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3 Jun 2021

From the edge of the world 2021 – part 1

Written by Sue Loughran, Ranger
A rugged, steep-sided island rises out of the blue sea on the hazy horizon. A small island/sea stack rises just to the left of the main island. Small water droplets can be seen on the camera lens.
After a year of being unable to visit St Kilda due to the pandemic, our ranger team have finally been able to return ... and are picking up where they left off!

Welcome back to my blog, after an absence of 18 months!

The COVID-19 pandemic played havoc with plans to return to St Kilda in 2020. The island was closed to visitors, and all three of us in the new St Kilda ranger team lost our jobs and had to find other means of supporting ourselves through the year. Craig (Seabird and Marine Ranger) worked for Buglife Scotland; Clare (Archaeologist) worked as a freelance archaeologist; and I worked as an occupational therapist with adult inpatients in Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor. We all felt hugely disappointed not to be on St Kilda, but in light of the progress of the pandemic, we had to remain pragmatic. We kept hopeful that the opportunity may still be open to us to work on the island during 2021, and we are all really thrilled to have been offered our contracts for this year!

Three people stand in a row against a railing of a deck on a small boat. A steep-sided island rises behind them, with a small stone house standing by the shore.
Craig, Sue and Clare

Suddenly, it felt that we had something hugely exciting to look forward to, made even sweeter by the fact that we have all had to limit our lives so much for the past 12 months. Personally, I felt I shouldn’t get too excited in front of colleagues, as I knew how much they too would have liked the opportunity to escape to a beautiful island.

Then came the rather tricky business of moving to the most remote inhabited island in the UK for 6 months during a pandemic. There was the usual compilation of baggage decisions (and rejection of any items which would take personal allowances over the weight limit for the helicopter), offshore medicals to pass, Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) to complete, food lists, drink lists, reading up, finishing off jobs, completing induction training online ... the list felt endless, and it was a fairly frantic but exciting few weeks.

The National Trust for Scotland ensured that we did not pose a threat of bringing Covid to the island by asking us to carry out a number of measures, including temperature testing, social isolation and lateral flow tests. On the day of travel we were additionally tested.

Finally, the great day arrived. We excitedly got to the helipad in South Uist, only to be told the disastrous news that the helicopter had a technical fault! We used the time to explore beautiful Loch Druidibeag and went for a second attempt the next day ... only to find that the helicopter was still out of action. Luckily, there is a ‘belt and braces’ approach to travel here, and we were immediately given the option of travelling by boat from Berneray. Although initially disappointed, we were quickly converted to the idea when we realised that this was probably the best way to get a real sense of the distance into the North Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides (approximately 40 miles). The thrill of seeing Boreray, Hirta and Dun slowly appearing on a blissfully sunny day was an image that none of us will ever forget. We all stayed out on deck, grinning for the whole almost-3 hour trip!

A small boat approaches a steep-cliffed island through blue sea water, with white wash splashing all around. A lady stands on deck, leaning slightly forwards.

Seatrek turned into Village Bay and I was immediately struck by the calm and quiet. When I was last here in 2019, the original MoD buildings were being demolished and a new base and generator had been built. The island had been a constant hub of activity with workers, machinery and a lot of noise. This time, it was beautifully sunny, no machinery and only a couple of QinetiQ staff to meet us on the (very slippy!) jetty. Finally, we stepped on to the island that will be our home until October.

A man stands at the edge of the railings on a small boat, and passes a rucksack down to another man who is waiting in a dinghy-type boat alongside. A lady stands on the deck of the larger boat, carrying several bags.
Arriving at Hirta

And then our work began. After several days of applying eco-friendly marine cleaner and some determined scrubbing, we made the jetty safe. The church, school and public toilets had to be made COVID-secure (with written sanitising procedures, hand sanitising stations, one-way systems, etc). First aid kits and fire extinguishers had to be checked and records made of damage caused to structures by the harsh winter weather.

On 7 May, the weather was glorious, allowing our first visitors for 18 months to arrive to a warm St Kilda welcome.

We’re looking forward to seeing many more of you during the course of the season! Please check the St Kilda webpage for further information about planning your visit.

A lady stands and talks to a small group of visitors, all of whom are very wrapped up and have their backs to the camera. The lady is pointing with her arm to her right. Behind is a white stone building, and a drystone wall.
Welcoming our first visitors
From the edge of the world

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A group of people standing on the jetty on Hirta, St Kilda >