SCOTLAND - St Kilda: The Holy Grail of UK Diving? by Richard Booth
There can be few places that conjure up an image as alluring as the mention of St Kilda in UK diving circles.Its isolated location situated some 40 miles off shore from the Outer Hebrides, combined with its dramatic topography of plunging cliffs, high sea stacs and fascinating but tragic human history have all combined to create a place which has attained almost mythical status.
Those fortunate enough to have visited and dived at St Kilda talk in awe of the stunning u/w visibility, dramatic caves and walls shrouded in marine life. All of these factors contribute to the legendry status that St Kilda appears to have recently acquired; but does this vision live up to the reality?
For a start St Kilda is not a single island but rather the name for an archipelago of several islands and sea stacs situated far out in the stormy waters of the North Atlantic. These islands and rocks were thrust out of the sea some 60 million years ago as a result of violent volcanic action that has resulted in the striking landscape of the archipelago today..
Its off shore location ensures that its rocky shores are swept by clean oceanic tidal waters resulting in the excellent u/w visibility which on occasions rivals that of far more exotic foreign destinations. St Kilda's beauty and wilderness was acknowledged when the archipelago was awarded World Heritage status in 1987.
Despite its isolated location, St Kilda has a rich and fascinating history of human occupation dating back some four thousand years. Life on St Kilda however was frequently marked by hardship and disease with the ever present threat of starvation, particularly over the long stormy winter months when the small community was often totally cut off from the rest of the world by violent Atlantic storms. Ultimately, as the modern world intruded upon the inhabitants of St Kilda, so members of this isolated community started to drift away to the mainland and abroad, leaving behind an ever dwindling and ageing population.
On the 15th May 1918, the outside world again intervened dramatically in the life of St Kilda, when a German U-boat surfaced and proceeded to shell the village at Hirta in an effort to destroy the Royal Naval wireless station that was located on the island. Following this raid, a four inch mark III gun and ammunition bunker were installed at the end of the village, in order to provide protection against further raids by marauding German submarines. This relic of the First World War remains to this day, guarding the entrance to Village Bay.
Ultimately however, as younger members of the community were drawn away to the mainland, and with a decreasing birth rate, life became more and more unsustainable for those remaining, resulting in the last 36 members of the community being reluctantly evacuated to the mainland in 1930. Reminders of this once proud community can however still are seen in the deserted and abandoned settlement that spans across the hillside overlooking Village Bay on the island of Hirta. On the surrounding slopes ancient walls stretch away over the distant hills and small stone 'cliets' litter the landscape. Once the inhabitants of St Kilda had depended upon these unique stone structures for their survival over the winter months for the storage of their main source of food, fulmars and puffins caught from the surrounding cliffs and stacs.
Today, Soay sheep, a breed unique to St Kilda, wonder through the desolate remains of the houses. For twenty five years, the islands remained totally uninhabited until in 1957 the MOD established a small base upon Hirta. More recently a civilian contractor firm to the MOD has replaced the airmen and soldiers who use to run the missile tracking station at the top of the hill that overlooks village bay. The stark grey soulless buildings that make up this base on Hirta appear at odds and out of sympathy with the rolling landscape and the stone built derelict remains of the original cottages. However, it is within the new buildings that the National Trust shop can be found, which sells a range of St Kilda mementos, postcards and related books. In a nearby building is situated the famous Puff Inn. Sadly, at the time of our visit, access to this licensed premise had been restricted to civilian contractors only, for reasons that were not entirely clear. St Kilda was bestowed to the National Trust of Scotland in 1957.
During the summer months, parties of National Trust volunteers venture out to St Kilda to undertake a range of conservation based activities. Over more recent years, the efforts of these work parties have resulted in the renovation of some of the cottages as accommodation for those involved in this conservation work. One of these cottages has also been restored and converted into a fascinating museum with exhibits that outline and illustrate the history of the people that struggled to live and survive on St Kilda. In addition the old chapel and school house have been fully refurbished and renovated. For those making the long pilgrimage to St Kilda it is well worth the effort to wonder around the haunting remains of the village, and reflect upon the lives of the people that once lived in this small and unique community. It adds a thoughtful and almost spiritual like dimension to the St Kilda quest.
How do you reach St Kilda?
Its remote location means that the only realistic way of diving the waters around St Kilda is by Liveaboard dive boat. Fortunately in recent years a number of vessels have become established on the West coast of Scotland, which have been designed and fitted out to operate comfortably in the open water conditions that are likely to be encountered between in St Kilda and the mainland. In my own case I chose to go on a trip organised by Northern Light Charters. This company operates two dive liveaboard boats that make regular charter trips out to St Kilda. The Hjalmar Bjorge and the Elizabeth G are 23 metre former rescue work boats, originally designed to operate in the hostile waters of the Artic supporting Norwegian fishing trawlers. Extensively refitted, both vessels have been re-designed and equipped to meet the demands of the discerning dive guest intent on visiting remote UK dive locations in comfort and some style.
In my own case I opted for a St Kilda charter aboard the Elizabeth G with Gordon Lambert, a fellow diver from Tyneside BSAC 114 club. (You cannot make a 'single person' booking, only in dive pairs).
The Elizabeth G is owned and skippered by Rob Barlow, an easy going and unflappable character, with a considerable experience of sailing charters around the West coast Scotland and the waters around St Kilda. Accommodation aboard this vessel is very comfortable, with central heating, water basins in each cabin and hot showers available. The standard of cuisine offered on this charter was of the highest standard. Currently the Elizabeth G is under going a major refit including the addition of stabilizers, the extension of the lounge area and the installation of the kitchen upstairs, making more cabin space below. When this work is completed for the start of the 2006 season, the Elizabeth G will offer an even more comfortable and luxurious charter experience.
The journey out to St Kilda
Gordon and I travelled to Oban where we unloaded our gear on the railway pier and onto the waiting Elizabeth G.
The weather forecast however was not good, with a predicted incoming South Westerly gale gusting up to force 11. It was therefore with a degree of trepidation that the Elizabeth G headed up the Sound of Mull to take shelter in Tobermory before the skipper decided on the options and viability of a St Kilda passage.
That night, the gale passed overhead and the following morning, Rob decided to sail out of the Sound of Mull and head up the coast towards Skye, using the shelter provided by the islands of the Outer Hebrides, whilst waiting for a window of opportunity in the weather that would allow for a safe passage and stay at St Kilda. Once out in open water most of the guests took to their bunks, as the Elizabeth G rode through the rough seas as she headed up to Skye for an overnight stay at Canna Island.
Fortunately it soon became clear that the gale had moved quickly through, and had been replaced by a more settled weather front. The following day, passage was made through the narrows of Harris Sound and the Elizabeth G set course out into the 40 miles of open water that separate St Kilda from the Outer Hebrides.
After a few hours of riding out through the big Atlantic swell, the distinctive outline of the cliffs and stacs that make up the archipelago of St Kilda could be observed on the horizon. Gradually the cliffs take on more detail and the swirling seabirds overhead herald our arrival into St Kilda's only sheltered anchorage at Village Bay at Hirta.
Diving en-route to St Kilda
Due to the unsettled nature of the weather, it was not possible to head straight across to St Kilda. Instead a more cautious route was planned, which took into account the weather and sea state and the best dive sites available. Rob's extensive knowledge of this area came into its own with this regard.
Calve Island Wall, Sound of Mull
The first 'check out dive' of the trip and potentially one of the best wall dives on the Scottish mainland when conditions are right. This site is situated just outside Tobermory and consists of a steep wall that drops dramatically into the dark depths of the Sound Of Mull. Lots of life is usually to be seen in the top 15 metres of water.
A wall dive at Canna, Isle of Canna
Unfortunately the weather prevented us from diving the famous Canna wall dive site. This alternative site however provided a nice scenic dive with lots of life, but in more sheltered waters.
Wreck of the SS Stassa, Rodel bay, Isle of Harris
This former 1685 ton Panamanian cargo vessel was wrecked in 1966 on passage between Archangel in Russia to Limerick and today lies on her port side in 22 metres of water. At the time of her sinking, rumours persisted that she was carrying arms destined for the IRA, hidden beneath her cargo of timber. The wreck is largely intact, and with care it is possible to explore her holds as well as penetrate into the depths of her hull. Usually the u/w visibility is very good, with Rob stating that he had seen it as good as 30 metres plus at this site. On this occasion, following the recent stormy weather, the u/w visibility was a more disappointing 6 metres. The sea bed is composed of soft fine mud, and very easily stirred up by careless fin action. The remote location of this intact wreck has undoubtedly resulted in it not receiving the prominence in diving circles as other more accessible Scottish wrecks, such as the Hispania.
The Diving at St Kilda
The diving at St Kilda can best be summarised as being of a scenic nature. Over the centuries numerous wooden trawlers and small coasters have been smashed and shattered on the rocks beneath its dramatic cliffs. It is however, the stunning nature of the marine life, u/w cliffs and caves that provide the visiting diver with world class diving. Those wreck fanatics are only interested in ferreting through rusting plates and boilers, are likely to be sadly disappointed by St Kilda's underwater charms.
Much of the diving also involves exploring u/w caves and arches. To gain the maximum experience out of diving around St Kilda, individuals must be comfortable about diving in an enclosed overhead environment. Additionally, the waters around St Kilda are tidal, with reasonably strong current flows. Its exposed Atlantic setting results in frequent ocean sized swell on more exposed dive sites. The diving provided by St Kilda is therefore not for the feint hearted or inexperienced diver.
Nitrox is available on board the Elizabeth G, although not included in the basic cost of the charter. Likewise, oxygen fills are available for the rebreather diver, although again at extra cost. All diving takes place from the deck of the Elizabeth G, as its small inflatable tender is not suitable for diving purposes. The vessel is provided with a sturdy dive ladder which allows reasonable access from the water back onto her deck.
Dive guests are well advised to bring a good spares kit. A ripped drysuit seal or broken fin strap could ruin the trip, as there are no dive shops on St Kilda.
St Kilda dive sites explored on this charter
Boreray Island is one of the more distinctive islands that make up the archipelago of St Kilda, with high cliffs and a number of off shore sea stacs. These steep cliffs provide some of the most dramatic and spectacular coastline scenery in Scotland.
Underwater, Boreray also offers just as spectacular views, including a number of stunning caves and underwater passageways. The underwater marine scape is marked by rich and colourful marine life that cover the rocks and u/w cliffs around its shoreline. These rocky surfaces are covered in a profusion of anemones and sponges, competing for precious space in the ongoing battle for survival and reproduction.
Sgarbhstac u/w arch.
This dive site provides one of St Kilda's most well known dives. Above water, Sgarbhstac is a lump of non-descript rock protruding out of the sea. When you dive this site you descend down a steep u/w cliff face before levelling out at 32 metres, for it is at this depth that you will find the top of the entrance to the huge arch. Once you have located the opening of the archway, you then drift downwards towards the seabed looking upwards and watching your colleagues swim into the huge opening. The seabed is at 55 metres, and from this depth you can look upwards and survey the whole archway towering above you. Sometimes seals and puffins will swim and dance in the light beams at the entrance of this site. The arch consists of a passageway that cuts 20 metres through the solid rock. Its walls are lined with sponges and other assorted marine life. When conditions are right, Sgarbhstac undoubtedly provides one of the most spectacular scenic dives in UK waters.
The Sawcut, Dun Island
Another of St Kilda's noted dive sites, the Sawcut, consists of a vertical crack that cuts back some 60 metres into the solid rock face that makes up Dun Island. You are dropped close to the entrance and then swim into the narrow cleft dropping gently downwards until you reach the bottom at 32 metres. Exiting from the entrance, one comes across an area of huge boulders, covered in a rich layer of multi coloured jewelled anemones.
Caves at Dun Island.
Dun Island is situated across the bay from the main anchorage in Village Bay. It offers a number of dive sites including a nice submarine cave, which lies below an overhang on an underwater cliff on the sheltered side of the island. The cave itself does not penetrate much distance into the rock and is devoid of marine life. On the outside wall areas of the rock surfaces however are covered in a profusion of anemones.
After two and a half days at St Kilda, it was time to set sail for the return passage to Oban, over 100 miles away. Gradually the distinctive outline of St Kilda faded into the distance. With calm seas, the Elizabeth G sailed a more direct route down towards the bottom of South Uist before heading across north of Coll, and stopping off in Tobermory, at the entrance to the Sound of Mull. This plan allowed us to spend our last night revisiting some of the pubs on the picturesque waterfront.
After experiencing the beauty and wilderness of St Kilda, we were all suddenly brought sharply back to the modern world, by the sad news of the London suicide bombings.
The following morning, the Elizabeth G set off down the Sound of Mull for the final leg of the journey to Oban, stopping off briefly to allow us to complete a dive on the wreck of the Shuna, and a final dive for a few scallops to take home at one of Rob's secret sites.
Later that day, we docked back at the railway pier at Oban. The St Kilda adventure was over.
Did the St Kilda experience live up to its promise? Speaking personally it offered a truly memorable experience for a similar price to that of a typical Northern Red Sea based liveaboard trip. With any UK based trip, the weather is always an uncertain factor, and this is particularly true of those choosing to venture out to St Kilda. You simply have to accept that the trip is entirely dependant upon the fortunes of the weather gods. The quality of dive boats operated by Northern Light charters however do stack the odds more in the favour of those intent on visiting this remote and wild location. If the traveller is successful in completing the long quest out to St Kilda, then they will be rewarded by some of the finest scenic diving in British waters. Having experienced St Kilda, I returned home with some fantastic memories of a truly special place. For me, St Kilda deserves its status as the Holy Grail of UK diving.
Northern Light charters contact details and website:
Tel. Hannah, 01631 740595
Other St Kilda related websites:
National trust of Scotland St Kilda website
Suggested reading material;
For information concerning the history and local walks on St Kilda, try;
St Kilda, Colin Baxter Island Guides, David Quine ISBN 1-84107-008-4
For an informative and moving account of the human history of the occupation of St Kilda I recommend,
The Life and Death of St Kilda' by Tom Steel, Harper Collins Publishers,
ISBN 0 00 637340 2
Tyneside BSAC 114 website: