St Kilda is a small archipelago in the Atlantic. Administratively it's part of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides of Scotland, lying some 40 miles west of the main group. There is no island called St Kilda: the main island is Hirta. This had a small population subsisting by fishing, crofting and eating seagull eggs, in squalid impoverished conditions, until they were evacuated in 1930. The islands of Dùn, Soay and Boreray were never permanently inhabited and were just used for sheep grazing and egg collecting.
There has been an army base here since 1957, running the radar station that tracks the missile range off Benbecula. Much of the station is now run remotely and it had been intended for those personnel to leave (they're nowadays employed by the privatised defence firm Qinetiq.) A change of plan means that they're staying, and the station facilities are being noisily rebuilt, but this is in the hands of the switchback politics of the UK defence industry.
St Kilda is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Hirta has a resident ranger and rotating NTS work parties but there are very few visitor facilities, eg no cafe. Most visitors come on day trips by boat whenever summer conditions allow. St Kilda isn't the most remote spot in the British Isles - a handful of other islands vie for that title - but has become a romanticised metaphor for isolation. That's mainly because its evacuation is still within living memory, with original film footage, boosted by the fictionalised version of the 1937 Michael Powell film "The Edge of the World".
By boat, preferably not on Tuesday or Friday, when the supply boat calls to replenish the resident staff, and the landing area is congested.
There are no ferries or air services to St Kilda. With your own boat, or by cruise or boat trip as described below, you need to transfer to a small open dinghy (eg a Zodiac RIB) to come in to land on Hirta; there's no mooring. That's mainly because the jetty is tiny, it's also to ensure that no rats can sneak ashore with you - they would devastate the island's bird life. (And no dogs or other pets are allowed ashore.) Hirta's jetty is sheltered from the prevailing west winds, but wind or swell from the east or south-east makes landing impractical. Landing on the other islands is only by special permission and is tricky even in the best of conditions, as they are steep crags with no harbour.
Regular summer visits are:
- On a National Trust for Scotland Work Party, see "Do". The NTS hires its own boats for these groups.
- On a cruise, on a ship with a 7-10 day tour of the Outer Hebrides and other isles. Itineraries are flexible to adjust for sea conditions, especially for St Kilda so they may not be able to call. All cruises are now fully booked for 2019 with very little availability remaining for 2020. See listings in the home ports for:
- On a day trip: these sail from Skye and the Western Isles. They only go when the weather permits, so you have to make yourself available for a two-day slot, and they'll sail on the first suitable day of that slot. It's a 3-4 hour crossing with perhaps 4 hours ashore on Hirta, then a sail around the other islands and on homeward. The boats have toilets but no catering, bring your own packed lunch. See listings in the home ports for:
- If you're staying at the campsite and don't have organised transport, you need to negotiate one-way trips with these operators. You may have to pay double, since the boat will be left with an unused day-trip space on each leg of the journey. Also factor in the possibility of cancelled boats outward or homebound. But firm up your camping first as this is even more limited than boat spaces.
Walk. The island is only four miles long, with a mile of track, so the usual four-hour landing of a day trip is enough to reach anywhere that's safe to approach.
- 1 Main Street. A row of stone "white houses" built in the 1860s, to replace the village's squalid turf-roofed "black houses". Several have been restored and are used as facilities for NTS work parties. One houses the Museum. Others lie derelict.
- Lady Grange's House. A cleit is a stone shed or bothy; there are several dotted around the island. This one, on Main Street, was the "house" of Lady Grange (Rachel Chiesley) between 1734 and 1740. She had fallen out with her husband, a high-ranking Edinburgh lawyer, and took to screaming abuse at him in the street and in church. Her accusations of Jacobite treason had enough truth in them to be dangerous, so Lord Grange had her abducted. Then aged 52, she was held captive in several places across the Highlands, then for two years on the Monach Isles and in 1734 was brought to St Kilda. She spent six years in filthy conditions marooned on this rain-lashed Alcatraz, and no-one looked for her or much missed her violent temper. (Dr Johnson was later to comment that if the land-owner "let it be known that he had such a place for naughty ladies, he might make it a very profitable island.") Eventually a smuggled letter reached her own lawyer, who organised a rescue - but Lord Grange heard of it and bundled her off elsewhere. Her last years were spent in captivity on Skye, where she died in 1745.
- The firm track leads up from the village onto the ridge. Watch for puffins, the unique St Kilda Wren and St Kilda Fieldmouse, fulmars and bonxies, and the semi-wild brown Soay sheep. In 2019 there's a resident Snowy Owl, "Snedge", feasting on the fieldmice. The path leads to the summit of 2 Mullach Mor.
- St Kilda's many cliffs and sea stacks are dangerous and better admired from the boat.
- National Trust for Scotland organise work parties in summer, typically for 2 weeks. The work typically involves repairing facilities, wildlife monitoring or archaeology. A cook and a work leader travel out with each group, and various excursions are organised. These parties are over-subscribed, and you need to contact the NTS by autumn for a chance of going out the following summer.
- Keep a constant eye on the weather. If it's turning for the worse, make your way back to the jetty, as your boat may need to sail at short notice.
Souvenirs may be available occasionally from either the ranger or the leader of work parties.
There are no eating facilities open to the public. The army base is off-limits to visitors.
There are no facilities open to the public. The Puff Inn inside the army base is nowadays off-limits.
- If you have your own boat, you're better sleeping aboard.
- National Trust for Scotland campsite, c/o Balnain House, 40 Huntly Street, Inverness IV3 5HR. The campsite can only take six, and is usually booked out to NTS groups. You may be able to use the campsite independently, but must make a reservation with NTS months in advance. The NTS work parties sleep in dorms in restored houses in the village, but these aren't available to other visitors. £20 ppn.
- If you're lucky, back to where you sailed from. If you're unlucky, you'll be stuck here contemplating a churning grey ocean, and the empty wrapper of your last toffee.
- Even more remote islands. Uninhabited North Rona is further out from the mainland than St Kilda. A very occasional cruise ship visits (eg Noble Caledonia as above) but there are no regular boat trips and you won't even find it on most maps of Britain. St Kilda may be "The Edge of the World" but North Rona feels to have slid off the edge altogether.