I arrived in Harris on the first ferry from Berneray this morning and one of the first things I did when I realised I could get a phone signal was ring to enquire about trips to St Kilda. The lady I spoke to told me they’d had to cancel a trip because of the heavy winds – it wouldn’t be possible to land passengers on St Kilda so there was no point in the trip going ahead. The weather should improve over the next few days though and so she said she’ll ring me to let me know when a trip is scheduled. As my phone isn’t on very often she also suggested that I call again on Sunday to check. She seemed confident that the weather would be the only barrier to me getting to go and that there won’t be any problem with either too few passenger or too many.
I’ve been finding out quite a bit more about St Kilda over the past week. In Linacleit library and museum I picked up a copy of the National Trust for Scotland’s Site Management Plan for St Kilda 2011-2016. At nearly 200 pages long I couldn’t believe this was a ‘freebie’ and checked before taking a copy. But, yes it was. It’s made fascinating reading. As well as descriptions of the geology, flora, fauna, history and so on, it also details the issues with running the site.
For example, since the 1950s the MOD (Ministry of Defence) have leased part of the island. Their presence does a lot more than provide a rental income. They take responsibility for providing electricity, sewage and waste disposal systems, water supplies including hot water, and medical personnel, all of which are used by Trust employees and volunteers when on the island. They also provide accommodation for visiting researchers and official visitors and deal with the bringing in of supplies. Also very important, they provide a year round presence on the island and so deal with security and ‘policing’. The National Trust only have staff on the island during the summer months and before the MOD’s arrival vandalism could and would occur during the winter months by people arriving with their own boats.
If any environmental disasters happen at the times of year when no NTS staff are present they can also deal with them quickly. An example of this occurred in 2008 when a deep sea fishing vessel ran aground in a storm, and about 8 tonnes of diesel oil escaped to sea. Because of the storm NTS staff were not able to reach the island for two days. In the meantime MOD personnel had put the action plan for such an event into prompt practice and prevented what could have been serious consequences for the archipelago.
In 2009 the MOD considered automating their base on St Kilda and withdrawing all personnel. This would have had a dire effect on the preservation of the island as in this time of cutbacks the NTS would have struggled to cover the costs involved in providing all the necessary services themselves. Fortunately the MOD have continued to keep their base manned but the NTS have realised their withdrawal could happen and so are working on contingency plans in case this does ever actually happen.
I’ve also bought a couple of books on St Kilda. I’d looked at these books in several shops but at £35 each considered them way too expensive and resolved to do an Amazon search when I got home. They’re the type of books I might have difficulty finding however. Whilst in Benbecula, I called in at MacGillavray’s, a renowned shop for selling everything from sweets to furniture to jumpers and has a good collection of local books and second-hand books. I didn’t see anything I fancied in the second-hand section but I did find the two St Kilda books I’d been looking at reduced to £20 each. This is still a lot of money and so I hummed and haa-ed a bit but then decided to go for it. So I’m now the owner of two rather heavy tomes. I’m glad I’m travelling with a vehicle and not backpacking!
Leaving North Uist to go to Berneray on Wednesday I spotted a road sign pointing to a St Kilda viewpoint. Luckily there’s rarely anyone behind on these roads and so I slammed on my brakes and did a quick turn. The road wound up and up towards the MOD listening station (or whatever it is). Just before the top was a layby with a telescope and a panorama depicting what was in view. St Kilda could be clearly seen even without the use of the telescope. Much clearer than when I saw it from Heaval. As I drove back along the coast road heading north I kept the islands in view for a while.
So now I’ve seen them from a distance a couple of times, learnt lots about them, and put my name down for a trip. This wind had better die down – I’d be really upset if I got this far and then couldn’t go!