In June this year, Dave MacLeod and Natalie Berry sailed to St Kilda with the aim of establishing some new routes on the remote islands, alongside skipper Bob Shepton (UKC interview) of Wild Bunch fame. As the group discovered, this was a case of quality climbing being overshadowed by the intrigue of the destination itself...
'In fact there is no part of the world, as far as I am aware, where the practical advantage of being a skilled cragsman was so well recognised. The chief topics of conversation in this out-of-the-way island are climbing and birds. […] I fear that even the St. Kildans themselves will soon cease to ascend the rock, as they no longer subsist to the same extent on sea-birds and there is not the same necessity for dangerous rock-climbing.' - R. M. Barrington describing his experience of making the first recorded climb on St Kilda (Stac Biorach) in 1883, published in Volume 27 of the Alpine Journal, 1913.
St Kilda is situated on the fringes of the British Isles, and at the margins of many an imagination. A volcanic archipelago rising sharply out of the North Atlantic 41 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, the islands of Hirta, Dùn, Boreray, Soay and their surrounding seastacks standing guard are often described as being 'at the edge of the world.' The remotest part of the British Islands, St Kilda is believed to have been inhabited as early as the Bronze Age, with settlers arriving on the island 4-5,000 years ago. In more recent times, a hardy group of around 180 St Kildans rented the land in Village Bay in the late 1600s, paying their rent in kind to a distant landlord - the MacLeods of Dunvegan on Skye - and receiving imported goods in exchange for their labour and produce. Bird fowling, agriculture and fishing provided the islanders with food and clothing. Cragsmen risked life and limb to snatch eggs and birds from nests by hand and fishing rod on the cliffsides, scrambling barefoot or in socks with plaited horsehair ropes tied around their waist. For the St Kildans, climbing was not a pursuit of leisure - it was crucial to their existence.
It is perhaps ironic although not altogether unsurprising that the gradual demise and subsequent evacuation of the St Kildans in 1930 came about through increased interest from tourists and contact with the civilised mainland. Self-sufficiency dwindled, and the harsh living conditions of the blackhouses, unpredictable North Atlantic climate and lack of able-bodied men lead to a decrease in morale, as the inhabitants looked to retreat from the increasingly inhospitable island. In 1957, St Kilda was bequeathed to The National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute and was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986 in recognition of its natural heritage. In 2006, the cultural landscape of St Kilda was also inscribed, making St Kilda one of only 35 places in the world listed as a dual World Heritage Site.
With a vast array of seabirds and unique wildlife, St Kilda is an ornithologist's dream and a nature-enthusiast's paradise. Today, it is a seasonal home to a small number of military and conservationist personnel and remains a flourishing habitat for its most famous residents: the seabirds. Due to a small weather window of opportunity to access the islands, there is a touch of unattainability about St Kilda as a destination, which serves to protect its sensitive environment and adds to its mystique.
For the modern climber, the island's giant cliffs remain an attractive proposition, albeit for recreational purposes – a far cry from their complex history as a necessary means of survival. In 1987, the National Trust for Scotland gave permission for a visit by a party of ten climbers led by Pete Whillance. Alongside the late Ian McMullan, Pete established a route on Conachair – Britain's highest sea cliff - aptly named 'Edge of the World'.
For us, the St Kilda experience was as much about the journey to and from the island as it was about the climbing and landscape: a 369 mile round voyage sailing on Bob Shepton's famous Dodo's Delight, a 33ft Westerly Discus sailboat that has many a tale to tell. Greenland, Arctic Canada, the North West Passage – its size is no indication of this boat's gutsiness, nor that of its 82 year-old skipper, Captain Bob. An ordained vicar and ex Royal Marine, Bob is renowned in sailing and climbing circles for adventurous passages, first ascents of remote peaks and for his jovial nature. It all began near Oban, where Bob eased us into the daunting task ahead: becoming fully-fledged sailors. A thorough and clear description of all the boat's components and their functions was duly provided by Bob, as well as the necessary safety procedures, including the dreaded 'man overboard' scenario. 'It has never happened on this boat yet!' he smiled. Boom bang, preventers, reefs, halliards, main sails, jammers, jibbing, luffing – these words entered our consciousness as we made mental notes of this new and intriguing vocabulary, spurred on by Bob's unyielding optimistic outlook: 'We'll make a sailor of you yet!' In at the deep end, perhaps, metaphorically speaking - but we hoped not to make this a reality.
Over the following five days, commands became more comprehensible and the routine of setting sail and anchoring the boat more manageable. Seemingly incongruous and complex tasks came together and eventually our system ran a little smoother, despite not always understanding the more technical elements of wind direction and sail area. Some aspects of sailing were more relatable for us as climbers than others: rope management, knots, upper body strength for winching and of course, waiting for an elusive weather window. Rotations of two-hour watch duties kept us busy, and more often than not, cold and damp. Being at the helm was an exhilarating affair for me, as I learned to steer the boat and use the wind direction to our advantage. 'Don't steer too suddenly, give it time to react, like driving a car. I know you're enjoying the challenge, but don't make it any more exciting than it needs to be!' Bob laughed. I later noticed an entry into the Captain's log, roughly coinciding with my watch, all-too-politely summed up as 'Lively sailing.'
Bob's watchful eye saw us make steady progress from Oban to Mull, Mull to Canna, Canna to Lochmaddy on North Uist, and from Lochmaddy to Leverburgh. A highlight was sailing past Neist Point on Skye on approaching the Minch, with a pod of porpoise arcing along beside the boat, rejoicing in the surf of our wake. Seals welcomed us to our moorings; some basking apathetically on the rocks, others surfacing and surveying us in a periscopic fashion. We saw our first puffins bobbing somewhere past Skye, with their striking clown-like painted faces. Anti-emetics at hand, none of our crew became seasick – proving that our sea legs had at least partway evolved – but an accidental inflation of my lifejacket as I reached up to tie down the main sail provided entertainment. Much to Bob's amusement, we instigated a mutiny upon approaching Lochmaddy, and demanded that we moor at the marina, which availed us of the luxuries of a paid two-minute shower and pub – a soft option for a hardened, traditionalist sailor of Bob's ilk. He reluctantly acquiesced to our request, and a telling log entry ensued, complete with exclamation mark to emphasise the novelty: 'Moored at Lochmaddy marina!'
'That's not the Dodo's Delight, is it?' came an incredulous voice the following morning. 'That boat's been places!' Coincidentally, the cheery sailor had been reading Bob's book Addicted to Adventure, and was keen to have Bob sign his copy and chat all things sailing. Humble as ever, Bob remarked, tongue firmly in cheek: 'Never write a book, folks!'
The shipping forecast, whilst an indecipherable and fantastical concept for many a landlubber, had become an intrinsic part of our routine. Hebrides. Rockall. Bailey. Malin. These shipping areas entered our radar and the grammar of the forecast slowly became more intuitive. 'This is Stornoway Coastguard. Area forecasts for the next 24 hours. Hebrides. South or South-East, becoming South-West later. 6 or 7, occasionally 8. Moderate or Poor, Rough, occasionally Very Rough.' The crackle of the radio and the monotonous delivery every six hours gave a comforting sense of familiarity. Bob listened with attentive ears and scrawled a series of numbers and symbols in incomprehensible shorthand to note down the forecast in his log.
A difficult decision awaited us in Leverburgh. The forecast appeared optimistic for the evening, but less than ideal for the following day. After four days of hard graft, salt-encrusted skin and minimal sleep, arriving on St Kilda was very much on our minds. Reluctant to put us through a night passage initiation across the North Atlantic, Bob opted to brave the Gale 7-8 the following morning. A rude awakening at 6am gave us a taste of what was to follow – a bumpy sea, and we hadn't yet left the shelter of the bay! In the cramped forepeak of the boat, each wave and the boat's movement was greatly exaggerated. I sighed and tried to return to sleep, regretting my choice of bunk. Four hours later, yet another abrupt wrench from sleep occurred: 'Chris, Nat – on watch in ten minutes!' Encased in waterproof material from top to bottom, we prepared to be tossed across the deck. Judging by the rocking and crashing of the forepeak, the waves loomed high in our minds; images of every disaster-at-sea film flickered before our eyes. However, on resurfacing onto the deck, we were relieved to find the waves to be considerably less daunting in reality, although certainly not to be dismissed.
We bobbed along at the measly speed of 2-3 knots, occasionally slowing to a frustrating lull in the aftermath of a wave. Visibility had reached 'pea soup' level, and we contemplated the isolation that Bob must have experienced in the middle of the Atlantic, with no land in sight for miles. Bob's steadfast attitude at once reassured and unnerved us: 'This is not too bad. A good 7, though', he remarked. 'What's the worst you've been out in?' we asked. 'Oh, Force 10', he smiled. Moving around the boat was a dangerous activity in these conditions, and a concussion or limb injury could be a serious possibility. When not tethered to the deck or on watch, we remained firmly in our bunks – lee boards erect. Bob, on the other hand, darted across the top deck; as nimble as a man half his age. His 82 years did not show, even when engulfed by a powerful wave, which pushed his hat over his eyes and filled his mouth with saltwater. Shaken, but not stirred, Bob tiptoed to the cockpit and laughed, soaking wet. Once we saw him safely back inside, we could finally relax and breathe again.
Battered, bruised and groggy with half-sleep, I was informed that St Kilda was finally 'in sight'. We decided to avoid Village Bay and instead opted to moor on the north side of Hirta – the main island – to avoid the harsh winds and be able to settle there in calmer waters for the night. From the skylight window I could see birds swirling above, posing as a sort of animate signpost for St Kilda. Through the steamed-up side windows of the cabin we could make out the vague outlines of the surrounding islands. Relieved to have made it, I climbed up on deck to a stunning sight: dark jagged cliffs piercing through the sea, shrouded in mist; giant arches with waves climbing and crashing against the rocks below; lush green hills capping the cliffs, dotted with gutsy Soay sheep balancing on the fringes and nonchalantly chomping on grass. Peels of bird calls, and thousands of birds. A wild sense of the prehistoric washed over us. I remembered a striking front cover of a book about St Kilda that I had browsed before leaving: a satellite image of the islands, cleverly framed in the top left hand corner of the cover, surrounded by an expanse of the North Atlantic and nothing else. The isolation was now tangible.
'Can you feel the ghosts?', a perceptive visitor's book comment asked in the museum, reflecting on a curious presence felt through absence.
Gleann Bay welcomed us with more seals, who seemed perplexed at our arrival. They circled and dipped and dived around the boat, playfully butting our mooring buoy as though to defend their territory. Vulnerable seal pups with a tufty coat of white juvenile fur looked on anxiously as their parents assessed the situation. Our first task was mooring the boat; easier said than done with a strong tide that could potentially pull us back out into the ocean, and a rocky seabed - not ideal for our anchor. Dave and I were nominated to make a trip ashore in a dinghy to make a roped 'belay' for the boat around a pinnacle. Paddle in hand, we made for a rocky bay and stepped ashore, near to the young seals. I held on to the dinghy and paddles. Just as we were ready to depart, a flustered older seal appeared suddenly out of nowhere and began careering towards me down the rocks, casting me a furtive glance as it slid past on its belly. In a split second, it seemed to be aiming either straight for me or the dinghy. Both amused and unnerved at the prospect of a seal either impacting me or landing in our dinghy, I pulled it abruptly to the side just as the seal hit the water, flipped upside down and swam away, before rising up later and looking back at me wearing a sheepish expression on its face. Relieved not to have caught a seal, but nonetheless entertained by this comedic episode, we made for the boat.
Sudden North Atlantic gusts rocked us through the night, rising in pitch from an eery silence to a screeching whistle as it worked its way towards us and eventually hit. Falling asleep to the chorus of clangs of the mast and halliard ropes, we anticipated an arrival in Village Bay the following day. In the morning, the mist and rain had lifted and patches of blue sky raised hope for a potential mooring. As we toured round to the south, the views became more and more breathtaking. Guano-covered sea stacs with birds circling; the sheer scale of Conachair and Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray eventually coming into view. On approaching Village Bay, the beauty that we had come to expect from the numerous images online was confirmed: a perfect semi-circular bay with a small white beach, clear blue waters and a rising amphitheatre from the centre of the bay, flanked by the island of Dùn's dark cliffs on the side. The emerald green hillside was pock-marked with hundreds of grey warts, which later revealed themselves as the famous cleits or small stone storehouses used by the St Kildans to house collected bird fowl, wool and eggs. Impressive stone walls divided the landscape and ran like rocky arteries up the length of the hillside and in seemingly improbable places. How did people physically build these structures, all those years ago? The primitive Soay sheep – believed to have been brought to the island of Soay by Vikings – roamed wild and free.
Using the services of a Zodiac RIB kindly offered and leaving Bob behind on the boat, we transported our kit and were welcomed by the island's ranger. We set up camp at the 'campsite' - a walled-off field with a much-desired toilet and shower block – and met our new neighbours: the sheep. With a less-than-promising forecast on the table, we decided to make the most of the current sunny spell and made for Ruabhal – the 'red cliff'. Sea legs fully engaged at this point, walking on land – and in enclosed spaces in particular – was proving a somewhat dizzying affair. The sea that had become an unlikely, more familiar friend on our journey across took on a new guise as we walked along a narrow path on a grassy slope. The precipitous drop down to the sea and rocks below made me feel vertiginous and unsteady on my new sea legs. Vestibular system confused and landlubber legs not yet re-engaged, I decided against climbing for the evening, whilst Dave inspected some new lines. Meanwhile, I attempted some scrambling in an effort to recalibrate my balance and coordination and absorbed the surroundings, happy to smell the earth and rock after a week of reeky boat fuel and the briny sea breeze. Looking out at the distant horizon, it was a sobering thought that the next landfall if the same latitude were maintained by sailboat would be somewhere on Canada's Arctic coast.
I climbed atop the famous Mistress Stone – a precariously balanced slab of rock forming a natural archway near Ruabhal, which was the site of a legendary challenge for young male St Kildan suitors: to balance on their left leg on the edge of the stone and squat down, proving their agility as cragsmen and hence their ability to provide for a wife and family. I started ticking-off the sea birds that these islands are so famous for: gannets, bonxies (Great Skua), meadow pipits, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and of course, the inimitable and hyperemetic fulmars, some of which surfed on the thermal gusts, seemingly out of pleasure. Nesting birds adorned the grassy hillsides like Christmas tree lights, dotted in distinct patterns across the islands. Fatigued but content, we headed back for food and sleep.
The disruptive cacophony of boat sounds and the sloshing of water was replaced by the bleating of sheep on the campsite and the singing of a variety of birds. A family of nesting fulmars bickered incessantly in the field above. Their vocal range and expression amused us, and was preferable to the mechanical and unsettling sounds of the boat. We were glad to finally have stable ground to sleep on, despite the unshakeable sensation of the tent 'swaying'. The following three days were disappointing weather-wise and forced tent-rest was an unfortunate reality. However, we explored the small museum, located in a renovated blackhouse – Number 3 Main Street – and the nooks and crannies of the remaining buildings. Sheep sheltered from the harsh weather behind the walls and made use of the cleits in a perfect example of an ancient man-made structure being cleverly repurposed by animals. The more adventurous could be found on top of them, taking advantage of the longer grass growing on the peat roof via some skilled climbing.
With no connection to the outside world, books were devoured and our sense of time lost. The days drew long and darkness refused to fall until after midnight. Another of our neighbours were the St Kilda field mice – the only surviving genus on the island since the house mice died off following the evacuation. Bold and brash, they appeared after dinner and were unfazed by our advances. A pleasant surprise was witnessing the island's visiting whooper swan – which arrived last November and appears to have no plans to leave – herding a flustered group of Soay sheep as he chased them uphill, honking with delight.
After three anxious days of waiting, the much-anticipated weather window arrived. Now more acclimatised to walking on land, the approach to Ruabhal felt less daunting. An airy abseil brought us to the bottom of Dave's project, which he had been itching to climb since the first day. A three-pitch route consisting of perfect black gabbro, roughly split into E2, E7 and E4 pitches. The wind whipped around the crag and the waves taunted us at the base. A seal popped up as we tied in and prepared to climb whilst a pair of bonxies balanced on a small piece of wood floating in the water, as though attempting to surf the swell. The prospect of climbing felt both exciting and alien; we hadn't climbed in over two weeks – save for the obligatory mast climb – and wondered how the exertion and lack of sleep during the sail would affect us physically.
As I seconded the first pitch I was quickly pulled out of my fatigue. The moves flowed and followed up a system of horizontal breaks on clean, sticky gabbro. I quickly found myself at the belay in an invigorated state, holding the ropes for Dave as he negotiated the rising traverse along the break of the crux pitch. The boulder problem crux posed little problem for Dave as he mantled over the lip of the roof and disappeared above, shouting 'Safe!' Seconding the exposed traverse was exciting, and lead to a fantastic position on the peak of a prow below the roof. Mantling is not my forté, but a tactical yet impractical heel hook allowed me some respite as I prepared to toe down and lock off for 'the fingerlock', of which Dave had spoken so much. After a failed attempt, I reached up and managed to place half of the pad of my index finger in a shallow dip in the hold, and by what can only be described as 'udging' my way a bit further, my fingers creeped up and gained better purchase of the hold. Half of my body was over the lip, the other half under. An awkward pull-push with my palm followed, and I was established just below the belay. A seal-inspired belly flop over the top onto a ledge, and I was safe. The top E4 pitch was another quality section with some steep pulls on flakes and a stunning blank, delicate slab to finish. Our first new route on St Kilda, and a special one at that. Dave scoped out another potential line, returning to the campsite at midnight, long after we had walked back.
The weather seemed unsure of itself the following day, but as our luck would have it, we were granted a warmer, drier day as time progressed. At the top of the cliff, a pair of guillemots – one with distinctive white eye make-up – watched as we set up to descend. A metropolitan mixture of birds on one small block at the top caught our attention: puffins, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots, gulls and gannets appeared to mingle harmoniously. A particularly sociable razorbill came within just a few metres of us at the abseil stance. This second route had been estimated by Dave at about E8, sharing part of the first pitch of the previous route, but trending leftwards and incorporating a tricky, bouldery E8 pitch and an E5 to finish. The first pitch was familiar, but its quality extended as we headed further left to a comfortable belay ledge. Just as I set off, the Dodo sailed around the corner briefly and we waved to Bob, before he retreated from the fierce swell. Dave once again made light work of the powerful, crimpy crux; similar in style to that of the E7, but much harder. I followed with significantly more effort and slumped to the ground at the top, exhausted but satisfied.
With a promising outlook for the following day, the decision was made to forego any more climbing and sail back. By now hardy sailors, we even considered undertaking night watches. We crossed the North Atlantic with minimal wind and resorted to using the engine; a stark contrast from our exciting outbound journey. The Minch went smoothly too, and before long we were in inshore waters. At 2:30am we moored at Canna to wait out the less-than-ideal wind direction and departed again at lunchtime the following day. Another long day complete with night watches saw me sailing the boat through mirror-smooth waters along the Sound of Mull back towards Oban. We moored in Lettershuna at 2:30am and slept until more sociable hours arrived. As partly-fledged sailors, we had enjoyed the sailing experience, but were equally happy to be home and on terra firma.
The considerable effort expended in simply getting there may have rewarded us with a mere two days of climbing, but never has a climbing location encompassed as many diverse aspects as did St Kilda; adventure distilled into a veritable voyage. So rarely has the journey matched the destination in import, and so rarely has the destination rendered its own superb climbing an unexpected superfluity. The island's uninhabited status poignantly harks back to its rich heritage and history; to the resilient former inhabitants who truly lived 'at the edge of the world.' Their faces peered at us through the black and white images in the museum, their eyes dark due to the old-fashioned photography and – quite possibly – the mental and physical drain of living in such a harsh environment. 'Can you feel the ghosts?', a perceptive visitor's book comment asked in the museum, reflecting on a curious presence felt through absence. One thing is certain, St Kilda bears the unique status of being at once part of Britain, but also a world apart. I won't forget it in a hurry.
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