Nausea comes in all manner of gut-twisting shapes: the head-spinning vertigo of drunkenness, within which tight gyre the sufferer becomes certain that all would be well if only he could somehow contrive to vomit into the black hole that’s sucking him down; the near-painless effluvium of opiates, whereby to think “puke” is to have already easefully done so, and then there’s the whole-body queasiness of chemotherapy, which — or, so those who’ve experienced it assure me — feels like every single cell is regurgitating its own cytoplasm.
However, I think it fair to say that in the sickening stakes (a nauseating idea in and of itself), nothing gets close to seasickness. For seasickness is a malady that inheres not in the gut, nor the head, nor even at the cellular level, but in the entire world.
To be seasick is to be the sole inhabitant of a heaving planet, with no repose to be found upon any square undulant foot of it. The German expression weltschmerz might have been coined purely to express the intractability of the condition — for as long as, that is, you remain at sea.
I was definitely seasick — and I was most certainly at sea, way out at sea. When I’d last been up on the deck of the Elinca, a 65ft ocean- going yacht whose home port is Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, the North Atlantic was rucked up above the deck in angry fractals of slate-grey, blue-grey, concrete-grey, dove-grey — all conceivable shades of grey from grege to ecru.
There was a wildly inhuman beauty to the maelstrom, and a sense of transcendence that seemed to emanate from the unidentifiable point where the skirls and volutes of cloud, mist and spray meshed with the jagged horizon of wave crests.
The only non-grey things in this chaotic realm were the trails of white foam streaking down the breakers, and the blanched faces of my shipmates.
We had set sail at 7am from Leverburgh, a tiny port on the Isle of Harris. The forecast was for a force 4–5 southeasterly wind easting as the day progressed. This was by no means ideal for our purpose — to reach Village Bay on the island of Hirta in the remote St Kilda archipelago.
This is an anchorage that can’t be maintained in any northeasterly stiffer than a breeze — but the Elinca’s captain, Innis Smith, knew how badly we wanted to get there.
The previous year our attempt to reach St Kilda with Innis’s father Angus at the helm of the Elinca had been stymied before we left Stornaway by a storm-force southeasterly.
On that occasion Angus had been making ready to sail despite knowing a St Kilda landfall was impossible. When I challenged him on this he’d said cheerily, “Oh, I thought I’d just take you out and show you what it’s like being in a bit of a blow on the open ocean.”
Twelve months later, I knew. The wind had increased when we left the shelter of the Sound of Harris, and went on strengthening until it screeched through the rigging and the 10ft peaks of the waves staggered towards the Elinca before toppling over on to its deck.
When Innis, and his mate Peter — who was only helping out during his holiday from his real job captaining a Russian oligarch’s Mediterranean pleasure yacht — had to go forward to reef the sails, they disappeared in Turneresque explosions of spray.
Meanwhile, us paying guests remained slumped in the cockpit, snapped on to the safety lines by carabiners.
At our feet the plucked and greyish corpse of a guga — or immature gannet — rolled back and forth in the sea slop. I idly considered whether — given that all seagulls are protected species in British waters — this might be our albatross.
But to my own astonishment I wasn’t frightened. I pondered this: I certainly ought to have been frightened — I was a certifiably neurotic urban demi-Jew, who’d never been out of sight of land before in a small boat.
I liked reading about adventure on the high seas — but only when I was lying in a hammock slung between the apple trees in my own garden.
Yet even as I was being tossed about in the salty mosh pit, it occurred to me that it was the global nature of seasickness that was my prophylactic: I was so full of nausea, there was no room for any other feeling.
There was this, and there were also Innis and Peter. Despite their being hatefully youthful there was no doubting their utter competence. The previous day as we’d cruised gently down the Minch — the sound that separates the Outer Hebrides from the Scots mainland — they’d told us in a beguilingly unassuming way about surfing trips along the inaccessible west coast of Harris in search of legendarily gnarly point breaks.
Harris — a Scots isle so cranially rocky that Kubrick used aerial shots of it for the landing-on-Ganymede scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then there was the cruise Innis and Peter had taken the previous week: heading north east to the remote Faroe Islands, they’d been turned back by a hurricane-force 11.
Their passengers on that occasion were members of the Scottish Ladies Mountaineering Club, most of whom were septuagenarians — although one was in her eighties.
Had the ladies been frightened? I’d asked. “Oh no,” Innis assured me, “although we did have to, um, persuade one of them to remain in her cabin.”
Well, I wasn’t about to be outdone by the Scottish ladies — although the cabin idea seemed a good one, requiring little persuasion. It was cold on deck, numbingly so — so I staggered down to the galley, and lay there hanging on to one of the padded benches, while the boat pitched and yawed.
I’d thrown up only once, and that was hours before — but then I hadn’t made the mistake of eating breakfast. I could hear some of my shipmates retching in the heads: one of them hadn’t made it further than the galley.
The acid tang of fresh vomit melded in my queered sensorium with the CD Innis had put on the sound system at my request hours before, and which ever since had continued to play over and over and over.
Somehow, I suspect I will never again listen to Bob Marley’s greatest hits with much pleasure, while the couplet “Don’t worry, about a thing / ’Cos every little thing’s, gonna be alright” will remain forever evocative of this: the cut-rate narrative of a reluctant Arthur Gordon Pym.
Bob was skanking it easy, the Wailers were doing their homophonic thing, when there was an almighty crash and all those purpose-built little cupboards they have in the galleys of yachts — you know the ones, sturdily clipped shut to prevent their contents disgorging in a blow — burst open, sending forks, knives, mugs and mayonnaise jars flying all over the place.
OK — I thought to myself if not exactly stoically then at least with commendable resignation — that’s it, we’ve capsized, it’s over now and we definitely won’t make it to St Kilda.
But I was wrong about the capsize, something that became evident the more I stared about me at the galley; true, saucers skittered and apples bobbed, but up remained more or less perpendicular to the vessel’s keel.
No, the almighty crash was the broadside of the sea as Innis and Peter put the Elinca about and headed for the shelter of Harris — we had turned back 10 miles short of our goal, and without even setting eyes on it.
Eighteen years after I had first become aware of St Kilda, and first yearned to go there, I was no closer to setting foot on its fabled shore. The archipelago of St Kilda comprises a collection of precipitous islands — of which Hirta is the largest — and vertiginous sea stacks, situated some 50 miles due west of the Outer Hebrides in the North Atlantic.
There are many remote Scottish islands, but there is only one St Kilda. Its extreme isolation alone makes it the ultima Thule of the British Isles, however, there is far more to the place than this.
In general, I mistrust official lists of whatever kind, yet a single listing should suffice to explain quite why St Kilda had become my topmost travel desideratum: there are only two dozen Unesco World Heritage sites that are designated both for their human and their natural attributes — and alongside such familiar names as Machu Picchu and Mount Athos, St Kilda is one of them.
Yet when I read Charles Maclean’s excellent little primer St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World, I had never heard of the place, and indeed, to this day, you can find plenty of perfectly well-informed people in Edinburgh — let alone London or Los Angeles — who would query “Saint Who?” (Actually, not such an unreasonable response given that there never was a St Kilda, and the etymology of the archipelago’s name remains deeply obscure.)
I read about St Kilda lying in the upstairs bedroom of an austere early 19th-century house on the fairly remote island of Rousay in the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland. It was the winter of 1993–’94 and I was in retreat from a failed marriage and the fleshpits of the sultry south.
The house had been loaned to me by a friend (now sadly deceased), and I chanced upon Maclean’s book in his shelves. It may have been my own isolate condition—sometimes I went days at a time without seeing another human face —that made the story of the distant isle and its strange inhabitants seem so poignant, but I doubt it.
The tale has always fascinated and, especially in recent years, the bibliography associated with St Kilda has grown and grown — there are now thousands of publications on its history, ecology and sociology, with the papery tide rising rather than ebbing away.
Islands are, of course, intrinsically interesting as synecdoches of the human condition: standing apart from the main, they are more legible, so perhaps not only provide the narrative of what has happened to us, but how it will all end.
Yet even among island stories, that of St Kilda is exceptional: all that remains, together with the outlier of Boreray, and the nearby islet of Soay, of a once humungous volcano, Hirta is a scant mile-by-two of lush peaty soils formed into rounded hills, the backs of which are sheer cliffs that in places fall as much as 1,300ft to the sea below.
Around these astonishing precipices throngs the largest colony of seabirds in the world — at its peak population in early summer, there can be as many as a million guillemots, gannets, fulmars, puffins inter alia, wheeling around the granitic crags.
Cut off from the mainland for many millennia, the archipelago has its faunal quirks: there are no indigenous mammals bigger than a subspecies of field mouse, dubbed “the St Kildan lion”.
Soay gives its name to another subspecies, a primitive sheep, quartered there by the archipelago’s first Neolithic settlers and there is also a native subspecies of wren, while some way-out types have even maintained that the human inhabitants were themselves a subspecies, with near-prehensile big toes, and super-strong bandy legs, special adaptations evolved to cope with their dizzyingly odd form of food-gathering.
But for the late visitor to the archipelago, none of this is what meets the eye, or the ear, or the nose. No. The ammoniac stench begins miles out to sea, as do the flying vees of seabirds converging on the islands and sea stacks.
Up close, the cliffs are fissured into scores of galleries along which roost thousands upon thousands of birds. In clear ocean air, their
agitating bodies stand out with astonishing clarity and looking up, it is unwise to succumb to the urge to gape at the Escher-like patterning of wing-upon-wing as the gulls circle overhead in a holding pattern, uttering their zombie-baby cries and awaiting their turn to touch down on these vertiginous landing strips.
The rocks, the seaweed, the sea itself, is spattered with guano, while at water level a posse of fast-flying brown great skuas — bullying and carnivorous gulls — mob a gannet until it regurgitates its fishy supper.
The plucked guga slopping in the gunnels of the Elinca was as intrinsic to the St Kildan story as the adult gannets that wheel around the cliffs, for on that failed attempt we had taken the seafowl with us, intending to emulate the St Kildans’ own lifestyle by... eating it.
No one knows when the St Kildans first settled on seabirds as their principle source of sustenance, but by the time the Scots chronicler Martin Martin arrived, in the late 1600s, the islanders were heavily dependent on their rich avian resources.
True, the island yielded crops of bere — primitive barley — and kale; there were the Soay sheep and some cows, but the bulk of their food by far was auto-air-freighted and harvested by rigorous alpinism.
Martin Martin observed the men of the island expertly belaying each other down the cliff faces to where they could snatch the fowl from their nests and dispatch them with a twist of the neck.
The feathers were plucked and exported for mattress and pillow-filling, the flesh was eaten, the oil of the fulmar (which it plentifully secretes in a throat gland), was milked to be used for lamps, and as both a condiment and a general catholicon.
Before the availability of cheaper leather, the Kildans even employed the degutted gugas as shoes, inserting their toes into the gullet and using the intact head as a heelpiece.
It’s said that fulmar and puffin meat are both fairly light, the latter, despite a certain fishy oiliness, almost comparable to chicken. I wouldn’t know about that, for I’ve only eaten guga.
The day after the blow, on the east side of Harris the sky was an aching blue, the sea a mockingly smooth cerulean. Minke whales sported about the Elinca as we sailed into a bay in the South Lochs district. Climbing over a heathery headland, my shipmates and I — among whom were three Lewismen — built a fire beside the abandoned farmhouse of Bhalamus and boiled the bird until it was done.
Only the Niseachs — men of Lewis from an area known as Ness — are still legally permitted to hunt the guga, and among them it is accorded a great delicacy. But frankly, no word cognate with “delicate” should be used to describe this taste.
Even after 48 hours of soaking in bucket and gunnels, and a further hour’s boiling, the gull’s flesh was at once the most intensely piquant taste I have ever experienced — and the most utterly revolting.
If it bore any relation to chicken it was to a road-killed fowl that had been soused in diesel oil. Indeed, so very oily was the guga, that even after all that soaking it was still possible to set fire to the blubbery skin and watch it burn with a blue-green lambency.
Still, we may have failed to reach St Kilda on that June day, but we were at least close to tenanting the islanders’ strange perspective: the remote Eishken Estate on Harris, like so many other areas of the Highlands, had been aggressively “cleared” by its landlords, the poor tenant farmers dispossessed and packed off to what were then Britain’s colonies.
It’s worth recalling, that behind every cod-clan dinner, or show of Caledonian ancestry in the Americas or the Antipodes, there lays a landscape such as this: the collapsed roof and exposed gable ends of a small cottage, the tumbledown stone walls and overgrown paddocks of a farm transmogrified into a sheep run.
The sense of a post-human world is never far away in these places, but I suspected that on St Kilda it would feel still more poignant, for until the last 30-odd islanders’ voluntary evacuation in 1930, Hirta had been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic by a community almost entirely cut off from the outside world.
The first chronicler of St Kilda, Martin Martin, visited the island with its factor, a sort of rent- collector appointed by the tacksman; he, in turn, was a junior member of Clan MacLeod, who managed the far estate on behalf of its suzerain, the Lord of the Isles.
The voyage to Kilda was a hazardous undertaking in an open boat that had to be rowed if the winds were unfavourable, yet such was its healthful reputation that each year sick folk were gathered up from other Hebridean parishes and taken over for a month’s convalescent break.
Fed up on flesh and egg of gull, and enjoying the island’s Gulf Stream microclimate — moist and windy yet seldom bitingly cold — the valetudinarians could marvel at the feats of their crag-hopping hosts, even if they had no desire to emulate them.
Meanwhile, the factor would dispense what passed for law on the island — summary judgements comprising small fines and smaller corporal punishments — hand out whisky, tobacco and seed, then receive the rent: feathers, fulmar oil and latterly the islanders’ homespun tweed.
Money was, of course, unknown on the island. Martin Martin’s account of his time on St Kilda is in some ways an exemplary work of early ethnography, although it begs as many questions as it answers.
Later writers have taken the view that the St Kildans span him some pretty tall tales, and that while the isolated island had its quirks, really there was little to distinguish the community apart from its excessive reliance on its bird harvest.
Certainly, the birding is not disputed: the St Kildans never got a taste for fish — which, understandably, they viewed as bland fare — and had a healthy respect for the sea that bordered on fear. They did maintain a boat, for trips to the isles of Boreray, four miles distant, and the adjacent Soay, as well as out to the towering sea stacks.
All of these landfalls required a leap of faith, then a scramble up the cliffs. The St Kildans would take up residence in stone bothies, throttle a lot of birds, snatch a lot of eggs and if they required help or the boat to be despatched to fetch them, would cut the turf on the hillside visible from Hirta to form a prearranged signal.
The logistics and the dangers of fowling shaped the political economy of the archipelago as well as its culture. Certain benefits were said to accrue to the man who made the first jump from the boat onto the isolated sea stacks, while Martin Martin was also told that no man could be permitted to be wed before he had stood on one leg upon a teetering rock known as the Mistress Stone, with his back to the hundreds-of-feet drop, so proving his capabilities as a cragsman.
Again, later commentators dismissed this as mere blarney — why would a community so desperately reliant on its able-bodied men risk a life in such a way?
A similar scepticism surrounds the institution of the St Kildan parliament, which supposedly settled all the business of the island in a democratic fashion, the entire male population meeting each morning to deliberate on what work should be done, or to divvy up its proceeds — seemingly a pure example of the Marxian view that the perfect communism consists in “each according to his needs, and each according to his abilities”.
The naysayers point to similar Norse- inspired “tings” throughout the northern isles, while also noting that private property existed on St Kilda as elsewhere, and that even the cliffs themselves, and sections of the community boat, were held to be owned by individual families.
The answer surely is that each listener to the tale of St Kilda hears what he wants; choosing either to believe in an edenic realm that then became corrupted by the venial outside world, or else taking the reverse synecdochal approach, and projecting on to St Kilda all the developmental malaises of civilisation.
What isn’t in dispute is that there was some kind of a fall: the island never supported a large number (at its peak perhaps 300 people), and there was at least one severe depopulation — a smallpox epidemic in the early 1700s that eliminated almost all the adults, and which necessitated re-colonisation from other islands.
Nevertheless, while the language mutated from a prehistoric we-know-not-what, to a Norse dialect to Scots Gaelic, to English in the later years, and the gene pool was intermittently stirred, there remained something definably unique about the St Kildan culture.
Even into the later years of the 19th century, when the islands were becoming a tourist attraction for steamship packages that offered a glimpse of “Britain’s Living Primitives”, the ancient poetess, Euphemia MacCrimmon, was still possessed of a huge memory bank of oral
poetry, much of which extolled the beauties of St Kildan lovers by comparing them to, um, seabirds.
As for the crag-hoppers, they would put on a display for a few coppers handed out by those who came ashore, as exact a subversion of a traditional society as one could imagine.
There is more than sufficient explanation for the island’s decline in the economic realties: the market for feathers and oil disappeared and the laird ended up subsidising his own tenants, and the emigration of young men and women — although there are some who point to the dark influence of religion in all its forms.
It seems likely that a primitive and pagan- inflected form of Christianity was practised on St Kilda since time out of mind. Then, from the mid-19th century on, a series of missionaries were sent to this heathenish realm to inculcate them with the rigours of the Free Presbyterian Church.
The puritan zeal of the Wee Frees — as they are known throughout Scotland — fell on paradoxically fertile soil in Kilda. The islanders took to near-obsessive church attendance, as well as the fundamentalist-inspired extirpation of their old ways — and with fatalism infusing their minds, the labour required to maintain the community began to seem too hard.
And there was also a strange hangover of the earlier pagan era. An epidemic of infant tetanus in the 19th century that decimated the population is believed — again, without hard empirical evidence — to have been caused by the atavistic practise of anointing the umbilical wounds of newborn infants with a compound of guano and fulmar oil.
Whatever the ultimate explanation for the fall, by the late Twenties the few remaining islanders felt they could no longer carry on. In late August of 1930, they drowned their working dogs in the well, left salt-scattered Gaelic bibles open in their cottages, and were evacuated by the Royal Navy, leaving the archipelago behind them to revert to its prelapsarian state.
l most 81 years later to the day, I set off for my third attempt to reach St Kilda. This time Angus Smith was taking no chances and had organised a rib to take us out.
For those of you unacquainted with matters marine, a rib is the closest thing to a Harley Davidson hog you’re likely to see bobbing on the ocean wave; two rigid inflatable rubber floats support two rows of motorcycle-style seats with accompanying handlebars, while twin engines slam the craft over the waves.
Capable of up to 50 knots in a moderate swell, Angus was confident that there would be a wide enough weather window to power us out to the archipelago in two or three hours.
If we made it, we had organised with the National Trust of Scotland — which manages the islands, together with two other NGOs — to stay for a couple of nights in the restored Factor’s House, an exceptional treat since ordinary visitors are forbidden from remaining ashore for more than a few hours.
Embarking from Leverburgh on Harris, the clouds rolled back from a lofty empyrean to leave us bathed in aqueous sunlight. Some of my fellow travellers had been out on ribs before, and warned me about the extreme ass-pummelling involved in banging from crest-to-crest, but in the event the swell was slight, and it was with almost hallucinatory ease that we lanced out from the sound of Harris into the open ocean.
The high, conical hills subsided behind us, until, shortly past the midway point, the ghostly outlines of Hirta and Boreray appeared on the horizon — resembling not so much landforms, as mystic galleons sailing from the unimaginable past.
Less than an hour later, the rib was nosing in between the towering sea stack of Armin and the isle of Boreray, while above us the gulls swooped and dipped and cried. Looking up, I saw Soay sheep grazing on 80o alps of lividly-green turf.
According to Martin Martin, so psychically-melded were the St Kildans that on the rare occasions they rowed their boat the 80 miles to the Castle of Dunvegan on Skye, then approached their laird, McLeod of McLeod, upon sweeping off their bonnets to make obeisance, onlookers were amazed to witness the men of the party speaking entirely in unison.
Then there were the tales I’d read of the St Kildan who had visited the city of Glasgow in the 1700s, and whose conceptual apparatus read trees as giant vegetables — Kilda is entirely treeless — and the cathedral as an ornate, although not overly impressive, cave.
I suppose it was with the hope of reverse-engineering this worldview and somehow accessing the wonderment of these people who had lived on the edge of the world, that I had so longed to go to St Kilda.
As I disembarked from the rib by the jetty in the smooth curve of Village Bay, which is sheltered from the southwest by the Dun — a stark castellated spar of an islet — one of my companions facetiously suggested that I might like to kiss the ground.
But I was simultaneously too over- and underwhelmed to do anything of the sort. Instead, I was greeted by the National Trust warden, an appropriately biblical-prophet-bearded man with the 1,000-yard stare of a latterday Ben Gunn.
He directed me to the Factor’s House, which lay a couple of hundred yards up the hill, just behind a grievously ugly collection of Nissen huts, concrete garages and single-storey prefabricated accommodation blocks — oh, yes, I neglected to mention one thing when I said the islands had been left to revert to their autochthonous state: the military presence.
Since 1957, the main island, Hirta, has been used by the British military as a tracking station for test missiles fired from the island of Benbecula.
This has involved a good deal of infrastructure, including a road that zigzags up the amphitheatric hillside behind Village Bay; a quarry gouged out of the same hillside, and a pair of phallic buildings on the summits of the hills, summits also espaliered by radio masts. Some of my companions on this trip said to me that this offensively Modernist furniture, while initially egregious, was soon absorbed into the primordial timelessness of the natural surroundings, and the ancient landscaping of the now vanished inhabitants — their dry-stone walls and dykes, the long wavering street of their hunched dwellings, the innumerable grass-quiffed storage “cleits” that they built to house their feathered food while it wind-dried.
I couldn’t concur. Throughout my stay, I remained acutely conscious of the missile mishmash; an awareness ramped up on the second morning by the arrival of Her Majesty’s then-minister for defence equipment, Peter Luff, who came whirling along the contours of the hillsides in a helicopter, the rotors of which hadn’t stopped turning when I buttonholed him on the helipad.
Did the British Government, I asked him, remain committed to maintaining a presence on Hirta? After all, there had been some talk that they might wind down the missile testing station on Benbecula as part of the post-Cold War peace dividend.
Oh no, he replied cheerfully, HMG was fully committed and would be investing many more millions in upgrading the facilities on the island — wasn’t that great? And off he was hustled by his ministerial minions, and the functionaries of QinetiQ, the ghastly acronym of a privatised company that manages such sites on behalf of the British taxpayer.
Peter Luff only spent a couple of hours on Hirta, but I wish I could’ve taken him on the spectacular circumambulation of the south of the island that I had made the day before: along from Village Bay to the Mistress Stone, then steeply uphill along the shoulder of the hills and over the two highest peaks of Mullach Mor (1,172ft) and Conachair (1,397ft).
Stopping to brew tea on Conachair, I peered over this mighty sea cliff, the highest in Britain — way down below, gulls swirled like confetti — but it took a careful focal adjustment to appreciate that they in turn were still hundreds of feet above the creased pewter of the sea.
In the mid-distance rose the eminence of Boreray, while along the horizon to the southeast I could just make out the limpid bluish streaks of the hills of Uist, the nearest landfall. Even with the rib down in the bay, the sense of isolation was intense.
Descending to the saddle between Conachair and Oiseval (948ft), I passed the twisted propeller of a Bristol Beaufighter that crashed there during the Second World War — it lay on the heathery sward as white and twisted as desiccated old whalebone.
From the saddle, a line of cleits ran down into the valley below, where dry-stone sheep pens formed shapes at once amoeboid and artful. From this angle the uglifications in Village Bay weren’t visible — all that could be seen was the palimpsest of the past, worked over and over again by rudimentary agriculture, the digging of peat and the erection of cleits, dykes and walls.
From that moment on it wasn’t so much that I became unaware of the contemporary island, as that it wavered and distorted before my eyes, as if I were viewing it from beneath the gelid sea.
Perhaps if the minister could have looked through my eyes he would’ve felt a little less sanguine about the despoliation he was promoting. Later that day, I had a chat with Catherine Knott, one of the archaeologists engaged in the ongoing excavation and analysis of the remarkably dense layering of St Kilda’s human habitation.
She pointed out a near-vertical gulley running up the hill on the far side of the bay, and explained to me that what were once assumed to be natural caves in its walls, were now understood to be Neolithic mine workings for dolerite — the hardest granite, used for the islanders’ hoe blades and other implements.
And, of course, the Bronze Age came late to St Kilda. Walking along the wavering street and carefully scrutinising the walls of the old black houses — human shelter and livestock byre conjoined in a single structure — it was possible to pick out dolerite implements that had been incorporated in the brickwork.
The black houses along the street had only been built in the 1820s, after the original huddled village was abandoned, but these dwellings were in turn forsaken, when, under the influence of their Presbyterian minister, the St Kildan’s were encouraged to view them as unsanitary and in need of replacement.
The final phase came in the 1880s, with more modern, brick-built and slate-roofed cottages, that in many ways were far less suitable for the islanders’ needs. Four of these have now been renovated to serve as bunk rooms for the parties of ecologists, zoologists and archaeologists that come to work on Hirta.
I asked Catherine about the great profusion of cleits on the island — their numbers seem far in excess of what such a small population could reasonably use for food-curing and storage. There are cleits everywhere on Hirta, hundreds of them, some all but inaccessible to anyone but a cragsman or a Soay sheep.
I wondered if they were the result of some strange competition between different moieties of the islanders, if, like the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, this was an instance of building as a sublimation of conflict, but she gently nixed the idea.
The cleits were what they were, and they had been built over many centuries, and then rebuilt... and then rebuilt again. The entire apron of land stretched between the flanks of the hills was jumbled with this millennia-old construction project.
That night, in the sky, the stars hung like seed pearls scattered on midnight-blue velvet, while the Milky Way came streaming from behind the summit of Conachair, and the shooting stars shuttled about the heavens with the regularity of urban buses.
Inside the Factor’s House, my companions were competitively yarning under the influence of uisge beatha, “the water of life” — albeit cask-aged for 10 years — but outside I had the night and the stars to myself, and for once it seemed appropriate to serenade the slumbering Soay sheep with the whole of Prospero’s speech:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The following afternoon, we mounted the rib and in yet more brilliant sunshine carved a foamy runnel from the sea as we headed for the Long Island of Lewis and Harris.
At the halfway point, a mighty sperm whale surfaced some 50 metres in front of us, its long flank arcing in the waves: it was an awesome sight, although I hardly felt able to appreciate it.
I was nauseous once more, only this time not with seasickness but heart-sickness for the beautiful islands that were sinking below the horizon.