Tuesday, October 27, 2009

St Kilda Archipelago

Way out in the Atlantic Ocean, some 66 km to the west of the Outer Hebrides, rises the Kilda Archipelago, with the exception of Rockall, the westernmost of British islands. St Kilda belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The archipelago consists four main islands – Hirta, Soay, Boreray and Dun, which is almost an extension of Hitra, and several magnificent sea stacks. Hitra has the highest sea cliff in the British Isles, and Stac an Armin, just north of Boreray, is Britain’s highest sea stack. In 2,000, marine scientists found that they are all peaks of the same, drowned mountain. Hitra was inhabited from about 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the last 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated as conditions there had become untenable.

Hitra’s sheer cliffs just starkly from the sea on three sides, while the fourth has Village Bay, the only possible landing place and the site of main settlement. There are Victorian cottages and manycleits – turf roofed, drystone structures – that were used to store the smoked or wind-dried seabirds. Nearby are numerous archeological sites.

But it’s the birds of St Kilda that are the thing: these are the largest colonies of fulmars, gannets and puffins in Britain. Visually the islands are green but treeless, having no plants growing higher than grass level. Great clouds of birds, unbelievable numbers of them, wheel and shriek in the sky, and clownish puffins whizz up and down the cliffs.

When to go: Mid-May to mid-August. Population: There are small numbers of civilians working on the MOD base, otherwise just a few National Trust volunteers work on Hitra during the summer.How to get there: The best way is to join a National Trust for Scotland working party. Contact the NTS whichever way you want to visit.

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