The fog clears to reveal impossibly sheer sea-cliffs rising up from the grey ocean like the lost land of Atlantis. All around me are tens of thousands of seabirds: majestic gannets with faces like Egyptian gods; gull-like fulmars, gliding stiffly on the wind; and puffins, sporting the colourful beak that gave them their original name, ‘sea-parrot’.
We’d arrived at St Kilda after a four-day journey, during which my companions had spent most of the time being horribly seasick. The evening before, though, the sea had turned from a churning mass to a still, glassy flatness. Our yacht glided gracefully through the sunlit Sound of Harris, to a chorus of carrot-billed oystercatchers, while elegant Arctic terns floated overhead.
Now, the following dawn, we’re finally here — the remotest archipelago in the British Isles. I’d longed to visit this place since childhood, when I first read about early explorers stumbling across these far-flung islands. As I realised I’d achieved my ambition, I’m not ashamed to say that tears welled up in my eyes.
Why did I want to visit St Kilda so much? Partly, of course, for the wildlife: more than one million seabirds breed here, making it one of the most important colonies in the world. There are other wild creatures too — a wren and a field mouse.
But although I’m a naturalist, I’m also fascinated by history, and there are few more captivating stories than that of the ‘bird people’ of St Kilda: a community of men, women and children who lived on the edge of the world, surviving for generations as hunter-gatherers, from Neolithic times all the way into living memory.
We head ashore on the main island of Hirta, and begin the long walk up the hill and back in time. Just above Village Bay, where our yacht is moored, I come across a row of tumbledown stone dwellings. I imagine families sitting outside on a rare windless evening, laughing and talking in Scottish Gaelic. A shiver runs down my spine. It may be more than 85 years since the few remaining St Kildans were evacuated, but today, their ghostly presence is everywhere.
My reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a small mammal, which pokes its snout out from a gap in the wall, retreats, and then reappears. This allows me to take a good look at one of two creatures unique to these islands — the St Kilda field mouse. This bulky rodent used to have a rival, the St Kilda house mouse. But when the people finally abandoned their homes, the larger, tougher field mice moved indoors and kicked out their weaker cousins. A few years later, the house mice had vanished forever.
Further up the slope, I come across smaller stone buildings called cleits, where the St Kildans stored their main food resource — seabirds. Fishing was unpredictable and dangerous: an unexpected squall could overturn a boat in seconds, causing all the men to drown. It was far safer to scramble up and down the terrifyingly steep cliffs to catch birds. These were not just for food: feathers were used to stuff pillows and skins to make shoes, while oil from the fulmar’s stomach was even used as medicine.
But the seabirds are only here for less than half the year. So having caught plenty to eat during the spring and summer, they stored the surplus in the cleits, where they were dried by the constant wind.
As I walk further up the hillside, the view opens up to reveal the other two main islands: Boreray, home to 60,000 pairs of gannets — one-fifth of the world population — and Soay, whose eponymous sheep is the ancestor of several domestic breeds.
Then, from a dry-stone wall, comes a familiar sound: the loud, trilling song of a wren — albeit one with a difference. This is the St Kilda wren: larger, heavier and greyer than its mainland cousins. With only 200 breeding pairs, it’s one of the rarest forms of bird in the world.
My stay on St Kilda was all-too-brief; just two days later we sailed away. But as time passes I find myself thinking more and more about this place. Had the evacuation not happened, how would the people live today? Would they run internet businesses, welcome tourists to B&Bs, or might they still clamber down the cliffs to collect birds? And what would they tell us about the way they led their lives?
For the story of St Kilda is a parable for the modern age: how a sustainable harvest of seabirds kept the people alive for centuries, until their lifestyle could no longer be maintained in the face of depopulation and disease, and their unique way of life vanished forever. We can learn much from the way the bird people treated natural resources: taking just enough for their needs, and not upsetting the critical balance of nature for their own short-term greed. How very different, sadly, from us.
Stephen Moss’s new book Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife is published by Square Peg (RRP £16.99). stephenmoss.tv
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)