ESSAY John Harrison

NWR Issue 96

Islands on the Edge: St Kilda

I forget about the face of the young woman in the photo as the massive bird attacks my face. I duck my head at the last second, my sea-boots make me slow-footed, and the bird whips by so close to my scalp that I feel the air screaming off its wings. I am lucky; it doesn’t perform its encore: throwing its stomach contents over me. It is a great skua, but if it could name itself it would choose the Shetland name: bonxie. They are so powerful they can bully food from gannets and greater black-backed gulls, and have been observed in Sutherland taking kittiwake gulls out of the sky and drowning them.

I am nearing the top of Conachair, the highest point of St Kilda. The day is still and warm; in my thick socks and boots my feet prickle and sweat. I am leading an expedition round remote Scottish Islands on a small ship, but I have an hour off. To the left, the shoulder of the hill now hides the bulk of the island. Before, I could see the sweep of the land down to the village in the U-shaped bay below. The village lying in its arms needs no name; it is the only settlement. To the right there is no more land, just cliffs 1397 feet high: the highest in the British Isles, so I seem to walk over a small green dome adrift in the sky. The bonxies will not share the sky with me. This one slices down the green hill, and banks out over the Atlantic above the faint noise of waves ripping at the edges of the rocks of Sgeir Dhomhuill. Its mate is already peeling off the hill to take over the work, shaping its run towards me. The island is Hirta, the Norse for shepherd; although less than two miles long, it is the largest of four islands making up the group of St Kilda, 45 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, and 110 miles from mainland Scotland. To the west lies Rockall, then America.

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