St. Kilda

Europe’s most important seabird colony and one of the major breeding stations in the North Atlantic is tiny St. Kilda archipelago, a U.N. World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve of four inhospitable rocky islands and some sea stacks, 3.6-square-mile (9-km2) remnant of an ancient volcano.

Over a million birds are here in the short breeding season. They include the world’s largest colony of gannets—over 60,000 pairs; largest colony of fulmars in the British Isles—some 65,000 pairs; 500,000 Atlantic puffins; 60,000 guillemots; 16,000 kittiwakes; and many others. It is one of the few known breeding sites for Leach’s petrels.

Superlatives abound. Marine reserve status is being considered for its crystal-clear waters populated by jewel-like anemones with vivid yellow, pink, red, blue, and green tentacles and a kelp forest 150 feet (45 m) deep. It has been designated a National Scenic Area for its beauty, with the highest sea cliffs in Britain rising a sheer 1,410 feet (430 m) and towering sea stacks regarded as most majestic in the world. It also is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for unique plant and animal species, including a feral flock of primitive black-faced Soay sheep.

Hardy humans are believed to have lived on St. Kilda for 4,000 years—primarily on Hirta, which has its only conceivable harbor—supported mainly by oil, feathers, and meat of seabirds which they gathered by scaling precipitous cliff-sides barefoot (legend says in so doing they gradually evolved unusually long toes). A 17th-century traveler said most St. Kilda men died before they could grow old by drowning or breaking their necks. The population dwindled for various reasons—smallpox was accidentally introduced, it’s believed in clothes sent by mail, and for a period 80 percent of newborns died because of a mistaken idea that umbilical cords should be anointed with fulmar oil. The last 36 residents were voluntarily evacuated in 1930. It was bequeathed in 1957 by the fifth Marquess of Bute to the of the National Trust for Scotland which leased it to the Nature Conservancy Council, now the Scottish Natural Heritage.

Visiting St. Kilda is not for the faint-hearted. Only conceivable landing from sea is on south-facing Hirta Island. Occasionally it is possible to hitch a ride on a helicopter serving the small Army missiletracking station. Otherwise visitors must come by sea, and, with permission of the National Trust for Scotland, anchor in the harbor, sleep aboard, and visit during the day. Permits occasionally are given to camp on land. Even with permission, weather and ocean swells can prevent harbor entry.

Best chances for good weather and seeing birds are in late May–early July. Charter boats usually leave from Oban (beware of trips that mention St. Kilda as one of several destinations which they may fulfill—they often don’t). Main reserve threat would be an oil spill polluting seabird feeding areas.

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