Janet often tells me I can be very negative, but I can also be very tenacious when I set my mind to doing something I really want to do and my pet project of camping on St. Kilda is proving one such project that requires all my powers of determination and staying power. I first visited St. Kilda, 40 miles due west of the Outer Hebrides, on a day trip in 2010 and it left me blown away with the feel of the place, but it was a television program with Steve Backshall marooned for a night on the island of Boreray with a gorgeous sunset in the background that got my mind racing! This was just the place I was looking for, highly atmospheric and little visited, so I did some research about the island and the way of life and became totally hooked. My research also revealed that it was possible for limited numbers of people to camp on the island, so I started making plans for a trip in 2013.
People often ask me why I want to go to such a remote place and in reality my reasons are many and varied, but over the years it’s become a bit like a mountain, it’s there so it has to be climbed, or possibly like an itch that just has to be scratched, but put simply it’s just a place I really want to spend some time. I’ve got so many ideas of things I want to do there photographically, I’m determined to make it happen.
Attempt 1 – 2013
We booked a cottage on Harris as a base and I treated myself to a new tent and sleeping bag along with many other bits and pieces. I’ve done very little camping and most of that has been within walking distance of civilisation, so I was very aware that anything I didn’t take, I would have to manage without on the island. The other problem with St. Kilda is that you need to take a lot of spare food in case you get stranded by bad weather! I have heard of people going for a couple of nights and having to stay for up to 3 weeks. With my camping gear, food and camera gear, I ended up with 35kg on my back and feeling very fortunate it was only a couple of hundred yards walk from the jetty to the campsite.
The weather forecast for North West Scotland the week before we left looked poor, but with the accommodation booked we were committed to going, arriving on Harris on the Saturday evening. A phone call from Seamus the boatman on the Sunday night confirmed my worst fears that the trip to St. Kilda was definitely off until at least the following Thursday as we had gales and intermittent rain coming our way. Fortunately Seamus rang on Wednesday night to say that we were on for Thursday, albeit only for a day trip. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to stay overnight, but it was an awful lot better than nothing.
Attempt 2 – 2014
So after one failed attempt, I had to do a lot of thinking and try and figure how I could make another attempt. Then by sheer coincidence I met an ex-workmate and got talking and he said that he and another friend were going to try to get to St. Kilda via a boat from Uig on the Isle of Sky. I was due to be on Mull the week before, so that all fitted in well and meant a reasonably cheap trip. Once off Mull on the Saturday I saw Janet on to a train from Oban to home and I headed for Skye in dense fog.
With the boat not due to sail to St. Kilda until Monday, I had a couple of nights to kill on Skye, but that sounded great as it’s a place I’ve never stayed before. After a bit of exploring in the rain, I met up with my friends in the Uig pub and had a meal while we waited for a call from Dereck the boatman. He finally rang to say that the day trip was on, but it would be unlikely we would get back off the island for at least a week! As I had barely enough food and toilet paper to last a week, I had to reluctantly settle for a third day trip.
I have to say that the trip is amazing and one I would highly recommend to anyone with a strong stomach, but sailing from Uig rather than Leverborough adds an hour to each journey. While we were on the island, the weather changed for the worse and we ended up with a horrendous 5-1/4 hour trip back on the rolling and pitching SS Huey and even the cabin girl was sick!
Once back home and over the disappointment of another failure, I went back to the drawing board to plan my next moves…………………
Options as of 2014
Option C was to volunteer to go sheep counting, but I reckon that I would go to sleep so that one was out!
Option D looked the best bet, volunteering to go on a work party with the National Trust. This would give me two full weeks on the island with alternative days off, so loads of chance to explore and take photos. I duly filled out the long and complex application form and sat back and waited to hear if I’d been accepted.
As January finally arrived, I got the bad news that they were oversubscribed and I’d only made the reserve list. It’s knock backs like this that made me even more determined to have another go so I started to plan for a 2015 attempt. My options were limited and after swapping a few emails with Seamus, I settled for a flying visit in May. The big problem is that whichever way I go, it’s still two days travelling to get to Leverbrough and the next problem I encountered was not only the cost of B & B accommodation on Harris, but the island was very busy in May and pretty solidly booked. I did manage to get accommodation booked, but I would run into problems if I had any slippage.
I arrived on Harris on the Sunday evening after two days of gales and occasional rain, then had a quick meal and waited for a call from Seamus. When the call finally came through it was the bad news I had been hoping not to hear, the trip was off due to a big swell out at sea. However, some other guests in the guesthouse had just had a call from Angus in the other boat and told that they were going, so clutching at straws I gave Angus and ring and he suggested I come along in the morning and see how the conditions looked before making a final decision. I sorted my kit before retiring to bed and read an interesting article by Chris Weston in Outdoor Photography magazine on positive visualisation of your goals in life to help make them happen. I slept soundly full of positivity about finally getting there and woke to a beautiful bright, crisp clear day. The gale force winds of the days before had abated and the sea looked calm as we all waited on the quay ready to board the boat. We then heard that Angus was ringing the warden on St. Kilda to get a weather report; 20 minutes later we got the disappointing news that the trip was off due to 5m swells out at sea and no chance of landing on St. Kilda. So very tantalisingly close this time, but I’ll get there one day!
Options for the Future
I’m still determined to have yet another go, despite spending many, many hours thinking about my options, in reality they are very few.
A flying visit using B & B like on this trip is fraught with limitations and lacks the necessary flexibility to cope with delays, so I don’t think that is a viable option again.
Renting a cottage is a better if expensive option, but even having two weeks may not guarantee success.
Renting a camper van for two weeks would give the requisite flexibility, but is also expensive and would be very embarrassing if I got stuck on the island and couldn’t get it back at the end of the second week!
Right now applying to the National Trust again looks like the best option, though one or two other ideas are staring to percolate into my mind, so watch this space, I may get there yet……….
There again if someone would like to lend me a holiday cottage for a month in high season, I’d be happy to accept.