A wonderful hike in unspoilt wilderness
Not less than 1,750 people visit the island every year. Each newcomer is welcomed by the person who manages the place, with a presentation of the island of St Kilda during a short briefing session. He provides advice on the behaviour to adopt during the visit with a few caveats, amongst others regarding walking along the cliffs. The place is not very wide but the more sporty can walk a few kilometres with a climb of several hundred metres in little time. The island has its highest point at 430 m.
A historic tour
It is recommended to start the hike from the ancient village built in 1830, where is located the museum which is a place to visit to better understand the site and its history.
Behind the village, the stone shelters used nowadays by sheep, recall the ancient houses of St Kilda with their more than a metre thick stone walls, their roofs made of flat stones topped with vegetal materials. The natural ventilation through the walls assisted with the removal of ambient humidity and mass and density of the stones ensured minimum thermal comfort through the accumulation of heat from light rays. But the comfort was relative when a storm hit the area with winds of over 200kmh!
Immersion in an admirably protected nature
It is highly recommended to steer towards the pass. Located to the north-east of the village, it is accessible through a narrow, steep path that leads to Conachair, the highest point of the island at 430 m. You will initially reach the edge of a cliff with an amazing view of Boreray Island and its beautiful stacks.
Continuing on the path along the cliff, the highest one in the UK, hikers will find themselves amidst a ballet of birds playing with the updrafts – fulmars, Northern gannets and skuas provide the show. Some birds will even pay a visit to the hikers, coming very close to them at times out of curiosity. Be careful if you spot a nest as they will not hesitate to attack you in order to defend themselves.
Encounters with Soay sheep are part of the outing. It is worth noting that the species is among those that are genetically closest to the ones that lived in prehistoric times.
Staggering archaeological discoveries on Boreray Island
The archaeological discoveries that were made in 2011 on Boreray Island further justify, if necessary, the inclusion of St Kilda in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Since the archaeological excavations, it is known human beings were already present on Hirta, the main island of St Kilda archipelago, between 4,000 and 5,000 years before the permanent human settlement. Despite the harsh living conditions imposed by the elements, the inhabitants remained on this small piece of land until their evacuation in 1930 for administrative reasons.
Seabirds, an important resource for human beings
The successive populations managed to survive only thanks to the resource provided by birds, i.e. their eggs and flesh, which have always represented a staple of the people’s diet. The limited surface area of poor land, difficult access to fishery resources and little variations in tidal range which is not favourable to the formation of a foreshore that is large enough to allow the collection of crustaceans, have led to this very peculiar feeding behaviour, which has not been observed in other islands on the planet.
The islets close to Boreray and the two adjoining stacks provide shelter to tens of thousands of birds. One can imagine the inhabitants of St Kilda going there, when weather conditions were favourable, to collect eggs and catch birds, but certainly not that the inhabitants would have settled on these inhospitable islets since the Stone Age! It is hard to find there a square metre of flat land, and the grassy surfaces of the vertiginous slopes could at any time cause you to fall a few dozen metres down.
Unexpected adaptive capabilities
Thus, everyone was amazed to learn that researchers sent by the Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) had discovered traces of stone-built dwellings that could date back to the Iron Age in the soil of Boreray. Besides a few common objects, the archaeologists have discovered that the steep slopes were terraced for cultivation. The analysis of the seeds gathered on the spot confirms this fact. The reasons for human settlement in such a place are simply surprising and say a great deal about the adaptive capabilities of human beings.
Ian Parker, one of the leaders of this mission for the RCAHMS, says that,
‘This is an incredibly significant find, which could change our understanding of the history of St Kilda. This new discovery shows that a farming community actually lived on Boreray, perhaps as long ago as the prehistoric period. The agricultural remains and settlement mounds give us a tantalising glimpse into the lives of those early inhabitants. Farming what is probably one of the most remote – and inhospitable – islands in the North Atlantic would have been a hard and gruelling existence. And given the island’s unfeasibly steep slopes, it’s amazing that they even tried living there in the first place.’
The thousand-year-old species of wild sheep in Soay
It is impossible for you not to come across some Soay sheep during your outing on Hirta Island. These unique sheep have sharp horns and a sometimes dark and sometimes light brown fleece. They gear some similarity with bighorns from Corsica and the Southern Alps. This species is also characterised, as other wild sheep species, by its light-coloured belly.
The presence of Soay sheep is believed to date back to the Bronze Age
Soay is a small islet located a short distance from Hirta Island. Access is very dangerous and is only possible when the sea is very calm. Due to its steep slopes and short vegetation, there is not enough room for a large number of sheep. Human beings seem never to have inhabited the island, unlike in Hirta or Bororay, and there has never been any sheep predator there.
Soay sheep are believed to have lived there for a period that could have coincided with the taming of sheep, i.e. the Bronze Age. At the time, these animals belonged to the lords of the Hebrides Islands, and not to the inhabitants of Hirta, who were only allowed to pick up the wool that had fallen to the ground and to take a sheep from time to time to improve their diet a little.
In 1932, after the evacuation of the inhabitants of Hirta Island, about a hundred sheep were transferred there from the Isle of Soay. Man has a priori never interfered with the evolution of this species and when you come across these sheep, you should keep in mind that these are the same animals which lived there over 3,000 years ago.
The ability of Soay sheep to adapt to climatic evolution
Subsequently, these animals are closely monitored by scientists, who identified their physical characteristics and analysed the DNA of over 8,500 specimens. The results show that the population is globally increasing but their average size seems to decrease. Ana Bento, a scientist from the Department of Biology at the Imperial College of Silwood Park, and Alastair Wilson, a researcher from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Edinburgh, attribute these morphological variations to the evolution of local environmental conditions.
The climate and variations in temperature seem to play an important part in changes in the thermoregulatory system of sheep. Similarly, they alter the development of the local flora, on which Soay sheep feed without constraint during six months of the year. Moreover, feeding constraints have been eased in winter, improving the conditions for reproduction, which takes place at this time of the year. It is, however, too early to draw any definitive conclusions regarding these environmental and behaviour changes.
Taking into account the special living conditions in this place, it is particularly interesting to note the ability of this sheep species to adapt to the evolution of the climate and of the natural environment.