St Kilda and Rockall

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St Kilda


NA1505 : Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray, St Kilda by Phil Thirkell
The image is a view from the summit of Mullach Mor on Hirta, the main island of the St Kilda archipelago. Boreray is the bigger island to the right. The central stac is Stac Lee (NA1405) and to the left is Stac an Armin (NA1506).
by Phil Thirkell



Introduction


The St Kilda archipelago is located about 65 km WNW of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan an Iar). It comprises three main islands (Hirta, Soay and Boreray) as well as Dun and many sea stacks. Hirta was inhabited for many centuries (it is unlikely that any of the other islands were ever permanently inhabited), but finally in 1930 the remaining inhabitants requested relocation to the mainland of Scotland, where the men found work in forestry or similar occupations. The last 36 residents left on 29 August that year.

Within the UK, St Kilda has the unique distinction of being a World Heritage Site in both the natural and cultural categories. The archipelago is a major breeding ground for many species of seabirds.

Among other things, the St Kildans were renowned for their skills as climbers, as one of their sources of food was the gannets nesting on the cliffs of the stacks. In the 21st century, this sounds rather cruel, but with the numbers of people and gannets at the time there was a clear ecological balance. And it was quite a dangerous business collecting the birds, and some St Kildans died in the attempt.

There is an MoD base on Hirta, which is used to monitor rocket tests from South Uist. But in the main, the islands are managed by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). For many years, access was restricted to Hirta (the main island) and the area round ‘the village’, but things have been relaxed more recently (see below). Unfortunately sea conditions often make landings awkward, and you need to be a competent climber to summit all the islands and stacks, except Hirta (which is a hill-walk). The climbing is made more difficult by the guano, which makes the rock very slippery!

Interestingly, there appears to be no Saint called Kilda. The origin of the name is disputed. Perhaps the most likely is that it is a corruption of Old Icelandic Skildir, meaning shields. Certainly the profile of the islands, from some directions, suggests a sleeping warrior. I am no etymologist, and will leave the reader to investigate these and many other fascinating theories.

Just in case you wonder, I have never actually been to St Kilda. Ten years ago, I was booked on a trip (which took place in perfect conditions). But unfortunately I was no. 13 on the list, and the boat could take only 12 passengers! However, the Geograph site gave me many photos.

For those interested in hill lists, there are six Marilyns in the archipelago, one on each of Hirta, Boreray, Soay, Dun, Stac an Armin, and Stac Lee. There are two other Humps, both on Hirta. There are a further 15 less significant summits (Tumps). Of these, five are on Hirta, two on Boreray, two on Dun, and the other six on separate small stacks. Basic data only is given here. (Definitions of these hill lists are given in the Notes at the end. Summit names are given when they exist, but otherwise the hill is known by the same name as the stack. Marilyns and Humps are listed immediately after the island name, but Tumps are listed in text form.) 8-digit grid references are taken from the Database of British and Irish Hills (DoBIH) if available, but are my estimates from the 25K Explorer map if not. As such they are more approximate (this is indicated by showing the grid ref in italics), but I think reasonably reliable. In my view, defining a 10-metre square should be good enough for anyone!

I have divided this article between the three main islands, with their stacks surrounding them. The numbers given are the (unique) ID numbers in DoBIH, and the grid references are those of the highest points of the islands, hills or stacks. I have also included a section on Rockall, which seems to fit here as well as anywhere.

I will be happy to receive any corrections or suggested improvements to this article.

Visiting and climbing


There are two or three companies that arrange day trips to St Kilda from the Outer Hebrides (or in one case from Skye), which include a few hours on Hirta and a circuit of the major stacks (good for photos!). These are long days, and are very dependent on the weather, but well worth doing if you can make it.

The default position is that you are allowed to land only on Hirta. If you wish to land on any of the other islands or stacks (and landing is difficult in itself) you need formal permission in advance from the NTS warden (and possibly from others as well). Do not, under any circumstances, just ‘turn up and hope’. In addition to finding an agreed date outside the bird breeding season, you will need an arranged trip with one of the boat companies, and be prepared to camp on Hirta with your own supplies of food. There are no shops or accommodation available on the island. The pub, the Puff Inn, is frustratingly open only to military staff, not to visitors.

All the climbs in the archipelago, apart from on Hirta itself, are significant propositions, and you may well be asked to produce some evidence of your abilities. There is no Mountain Rescue service! I would advise joining a trip arranged by an organisation such as the Relative Hills Society. (Note that when I indicate how often a hill or stack has been climbed, this figure is approximate and is based on post-war recreational climbing only. There are no records of climbs by the St Kildans.)

In a few cases I have included a photo with a route of ascent marked in red (these photos are not on the main Geograph site, but on Geograph Media). Routes should be taken as indicative, not precise.


Hirta


1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


Conachair, 430m: ID 1,636, NA 0998 0022

Mullach Bi, 358m: ID 4,984, NF 0802 9939

Oisebhal, 293m: ID 4,985, NF 1090 9925

NA1404 : Stac Lee by Michael Earnshaw
This photo was taken from the summit of Stac an Armin. The nearby companion is a very young gannet

Stac Lee is the obvious dark stac left of centre. But the interest is in the profile beyond. From left to right, we have Dun, Hirta (with Conachair as the highest point), and Soay. Now, the name Hirta derives from Hiort, a Norse word meaning warrior. It is not difficult to visualise this profile as that of a sleeping warrior, even if he does appear to have been beheaded!
by Michael Earnshaw


Hirta (area about 6.7 sq. km), as the main island of the group, is often just known as St Kilda. But the name probably derives from Hiort, a Norse word meaning ‘warrior’. The photo above will show just how appropriate this is. An alternative derivation is from Old Icelandic hirtir, meaning deer, but to me this feels less likely. I don’t think there were any deer on St Kilda.

Am Baile ‘The village’ is where the inhabitants of Hirta lived in a row of small cottages. With a few exceptions, these are gradually deteriorating. Unofficial visitors to St Kilda wishing to stay overnight have no alternative but to camp. There are many online sources relating to Hirta, and it is not necessary to give more details here.

Sheep: I understand that, while the island was inhabited, there were Boreray sheep on Hirta. Those were taken away at the time of the evacuation. Afterwards, Soay sheep were brought to the island, primarily for scientific study. (It was easier for the scientists to get to Hirta than Soay!)

Conachair, Mullach Bi and Oisebhal have been climbed frequently. The Tumps on Hirta, in descending order of height, are Mullach Mor, 361m (ID 12,792, NA 0930 0015): Claigeann Mor, 287m (ID 12,793, NF 0871 9896): Mullach Bi N Top, 280m (ID 12,794, NA 0786 0013): An Campar, 216m (ID 12,795, NA 0754 0114): and Ruabhal, 130m (ID 12,797, NF 0957 9787): these have also been climbed quite often.

NF1099 : Looking towards Village Bay from the slopes of Conachair by Des Colhoun NA1000 : Hirta, seen from Boreray by Richard Webb NA0701 : Cambir on St Kilda by Mick Crawley NA0900 : The northern cliffs of Hirta by Julian Paren NF1099 : Main Street, Hirta by John Allan NF1099 : Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda by Gordon Brown
NA0900 : Summit cairn on Conachair by Gordon Brown NF1099 : Restored houses, The Street, Village Bay by Richard Sutcliffe NF1099 : The Store and army base, Village Bay, Hirta by Richard Sutcliffe NF1099 : Cleits, Village Bay, Hirta by Richard Sutcliffe NF1099 : Stone walls on Village Bay by Didier Silberstein NA0900 : Mullach Mòr from Conachair by Andy Waddington

1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


NA0900 : Bradastac by Richard Webb
Stack below the northern crags of Conachair.
by Richard Webb


There are also two stacks close to the north coast which qualify as Tumps: Bradastac, 63m (ID 12,803, NA 0962 0065), and Mina Stac, 61m (ID 12,802, NA 1044 0077), which may never have been climbed. The map just above shows Bradastac: Mina Stac is at the extreme right-hand edge, but only the letters Min are visible. It looks a very serious proposition.

Dun


1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


Bioda Mor, 178m: ID 1,640, NF 1042 9734

NF1097 : Island of Dun by James Allan
Seen from Loch Hiort (Bagh a' Bhaile).
by James Allan


Dun is a small island (area about 30 ha) to the south of Hirta. It is about 1.4 km long but mostly very narrow (250 metres or less). It used to be regarded as tidal, but I don’t think it is still so. In any case it would be impossible to go, on foot, from Hirta to Dun: all climbs on Dun start from the sea. The main summit has often been climbed. The climbs are usually grassy, but very steep.

Although close to Hirta, there are no sheep on Dun.

The name means simply ‘fort’, and this was probably on Gob an Duin, at the south-east end of the island. The two Tumps on Dun are An Fhaing, 121m (ID 12,798, NF 1007 9752), and Gob an Duin, 84m (ID 12,800, NF 1090 9716), which have rarely if ever been climbed.

NF1099 : Village Bay St Kilda by Ian Mitchell NF1099 : St Kilda cleit by Bob Jones NF1099 : Cleit on Hirta by Eileen Henderson NF1099 : Cemetery with Bagh a' Bhaile or Loch Hiort beyond by Russel Wills NF1099 : Cleit on the lower slopes of Conachair by John Ferguson
NF1097 : Natural arch on Dun, St Kilda by Mike Pennington NF1097 : Dùn and Loch Hiort by M J Richardson NF0998 : Ruabhal and Dun by Michael Earnshaw NF1097 : The ridge of Dun by Michael Earnshaw NF1097 : Leaving Dun in 2014 by Michael Earnshaw

Leibhinis


NF1396 : Stac Leibhinis by John Allan
A 62m tall isolated sea stack lying some 4km southeast of Village Bay on Hirta.
by John Allan


1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


Leibhinis, 62m: ID 12,804, NF 1336 9666

Leibhinis (Levenish) is a small stack, 62m high and with an area of 1.5 ha, ESE of Dun. It was climbed a few times in the early 1900s, but in recent years I am aware of only one person who has climbed it, Rob Woodall in 2009. Of course in the days of habitation and collecting gannets for food this may have been quite normal.

NA1000 : Levenish beyond the cliffs of Conachair and Oisebhal by Des Colhoun NF1396 : Towards Leibhinis by Mary and Angus Hogg NF1396 : Stac Leibhinis (Levenish) by James Allan

Soay


1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


Cnoc Glas, 376m: ID 1,638, NA 0625 0161

NA0601 : Summit of Soay. Cnoc Glas. Looking towards Boreray. by Andy Strangeway
Summited 28th August 2007
by Andy Strangeway


Soay is the second largest of the St Kildan islands, almost exactly 1 sq. km in area. It is close to, and north-west of Hirta, and is the most westerly point in the UK (apart from Rockall, see later). Soay is renowned for its unique breed of sheep – indeed the name just means ‘Island of Sheep’. After the population left in 1930, Soay sheep were introduced to Hirta, where they still thrive. Some sources suggest that the sheep left on Soay were all killed, but I doubt the accuracy of this statement. Why would you bother? In any case, there are still sheep on Soay.

The best (only?) landing point on Soay is at the south-east corner, near Geo nan Ron. After an initial steep rocky scramble, needing protection on descent, the climb is on steep grass to the summit, which has been reached 40 or 50 times.

There are several tiny stacks round the island of Soay, three of which qualify as Tumps: Stac Biorach, 73m (ID 12,805, NA 0716 0133): Stac Shoaigh, 53m (ID 12,799, NA 0723 0130): and Am Plastair, 42m (ID 12,801, NA 0590 0208). Stac Shoaigh has a rather fine natural arch, and Stac Biorach was regarded by the St Kildans as the most difficult stack to climb. There are no records of modern recreational ascents.

This is a photo of Am Plastair:
NA0502 : Am Plastair by John Allan
A sea stack to the north of Soay. It is around 45m tall.
by John Allan


And here are a few more photos of Soay:
NA0601 : Foot of a rockfall, Soay by Richard Webb NA0601 : Preparing To Leave Soay by Rude Health NA0601 : The island of Soay by Michael Earnshaw NA0601 : Soay landing by Michael Earnshaw NA0601 : Preparing to leave Soay by Michael Earnshaw

and the other Soay stacks:
NA0701 : Natural arch through Stac Shoaigh by Russel Wills NA0701 : Sea stacks in the Sound of Soay by Russel Wills NA0701 : Looking back to Hirta and Soay by Russel Wills NA0701 : Stac Shoaigh and Stac Biorach bridge the gap to Soay by Alan Reid NA0701 : Stacs in the Sound of Soay by Michael Earnshaw


(View Large versionExternal link)

Soay landing spot and initial route Photo Michael Earnshaw


(View Large versionExternal link)

Soay - the route to the summit Photo Michael Earnshaw


Boreray


1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


Mullach an Eilein, 384m: ID 1,637, NA 1536 0534

NA1505 : Boreray seen from Stac an Armin by Michael Earnshaw
I think it fair to say that this is the difficult end of Boreray! Approaches from the south (see, for example, NA1504 : The southern corner of Boreray) are easier, though that does not mean easy.

Boreray sheep seem to manage to get to grassy areas such as the one shown here NA1505 : Sheep on Boreray, but how they manage to get out again is a mystery to me. Perhaps they just live and die within a few square metres.

The two small skerries in the foreground appear to be unnamed.
by Michael Earnshaw


The third of the main islands in the St Kilda archipelago, with an area of 77 ha. It lies about 8 km north-east of Hirta, and is home to the two major sea stacks in the archipelago, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee, which have proved the most difficult for those trying to complete the ‘Marilyns’. It is the smallest (by area) Scottish island to have a height over 300m. There are a number of cleits (stone storage huts or bothies) remaining on Boreray, but gradually falling into disrepair. The best landing point on Boreray, if sea conditions permit, is close to the southern tip. The summit has been reached over 50 times. Low down the climb is on very steep grass, and descending towards a small boat is really hazardous!

The Boreray sheep are related to, but distinct from the Soay sheep. A small number (between 500 and 1000) still live on the island, and a few are being reared on the Scottish mainland.

The Tumps on Boreray are An t-Sail, 234m (ID 12,795, NA 1547 0582) and Clagan na Rusgachan, 233m (ID 18,793, NA 1499 0500), which may never have been climbed.

NA1505 : Mullach an Tuamail by Richard Webb NA1505 : North ridge, Mullach an Eilean by Richard Webb NA1505 : Eastern side of Boreray by Richard Webb NA1505 : Boreray, St Kilda viewed from the north by Phil Thirkell NA1505 : East side of Boreray by John Allan NA1505 : Boreray cliffs by Didier Silberstein NA1504 : The initial climb on Boreray by Michael Earnshaw

Stac an Armin


For map, see Boreray above.

NA1506 : West side of Stac an Armin by Richard Webb
The steep side of Scotland's highest sea stack.
by Richard Webb


NA1506 : Sea stacks north of Hirta by James Allan
Stacks north of Hirta. From left to right, Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, with Hirta in the distance.
David Purchase


Stac an Armin, 196m: ID 1,639, NA 1513 0641

Stac an Armin (Stack of the warrior) is the highest sea stack in the British Isles, with an area of just 10 hectares (so it is steep). It is about 400 metres north of Boreray. I think the normal landing point is the south-west corner, Rubha Bhriste, from which you work your way east and then climb on zig-zags in a NNW direction. But depending on the sea conditions, landing on the east-facing coast may be easier. 17 people are recorded as having climbed Stac an Armin.

NA1506 : Stac an Armin by James Allan NA1506 : Stac an Armin by Peter Moore NA1506 : Stac an Armin by Michael Earnshaw

 Landing on Stac an Armin - start of the route
(View Large versionExternal link)

Landing on Stac an Armin - the start of the route Photo Michael Earnshaw

 Stac an Armin ascent route
(View Large versionExternal link)

Stac an Armin ascent route Photo Michael Earnshaw

Stac Lee


Stac Lee is just off the left-hand edge of the Boreray map.

NA1404 : Stac Lee, St Kilda by Gordon Brown
Boreray just showing beyond.
by Gordon Brown


Stac Lee, 172m: ID 1,641, NA 1421 0492

Stac Lee (apparently Lee = Li = Ly means ‘shelter’, although I can hardly think of a less appropriate name) is the next highest sea stack in the British Isles. It is about 600 metres west of Boreray, and I estimate its area is about 2.2 ha. Though a bit lower, it is more difficult than Stac an Armin. Landing is usually at the eastern tip, with a steep climb due west. 15 people are recorded as having climbed Stac Lee.

NA1404 : Stac Lì and Boreray by Richard Webb NA1404 : Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) chasing Gannet (Morus bassanus) off Boreray, St Kilda by Mike Pennington NA1404 : Stac Lee, St Kilda by Phil Thirkell NA1404 : Stac Lee by John Allan NA1404 : Stac Lee and Stac an Armin by Michael Earnshaw NA1404 : On Stac Lee by Michael Earnshaw

 Landing on Stac Lee - the start of the route (View Large versionExternal link)

Stac Lee - the start of the climb. Photo Michael Earnshaw


(View Large versionExternal link)

The route up Stac Lee. Photo Michael Earnshaw

Rockall


Rockall, 17m: MC 0316. Not included in DoBIH.

MC0316 : Rockall - the most difficult island in the world to sleep on by Andy Strangeway
The most difficult island in the world to sleep on? I can well believe that in the British Isles. But in the world? That seems more doubtful.
David Purchase


Rockall is a tiny sea stack way out into the Atlantic, about 300 km west of Soay, and 370 km west of North Uist, the nearest permanently inhabited island. It is stated to be 17.15m above sea level, but who knows what ‘mean sea level’ means there. It certainly won't be the Newlyn datum. However, that means that it is not even a Tump – good news for Tump-baggers! (The height was 19.2m before 1971, when the summit was removed to create a flat platform for a navigation beacon. But as far as I can tell, beacons there have a fairly short lifetime.)

The best estimate I have of its area is 0.06 ha (600 sq. metres), although a value as high as 784 sq. metres has been seen. In the days before accurate navigation, let alone GPS, it was a major hazard to shipping. It was small enough not to show up clearly on radar, but quite large enough to sink you !
The UK annexed it in 1955, a claim which is not accepted by Ireland, Iceland or Denmark (although they have never made a counter-claim). I suspect that the claim was made partly in the hope of oil riches, but 65 years later, with more interest in green energy, that does not look very likely.

Technically, Rockall does not fall within the OSGB grid reference system. Myriad MC is 300 km west of Myriad NA. But Geograph and I, independently, estimated squares only 1 km apart, so I am happy to accept the Geograph square of MC 0316. I would not even try to get a six-digit grid ref !

Only one Geograph-er has ever photographed it, Andy Strangeway (the ‘Island Man’) who spent a night there in 2008. Fewer than 20 people have been confirmed as having landed there (though the number is almost certainly more than that), and not all of those will have reached the summit.

MC0316 : Rockall by Andy Strangeway MC0316 : Rockall by Andy Strangeway MC0316 : Rockall by Andy Strangeway MC0316 : Andy Strangeway - Island Man in front of Rockall by Andy Strangeway

Some readers may be too young to recall the Flanders & Swann song about the annexation of Rockall. It reads:

The fleet set sail for Rockall,
Rockall,
Rockall,
To free the isle of Rockall,
From fear of foreign foe.
We sped across the planet,
To find this lump of granite,
One rather startled gannet;
In fact, we found – Rockall !

So, praise the brave Bell-bottoms,
Bottoms,
Bottoms,
Who saw Britannia's peril,
And answered to her call,
Though we're thrown out of Malta,
Though Spain should take Gibraltar,
Why should we flinch or falter,
When England's got – Rockall.

The ‘foreign foe’ at the time was the USSR. We feared that they might use it as a base from which to spy on missile tests launched over the Atlantic from South Uist. (But surely they could have done this more simply from ships in international waters?)

Much useful information about Rockall can be found at LinkExternal link .

Notes


I am a scientist, and a confirmed user of metric units. (American confusion in this regard has led to expensive failures of interplanetary missions.) But for those readers who are less familiar, a hectare (abbreviated ha) is an area 100 metres by 100 metres, and is about 2.47 acres. It is exactly 1% of a square kilometre, which in turn is 0.386 of a square mile.

Hill list definitions: A Marilyn is a hill with a drop all round of 150m or more – in other words, to walk from the summit to a higher point you would have to descend at least 150m. (Obviously, the highest point of an island, if over 150m, is a Marilyn.) A Hump is similar, but the drop is 100m or more, and for a Tump the drop is only 30m. All Marilyns are Humps and Tumps, and all Humps are Tumps, but in practice it is common to list the hill once only, in its most important group. For the derivation of these names, first think of the most well-known Marilyn! (Hint: Film Star.) Rather more boringly, a Hump is a hill with a 'Hundred and upwards metre prominence' (= drop), and a Tump has 'Thirty and upwards metre prominence'.

References


There are many sources for St Kilda. Two of the best are:
St Kilda, by David Quine (Colin Baxter Island Guides, 1995)
St Kilda and other Hebridean Outliers, by Francis Thompson (David & Charles, 1970)
Both are now out of print, but fairly easily obtainable through sites such as Abebooks.

There is far less about Rockall. But much interesting information can be found at:
LinkExternal link .

Acknowledgements


Many thanks, as always with my articles, to Michael Earnshaw, both for his photos which he has allowed me to submit and also for his valuable contributions to the text of this article.

KML
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