A circumnavigation of Wales via St Kilda? That’s quite a detour. St Kilda is an archipelago, an improbable sparkle of vertiginous stacs, rocks and islands way out in the North Atlantic. This is the farthest west and most remote territory in the UK. I’d signed up for the trip last year the minute our friend Alan Kimber suggested it. Alan chartered a boat, the “Gaelic Rose” with skipper Bob Jones and ship’s mate Stevie. Bob agreed to take us, plus kayaks and gear, weather permitting, out to St Kilda. Bob needed to accept that we would be a group of “advanced” paddlers without a guide. Unruly, anarchic individualists. Bob took it in his stride.
As the group formed Alan suggested we shared our paddling experience by email. I was a bit awestruck: 30, 40, 50 years experience, half of them outdoor professionals plus an unassuming Olympiad. One person, Jason Beverley, is also a very talented photographer. Jason generously shared all his images with the group and almost all the photos in this blog are his.
Boats, kit, and crates of alcohol stacked up on Leverburgh jetty. My ancient plastic Avocet looked a tad outclassed by the pretty boats around her. But what a lovely bunch of people. So much laughing and teasing. I felt instantly welcomed and at home. If any of them wondered how I’d fit in they didn’t say so. Only Bob the skipper said to me “But you’re not paddling with them are you?” Well yes, I am. And once we got on the water it went just fine, thank you Bob.
You need decent weather to attempt the trip out to St Kilda. Winds of Force 5, 6 and 7 littered the forecasts for the week but there was a weather window the next day. We could make a dash for it. If we were going to paddle it would have to be the same day. After many a wee dram we fell into our bunks feeling cheery.
It is always interesting to see how a group shakes down. Four of us had already paddled together: Alan K, Nick Hall, Andy Ravenhill and me. Brian Morrison knows Alan K well. Alan Meikle and Ian Brooker have known each other for years. Jason Beverley and Vinny Campbell were new faces. As soon as we were on the water we are a tight group. We look out for each other. It’s unspoken. And Alan K and Brian Morrison revealed themselves as consummate leaders, always with a discrete eye on us all. That matters when you are on the water in such a vast landscape. St Kilda is overwhelming. The cliffs tower above you in relentless splendour. There are no get outs. Only the gannets, skuas and fulmars are truly at home here. The fetch of the waves runs all the way to America. The scale of caves and tunnels in the rock is majestic. Didn’t you always know how tiny you are?
Now here’s a big thank you to Stevie. It would have been quite understandable if he’d put his foot down or had a bit of a shout. Because he’s the ship’s cook and he had supper ready for us. We’d gotten on the water on the north coast of Hirta early afternoon. We’d paddled west to Geo na h’Airde and then turned eastward to paddle back round the north and east sides of Hirta to Village Bay. We weren’t ready to get off the water. We’d likely be away in the morning. Supper could wait. There was more exploring to do. While some of the group took a walk up Village Bay Alan K and I got back on the water. Every day from then on Stevie put up with us forgetting lunch, appearing unexpectedly as hungry as lions, not eating till 9:00pm. Which sometimes meant he was still working on clearing up at 10:00pm. And that kindness meant a lot to all of us.
Alan and I set out for a memorable evening paddle. The water in Village Bay was silky calm. We set out through the channel that separates Hirta from Dun into some white bouncy surf. Back in the bay we travelled at a very gentle pace along the northern flank of Dun soaking up the evening calm. This is Puffin land. The air is crammed with these purposeful little fellas, there are literally thousands of them rafted up on the water. Heaven it was. We had a playful time paddling through tunnels back and forth through Dun, round the headland and the bouncy stuff. Then back through the most exciting tunnel to drift back as slow as we could through a sea of bouncy puffins.
So yes, we did get our boats salty at St Kilda. And it was amazing and I am very grateful to Jason for his photos which capture the experience so well. As forecast the winds picked up and stayed up in subsequent days. So we ran for cover. No-one in their right minds would complain. Great places, great paddling.
To give my arm a bit more recovery time I’d planned to walk every other day and this worked well for me. On the Monarch Isles there was a richness of ground nesting birds to discover: Fulmar, Peewits, Skylarks, Eider Duck, Curlew. Stormy Petrels in the walls of the abandoned bothies. Plants too in the Machair: orchids and miniature Ragged Robin.
We came back into the sound of Harris hoping to find a bit of shelter, enough shelter for some of the iconic paddling for which the sound is famous. With a three metre swell this was not going to happen. Regretfully we ran past Siolaigh, Pabbay round Renish Point and into Lingreabhaigh. Paddled a bit, walked a bit. I walked with Nick. He has a passion for history and a real understanding of the old farming methods and way of life. So, when we found three ruins, stacked one above he was an expert guide. The oldest and most primitive was at the water’s edge, a simple egg shaped dwelling some 20 foot long, the stone work still standing firm. Above it the ruin of a fishing boat, the Rose of Lingerbay sadly composting back into the peat and yellow flag iris. Above this stood the ruins of a handsome blackhouse, the walls 2 metres wide, a generous sized building, the home of a wealthy and important person Nick felt. And above that, in a truly sorry state, a house built perhaps in the 1930s. The roof and floors now falling in, curtains blowing forlorn at broken windows. Nick and I went in cautiously, picking our way over rotten floorboards and broken crockery. On the sideboard was a deluge of women’s magazines: “Take a Break!”, “Woman and Home” and a plethora of puzzle books. By the hairstyles I guessed 1970’s. And a cardboard box half open among the bright magazine covers. The label read “This box contains the remains of…” The name long faded. The house seemed a shabby memorial to the unnamed, uncelebrated woman that had lived her last years in that lonely shell of a building. The Rose had surely been her family’s boat. The L for Large teapot abandoned on the dresser had once made 6 cups of tea at a brew for an industrious family and friends. Everything left to collapse and rot.
The winds continuing too strong for paddling in the sound we crossed to Lochmaddy on North Uist for a last day of exploring and paddling. Paddling up the Loch against a strong wind was a good work out. It was even something of an uphill struggle with a couple of portages. But belting back down again with the wind behind us and a couple of rapids to bounce down made it worth it.
So then it was down to Amy in Oban. Amy had two days off from the wonderful Sea Kayak Oban so we fitted in a delightful slow paddle round Kerrera with otter and seals. Then over to Balfron, Stirlingshire to see how Robyn, Rosie and Mark were getting on. And then, at last, back to Tan y Graig. And the maps of S Wales are already back on the table.
In a few days time I’m meeting Sue Couling at Penarth and we’re going to carry on with the real challenge, circumnavigating Wales. In the next stage we really will be turning the corner, leaving the mud and the influence of the fast currents of the Severn Estuary as we head up towards the Gower Peninsula. I am so excited to be getting back to it.