St Kilda; a place of superlatives!

The remote island archipelago of St Kilda lies some 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides and not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it has the highest sea cliffs in the UK, the largest seabird colony in northern Europe and a quarter of the world's gannet population.

It's also an amazing place for sea kayaking...!!


Please click on the images below to open these at higher resolution.
Seen here from several miles out, the above image of St Kilda is a high resolution composite panorama. Click on the photograph and a new window will open displaying the panorama as an interactive view. Having opened the panorama, use the controls to pan, zoom and navigate.

As I outlined an earlier page, Tania and I had the opportunity in July to join one of the Skyak Adventures sea kayaking trips to St Kilda. Led by Gordon Brown, this is a must on any sea kayaker's "to do" list. I have been to St Kilda several times before, but this trip had the promise and all the ingredients of being somewhat special!

Based on board the MV Cuma for a week, we kayaked every day exploring firstly the island of Scarp and then, for the highlight of the week, four great days out on St Kilda. Our other fellow explorers were a great bunch and, to top it all, the weather went from wild, wet and windy, almost overnight to being sunny, warm and glorious.

The essential ingredients all combined to provide us with an amazing trip, fantastic company, great conditions when we needed them, awesome sea kayaking, and stunning scenery on the archipelago of superlatives. The views of the islands and the wildlife are unique from a sea kayak and whilst on any visit to St Kilda, the weather plays a large part in determining just how accessible the islands are, we were genuinely lucky to be able to kayak every day, exploring every island, every stac and almost every cave during our four days on St Kilda.

With so many photographs to share, I have divided the trip into the respective days, posting these as separate pages which I hope you enjoy. Highlights are on this page but to see more of each day, with additional photographs and expanded accounts, please visit the links on the right hand sidebar.

The highlights start with the journey out to St Kilda. Heading directly into a Force 6 wind, the Cuma held her own. As I love the motion of boats, this was a great opportunity to capture the stunning scenery and surroundings as can be seen in this short video clip.

Please click on the images below to open these at higher resolution.

The views of the St Kilda archipelago became larger as we drew closer. Sitting out on the horizon, small bumps became the recognisable outlines of Hirta, Boreray and the two massive sea stacs, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.

Stac Lee is 172 m (564 ft) high whilst Stac an Armin is the higher of the two giant stacs at 196 m (643 ft). For now, we were passing by in the Cuma, but later on in the week we would be returning by sea kayak to get a good deal closer to these impressive pieces of rock.

Boreray and the stacs were quickly left behind as we motored on for Hirta and the calmer waters of Village Bay.

All eyes were now focused on the spectacular views around us, the bird life as we started to take in the presence of St Kilda. No matter whether visiting for the first time or returning following many previous visits, St Kilda inspires every time.

The island of Soay lies to the west of the archipelago; another of the places we would be visiting in our sea kayaks later on in the week.

The distinctive outline of Hirta gradually yielded the detail of the spectacular Conachair sea cliffs. Meanwhile fulmars played in the wind alongside us. With the largest colony of fulmars in the UK, these birds are a delight to watch as they skim over the waves.

Reaching the calm of Village Bay, we wasted no time in getting the kayaks onto the water and setting off for a first exploration of St Kilda. Village Bay was sheltered in comparison to the choppier seas on the outer side of the bay.

This was only a short journey but there were caves and crevices to explore along the way as we made our way around the shores of Village Bay.

Conditions became a good deal more interesting as we paddled through the Dun tunnel and out into the choppier water. In through one sea arch and out through the other....

The next day dawned bright and conditions were favourable to set off on a circumnavigation of Hirta, the main island.

Leaving Village Bay, we set off on the circumnavigation. The caves around St Kilda are simply amazing!

Setting off around the coast, Boreray and the stacs lay to our right, whilst to the left were caves and massive walls of rock which rose sheer out of the water. Seeing the kayakers in our group against this backdrop provided scale and perspective to this amazing setting.

As we paddled deeper into some of the caves, they were either illuminated by the fading light of the entrance as it receded behind us or by the light of head torches.

The beach at Mol Ghiasgar provides a relatively easy landing place in the full circumnavigation of Hirta. Taking an opportunity to stop allowed for me to capture this panorama from the beach, with the views to distant Boreray.

A high resolution, interactive panorama. Having opened the panoramic image, use the controls to pan, zoom and navigate.

Sitting under the giant cliffs of Conachair, the view to the top gave a real sense of scale to the St Kilda coast.

Nearing lunchtime, we could see the the Cuma came closer ready to feed and water us in more sheltered waters.

The tide was favourable to allow us the opportunity to kayak through the Tunnel and into the more sheltered waters of Glen Bay.

Now half way around Hirta, a lunch stop at the Soay Stacs saw the weather brightening and the sun coming out for us.

By late afternoon we were back to the Island of Dun which provides the shelter to Village Bay. The Dun archway was a little more benign than the previous day and the weather had certainly improved dramatically!

And so the first day's paddle concluded with a return to the sheltered waters of Village Bay with a great perspective onto the village sitting below the hills of Hirta.

Dinner awaiting us on board the Cuma, now back at anchor in Village Bay and awaiting the return of 12 hungry kayakers....

....and a perfect evening light as the sun set behind the natural breakwater of the island of Dun and the distant moon rose higher into the sky.

The next day dawned sunny and calm - just the right conditions for an open crossing to Boreray and the stacs. With views from the Cuma to Dun, Levenish and the Village Street on Hirta, we were enthused from the start!

Kitted up and ready to go, we were ferried onto the shore to collect our kayaks, left there for safe keeping from the previous day.

Heading out from Village Bay, the light was good and the sea calm to allow me a "kayak panorama". The island of Dun to the left, looking towards Ruabhal to the right

A high resolution, interactive panorama. Having opened the panoramic image, use the controls to pan, zoom and navigate.

Now in open water, there was a 6.5km crossing to Boreray. Settling in to the movement of the sea and enjoying the views, this was certainly a journey to savour!

Behind us, the rugged outline of Hirta gradually receded whilst in front of us, we gained an increasing perspective of the sheer size and scale of Boreray and the stacs.

Peppered white with gannets, the gannetry on Stac Lee was one of the sources of food for the St Kildans.

Meanwhile, the sights, the sounds and the smell of gannets filled the air above us as we paddled closer in towards the stacs and the seacliffs.

Yet more coast and caves to explore, framing Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. With exciting seas and deeper caves, this was getting more and more interesting!

This short video clip shows the sheer scale of the caves on the island of Boreray. Kayaking into one of the caves, the scale of this amazing place became clearer to us. Huge caves with rough water a great deal of noise and the entrances framing iconic views of the sea stacs.

With the jagged rock towers of Boreray high above us, the views were completely breathtaking. An almost pre-historic landscape, to get this close to Boreray in a sea kayak was an amazing experience.

Once more, the Cuma was close by, ready to welcome us aboard for a well deserved lunch. Rafting the kayaks astern of the Cuma was the best way to keep them safe whilst we were on board at lunchtime.

More caves to explore and perspectives to experience with caves becoming deeper and deeper, the further we paddled around Boreray

One of the many highlights, which also provided a good deal of entertainment, was the discovery of a large blowhole and the opportunity to play with the power of the water, compressed out of a large crack in the base of the rock.

This short video clip shows the blowhole on the island of Boreray. Watch Ali's hat being knocked off by the jet of water!

Kayaking around the base of Boreray, it was difficult to comprehend how the St Kildans managed not only to row their island boats out in all weathers, but also managed to land and to transport their fowling nets onto the island, as well as their catch back into the boats for the return trip to the Village.

We, however, were fortunate to be there to enjoy the scenery and could only imagine what the life must have been like for the St Kildan inhabitants.

The gannet or Solan goose - majestic in flight. Flying all around us, these beautiful birds were once part of the staple diet of the St Kildan population.

All too soon, however, it was time to regroup and to make the open crossing back to Hirta and the village.

That evening, we had an opportunity to explore the village and Hirta itself. With fine weather,we were making the most of the opportunities to kayak but a trip to St Kilda could not be complete without some sort of exploration on land.

Evacuated in 1930, St Kilda was finally uninhabited after generations had forged their living and a way of life on this remote and hostile archipelago of islands.

St Kilda was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland in 1957 and, since then, the Trust has renovated a number of the village houses and managed the islands to conserve and protect this fascinating heritage. My own first visit to St Kilda was in 1980 on a National Trust work party when I took part in the renovation of one of the houses.

The Feather Store which stored the feathers from the seabirds, payable as part of the St Kildan's rent to the landlord has now been renovated and completely re-roofed.

Visitors to the island are met with a plaque which declares St Kilda's status as a World Heritage site.

Views of the distinctive black roofed houses situated between the original "black houses" of previous generations of St Kildans.

On the way to the Conachair cliffs, there was an opportunity to capture a panorama towards the village and with the island of Dun in the background.

A high resolution, interactive panorama. Having opened the panoramic image, use the controls to pan, zoom and navigate.

Great skuas or "bonxies" are prolific on St Kilda and we were observed and bombed as we made our way up to the cliffs.

Meanwhile fulmar chicks were hidden out of sight from the bonxies in clefts of rock. Even the youngsters do their best to spit out the defensive oil.

Soay sheep, the true original inhabitants of St Kilda graze undisturbed throughout the island, posing occasionally for visitors!

And so we came to our last day. Setting off once more from Village Bay, the intention was to paddle along the north side of Hirta and make a circumnavigation of Soay. This was a real bonus as the weather does not always allow for several consecutive days of kayaking on St Kilda. Nevertheless, the weather was holding, our enthusiasm was high and what was to stop us?

Once more, we paddled under the shadow of the sheer and precipitous sea cliffs of Hirta. At 1401 feet high, the Conachair cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in the UK.

Arriving at Glen Bay once more, puffins were playing in the water in front of us The puffin is the most common bird on St Kilda, with roughly 270,000 birds on the islands in summer.

This short video clip shows the paddle through the Geodha na h-Airdhe Tunnel into Glen Bay. (Best viewed in HD)

Eventually we had the sheer cliffs of Soay in front of us. This is a particularly spectacular island and, despite several trips to St Kilda and having sailed around the main island many years ago, I had never had the opportunity to see Soay close to.

This was a real treat. The weather was good, the sea had some excitement and the views were simply stunning.

The caves were the largest and the deepest yet and they just had to be explored. There are very few possibilities to explore deep into the caves in St Kilda and the video clip below shows just how deep some of the caves are.

Listen out for Gordon Brown singing as I paddle deeper towards the end of the cave. (Best viewed in HD)

Keeping close to the base of the cliffs was exhilarating, particularly with Gordon encouraging us all the while to play and to enjoy.

Turn up the music and enjoy the experience of playing in the waves slapping off the cliffs on Soay. (Best viewed in HD)

As we rounded the last corner of Soay, the view to the Soay stacs was incredible. Weathered by the action of the sea, these last are the last remnants of what would have been the connecting land between Hirta and Soay.

Close to, they were equally impressive and gave us a final rock arch to paddle through as we made our way back to Glen Bay to load our kayaks onto the Cuma before setting off on the return voyage back to Lewis..

As we set off eastwards, Hirta gradually retreated giving us a spectacular view of the magnificent Conachair cliffs. Above us Skuas cirled, always on the lookout for sources of food.

Making our way across to Boreray and a final tour around Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, the gannets were ever more present....

...whilst the skuas did their best to steal food from the gannets. Aerial fights, all in the name of food were all around us.

Meanwhile as we sailed around Boreray, the views of the sheer and spectacular cliffs continued to amaze us..

The aerial fights between skuas and gannets were incredible; one skua seen here with his talons in the back of the gannet.

Looking back, St Kilda gradually disappeared into the sun and the haze as we enjoyed our last glimpses of our setting for a truly unique experience.

But there still to be surprises, even on the way back. Two pods of Minke whales gave us a fitting finale to the trip.

Whilst the setting sun on our approach to Lewis and Loach Raog was a fitting end to a truly special week on this island of superlatives.

Special thanks must go to Gordon Brown and Skyak Adventures for organising and leading the trip. I know that Gordon worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the trip was a complete success and that we all made it safely back to the Cuma at the end of each day. Gordon's blend of adventure, fun and his inate sense of humour combined to give us a very special experience.

The Cuma was ably skippered by Murdo Macdonald of Island Cruising. Murdo, his wife Cathie and Michaela, their grand-daughter made us extremely welcome on board, looking after us and providing us with great food all week.

The company was great too. We laughed our way through the week and made real friendships with our fellow paddlers.

And as for the scenery, the setting and the weather? We were exceptionally fortunate and privileged to have those conditions for the week....