St Kilda: the UK's most remote island

Britain’s most remote islands are the goal of many travellers. James Fair spent a week trying but failing to reach St Kilda, and would do it all again at the drop of an anchor.

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Explore the Hebrides article spread

 

Landing on the steeply shelving beach is tricky, but once on dry land, we have a couple of hours to explore Eilean an Taighe. There are more than 20 species of birds on the islands, including snipe and wheatears, and tiny, delicate flowers such as butterworts. There’s sea thrift, too, which appears garishly pink against the gloomy Hebridean sky. In the afternoon, we head for East Loch Tarbert for the night.

 

Day 5

It blows a Force 8 out in The Minch all day, so the Chalice is going nowhere. Dave and Jacquie, the keenest birders on board, spot a great northern diver, but that’s the most exciting moment of the day.

 

Day 6

Friday dawns bright, clear and calm, and with the sun streaming into my cabin at 6am, I scramble out of my bunk. I scan the loch edges, perhaps a little too desperately, for otters, but I have to be content with plunge-diving, screeching Arctic terns.

We cross The Minch and head south, accompanied by great skuas (or ‘bonxies’ as they’re known) and the occasional flock of Manx shearwaters. A guillemot dives so close to the boat that I can follow its trail of bubbles through the water, and a puffin winds itself up into such a clockwork frenzy that it is flailing over the water like a cartoon character that has run over the edge of a cliff (but failed to realise it).

Finally, desperately, but as if it is a wholly unnatural thing to do, the puffin takes off. I’ve heard tv presenter and BBC Wildlife columnist Chris Packham speculate that puffins are, evolutionarily, on their way to becoming flightless birds. This one practically is.

We reach Canna some five hours later and anchor in the bay, which resonates with the cooing of eiders, a noise that reminds me of the sound a wood pigeon might make if it were being ever so gently throttled. On Canna, we find a Celtic cross dating from the 7th century on which you can just make out two animals, possibly wolves or bears, fighting.

 

Day 7

From Canna, we head south past the impressive raised beaches of Rhum. There are red deer grazing down by the shore, and just after Eigg, we see our first dolphins of the week. We’re heading for Muck, the smallest of the Small Isles, where we go ashore.

 

Day 8

It’s a stunning morning – the weather has been getting better and better since being holed up in East Loch Tarbert, though it could hardly have got much worse – and in the narrow anchorage of Drum-na-Bhuide, it sounds as if we’re surrounded by 20 or more cuckoos.

It’s the sharp-eyed Jacquie and Dave who spot them – two otters playing in the water. The rest of the guests have been fantasising about seeing otters all week, but just at the crucial moment, they’re all tucked up in bed.

The otters are making their way slowly along the seashore, and I’m torn between rushing downstairs and banging saucepans together to alert the others and enjoying every fleeting second I have to watch these elusive creatures. It’s not a difficult choice, and the otters are gone within 15 minutes in any case.

 

Day 9

It’s only a short hop from Loch Spelve to Oban. Being back in civilisation feels odd after a week at sea. Chris is heading out for St Kilda with another group tomorrow, and if it weren’t for my life waiting for me down south, I’d be sorely tempted to go with him.

 

 

TOP FOUR SEABIRDS TO SEE

Razorbill

  • Arrives back at breeding colony in late January, but breeding begins in late April, with peak in mid-May.

  • Nests (consisting of a few leaves and stones) in colonies in sheltered holes and crevices on cliffs and among boulders on rocky shores.

  • Breeding birds best seen on Lunga (Treshnish Isles) or the Shiant Isles.

 

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