Thursday, 14 July 2011

The edge of the world

 Photo: Douglas Wilcox

Good ideas are often stolen. I must admit, the idea of kayaking to St Kilda and looking over the climbing potential did not come to me from the wild blue yonder. It was someone else's. It came to me by chance.This was a modern-day adventure. If done in good style — no support, no radios, no telling the coastguard, no enlisting the media — it could pay some kind of respect to the real adventure that day-to-day living often gave in the old days. It would certainly give the participants (or put them at?) the same risk. There would be the same uncertainty of outcome. Would we get there? Would we land? Would we climb?

The first crossing by kayak to St Kilda was completed in the early 'sixties by a couple in a Clyde wooden-hulled double canoe fitted with a sail, Hamish and Anne Gow — who started their trip near Mallaig on the mainland. As to the first climbing on St Kilda, no-one will ever know who first inhabited these islands and where they came from. From recent history we do know that rock-climbing was central to their existence. The cliff-nesting seabirds — gannets, fulmars and puffins — were :heir staple diet (they did not bother with agriculture or fishing for good reason).

On Hirta, Soay and Bororay the fowlers descended their ropes to reach the ledges. On the stacs the rock had to be climbed from the sea. Stac Biorach, in Soay Sound, had the reputation for being the hardest to climb. This was the Stac I wanted to climb the most; I was fascinated as to how hard it would be, Severe maybe? I thought, possibly harder. At one time any man who failed to climb it failed to get a wife! Stac Biorach has only been climbed once by a "stranger". R. M. Barrington climbed it in 1929 accompanied by native St Kildans. Several people have looked at and climbed on some of the more accessible St Kildan cliffs since the native evacuation of 1930 but the biggest faces have, surprisingly, been left alone. The last real interest was the Brown/Patey/Cleare recee for the 1969 spectacular. They dismissed the island in favour of the Old Man of Hoy — a safer bet for their purposes.

I stumbled across the idea of kayaking to and climbing on St Kilda in 1983 whilst in Scotland, working from Loch Eil Centre, and overhearing two of their staff talking about a possible trip: "It's a big one, never been done by kayak before ... can't really miss it ... biggest cliffs in Britain." A few months later, back in Wales after the rigours of teaching winter mountaineering skills on Ben Nevis, I wrote to the two lads to invite myself along. They were good climbers, I reasoned. They must be nice lads. They are bound to have me along. Not so!

Soon afterwards I found out about another two friends who were actually planning their own trip to St Kilda. I didn't want another refusal.
"Sue," I declared to my wife, "I'm going to St Kilda."..."Oh yes...who with?'
Andy Halliday affectionately known as 'Shagger' to half his friends-I don't why he said he'd come with me and by the time we were going two others had joined our team — Clive, a friend of Andy's and Nigel Foster. We discussed climbing objectives. I put in a double 9mm 50 metre rope, climbing shoes and Friends and Rocks. We considered faces of Conachair and Soay,both about 1000ft high. Too big for a small team of two, we decided, and so concentrated our attention on the smaller possibilities. Andy and I talked of Stac Biorach. Would we be lucky enough to get there in the first place? Would it be calm enough to swim from the kayak on to it? We would obviously have to solo it, up and down. It was great to dream up these simple optimistic plans. Stac Lee, the Blue Stac (564ft) looked feasible from the photographs.

A system of linked ledges goes all the way up the north face. Mo Anthoine had told us that the first moves to reach these were VS! Would it be calm enough to land? Stac an Armin — the Warrior's Stac (644ft) is the tallest in Britain. It would be a doddle if we could land on it.
Clive met us on Skye and Nigel caught us up on the west end of the South Ford Benbecula after we had made a start across the Minch. (Nigel, as soon as he heard of the trip had not been able to bear the thought of being left out. It was after all, only the last but one kayak adventure left in Britain.) The plan was to get to the Monachs and hope for flat calm to do the 30-mile, 10-hour hop to St Kilda.
We go to the Monachs, the weather was overcast, high pressure but with annoying troughs of low pressure giving turbulence here and there. One forecast gave force 4 westerly in our area. My personal cut-off point as a sea-canoeist was force 3 (i.e. flat calm) —the reasoning being, if after 10 hours paddling I had to return without landing for any reason (e.g. getting lost in mist) —by 20 hours force 4 in any direction would be hard to handle.

The next forecast was the same.
The next forecast was worse.

Nigel threatened to go solo. His bluff almost worked. But, after two murky but lovely days on the sand-dune-covered gneiss of the Monachs, wandering about the evacuated scatter of ruins, visiting a disused lighthouse and old school, finding graves of German war pilots, tiptoeing between fulmar, oyster catcher and eider duck eggs, we returned all the way to Wales.
A month later Nigel and myself were on Hasteir, 10 miles outside the Sound of Harris. We could see St Kilda clearly, there was a ridge of high pressure from Shannon to Iceland. I knew we were there. All we had to do was 10 hours hard work. I slept that night with the excitement I first remembered having before the Sunday school trips of old. By late afternoon the next day we were craning our necks, looking up at the amazing cliffs of Bororay. Tens of thousands of gannets were silently out to greet us. We kept our mouths shut as we gazed with climbing thoughts at the vertical cliffs and flying buttresses of Bororay, the impressive west face of Stac an Armin, and the sword-like profile of Stac Lee.

Ian McMullan inspects the cliffs of Connachair: Alun Hughes

There was a fifteen-foot swell even though the sea was calm. This eliminated any possibility of landing from a kayak— it had been stupid ever to consider it. The base of all Bororay and the Stacs seemed vertical. We were in no condition to look for the best spot.

The water was oily calm. I was almost nodding off, being very tired. We were in a place that did not belong to Britain. The scale was so much bigger. It was almost eerie, with only the sound of soft wing beats of thousands of gannets and the pitter-splatter on the decks. I was annoyed for being so sleepy-tired, a result of the twenty-daylight-hour days at these latitudes. I was aware that I was also very tired physically and I was trying to think objectively and also enjoy the situation. We had four miles to reach Hirta, the main island and only landing place. As we rounded into Village Bay, I started relaxing mentally and realised I had a pain in my left wrist. I recognised the pain — tinosynovitis! Climbing, indeed canoeing back, were out!

We landed. There were soldiers about. There was also a skin-diving group in a chartered boat. We were told where to camp. There was a generator going. Later that night we met the Commanding Officer, who seemed suspicious of our presence. We went for short forays and considered the intrusion the army makes on this small island.

The MacLeods of Dunvegan (Skye) owned St Kilda up to 1930 and the evacuation. It was sold to the Marquis of Bute in 1932, who was keen to preserve the island as a bird sanctuary and bequeathed it on his death to the National Trust for Scotland who in turn leased it to the Nature Conservancy Council. In 1957 a small area of Hirta was allowed to be used by the Ministry of Defence as a missile tracking station, linked to the firing ranges on Benbecula on the Outer Hebrides. £500,000 was spent on the pier and erecting new buildings in Village Bay. Today, more money is being spent on more major construction work by the army. It's sad but true that the last great wilderness areas on earth are full of either soldiers or scientists- or both- the very people who fail to understand the need that some people have for simple adventure.

We moulded our previous visions of Village Bay to fit reality — it was the usual disappointing exercise. Main Street is still much the same though, and the Nature Conservancy Council has done a very good job of renovating some of the houses. We spoke to soldiers at the Puffin Bar that night but there was no welcome. Outside the bar stood "the rules". Rule One said, "Treat all unauthorised landings with suspicion". It seemed they were stuck on rule one.

Pete Whillance on the first ascent of Rueval-E3-6a: Alun Hughes

The next day was ours to wander at will over the island, except, of course, not to go too near the listening station on top of Mullach Mor. We were told there was a ride out for us on the following day, for free. Mid-morning next day we were chugging towards Lochmaddy and North Uist on a chartered converted fishing boat. Our independent, self-contained adventure had been compromised. It was a small price to pay, we thought.

The next visit was with the advance party of the only climbing group that has had permission to climb on St Kilda. I was with Pete Whillance again, (this time this was his bright idea) and Ian McMullen. They were both spending three weeks on the island doing a little more groundwork before the main group arrived in September. They were also doing a study of the island for their college degree course. We arrived on the Charna, sick. It takes 24 hours to get there from Oban in this 50ft charter cruiser. We were with a group of nine other individuals who had answered holiday adverts in the Guardian. They were mostly professional individuals of assorted backgrounds, wanting a quiet holiday on this remotest island. All had great interest in St Kilda and its environment and it was a first visit for all of them.

It was early August 1987, the weather was bad as usual, but in the first week we did manage to look at all the climbing possibilities of Hirta, Soay and Soay Stacs. This was as far as the climbing permit allowed. We had an inflatable at our disposal. Ian and Pete also inspected the massive Conachair on ropes from above, a mouth-drying experience. Their study, that of an upland area under pressure, was well chosen. Human pressure is the overriding influence on anyone visiting the island. The visitors' initial reactions reminded me of my own back in 1984; they were all shocked by the army's expansive presence, put out by the warden's curt read-out of the by-laws, and they also had the intimidation of the contractors to contend with in the Puff-Inn.

As one member of the group put it, "I'm not a conservationist, I'm not a hippy, I don't smoke dope, I don't eat seaweed. But what I've seen today is criminal, I'm angry! Just what is going on? I came here for peace and quiet and right now I'm angry. Just down the road there is a power station, up there on the hill there are two sets of traffic lights and a zebra crossing, on top of the hill there are two massive building developments! No-one told me about all this before I came. How the hell did you get permission to climb? Who allowed these scientists to put large coloured earrings on these wild sheep? And did you know that the old manse is now the Sergeants' Mess? What's been allowed here is just crazy."

We humans have the useful ability to switch off what we don't want to see. On a small island this is very difficult and is also bad manners. What you end up with is hypocrisy and bad feeling. There is bad feeling on St Kilda — different factions with different priorities and no sympathy whatsoever. When we were there, (summer '87) there are over forty contractors on the island. ARC were constructing new buildings and installations for the army, hence the traffic lights on the single track road and the joke zebra crossing, bus stops and post box.

On August 10th, 1987 there was a small ceremony in the church on St Kilda. There were some army chiefs present, a dignitary from UNESCO, top NTS and NCC people, representatives from the Countryside
Commission and other assorted visitors and press people. St Kilda became a World Heritage Site during that ceremony. We were reminded of the extremely strict criteria needed for this to happen by the man from UNESCO.

Photo: Douglas Wilcox
One and a half hours after they flew in, they flew out again, "to make their connections". It was a terrible service, every speaker patted as many backs as possible and expressed great satisfaction with the present co-operation and general well being of the island. I'm not religious by any stretch, but to see military uniforms in this little church choked me. Religious and military people, our "sheltered societies", telling me that everything was just fine, when it was patently obvious to everyone present that it was not.

All these factors plus the bad weather blunted my enthusiasm on this visit. It was a treat for me to take part as a third man on a modern rock climb on St Kilda, an E3 on Rueval, led alternately by Pete and Ian. I wanted to touch the human history of the island, get involved with what the old inhabitants did, but the weather did not allow this. I left after ten days.

The National Trust for Scotland don't know what to do with St Kilda. The NCC have a difficult job. What St Kilda really needs is to be left alone, but that is obviously not going to happen. I'm sure the army will soon say that they "need" a new base. I'm sure that the sheep will "need" more study, the birds "need" to be watched more closely, the archaeology will "need" to be excavated. Some of us will agree with some of these needs.

For those of us that don't need scientific or other excuses to have some fun, this is the best diving in Britain (visibility underwater can be over 100ft) and the rock-climbing has only just resumed, this time totally for recreation. In the past the NCC has relied on the inaccessibility of St Kilda and the lack of publicity about the island to help its bewildering mis-management. The future will need a strategy to ensure that the environment is not damaged any more, and that if possible interested parties can have their fun on St Kilda, without injury to the wildlife and its habitat.

History has shown that human interest in the island has peaked and faded. At the moment it is increasing fast. The island "needs" improved management to cope with this pressure, so that by the time it is all worked out, the birds will still be doing fine ...

Connachair: Douglas Wilcox

Postscript In September Pete Whillace and Ian McMullen climbed the 800ft cliff of Conachair naming their route "The Edge of the World". Television cameras and a commentary by Chris Bonington accompanied the achievement.

Alun Hughes...first published in Climber-Jan-1988

Thanks to Alun for permission to republish his article and to Douglas Wilcox for use of his St Kilda photographs.