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13 Aug 2019

From the edge of the world: part 9

Written by Sam Loughran, Volunteer
Gun Feathers Bay in St Kilda on a sunny day. A stone building stands in the foreground with a blue shimmering sea and bobbing yachts in the background.
Gun Feathers Bay; photograph by Samuel J Loughran, Lochranza Photos
This week, Sue's husband, Sam, has taken on the blog post, and shares his experience of a dream come true!

It was 45 years ago when I missed out on a school trip to St Kilda, but somehow the desire to get there tapped into my consciousness. ‘When I retire’, I thought, ‘I’ll travel around the islands and Highlands of Scotland’. High on that agenda was a visit to St Kilda, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After 38 years working in the NHS, I was able to retire at the same time as my wife changed career, and retrained in conservation. She excitedly found a National Trust for Scotland advertisement for a job as a ranger on St Kilda and wondered what I thought!

Well, you could have knocked me over with a frozen haggis! St Kilda! Go for it! As you can tell, I might have been a wee bit over-zealous in my advice, but hey, 45 years is a long wait.

Sue was successful in obtaining the ranger job, and my thoughts went to how I’d be able to achieve my lifelong desire to visit the islands. I quickly realised that this was not going to be just a holiday visit. Oh no! I’d need to work as a volunteer. This was organised for a time when Sue’s colleagues were taking a holiday break, and Sue required some additional assistance.

Like for all visitors/volunteers, it was then a matter of sorting out the travel arrangements and where best to get the boat across. That done, I spent a few months reading about the natural and cultural heritage of St Kilda; in particular its wildlife and the history of the people who once lived there. I have always loved history and particularly Scottish history. A couple of years ago I had spent time re-tracing my family history and remembered a great, great, great grandmother’s maiden name being McLeod from Inverness and wondered if we had a Highland connection.

Gun Feathers Bay in St Kilda on a sunny day. Stone cottages stand in the foreground with a blue shimmering sea in the background.
Approaching Gun Feathers Bay; photograph by Samuel J Loughran, Lochranza Photos

I left Leverburgh on the Hirta with a boatload of National Trust for Scotland ‘birdys’ who were going to carry out some research on  Soay, Dun and Boreray. As we headed west towards St Kilda, the sky cleared and the sun shone brightly. Despite preparing for the worst, the journey was smooth and pleasant, and as we arrived in Village Bay, I was surprised by how huge the island looked. Photographs don’t quite convey the true scale. 

We transferred onto the tender and were transported to the jetty. I’d spotted Sue, who smiled and waved and then began to give instructions to a group of people. In the meantime, a chain was being formed to pass luggage and equipment up the steps. A quick hello from Sue, then she was off to give the introductory talk to the new arrivals. I later realised that this was a 4–5 times daily occurrence, involving meeting and greeting visitors, giving them a brief introduction,  advising them on how to keep safe whilst on the island, and giving the opening times of the St Kilda Club shop. The arrival of visitors is one of the busiest times on the island and the ranger aims to meet all visitors, in order to facilitate a really positive experience for them.

After a brief introduction to Craig (the archaeologist), and Sarah (the seabird ranger), Sue returned with that ‘it can get quite mad out there!’ look and then gave me a quick tour of the manse, a cup of coffee and a grand tour of the shop.

Early next morning I began as a volunteer for real.

The shop

The shop is owned by the St Kilda Club and run by volunteers. All profits go to the National Trust for Scotland and are re-invested in the conservation of the island. The shop is situated in a small room in the manse, which comfortably holds about 8–10 people at a time. The high-quality stock consists of books, clothing, small souvenirs, postcards etc, all with a St Kilda link/label. Working in the shop would become part of my duties over the next two and a half weeks, but before I went into panic mode I was fortunately introduced to Deirdre, the more experienced  volunteer. On that introduction I became the Volunteer’s Volunteer!

Every day, from 2.30–3.30pm, the shop is open for day visitors who are looking for souvenirs and gifts before their boat departs. During the course of my stay, we also had several cruise ships who visited for half days, for which the shop was opened additionally. In order to keep customer numbers manageable, I acquired a new role as the shop ‘bouncer’, which involved standing outside and filtering people in and out the shop. Actually, the visitors were all very understanding and I was able to chat and answer all manner of questions. When the visitors have gone, money and receipts are double counted and recorded, stock is replenished and lists of outstanding stock required are made. 

The jetty at St Kilda. A few people sit and wait on the concrete steps. Three dinghies, filled with people, are on the water, approaching or departing from the jetty.
Village Bay jetty; photograph by Samuel J Loughran, Lochranza Photos

The jetty

It’s ‘all hands to the pump’ on St Kilda … well in my case, the mops! Sue demonstrated how to remove the algae from the jetty steps, which involved a bucket of sand, a stiff brush, sea water and plenty of elbow grease. That green slimey stuff refused to budge at first, but we kept at it and I’m happy to report that it eventually became slip-free for a few days, before the whole process had to be repeated.

A man stands in a doorway of a public toilet holding a mop.
Cleaning the toilets

The public toilet

I finally found something for which my health training wasn’t wasted! And for those visitors who thought the fairies came in the night and replaced the hand towels and toilet rolls, I hate to disappoint you … it was Deirdre and me – woe betide anyone who walked on our wet floor with their sheep mucky boots! This was a daily task and involved cleaning the showers, toilets and sinks as well as scrubbing the floor. 

The reward

Obviously I didn’t volunteer for any material reward, but for all our efforts the cups of tea, occasional mints and, on one special occasion, wine gums (which had arrived via helicopter) were greatly appreciated. Not to mention the glass of champagne and wee dram delivered via the Hebridean Princess. But the true reward was just being there. To see the sunset, watch the Soay sheep walking along the road, get dive-bombed  by bonxies, see gannets swooping overhead, take evening strolls along Main Street, enjoy boat trips with Angus and Alexander, relish those quiet moments and having a wee drink in the Puff-Inn – these are to name but a few.

Before too long it was all over, and it was time to return to the mainland with my brain filled with happy memories and the fairies whispering through the mist, ‘Will ye no come back again?’

From the edge of the world

St Kilda blog

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