St Kilda, outer Hebrides: Cruise ship visit to spectacular UNESCO island

As our inflatable Zodiacs thrust through the harmless Hebridean harbour waves towards St Kilda, we can barely believe our luck. 

We're about to set foot on the most isolated archipelago in the British Isles, perched so far into the north Atlantic it barely rates a dot on Europe's map. 

Yet this outlandish destination is not only steeped in romance but also comes with a reputation for sheer natural beauty that makes it a should-visit on any nature-loving traveller's wish list.

Why lucky? Because this morning, the oft-threatened storm is hours away. Last night, conditions appeared too rough for us to land on what is one of UNESCO's rare Dual World Heritage sites, recognised for both its natural and cultural significance.

Just 20,000 visitors a year manage to land on St Kilda. Some come as day trippers, enduring the often tortuous journey by speed boat from another Hebridean destination. Increasingly, more of us are arriving by cruise ships like Silversea's Silver Explorer, small enough to anchor in St Kilda's only harbour.

Like my fellow passengers on this Captain's Choice-chartered voyage around many of Britain's least accessible wonders, my day had started with a tannoy (PA) announcement at 5.30am. We'd rushed to the viewing deck to catch our first glimpse of Stac an Armin – Britain's tallest sea tower, looming 200 metres above us and alive with the smell, screeches and seemingly suicidal dive bombs of the 12,000 nesting northern gannets there.

A million seabirds – including 250,000 Atlantic puffins – spend part of their year on St Kilda's spectacular soaring cliffs, making it one of the most important bird sanctuaries in the world.

After breakfast, as our ship made its way to anchor at Village Bay on the main island of Hirta, I was struck by the similarities between St Kilda and Santorini. This, too, is a partly submerged volcanic caldera, about 60 million years old, thrusting out of the ocean so dramatically it's easy to understand why the ancients linked it with Ultima Thule, the extreme limit of travel and discovery. It has also been nicknamed The Edge of the World – the title of Michael Powell's 1937 documentary recording the most famous thing ever to have happened on St Kilda.

On Friday, August 29, 1930, the final 36 St Kildans – their spirits crushed by devastating winters, deaths by influenza and near-starvation diets – left aboard HMS Harebell for mainland Scotland, so ending 3000 years of human habitation. They had voted as a group to evacuate, deciding life was no longer tenable on St Kilda. Many cried as the only home they had ever known faded below the horizon.

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This morning, as we stride from the stone jetty over lush, springy turf towards the haunting, crumbling remains of St Kilda's single street, most of us are amazed they survived so long.

Strictly speaking, Hirta isn't a deserted island. The (very ugly) Ministry of Defence base is permanently manned, while rangers, scientists and volunteers spend the summer working under the blessing of the National Trust of Scotland, which has owned St Kilda since 1957.

But you really do feel that you have been transported back in time to a bizarre world that was abandoned overnight.

Some of the more energetic passengers decide to take the steep march to Hirta's summit. Others opt for the guided wildlife walks (though no one can miss the scraggy, moulting Soay sheep that are believed to be descendants of the earliest Neolithic breed in Europe).

But those of us intrigued by St Kilda's human history join the group that concentrates on the derelict, evocative village – a molehill of a settlement, but a mountain of fascination.

One ruin has been converted into a superb little museum, with hugely powerful photographs and carefully chosen panels describing how harsh life was for the St Kildans and yet why its beauty kept them here so long.

We learn that Bronze Age adventurers were the first to leave a record, making their stone tools on Hirta after successfully crossing the 80 kilometres of Atlantic Ocean from the nearest mainland. 

Tourists began romanticising St Kilda in the 18th century. The concept of "the noble savage" was in vogue, and St Kilda was portrayed as an idyllic island community with its own daily "parliament", which had lived in harmony with nature for millenniums.

The harsh truth was always different. For centuries St Kildans had scoured those intimidating sea  stacks for seabirds and their eggs. Their homes were strange, stone-built, turf-covered, circular mounds – barely different from the wind-resistant storage huts they used to dry hay, fish, birds, peat and turf: the cornerstones of their economy. Even when Christianity arrived, it was a mixed blessing.

But perhaps you're wondering if there is any relationship between this St Kilda and the Melbourne beachside suburb which shares the same name? Especially since there has never been a saint called Kilda in 2000 years of Christendom?

The name is a map-maker's mistake. The Vikings called it "skildir", their word for shield. Then, in the 16th century, a cartographer inserted a full point between the first two letters, creating S.Kilda – and a saint was born.

As for the Australian connection, the Melbourne suburb is named after a trading schooner called The Lady of St Kilda which first arrived in Port Phillip Bay in 1841. The ship in turn was named after Lady Grange – one of the most colourful women in Scottish history: subject of poems, two plays and a novel. 

She was held captive on St Kilda from 1734 to 1740 by her husband, condemned to live in a stone mound and kept alive only by her ferocious temper and a prodigious intake of whisky.

Her crime? She had threatened to denounce Lord Grange and his associates of a Jacobite plot to overturn the Hanoverian king, George II. Whether that was true or not is debated, but she was on her way to London when she was kidnapped by Highland chieftains who smuggled her to the most remote place they knew: St Kilda. 

She died in 1745, still undiscovered, on Skye after an unsuccessful mission to St Kilda to rescue her.

What remains of "Lady Grange's House" is still one of Hirta's evocative highlights, yet the entire archipelago has a haunting quality: unsurpassable beauty tinged with tribulation and tragedy.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

kilda.org.uk

GETTING THERE

Several operators offer day trips from Skye and Harris. See gotostkilda.co.uk, seaharris.com, kildacruises.co.uk

CRUISING THERE

Captain's Choice 17-day Bespoke British Isles tour joins the MS Hebridean Sky in Portsmouth before setting sail to visit Penzance, Dublin, Douglas, Mull, the Outer Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, Inverness and Edinburgh. From $22,270 a person, twin-share including flights from Australia, it departs Australia on June 4, 2017. Phone 1300 176 681 or see captainschoice.com.au

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Captain's Choice.

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