Saturday, 1 September 2012

St Kilda in a Day

When I first thought about going to St Kilda I didn't think about a day trip. In the absence of having my own yacht and not having the kayaking abilities to paddle my way out there (yes, some people do) I'd decided the only way to get to St Kilda would be to join a National Trust for Scotland working party and go for a week or two. However, in spite of these being quite expensive, they are still allegedly very popular and hence difficult to get on to. What makes it almost impossible for me though, is the time of year. The working parties are pretty much finished by the time English schools break up for the summer holidays.

Not wanting to let a simple thing like fixed holiday times get in the way of my ambitions I looked around for alternatives and after meeting someone in Unst last year who'd been for a day, decided that maybe a day trip wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

During my time in the Hebrides I've been trying to get myself booked onto a tour with one particular company. It's always a bit touch and go whether the trips go ahead or not, because they are very weather dependent. If one trip is cancelled the people booked on to it get taken out the next day meaning no free spaces for other people. A spate of windy weather seemed determined to prevent me from going. But then another company said they had room and the chances of actually going were pretty good on the day they were offering me.

The night before I drove out to the small pier at Miavaig in the Uig area of Lewis. I set up camp beside the office which conveniently had a toilet and wash basin round the back. I got everything ready for the next morning and settled down to sleep. I'd not been asleep long when I woke feeling a bit headachey and queasy. Not the best feeling at any time, and certainly not before such a big day.

By morning the headache had gone but I still felt a bit sickly. Hmm, what to do for the best when feeling a bit sick? Stay in bed, rest and relax? Or get on a little boat and spend 4hrs being tossed and churned as you crash your way across the Atlantic? Of course the only choice I really had was the latter. If I didn't go today, I wouldn't be going at all. 

Before it got rough

The other passengers arrived, about a dozen of us in all, and after re-arranging cars on the pier we boarded The Lochlann. I strapped myself into a seat and prepared for the worst. Once out at sea the roller-coaster started in earnest. The boat felt as though it was being plucked up high and then being dropped from said great height. Each time this happened the 'BANG' as the boat hit the sea and the reverberations through my body lifted me out of my seat. If it wasn't for the seat belt I'd have repeatedly hit my head on the roof. I tried to sit with my eyes closed willing the horrible feeling in my stomach to go away. No chance. I've never been sea-sick before and I have been on some tiny boats on some pretty rough water. But then again, I've not got onto a tiny boat on pretty rough water whilst already feeling sick.

My guts had no chance of recovering and at one point I had to stagger to the deck to lean over and throw up. I wanted to rush, but it's a bit hard when you're getting thrown from side to side and have to plan each move to ensure at least 3 limbs are firmly planted at all times. If I didn't have sympathy for people who suffer with sea-sickness before, I certainly do now.

One highlight of the otherwise dismal trip was seeing a shoal of tuna leaping and swimming in front of the boat. Even I stood up to get a look and watch them for a while. The tuna were dolphin sized, and look nothing like they do in a tin. Having seen them, I can understand how the nets used to catch tuna also manage to snag dolphins. I don't understand how the dolphin friendly tuna nets work though - how do they manage to keep the dolphins out? As a veggie I don't buy tuna anyway, but have wondered why next to the 'dolphin friendly' label that can be seen on some tins of tuna, there isn't another label next to it saying 'tuna unfriendly'? Apparently it's quite unusual to see tuna so close like this so we were very lucky.

St Kilda slowly came into sight and we could make out people sitting around on the jetty. These turned out to be students who were on some kind of placement on the island. We decanted ourselves into a dinghy and travelled the last tiny bit to the pier. Once we were all on dry land we were met by the warden who gave us a chat about dos and don'ts and told us about what there was to do on the island.

This would have been someone's living room
I set off for a wander, still feeling queasy. I had hoped to walk up to at least one side of the cliffs but didn't really feel up to it. Instead I wandered round the derelict village, poking in and out of the old houses. They were mostly laid out in one main street and in between the derelict building were a few restored ones which were used for accommodation and a museum. I spent a while in the museum finding the exhibits and the information provided quite fascinating. 

The MOD, as part of a long-running arrangement, have workers based on the island and their accommodation and offices are in green painted buildings near the pier. Maybe these could be said to be an eyesore and spoil the antiquity and isolation of the island, but the MOD have played such an important role on the island I'd like to think that in future years these buildings and their role will be seen as just as relevant to the history of the island as the remains from the St Kildans are.


A helicopter landed and took off whilst I watched. The unique St Kildan sheep roamed around, birds flew or skittered across the ground, the sun shone, a perfect day. If only I could have enjoyed it more.

We had a stay of a few hours on the island and this was plenty of time to have a really good look round the village and museum and would also have given me time to go for a bit of a walk had I felt so inclined. Just before the boat was due to leave, the warden opened the shop which sells souvenirs of St Kilda as well as a range of books. Next to the shop is the restored school (one classroom) and church and I had time to have a look round them. 

The Museum

The Church
The School

Once back on the boat we circled the island and went out to a couple of the stacks to look at the birds before heading back for Lewis. It was much later that evening before I started to feel alright again. 

I managed to enjoy my day on St Kilda even if I wasn't feeling great. It's such a special place and felt like such an achievement to get there, that even an upset stomach couldn't put too much of a dampner on things. I doubt I'll ever get back, so I'm glad I didn't decide to give it a miss, as I now have memories that will last me a life time. 

The Details

Company I travelled with: Seatrek
Cost: £180
Depart: 7.30am
Arrive back: 8pm
Time on Hirta: approx. 3.5hrs.

Here's a copy of the press release Seatrek issued regarding the tuna we saw. I've copied it in rather than just linking to it, in case it later disappears off their website.

Shoal of Tuna off Lewis
Press Release 30th Aug, Seatrek
Tuna Sighting West of Lewis

On one of our regular day trips to St Kilda on the 24th of August 2012, our Seatrek vessel, the  motor cruiser Lochlann, sighted an unusually large and concentrated flock of diving gannets.
We decided to go over and investigate, fully expecting to find the usual dolphins feeding on a shoal of herring.  We told the passengers to get their cameras ready for the spectacle of diving birds and jumping dolphins and possibly minke whales. We very often see diving gannets in a feeding frenzy as they can spot the fish from a great height. The gannets are helped by dolphins, which herd the fish to the surface.

The leading edge of the diving gannets was unusually fast moving at 5 knots, and as we closed in we could see the fast moving splashes among them. We were amazed to see the characteristic upright, thin forked tails of tuna darting through the water.
Some were coming to within 10m of us and you could see they were about 6/7 ft long, maybe more. The sight was amazing. The furiously diving gannets were accompanied by fulmars, skuas, manx shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, black backed gulls and herring gulls, all looking for a piece of the action.
We watched them enthralled for some time and thought they were possibly Bluefin Tuna;  such an unusual wildlife sighting we had never experienced before so close at hand.

The next shoal was moving much faster, say 10 knots to the SW and zigzagging with birds showing their whereabouts when near the surface. The tuna were about the same size.
Earlier in the day we had seen a handful of smaller Bonito type, 2ft long, just East of Gallan Head, Uig, Lewis. These were fast moving along the surface just beside the boat but were unaccompanied by birds.

The rare sighting of tuna so far north of their normal habitat was a memorable experience. Unusual also was the distinctive spectacle of the exceptionally large number of gannets that were following the shoal of fish. We have never seen such a large flock in such a small area; they could be seen from many miles away.

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