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14 Oct 2021

From the edge of the world 2021 – part 5

Written by Clare Henderson, Archaeologist
A view from a grassy hillside, looking down over a horseshoe-shaped bay that glistens blue in the sunlight. A few buildings can be seen close to the shoreline.
Village Bay, St Kilda
The 2021 season on the island is drawing to a close. Trust archaeologist Clare shares some of her highlights from this year, as well as some of the jobs needed to prepare the island for winter.

The days shorten, nights lengthen and the air has a freshening edge to it that hints at colder days ahead. Like the seabird colonies who have made the place so vibrant all summer, soon we too will depart for our winter homes.

I am sitting at my desk in the Manse, looking out across Village Bay as the rising wind drives the Atlantic in with a big rolling swell. I must have seen every type of weather from this desk, even a brief snow flurry back in April. I know I would never tire of looking out at this ever-changing view.

The street is quieter these days. Visitors are less frequent as the day trips are cancelled due to changeable weather – the swing from calm to wild seems to have become more dramatic. Eventually, the day boats leave for the last time, with horns sounding and circles in the bay. It is another marker that summer is at an end, and we miss their colourful presence each day. The long-range forecasts grow ever less reliable. It seems St Kilda is gearing up for the winter tempests, and we must do what we can to ensure the island is ready to face what the closed season may bring.

Three small motor boats bob on a bay of choppy water. Steep grass cliffs surround the bay and run straight into the water. The sky looks heavy.
The final day with our three regular day trip boats: Hirta, Enchanted Isle and Finn Mara

Winter preparation includes deep cleaning all the buildings that the National Trust for Scotland uses. Floors are scrubbed, brass is polished and wood is waxed. Benches and boot cleaners are lifted indoors. Anything the St Kilda mice can eat we attempt to store in rodent-proof boxes (the mice are an adversary more challenging even than the weather, and a battle we lose as often as we win). Grease is applied to hinges, bolts and locks, which the salt air will corrode in a matter of months. Wooden shutters are put in place to protect windows from flying debris.

Earlier in the summer, roofs were re-painted with bitumen paint and the wires that help secure them against the wind were replaced as necessary. During one bad storm, the wind did manage to lift an entire roof from one of the cottages. This would be a disaster during summer when staff are resident and getting large supplies, like timber, to the island is time-consuming but not impossible. In winter it would be a much more serious and daunting problem.

“When all is put to bed, the buildings look more formidable, but more prepared. We look forward to doing all of this in reverse, come spring.”
Clare Henderson
Archaeologist, St Kilda
A smiling young woman with short wavy hair held back by a headband, stands on a grassy hillside, holding a red and white depth-marking post.

The end of this summer brings a more permanent sense of calm at the QinetiQ base, as the four-year re-build project concludes its final month. The new facility emerges from the chrysalis of the development site that has surrounded it all summer; Heras fencing comes down, temporary accommodation is removed. The essential – but often unsightly – trappings of construction diminish by the day and the results are an impressive return for the years of labour that have gone into the new base. The re-profiled land looks fantastic. The grass has yet to grow over the old base and blend it seamlessly into its surroundings – but the bone structure is there.

A cluster of new single-storey buildings stand at the foot of a hill, almost completely blending into the landscape. In the foreground is an older stone white cottage with a drystone wall at the front. A tarmac track passes in front of it towards the new buildings.
The re-profiled land where the old base used to stand between the Manse and the new base

Last month saw a huge milestone – the whole island switched to the new water supply system, rendering the large tanks that had stood above the Village for half a century finally redundant. Visually, demolishing them would bring about a significant and positive change, removing from the hillslope above the Village a rather dominant modern intrusion.

The logistics of their removal were complex and difficult – around 10 tonnes of bulky material had to be moved down a steep slope covered in archaeological features. Months in the planning, the end eventually came quite quickly. A team from MacInnes Brothers worked tirelessly to construct a chute system that saw the tanks gone in two days, all without a single scuff left in the precious turf. A job well done, and another small piece of the island restored to its pre-20th-century appearance.

We have taken for granted having the time and freedom to explore the island, usually in the course of our work. We make repeat visits to different places, and each time they look slightly different as the light and weather change. Now, as we approach the end of the season, each visit becomes ‘… probably the last time for this year’. I walk up Oiseval on an unseasonably sunny October day to look at 16 of the several hundred cleits that dot the slopes. These 16 are part of a group of 311 across Hirta that form the ‘Cleit Conservation Programme’. They have been selected against a set of criteria for annual monitoring and repair as necessary when collapses occur. I am nearing the end of this work as I set out to look at the Oiseval group of cleits.

A smiling young woman with short wavy hair held back by a headband, stands on a grassy hillside, holding a red and white depth-marking post.
Me, surveying cleits on Oiseval

Few people speak fondly of Oiseval, as it presents to the Village what is easily its less lovable side. A rounded lump, the western slopes shimmer with natural springs that make for exceptionally waterlogged ground. A walk up this way will make your legs burn from the relentless gradient, while your feet slither about trying to find purchase on the boggy soils. Oiseval transforms though, as the gradient eases onto the summit. The Atlantic opens out across the distant horizon, where the Western Isles are often visible on a clear day. In the opposite direction, the Village curves round the bay far below, with the bowl of An Lag hanging above. The skyline to the east is a roll call of Hirta’s high points: Conachair and its towering sea cliffs; Mullach Mòr and Mullach Sgar; Mullach Bi rising like a rock fin on the horizon; then Ruaival and the craggy line of Dùn, which from this angle appears to fully enclose the bay.

A view from a grassy hillside, looking down over a horseshoe-shaped bay that glistens blue in the sunlight. A few buildings can be seen close to the shoreline.
The view west from Oiseval

From up here I watch as the supply vessel, the Maursund, leaves the slipway and makes for the open ocean beyond the bay. It is her final landing this season, having been back and forth as regularly as twice a week over the summer. She takes with her the final skips, accommodation cabins and plant from the work at the base. Another ‘last one for this year’ done. The beach has also begun to vanish, leaving the barren rocky shore behind. It seemed to take forever to arrive in May, eventually becoming a broad crescent of pristine golden sand at low tide. Now, as the storms blow in and out, the sea reclaims it a metre or so at a time, and the island’s edges become harder, more brutal.

I walk across the top of Oiseval, which is now a gentle, grassy plateau. The eastern slopes are as creased and folded as the western ones are smooth. Each small gully is green with grass and separated by the grey lines of outcropping rock. As I walk, I think: ‘this will be my last trip up Oiseval this season’. From here, I have watched the sunrise twice, sleeping once on the summit. Today the horizon is streaked with rain showers out at sea. Rainbows chase them along, seeming to hang in the air before melting slowly back into the blues of the sea and sky. It’s a fitting day to say farewell to a lovely little hill, one that rewards the patient traveller on its slopes.

A rainbow arches from a white fluffy cloud into the blue sea, seen between the gap in two large grassy domed hills.

By early October the visitors, boatmen and contractors have all left. The occasional lone seabird drifts idly above the bay, but they too have all but gone. In late September, our ranger Sue leaves as well. We wave her off until the boat is out of sight; it feels like she takes the soul of the season with her – perhaps even part of the island’s heart. The Manse is quieter, one of our desks cleared and empty. We all hope to return next year but it is an inescapable reality, now that the long days of summer really are over, that we too must soon say farewell.

But the island is never abandoned – St Kilda is not a place of the past. At the QinetiQ base, staff will be here on four-week rotational shifts, as always. They will spend Christmas and New Year here, once again bearing human witness to the full ebb and flow of 12 months on Hirta. Each summer, the community forms anew, and it is a privilege to be part of it, but they are the thread, the constant presence.

The other witnesses to this annual cycle of activity and calm stand mutely on the hills all around. As the island archaeologist, it was these silent grey stones that drew me here ... and what stories we learn from them of human life on these islands. I have spent 6 months walking amongst them; observing, recording, photographing, logging and repairing. I now know many of them by their numbers, but I confess I have also given one or two names. They are equal characters in this story – main actors rather than supporting cast. And they are also the St Kilda I know, my community, the physical legacy left to us by those most intrepid and tenacious of people.

“We conjure the ghostly presence of their builders by curating their homes and pastures, boundaries, enclosures and stores. I hope I have done enough.”
Clare Henderson
Archaeologist, St Kilda
A smiling young woman with short wavy hair held back by a headband, stands on a grassy hillside, holding a red and white depth-marking post.
Small stone dome-like structures, stone cottages, enclosures and boundary walls are scattered all across a wide, grassy hillside.
Cleitean, cottages, enclosures and boundary walls cover the slopes above Village Bay

Cleit 79 on the street is a towering presence: over 7m long and nearly 4m high. Like so many of the cleitean, 79 may originally have been something else, a dwelling even, a home. I know him as Tommy Turftop, a name I gave him to amuse Sue one day. He has become his name, I almost feel inclined to greet him as I pass along the street. Turftop is one of 1,300 cleitean on Hirta alone. When I arrived, this vast number was staggering – did they really need so many? Now they make sense, bringing a form of order to this wild, natural world, their position dictated by an island resource in need of harvest, storage and winter access.

I shall think of them often in the months ahead as I sit at another desk far away, processing data and writing reports – reducing them once more to numbers and statistics, images on a screen. But they are the lasting testimony of the effort it took to live, even thrive, on these islands all year round. Their presence is huge yet soon it will be time to say goodbye to them also, my stone friends.

From the edge of the world

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