Looking back at my last entry in this blog, I realise that since my settling in period my eyes have been opened to the realities of living and working on St. Kilda. Apart from day to day practicalities of the job, I’ll be discussing St. Kildan realities from both the visitor perspective and from my own perspective of being employed here as a landscape professional. Time spent within a landscape can remove the romantic filter; objective perspective shortens and I am becoming increasingly aware of the multiple realities St. Kilda has come to represent.
At the end of August, St. Kilda is a lot quieter than in July. Kittiwakes and Puffins have left the Village Bay area. Puffins make little noise but Kittiwakes incessantly called out their onomatopoeic name, nesting on cliffs around Dun. Out in Glen Mòr the north pastures echo to the piping of fledgling Great Skuas. Kind of “Look at me, Mum – I am almost flying”. The Bonxie chicks look like naughty children and despite being told to behave themselves, will no doubt plague visitors, human and avian, next season. The Snowy Owl has been seen quartering among the cleits below An Lag and a plethora of young Wheatears suggest that they at least have had a good breeding year.
Around 600 visitors came to St. Kilda in August. Maybe that doesn’t sound many compared to other NTS sites but most will have made a three-hour sea crossing in rough sea-conditions. There is a Rangers’ maxim that there is no substitute for first-hand sensory experience. My own arrival on the Harris boat was definitely ‘first-hand sensory experience’. As well as experiencing the questionable delights of seasickness I was rewarded by the Picturesque approach to St. Kilda. Man-made Picturesque landscapes were designed to be best appreciated from water whether a river or lake. The landscape of St. Kilda is best appreciated from the sea - even a tempestuous sea. Picturesque landscapes depend on tension between the sublime and the beautiful. 18th. Century landscape designers referred to the effect as a sensory ‘tickling’ somewhere between pain and pleasure. Very apt for the boat crossing from Harris! Viewing the sublime power of nature from a safe vantage point is a Neo-classical form of recreation still much in vogue today. Our late summer cruise ship visitors prove the point.
Coming onshore after Sunday morning breakfast, a brief walk around the village was followed by a visit to the nearest cliffs at ‘The Gap’. Cruise ship passengers then returned for a sumptuous lunch on board under the sublime backdrop of the rocks of Dun. Steve Wilson, NTS Volunteer (below) and I
shared lunch with them before joining the Zodiac dingy expedition into the sea caverns under Dun. Exploring the caverns on rising swells of the clearest seas, the cruise organisers joined us to bring their passengers hot chocolate drinks in coralline sea caverns - probably the most sublime and beautiful place St. Kilda has to offer. To complete the picture the passengers were delighted to see a young seal hauled up on a rock surrounded by clear blue swell.
This was Picturesque tourism at its best and the cruise passengers returned spellbound to the warm comfort their ship. However, I was asked to act as a guide for a second Zodiac trip around Dun. By this time, for me, the magic was beginning to wear slightly thin. I was becoming cold and wet and the dangers of exploring sea caverns in a rapidly rising swell were becoming apparent. The young seal was probably ill and had hauled out to rest from swimming in the swell amonst rocks.
The magic of cruising through sea caverns in an open dingy can be a transitory pleasure - easily turning to pain had I been asked to go round and under Dun a third time! But the Hot Chocolate and Baileys kept on coming. I could see we were in a potentially hazardous situation, but also in the hands of professional boatmen who plied us with enough hot chocolate and alcohol to keep doubts at bay. As an honorary St. Kildan I am only too aware of the real dangers of the island. The cruise passengers saw St. Kilda through a romantic filter. Maybe they saw me that way too. Working out here on a wild and remote island, I see my job as one which past Rangering experience has prepared me for. At the end of the day the pay for a seasonal position here isn’t that great - but what a fantastic environment to work in.
To be simplistic, in the modern world there is usually a dissonance between myth and reality. A glance through the visitor book is revealing. While most entries wax lyrical about visits to St. Kilda, there is the occasional honest, even negative, comment regarding Cold War military infrastructure on St. Kilda. South of the border, English Heritage describe such structures as part of our ‘Fearsome Heritage’. The military infrastructure is the topmost layer of St. Kildan landscape and one held dear in the memories of those who have served here. Heritage conservation can become an exclusive process if we are not careful and St. Kilda does have its quota of ‘Fearsome Heritage’. Walkers on Connachair would no doubt wish we would exclude fearsome Great Skuas too! As the NTS logo pronounces, St. Kilda is a place for everyone - except rats of course!
I sometimes get asked if NTS is going to restore all the cottages in the Village. The answer is no for the magic of St. Kilda is in its spirit of place, it’s genius loci. Following in the tradition of Ossian, for many visitors the remote moorland island has effectively become a psychological stage on which dreams can be enacted, memories re-enacted. Maureen Kerr, both local artist and Head Cook in the MOD base on St. Kilda, commented that she liked the island because it’s past was dead. Like many, she finds living past unsettling. If visitors were to encounter living, working St. Kildans the experience could be unsettling for both. Likewise piles of fallen stones where cottages once stood would be meaningless to all but trained archaeologists. NTS keeps St. Kildan cottages in a state of arrested decay. Enough is maintained standing for the Village to be populated from memory and imagination.
(To see more of Maureen’s work http://www.kilda-landscapes.co.uk/) .
Where fully restored the cottages are used for staff accommodation. Enter these and you are likely to be met by unexpected twenty-first century realities.
St. Kildan natural heritage is, like its cultural counterpart, an arrested phenomenon. In ecological terms the moorland is a natural plagio-climax. Vegetative succession is arrested by four main factors. Wind speed, sea-spray, isolation and ubiquitous grazing by well researched Soay Sheep. The island flora is species poor and overall terrestrial biodiversity is low. It may come as some surprise that St. Kilda has only two animals – mice and sheep.
In pioneer ecologies, fungal activity is crucial in holding the plant community together. From microscopic fungi to edible mushrooms, these organisms are responsible for synthesis of base minerals into plant nutrient. Lichens are everywhere on St. Kilda and a classic symbiosis between green plant and fungi to enable survival of both partners in a harsh environment. It does make me wonder how the current human community on St. Kilda would fare without the binding effects of fungal by-products to be found in the Puff-Inn?
The last years of the St. Kildan indigenous community were noted for religious zeal. Sometimes criticised as playing a part in the downfall, it seems to me that in the face of increasing hardship, threads of fundamental Christianity were socially cohesive in a way the ritual consumption of by-products of fungal activity binds the secular population today. Until 2005 the Puff-Inn had been open to island visitors, unfortunately no longer the case. A Times article in August that year advised that the Puff Inn should remain open (to visitors). Otherwise the full-time inhabitants will have to drink alone, and that, on this beautiful but lonely place, would be a swift route to madness (Times 10/08/2005). Had there been a pub on nineteenth century St. Kilda, could history have been different - discuss?
Back to practicalities, the season is nearly over – most sea birds have fledged their young and returned to sea. The figures are not yet in but it seems likely 2010 has been a poor breeding season for most sea birds on St. Kilda.
We have no recorded Pufflings for this year at all. On the north of the island, Kittiwake nesting ledges have been taken over by Guillemots suggesting that they too have had a poor breeding season. Global warming seems the likely culprit for as currents move, they take plankton and small fish out of range of the sea-bird colonies on St. Kilda. Ample supplies of small fish are needed close by or, for most sea birds, too much energy will be expended in fetching food for their young. Boreray Gannets have been recorded feeding as far away as the colder waters around Iceland. Climate change is predicted to slow down the flow of warm Gulf Stream waters to the west of Britain. Should that happen plankton and small fish should return to our waters – fingers crossed for the Puffins.