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28 Jul 2023

From the edge of the world 2023: part 2

Written by Sue Loughran, St Kilda Ranger
Looking across a calm Village Bay, just above the rocky beach and stone pier. A large cruise ship is at anchor in the middle of the bay, and several smaller boats are anchored closer to shore. A RIB is alongside the jetty, filled with passengers, and another two RIBs wait out in the bay.
A busy day in the harbour of Village Bay
Our St Kilda ranger shares some extracts from her daily log, giving a fascinating insight into what life on the islands is really like.

Sometimes I’m asked ‘What is it that you actually do?’. So, to give some idea of the diversity of working as a ranger, I’ve based this blog post on extracts from my daily log, from a period of six random days whilst working with three different volunteers: Lydia, Marion and Andrea.

Day 1

Today is ‘changeover day’ for two of my volunteers. It’s always sad to say goodbye after working so closely together, but each new person brings a different set of skills and experience, and inherently brings a new ‘vibe’ to the job.

As my current volunteer Lydia packs up and cleans her accommodation ready for the next person, I refill the disinfectant foot mat on the jetty – this is part of our island biosecurity measures to prevent the transfer of non-native micro-organisms or avian flu on footwear. The weather’s picked up and I’m glad that the four campers who’ve been stranded for a few extra days will be able to leave today. Fortunately, they have all been happy to have had the enforced extra time on the island, and it is something that we always warn people about when they book to stay. Our new volunteer Marion arrives on a day boat, looking extremely seasick. For her, the priority is now to keep warm and have an hour’s sleep before she settles in.

Lydia assists me with welcoming the three day boats as well as a private yacht. The crossing has been rough and one of the passengers got very wet. She asks whether I could dry her clothes, but doesn’t have any spares with her. So, I put her clothes into the dryer and lend her a pair of my own trousers in the meantime!

Among the day boat visitors is an RSPB scientist, arriving for a 3-month stint of research into Manx shearwaters and Leach’s storm petrels. He’s been before, but I give him an introduction to the accommodation, island rules, etc, and hopefully make him feel welcome.

Over lunchtime, I’ve been asked to give a live webinar about biosecurity on St Kilda, so that keeps me in the office for an hour. It’s a repeat of a talk I gave earlier in the year in Edinburgh, at the Biosecurity for Life closing conference. In this, I outlined the proactive measures we are taking to keeping St Kilda rat-free. I’ve not presented a webinar before, and it’s a completely different experience from talking to an audience in a room where you have immediate feedback from what you are saying.

By the time that is finished, Lydia has dropped in to say goodbye before she leaves on the day boat. We walk down to the jetty, taking some last pictures, and Marion joins us (now feeling and looking a lot better for a few hours’ rest). Once the day boats have gone, it’s time to start teaching Marion the regular jobs: cleaning, restocking and cashing up the shop, etc. I then need to record everything electronically – it’s quite late before that’s all finished.

A lady is using a hammer to repair a panel on a wooden internal door in a building on St Kilda.
Lydia checks that a repair she has made on an internal door is to her satisfaction; another small win!

Day 2

I’m picked up by a cruise ship Zodiac boat at 6.55am and then I’m catapulted into the glitzy cruise ship world and a full-scale auditorium, in order to give the passengers a welcome brief. The array of spotlights and mirrors are mesmerising, and I stand in front of everyone like a startled rabbit. Still … a few jokes later and I’m into my stride and enjoying myself. Before I know it, I’m back on shore welcoming the guests to the island. Marion joins me and chats to passengers. She is able to offer an extra insight into the ways of the St Kildans, as her father Calum MacDonald was born here and left when he was a teenager. He wrote his memoirs of his life, which his family have since published as a book, From Cleits to Castles. Soon the day boats and charter boats also arrive and require the same information, so we meet and greet together.

In this group, we welcomed a friend from last year: the first man to travel to St Kilda in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) in the 1980s. This time, he sailed solo and then did extensive walks to the other end of the island. He’s an inspiring athlete and adventurer!

A lady leans against the polished wooden rail surrounding the deck of a boat and smiles at the camera. Behind her is Village Bay, with the tops of the hills covered in mist.
Marion on the deck of a boat, with Village Bay behind

Day 3

An early morning jetty scrub (this has to be done every couple of days to prevent algal growth making the jetty too slippery) is followed by welcomes to three day boats and two yachts. We strike lucky today, when one of the sailors invites us to join them for a trip around Hirta and Soay in the afternoon. Marion declined, as her recent sailing experience was too fresh in her memory, but Craig (the Seabird and Marine Ranger) and I take the opportunity. It gives him the chance to do some recce work prior to setting up counting plots for seabird monitoring with volunteers. We see one of our regular charter boats with their group of kayakers not far from Soay. It’s such a pleasure to see things from the aspect of the water’s surface for a change!

Day 4

The day starts with an early morning swim to celebrate double birthdays today. Andrea (our new volunteer) and I share the same date, and we agree that this is the perfect way to kick off a celebratory day! Whilst I do the visitor welcomes, he re-stocks the honesty shop.

With the arrival of the day boats comes a two-man film crew from Northern Ireland who are making a series called Tiny Islands for Channel 4. They stay on our campsite and proceed to get the film footage that they want for the rest of the day. They are particularly keen to portray the roles of the archaeologist and the ranger, and Claire and I spend a lot of time being interviewed on camera. Hopefully, we’ll see good results when it’s shown early next year! Of course, a fabulous birthday party erupts in the evening complete with a fantastic home-made cake and fizz.

A laughing man and woman pop the corks out of bottles of fizz. They are standing on the hillside on St Kilda, with a wooden bench and wellies behind them. Further in the distance is the sparkling blue sea.
Happy birthday! | Image credit: Susan Bain

Day 5

The past few weeks of no rain finally take their toll, and we enter our first day of emergency water saving due to the drought conditions. The island water supply is spring-fed and thus becomes limited in periods of sustained drought. There is a ban on daily showers and excessive water use for everybody living on the island. Andrea and I fill large containers with seawater and barrow them up to the toilets, so that they can at least be flushed occasionally. We make signs for the toilets, include this extra information in the visitor welcome brief and then head up to the shower block to embark on some shower maintenance work whilst they are out of action. We notice that sea swimming becomes increasingly popular among the islanders!

After a raft of other general maintenance jobs, I feel it’s only fair to give Andrea the chance to go off and explore the island for the afternoon.

Day 6

Today was Andrea’s first chance to give the visitor welcome talk, and am I glad! Not long after, I am approached by a day visitor to say that her husband has developed really worrying sudden-onset medical symptoms whilst walking along Main Street. I am able to hand over to Andrea to ‘hold the fort’ while we form an immediate response team involving the rangers, our neighbours in QinetiQ, the day boat skippers and crew, the Stornoway Coastguard and the medical team in Aberdeen, with whom we liaise about the man’s symptoms and condition. It is deemed that a Coastguard helicopter rescue is needed. We monitor the man’s vital signs, keep him calm and transport him down to the helipad, while the Coastguard is scrambled. Remarkably they are on the island and attending to the man within 2 hours of the onset of his symptoms. Although we all have current first-aid training, the situation is stressful; it is a huge comfort to know that everybody is working together and supporting each other. Thankfully, the man had extensive hospital investigations and made an excellent recovery – the outcome that we always hoped for.

(As an aside, this happened on the day that our boss’s boss and our boss’s boss’s boss had decided to visit us!)

Hopefully, this all gives a little insight into some of the things involved in being a ranger on a remote island. No two days are the same and the variety is constantly stimulating and interesting. I could go on for hours with tales of this place! Of course, my grateful thanks go to the wonderful volunteers who come here to assist and be part of the team.

From the edge of the world

St Kilda blog

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