the many influences which eventually led to the decline and evacuation of the St Kildans lies here.  Organised religion arrived on the island in1705 when a Rev Alexander Buchan was sent as a missionary by the Church of Scotland.  He stayed for four years, then there were sporadic incumbents with increasingly puritanical views culminating in the appointment of Rev John Mackay in 1865.  He had been ordained by the Free Kirk (which had by this time split with the Church of Scotland) specifically with St Kilda in mind and he set about establishing a harsh Sabbatarian regime.

The obsevances Mackay introduced seem today to be excessive, but the St Kildans didn't resist.  There were three Sunday services, each lasting 2 to 3 hours, which all must attend. No work of any kind could be undertaken on the Sabbath, not even the drawing of water.  Conversation between the islanders was forbidden from Saturday evening until Monday morning.  Prayer meetings were held on Wednesdays, no work could be undertaken for 12 hours either side of the meeting.  Music was forbbidden, as were children's games.  Children were expected to carry a bible everywhere under their arms.

For a community so intimately bound to fluctuating natural resources and so reliant on constant cooperative labour to remain viable, these restrictions were to prove catastrophic.  Though more enlightened minsters were sent following MacKay's four year reign, it was too late.

The history of St Kilda's people is superbly told in charles MacLean's book "Island At The Edge Of The World" published by Canongate.

The lectern cloth is extremely beautiful.  It seems to reflect the natural surroundings with the blue of the sea and the green of the island slopes.  It's hard to see Mackay entertaining such things during his time though!

Various plaques in the kirk commemorate events on the islands, as here with the origin of the kirk bell.  Other plaques commemorate aircrews lost in plane crashes on the island, and the designation of St Kilda as a dual World Heritage Site.

This collection box is in front of the lectern, lit by morning sunlight streaming through a window..  It's beautifully crafted and has the names of the main islands inscribed on it.  I struggled to get the composition, focus and exposure in balance, the slightly soft effect in this image seems to suit the light and the atmosphere well.

Connected to the Kirk is the school classroom.  Teachers were occasionally sent to "improve" the lot of the St Kildans from 1709 onwards with a more permanent arrangement from the late 1800's.  Most of these teachers were overseen by the incumbent Ministers, but in 1906 a Mr and Mrs MacLachlan arrived and seem to have been a real asset to the islanders.  The children were taught formal lessons from 10am until 4pm in a variety of subjects.

It's unlikely that they had a teacher like Douglas though!

Monday 27 June 2011

Mind the Gap

We wanted to get an evening paddle to Dun, but with a forecast of NE Force 5 to 6 imminent, we'd be paddling in increasingly breezy conditions.  We change into paddling kit and began the first of several installments of "pass the boat" to get on the water.

Cuma seemed to have sprouted a shiny new bowsprit!  Simon and Ken embarked in the double kayak aka "The Battleship Potemkin" in order to do some filming - there was a possibility that this would be the only paddling we'd be able to do given the forecast.

We headed off tward the Dun Gap, a narrow channel separating Dun from Hirta.  The breeze was already funnelling through this gap and creating some nasty conditions.  One of the party took a brief unplanned swim, was quickly rescued and promptly interviewed on film for the DVD - no opportunities wasted on this trip!

Once through the gap we were in the lee of Dun in calm, sunny conditions, the contrast was quite startling.  The air was warmer in the sun but cold in the shadows and we got our first taste of paddling under the cliffs of St Kilda.

There's constant interest along this bit of coast with caves, arches and cliffs.  We ventured into a couple of caves which cut right through Dun, but conditions on the windy east side meant that there was no safe passage through for most of us, though Gordon made a spectacular return trip through one slot....

Almost at the southeast tip of Dun and we could feel the wind whipping around the point.  More pertinently, we could see the tidal race pouring around Giumachsgor against the wind.  It looked very, very imposing and a decision was quickly made that we'd not go that way.  The Great Arch of Dun was equally tricky looking with the wind howling through it.  So it was back to the Dun Gap for our return.

I took no pictures on the way back through - I was far too concerned with keeping upright in the conditions.  The gap was utterly transformed in the hour or so since we'd come through.  The rising wind was pushing breaking waves into the consticted gut, exposing large rocks in the channel.  The wind itself was pouring through.  We dodged from rock to rock gaining what shelter we could before an unavoidable sprint out of the gap through confused seas.

After we'd all managed through, there just remained the paddle across Village Bay to the jetty, where we left the kayaks secured for the night and were picked up by Cuma's inflatable for dinner.

The swell across Village Bay set the scene for a rock n' roll night onboard Cuma as she lay beam on to swells rounding Geodha Clann on the east side of the bay.  We did wonder whether we'd missed the weather window...

Stac Lee and Village Bay

Murdani now turned cuma away from Boreray and headed soth west toward the main island, Hirta.  On the way we passed close to Stac Lee (the grey stac)

This is another impressive stack, rising to 172 metres and once again covered with Gannets.  Here too the St Kildans landed to harvest the birds and built stone cleitean to store the catch, they must have been phenomenal cragsmen.

A look back at Stac an Armin from the base of Stac Lee

On the 8km passage from Boreray to Hirta we were all thinking the same thing, how brilliant it would be to kayak around the stacs and the Boreray coast, but would the weather permit it?

Cuma rounded the northern arm of Village Bay and we got our first sight of Village Bay.  There's no denying that the military buildings do impose on the scene.

Bur what caught our attention more were the older stone buildings and the many Cleitean dotted around the landscape.  As Gary anchored Cuma, thoughts turned to getting onto the water.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Boreray, sheer impact

We rounded the impressive Stac an Armin and got our first clear view of the west coast of Boreray

Nothing really prepares you for getting close to Boreray (The Fortress Island).  The cliffs soar straight out of the sea to a height of 384 metres, studded with towers and pinnacles.

This side of the island looks impregnable, but the St Kildans often visited, landing on a sloping slab on the eastern side.  As on the Stacs they harvested birds for meat, oil and feathers but here on Boreray they also kept some sheep.  These animals were quite distinct from the sheep kept on Hirta, being origially Scottish Tan Face and then crossed with Hebridean Black face animals.  The St Kildans plucked wool from them and took some animals back to Hirta; these were thrown into the sea and picked up for transport!

Murdani has expert knowledge of the waters around Boreray, he piloted Cuma through a gap between Stac an Armin and Boreray guarded by two small but rugged stacks and took her close in to these mighty cliffs.

Very close in! This tower is the left hand one in the second photograph.  Here too the air teemed with Gannets and Fulmars, the two metre wingspan Gannets were brilliant white specks around the upper part of the island.  We were stunned into silence by the epic scale of this place.

The sheer impact of Boreray is hard to describe and it's difficult to portray in pictures, but what an experience!

Thursday 23 June 2011

The Warrior's Stack

We approached the St Kilda group trom the north east, arriving first at Stac an Armin (the warrior's stack) which is just to the north of Boreray.

As we were to repeatedly discover, everything about St Kilda is on a huge scale.  We got closer and the Stac got bigger....

At 196 metres high it's claimed to be the highest sea stack in the British Isles.  Incredible as it seems, the St Kildans not only visited this stack to harvest eggs and young birds, but also built around 80 stone stuctures known as "Cleitean" to store the catch and a bothy to live in during the harvest.

The potential of the Stac as a source of Gugas (young, unfledged Gannets) is obvious, the air is full of the birds and the Stac is plastered with the tens of thousands of gannets and their guano.

Murdani took Cuma around Stac an Armin and between the Stac and the island of Boreray.  From this angle, the bold shark's fin shape slashes skyward, the scale betrayed by the tiny specks of Gannets around the summit nearly two hundred metres above us.  This surely has to be one of the most dramatic sea stacks anywhere.

Our introduction to St Kilda had been a brush with a formidable Warrior in grey armour set off with dazzling white.

 We were impressed!

Wednesday 22 June 2011

The islands beyond the horizon

Sunday morning dawned bright and, more importantly, with light winds.  The Shipping Forecast was listened to avidly and options discussed.  Murdani felt that we'd have a good but limited weather window to get out to St Kilda - we were on!  After breakfast we weighed anchor and headed out of Loch Tamnabhaigh, passing the island of Scarp and so to the open Atlantic.  The passage would take around six hours, most of us passed the time by sitting and chatting in the sun on Cuma's decks.

 "Westward!" - Douglas emulates one of his great heroes; the resemblance is amazing! 

The trip can be followed (with much better pictures) on Douglas' super blog to enjoy the full St Kilda Stereovision (tm) experience!

St Kilda lies 41 nautical miles west of Lewis, well below the horizon when we set out.  The air was very clear, and after a couple of hours the clouds above the archipelago, then the islands themselves became visible.  The shapes we'd studied in photographs crept above the horizon.  I'd seen St Kilda several times from seaward, but this is the more usual view.

From right to left, Stac an Armin, Boreray, Soay and Hirta

Excitement mounted as we approached.  The sense of scale was difficult to judge - we were still several nautical miles away when this picture was taken. 

We had arrived at the edge of the world.

Monday 20 June 2011

The summer glow and the shining path - an evening paddle in Lewis

Cuma sailed from Loch Miabhaig in the late afternoon.  The plan was to head south along the west coast of Lewis to Loch Tamnabhaigh and anchor for the night.  We would be sheltered from any weather but in a good place to sail for St Kilda if the conditions were favourable.

We headed out of Loch Roag past the island of Bhacasaigh which was lit by a beautiful warm light.  Lewis gives its name to Lewisian Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the planet at a staggering 3000 million years old.  To put that age into perspective, no fossils are found in Lewisian Gneiss because it predates all life on Earth.

The shelter of Loch Roag was soon behind us and some of the team experienced a sudden requirement for horizontal repose as the effects of a large Atlantic swell made themselves felt.  Cuma is a great sea-keeping boat though, and her motion was very natural as she rode the swell around Gallan Head and turned south.

Murdani had chosen the perfect anchorage; the head of Loch Tamnabhaigh was calm and quiet. Some of us fancied an evening paddle, so after dinner we got on the water at 2145. In summer it barely goes dark at these latitudes and it was a beautiful evening for a paddle.

Douglas hoisted sail and headed down the loch.  Even with the lightest of breezes he accelerated smoothly past us.

We paddled to the mouth of loch Tamnabhaigh, chatting and enjoying being on the water in such a special place.  Rounding a headland, the moon became visible reminding us of the hour.  We made a quick jaunt across Loch Tealasbhaigh and then turned for the paddle back to Cuma's anchorage.

The western sky was filled with a delicate orange blush, it was nearly 11pm and we felt very privileged to be part of a gorgeous Hebridean summer evening.

By the time we got back to Cuma the sunset colours had faded and a shining path of moonlight showed us the way. 

Just magical.