St Kilda has been on my wish list since the moment that I first learned about it many years ago and so when I was asked to provide relief cover as the warden here, I leapt at the opportunity like a Soay sheep up a stone wall.
In the very short two weeks that I’ve been here I have found Hirta to be a multi-faceted gem that reflects the environment back into people’s hearts. I’ve been struck daily by the way that volunteer’s eyes begin to glisten as they describe their personal experience of the archipelago, the way that the faces of day visitors mould to mirror their interpretation of the past and the fact that my face has been left with suntan lines where my face has creased through laughter and smiling for too long. The way that this isolated island group moves people has moved me and will leave a lasting impression on me both personally and professionally.
So many memorable sights and experiences echo through me although one day stands out during my time of St Kilda more than any other. A day off work meant that I had the freedom to tag along with Gina Prior, our fantastic Seabird and Marine Ranger and help her with a Puffin survey on the little visited island of Dun. A short trip across the bay and a literal leap of faith onto a rocky outcrop armed with bundles of bamboo canes before a sharp scramble uphill between the “vomiting” Fulmars and we had made it! In the beautiful, warm sunshine, we started searching burrows for active Puffin nests to be marked for a return visit when the chicks are hatched in July. As somebody who has been desperate to see puffins my entire life and never quite managing, Gina carefully placing a puffin in my hands caused a painfully wide grin to spread across my face and I couldn’t contain my excitement, it proceeding to scratch me and defecate on me, I saw purely as an extension of the authenticity of the experience.
A successful day already with 50 burrows marked between us and a Manx Shearwater seen (and cautiously cuddled) we had the luxury of a little time left before the boat was due to leave. I left the area that we had been working in which was densely populated with Fulmars and Puffins to gain a little height and watch the birds natural behaviour; on sighting a seal in the water, I rushed down to tell Gina only to find that of cause she had trumped me. She was watching a 5m+ basking shark which was feeding in the crystal clear waters below her, gliding through the water effortlessly with its wide mouth gaping. Sitting in the Sea Thrift on the cliff watching the gentle giant for that short thirty minutes could not have been any more perfect. Very few people are lucky enough to visit Dun, I am one of only three this year and the privilege of this experience cannot be described.
There are many lessons to be learnt from St Kilda both past and present. It is a place to soothe the soul with a spectacular and rich natural environment as well as a true testament to the abilities of mankind through determination and ingenuity. I, like so many others, leave the island as a different person.
St Kilda Warden (relief cover)