Running at The Edge of the World

­A burst of Tertiary volcanic activity gave rise to a number of islands in the north Atlantic, among them the Faeroes, Iceland, Mull, Rum and St Kilda. The extent of the St Kilda crater is marked today by the isles of Hirta, Dun and Soay to the west, and Boreray, Stac an Armin and Stac Li 6km to the east. These islands, 40mi west of Harris/Lewis, are hard to get at – Islands at the Edge of the World.

The six each involve over 150m ascent, and as such are numbered among the 1552 Ma­rilyns (Ireland excluded) on Alan Dawson’s list in Relative Hills of Britain. As I’d visited the other 1546 by the end of 2002, it was time to go to St Kilda. All but Conachair (the 430m summit of the main island, Hirta) are more or less impossible due mainly to a combination of weather, and access restrictions. Still, a tick is a tick, and 3-9 May was the window allocated for 8 baggers – 3 of whom had already climbed in excess of 1540 Marilyns – to make their bid.

April 2003 had seen some excellent weather in S­cotland. This all changed at the end of the month with winds up to Force 8. The party duly assembled at Uig, West Lewis on Saturday 3 May at the start of a week which was to see weather worse than any experienced the preceding winter, with winds reaching Storm Force 11. That evening we boarded the MV Cuma and headed down the west coast of Lewis and anchored in the remote Loch Reasort. Sunday, strong winds pinned us to the south shore of the loch; we climbed a few hills on that side then consulted the skipper. Winds were set to turn North-easterly Force 6+, from which there was no hiding place, so we headed back to Uig for the night. I have to confess to feeling a little nervous the first time the boat rolled violently and crockery could be heard breaking. But we weren’t in imminent danger so just felt a little sick and prayed for land.

Monday we had a stormy day – ashore thankfully. Tuesday morning, Murdo consulted a few forecasts. The winds were now set south-westerly, Force 6-7, which apparently meant it was OK to go to Kilda (our only chance, at any rate). Six seasick hours later Boreray and Stac an Armin were in sight. Jagged unfriendly silhouettes against the afternoon sunshine. Proximity turned the slopes of Boreray to emerald green, then we were past and the mighty stacs were in sunshine, Stac Li already covered in thousands of dazzling white Gannets. At last we were in Village Bay sheltered from the gale by Dun and Hirta.

A quick brew and we were ashore, listening to the Warden’s introduction and instructions …. no food or other refuse to be left behind …. no toilets ….. would we be given plastic bags in case we were taken short…? Bert dived into a gap in the discourse: “I’m going to tell you something: when you’ve finished we’re all going to head straight up Conachair.” Which is pretty much what happened.

As the token hill runners of the party, Chris Upson and I climbed the steep grass/heather slopes of Oiseval (290m), past drystone roofed cleits which the native St Kildans used to dry harvested seabirds. Then a fine clifftop run to The Gap to catch the rest of the party, then up towards Conachair. A couple of cute brown Soay lambs follow us for a short while – the population essentially in a wild state since the only folk who could catch them were evacuated to the mainland in 1930. Chris hands me his camera for an action portrait, down the steep grassy ridge to the blue white-capped Atlantic with the Stacs a defiant backdrop. Conachair lays claim to the highest seacliffs in Britain (they are mostly discontinuous and my money is on the much finer cliffs of Foula, but that’s another story). The summit has the remains of a trig pillar: the intact trig is 200m further south commanding the classic view of Village Bay, with the row of mostly-derelict houses of the old village in the foreground, the superb serrated gabbro profile of Dun on the far side of the bay, and in between, the incongruous grey army buildings lining the Hirta shoreline.

We cross a boggy saddle, climb slightly to Mullach Mor (361m, covered with MoD masts belonging to the now-superseded missile tracking facility) then an easy-angled fast run leads to the south-west coastal cliffs with a superb succession of shapely rocky summits – Claigeann Mor, Mullach Bi (358m), The Cambir. We’re timed out at Mullach Bi (we didn’t land til gone 7) so we jog a few metres towards The Cambir to open the spectacular view across Soay Sound with its improbable Stacs (thankfully not Marilyns!) backed by the superb Soay (376m), its cliffy shoreline rising steeply to the grassy half-dome summit, before retracing the coast path then racing down to the superb rocky stop-end summit of Ruaival, poised above Dun gap. In the remaining twilight we angle down to the village and the welcoming lights of the Puff Inn (!). Would make a smashing little race. Shortly afterwards Rowland and Ann are back off the hill and Finlay heads across with the dinghy to take us back to the Cuma and a well-earned dinner.

Wednesday we’re looking forward to a more leisurely exploration, but the Coastguard calls up Murdo to say that a 50 mph wind will soon be blowing straight into Village Bay – so it’s time to leave! We pass under the north coast of Hirta seeing at close quarter its fine cliffs. At Soay we turn landward, passing close by Stac Li (176m) with its unpromising ledge system which allegedly is the key to the vertical cliffs leading to its Gannet-packed summit. Boreray (384m) and Stac an Armin (196m) look equally fabulous, but at least climbable – given a calm sea.

That evening we’re back in Uig harbour, our seafaring done, minds filled with images of stupendous cliffs, wild green slopes, chaotic seas, of return trips maybe; of running at The Edge of the World.

Rob Woodall, May 2003