In 2011 I spent two weeks exploring the Outer Hebridean islands of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula with my mate Barry. Our dreams of a sea kayak crossing to the St Kilda archipelago were dashed by a combination of poor weather, injury and the sands of time. We left for home after a great paddling adventure, keenly aware that our hopes of such an exposed sea kayak crossing would depend upon organisation, commitment – and plenty of luck.
Three years later, a fresh opportunity arrived and we returned to the outer Hebrides with renewed optimism. Alone in the north Atlantic at 58 degrees north and 40 miles NW of Uist, the St Kilda archipelago is an isolated and exposed place in the world. It represents an exceptional challenge to kayak to this most remote UK island group. The rewards, however, are immense: rising steeply from the sea, these cliff-bound islands have an end-of-the-world aura, exerting a powerful magnetism on would-be visitors. With a two-millennia history of human habitation, only broken in 1930 with the evacuation of the last islanders, there remains an impressive number of black houses and cleits, remnants of another world. The archipelago is Europe’s most important sea bird breeding-ground with the world’s largest gannet colony, the UK’s largest colony of fulmars and over a quarter of a million puffins. The sheer cliff-bound islands are also a sea kayaker’s paradise, the attraction enhanced by their inaccessibility. I had dreamed for many years of kayaking to the islands; now, only 36 miles of open water and a favourable forecast lay between us and our destination.
With bad weather on the horizon, we spent several days exploring the island group in the far south of the outer Hebrides, from Barra Sound to Berneray. A worthy destination in its own right, this wonderful archipelago offered us magical encounters with towering sea cliffs, a rich cultural history, immense sea caves and thousands of nesting puffins, guillemots and razorbills. We returned to South Uist as wind and rain set in, and awaited our elusive weather window.
In mixed conditions and a westerly airstream, we continued our explorations with a few days of paddling around the Sound of Harris and Taransay. Battling back to North Uist against a fresh SW breeze, and with half our available time now gone, it felt that the chance to cross to St Kilda was slipping through our fingers. We relocated to the North Uist Outdoor Centre, to relax and regroup. Upon arrival, a fresh forecast offered a tantalising opportunity: two days of light SE winds, a new low pressure system and then settled weather once again. It seemed that we could possibly cross to St Kilda, ride out a couple of bad weather days and then paddle home again in more favourable conditions. We agreed to the plan and hastened to complete our preparations.
That evening we camped at Scolpaig, under cloudless skies as a light westerly wind rippled the surface of the bay. On the horizon, the peaks of Hirta and Boreray beckoned enticingly, appearing far closer than their true distance of 36 miles. We slept soundly, content that the forecast was ideal for our crossing. The following day, a persistent sea breeze kept us ashore as we waited for the perfectly calm conditions that we sought for the crossing. At last – at 7pm – we launched our kayaks and headed WNW towards the still-visible distant islands. The last of the breeze died away as the first two hours took us out past the barren rocky islands of Heskeir, riding a gentle swell upon which our boats rose and fell. Surrounded by silence, with no sign of any other craft, we felt alone in the world on this empty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
During mid-summer at these latitudes nightfall is a protracted affair, with a dim glow to the north and a constant sense that the sun’s absence is only short-lived. As our kayaks cut through the glassy ocean, the light and ambience created a magical atmosphere that heightened our sense of wonder, as the St Kilda archipelago grew in size on the horizon. Hours passed, our unbroken paddling rhythm became meditative; we lost ourselves in the experience. Stac Levenish appeared to our left and we shaped a course across the flooding tide, crossing the final two miles to Village Bay on Hirta – the only reliable landing in the entire archipelago. Beaching our kayaks at 4.15am as the arrival of dawn began to light our surroundings, we sat quietly on the grassy slopes and soaked up the intense sensations of our successful crossing. Never had an ocean passage felt so magical.
After a few hours sleep we watched as the small groups of boat-based visitors prepared for departure. The imminent arrival of a new low pressure system was clearly triggering a fresh evacuation of the island; we would soon be among the the last remaining inhabitants of the archipelago. Seizing the chance to enjoy the remaining settled conditions, we relaunched for an afternoon of exploration around the main island group of Hirta and Soay. Departing Village Bay through a narrow rocky cleft, we were delivered into a magical sea kayaking nirvana: huge sea cliffs rose above, a gentle swell provided a constant rock garden challenge, innumerable sea birds wheeled overhead and the unfolding coastal scenery revealed ever more spectacular perspectives. At the north end of Hirta we passed under an enormous sea stack as the remarkable sight of Boreray’s huge rocky mass came into view. Humbled by our surroundings, we quietly paddled back to Village Bay, completing our circumnavigation of the main island.
The following two days brought the anticipated low pressure system, its saturated air wreathing the islands in mist and drizzle. Remaining ashore, we hiked the island to explore the remnants of habitations that were home for the St Kildan islanders. Flocks of Soay sheep continue to roam the island, while Great Skua soar the upper slopes, swooping menacingly at our arrival. At almost 500 metres altitude, the views from the summit of Hirta are exceptional, with lower-lying Soay extending into the Atlantic to the west and Boreray’s Jurassic appearance to the north east. With the outer Hebridean islands lost below the eastern horizon, the sense of isolation on this remote and dramatic rocky outcrop was palpable. We returned to the shelter of Village Bay and waited on the forecast improvement in conditions.
During our third day on the island an impressive square-rigged ship arrived in Village Bay. The ‘Lady of Avenel’ was paying a brief visit to the archipelago with its clients; its skipper, Stefan, was keen to meet the owners of the sea kayaks that he found at the top of Hirta’s slipway. Sharing our experiences of the crossing, Stefan inquired after our ‘Plan B’, should conditions be unfavourable for a return crossing. Suddenly, we found ourselves the recipients of an invitation to stowaway on his 100ft converted Russian trawler, for a free ride back to the Sound of Harris. Stefan’s offer triggered mixed emotions in us; having arrived at St Kilda under our own power, it felt almost necessary for us to return home via the same propulsion. We thanked Stefan for his offered help, and retired to consider our options.
Rising the next day at 4am, we hiked back to the summit of Hirta and gazed out at the expanse of ocean to the east. Weighing up our options, the temptation of a tall ship experience proved too great; we scampered back to the bay, contacted Stefan and soon found ourselves aboard the wonderful vessel that would be our home for the next twelve hours. Threading between the cliffs of Boreray before finally setting sail for Harris, we marvelled at our good fortune and settled down to an unexpected voyage of luxury. At 10pm we finally jumped ship in the Sound of Harris, bade farewell to our sailing buddies, and paddled through the darkness back to North Uist. Our St Kilda adventure, a remarkable experience filled with challenge and unexpected opportunity, was over.