St. Kilda - Travel Tips for the loneliest Island in Britain

St. Kilda – Reisetipps für die einsamste Insel Britanniens
St. Kilda - Travel Tips for the loneliest Island in Britain

Scotland. St. Kilda is one of the very special places in the world. The cliffs of Britain's loneliest island are home to the largest seabird colony in northwest Europe. Ruins in Village Bay tell of the island's important cultural heritage. In the following article you will find out what there is to see on St. Kilda and also get practical travel tips for your visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the North Atlantic.

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St. Kilda – Reisetipps für die einsamste Insel Britanniens
The entire settlement with 20 to 30 houses was surrounded by a wall from the 19th century. This wall was supposed to keep sheep and cattle away from the fields. Today the sheep walk unhindered through ruins.

Trip to the Island at the Edge of the World
Highlights of the Boat Trip to St. Kilda
Gannets of St. Kilda - the largest Colony in the World
A look back in time
A Time Travel through the Village Bay
Where is St. Kilda and how to get there?
Overnight Stay on St. Kilda
What to do in St. Kilda?
What do I take with me on the Day Tour?
Good Bye St. Kilda!


Trip to the Island at the Edge of the World

After we have left the Outer Hebrides it gets wet. The waves spray over the boat deck. Directly behind the cabin, I sit protected from the waves happily eating my carrot cake. But the prospect of seeing a whale and the rocking of the waves exhilerate me even more. But soon I am sitting outside alone. It does not take long and I wolf down the rest of my cake. I need my hands free to hold on. The waves get higher and higher. The boat railing, on the other hand, seems lower and lower to me. Our little boat now bucks like a wild horse on the waves. I go into the cabin, there is county music playing - really fitting to the wild ride. Our captain drums the rhythm of the music on his steering wheel. Let's go to St. Kilda!

Unser Boot “Infinity” bringt uns in rund vier Stunden nach St. Kilda.

Highlights of the Boat Trip to St. Kilda

  • Cultural heritage of the Village Bay with numerous ruins from different eras.
  • Rugged rocky coasts with Britain's highest sea cliffs and sea stacks.
  • The largest colony of gannets in the world.
  • Largest seabird colony in northwest Europe
  • Marine Wildlife: Seals, dolphins, whales and basking sharks can be observed from the boat and from the coast.
  • Great hiking possibilities on the surrounding mountains and sea cliffs with magnificent views.
  • The remoteness and loneliness of the island with its harsh living conditions.

Gannets of St. Kilda - the largest Colony in the World

Scotland is famous and notorious for its midges. When they have found one, they whirl around your head in a dense swarm. They are especially noticeable when you look up towards the sky. Now imagine that they are all gannets.

The gannets fly above us in the sky like a swarm of midges.

On the sea cliffs of St. Kilda is the world's largest colony of gannets. With about 30,000 breeding pairs, this is about 24% of the worldwide population.Already from far away I can see the white flanks of Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. This is not the guano of the birds. It is the gannets themselves. I cannot believe my eyes. There are so many of them. This is only topped by a glance at the sky. Curiously the gannets fly over our boat. Others push into the water to fish, thus rounding off the whole scenery. They bend their wings very close to the body and look like small jets. Vertically they dive into the water and shortly after they come to the surface again.

The rocks are white colored from gannets.

The cliffs of St. Kilda are home to an estimated one million seabirds.A bird paradise! In addition to the gannets, puffins, petrels, cormorants, kittiwakes, fulmars, terns and gulls breed here.

I am deeply impressed by the rugged cliffs, the high sea stacks and the many birds. For this moment alone, the trip to St. Kilda would have been worthwhile.

A look back in time

A tough Decision

Im Jahr 1928 trafen die Männer des “Parlaments” von St. Kilda eine schwere Entscheidung. Alle Bewohner werden St. Kilda verlassen – für immer. Die evacuation of the last 36 inhabitants was the end of a long settlement history. For two millennia, St. Kilda had been permanently populated. Shards and tools even bear witness to the first settlers in the Neolithic period, i.e. about 4,000 years ago. But on August 29, 1930 the time had come: the last inhabitants of Hirta boarded the ship Harebell to start a new life on the mainland. The deprived island life in isolation and dependence on the weather finally came to an end.

Das älteste Gebäude auf St. Kilda ist das “Haus der Feen” aus dem Zeitraum 500 v. Chr. bis 300 n. Chr. Der unterirdische Gang diente möglicherweise als Speicher oder Versteck.

The recent History of the Islands

The islands were owned by the Landlords MacLeods of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. In the 17th century 180 people settled on St. Kilda.They paid their taxes to the MacLeods mostly in the form of bird feathers.

In the 18th century, however, ships brought previously unknown diseases to the island - cholera and smallpox.In 1727, so many inhabitants had finally died that residents were resettled from Harris to St. Kilda. Since 1851 less than 100 people have lived on St. Kilda. In addition, the infant mortality rate was extremely high. In the years 1860-69, 20 of 29 newborns died, mostly from tetanus.

In the 19th century the first tourists finally came to St. Kilda. They bought local products such as tweed and bird eggs and made the islanders some money. But they also took something from the inhabitants - their self-respect. Because the visitors regarded the islanders and the prevailing living conditions as peculiar curiosities.

Der Friedhof von St. Kilda liegt etwas weiter oben am Hang und ist “schafsicher” von einer Mauer umgeben. Das jüngste Grab ist von 1995.

In the First World War. a radar station was established on St. Kilda. Tales of the soldiers about the comfortable life in the cities soon aroused the islanders' interest. More and more young people left St. Kilda as a result. In 1928, only 37 people lived on the island.

St. Kilda today

After the islands were uninhabited for 27 years, a small military base was established in 1957. Since then the island is permanently inhabited again. In summer, volunteers also work on St. Kilda and help to maintain the houses and ruins.


A Time Travel through the Village Bay

The Village Bay is sheltered in a semicircular bay surrounded by high cliffs. Behind a massive bank reinforcement I first notice some modern buildings with grass roofs. They belong to the military base. Behind them are a number of stone houses and ruins. Stone walls extend up the slope, on which numerous cleats are spread.

Lady Grange, die Frau vom Jakobitensympatisanten James Erskine, wurde 8 Jahre lang auf Hirta gefangen gehalten. Sie lebte im “Lady Grange’s House“, einem großen Cleat am Dorfrand. Wie sie dorthin kam? Ihr eigener Ehemann ließ sie entführen – aus Angst, sie habe etwas von seinen Hochverratsplänen mitbekommen

St. Kilda Mailboats - Message in a Bottle on Scottish
Kontakt nach Außen war lange Zeit nur über die St. Kilda Postschiffe möglich. Dabei wurde das “Postschiff” mit der Nachricht ins Wasser geworfen. Die Strömung trug den Schwimmkörper im besten Falle ans Festland oder zu den Orkneys – immerhin: zwei Drittel der Postschiffe kamen an. Erst ab 1906 wurde Post mit Passagierschiffen transportiert, allerdings auch nur im Sommer.

What is a Cleat?

Cleats are dome-shaped buildings made of flat stones with a peat cover as a roof. Wind could blow through the stones, but the interior was protected from rain. The cleats were storehouses for peat, driftwood, birds or grain. There are about 1,200 cleats on Hirta alone. They were in use until the evacuation in 1930. The oldest cleats or their remains date back to the Bronze Age.

A Cleat with its typical peat cover. The rain is absorbed, but the moisture is sucked out of the interior via the plant roots (capillary effect).

Our walk through the village starts at the church and the neighboring schoolhouse.Both date from the 18th century, although the schoolroom was added later. In winter, each student brought a piece of peat to class. This allowed heating during the whole time of the lessons.

The church with an 18th century classroom is located just opposite the pier.
Inside the church of St. Kilda.

From the churchyard we have a good view of the “Feather Store”where feathers of fulmars and gannets were kept. Right next to it a cannon guards the bay.

Der “Feather Store”, der zur Aufbewahrung von Federn von Eissturmvögeln und Tölpeln genutzt wurde.

Why is the Cannon in St. Kilda?

At the end of the First World War a German submarine entered the bay of Hirta. The population was then urged to leave the settlement. Thereafter the radio station was under fire.Nobody was injured, only one sheep was killed. The radio station was destroyed and also the church was hit on a corner. To ward off further attacks from German submarines, a cannon was finally mounted above Village Bay in 1918. It was never used - the war was over.

The cannon, which was installed on St. Kilda at the end of the First World War, is still aimed at the bay.

From the churchyard we enter the village. In front of us is a long row of stone buildings. The first ones are in good condition, with roofs, curtains and apparently at least temporarily inhabited. We follow the “Main Road” – der Hauptstraße und zugleich der einzigen Straße des Dorfes. Wobei – es ist eigentlich nur ein Graspfad, der hauptsächlich von den Soey-Schafen genutzt wird. Schon bald kommen wir zu den ersten “Black Houses”.

Die “Main Road” von St. Kilda bringt uns zu den Häusern.

Einfach aber bewährt – die “Black Houses” von St. Kilda

Wer auf St. Kilda lebte, war hart im Nehmen. Und wusste zudem, wie man die Winterstürme am besten übersteht. Die sogenannten “Black Houses” gaben den Familien Schutz vor Wind und Kälte. Diese Steinhäuser aus den 1830er Jahren waren relativ klein mit abgerundeten Ecken. Die Tür und das einzige Fenster waren von der Wetterseite abgewandt. Das Dach bestand aus Stroh und Torf, der Boden aus festgetretener Erde. Über der Feuerstelle in der Mitte des Raumes war nur eine kleine Öffnung als Rauchabzug. Dennoch war das Innere der Häuser verraucht und schwarz vom Ruß. Unter dem Dach hingen tote Vögel zum trocknen. Im Winter durften auch die Tiere in die Häuser, als zusätzliche Heizung. Das Vieh stand dann eingepfercht in der Ecke gegenüber des Eingangs. Über den schrägen Boden flossen die Exkremente ab.

Here the traditional black houses and the more modern houses built in the 1860s are mixed.

In the 1860s the living conditions of the islanders were to be improved. Therefore 16 new stone houses were built between the black houses. Larger, with windows to the bay and zinc roofs. But that was exactly the problem. The metal roofs did not insulate against the cold. The wind also damaged the roofs and pulled cold through the seaward facing windows. So the Black Houses also had their advantages.

Das Haus Nummer 16, am Ende der “Main Street”,  hat am Eingang einen Steinblock mit einem frühchristlichen Kreuz. Beim Bau des Hauses wurde ein alter Steinblock verwendet, der womöglich aus dem 7. Jahrhundert stammt.

What did the People of St. Kilda live on?

Life on the remote island was determined by isolation, harsh weather and privation. Seabirds and their eggs were the main source of food for the islanders, especially gannets and petrels. They were hunted in the cliffs with loops on sticks, salted and finally stored in the cleats. When the weather was good, some men also went on bird hunts for several days at the cliffs Stac an Armin and Stac Lee. The people of St. Kilda developed impressive climbing skills for this. It is even said that they had amazingly long toes.

The islanders also kept sheep on the neighboring island - the Soay sheep.These were particularly robust, small animals. When the last inhabitants left St. Kilda in 1930, they also took the sheep with them. Only 107 animals were brought from Soay to Hirta, where they reproduced well afterwards.

One of the semi-wild living Soay sheep on Hirta.

In addition there were some cattle and a few fieldson Hirta, mainly for potatoes. Due to the exposed location and high waves, fishing was rather insignificant.


Where is St. Kilda and how to get there?

Location and Characteristics

The volcanic island group of St. Kilda is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, west of the Outer Hebrides.The nearest land is the Hebridean island of Benbecuela, 66 kilometers away. The archipelago consists of seven single islands or sea stacks.The cliffs of the main island Hirta and the offshore sea stacks Stac an Armin (196 m) and Stac Lee (172 m) are the highest in all of Britain. Only Hirta is inhabited and holds an important cultural heritage. The rest of the islands belongs to the seabirds, especially the gannets.

View of Boreray and the neighboring sea stacks

St. Kilda is Britain's only place that is both a UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site. The archipelago is also a National Nature Reserve and European Bird Sanctuary.St. Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Getting there

You can get to St. Kilda by boat from the Isle of Skye or from Harris Island.The trips are offered from April to September. Operators are Go to St. Kilda on the Isle of Skye and Kilda Cruises and Sea Harris on the Hebridean island of Harris. If you start from Harris, the journey time per way is reduced from about 4 hours to about 2.5 hours. The tours are also slightly cheaper. The time you spend on the main island Hirta is between 4 to 5 hours. A visit to St. Kilda with your own boat is only possible with prior notice.

Tip: The waves of the exposed North Atlantic can make the crossing a challenge. In the pharmacy you can get chewing gums against seasickness.They help immediately. And if you don't have any tablets: fix the horizon and search it with concentration for whales and dolphins.

We went with the provider Go to St. Kilda. Here is the tour at a glance:

Departure: Stein Jetty, Isle of Skye
Duration: 7:00 am to about 8:30 pm
Time on the water: about 4 hours each way. Landing in St. Kilda is by a dinghy.
Time on the island: about 4 hours
Costs: 260 pounds

Our meeting place: the Jetty in the Stein settlement on the Isle of Skye

Overnight Stay on St. Kilda

If you want to see the Village Bay and do another hike, then the four hours stay of a day tour is not enough. With Go to St. Kilda you can book the return trip on two different days and stay overnight in St. Kilda.

The only accommodation for visitors is a small campsite run by the National Trust for Scotland. The length of stay is limited to five nights. The maximum number of people allowed to camp here is 6, so it is best to book the campsite before you book your boat trip.You can find more information hereEquipment can also be rented from the tour operator Go to St. Kilda.

Please note: In addition to your camping equipment, you will also need to bring all your provisions.Take some extra provisions with you, because in case of a change in the weather the boat tours might be cancelled and you have to stay longer on St. Kilda.

What to do in St. Kilda?

We took part in a guided walk in the historic Village Bay (cost: £5 per person, duration: 1-1,5 hours). Our guide showed us the most important buildings and ruins and told us many exciting details about life on St. Kilda. I can highly recommend this walk to you, otherwise you will miss many interesting things. Unfortunately we didn't have time for a hike afterwards, because our tour took a little longer. Instead we unpacked our picnic and enjoyed the peace and solitude of the island. We were the only group of visitors that day.

View of the Village Bay on Hirta. See how the cleats are going up the slope?

Nevertheless I want to give you a short list of the hiking possibilities :

  • The Gap; about 1.5-2 hours: One of the highest sea cliffs of Hirta with a great view. Petrels breed on the cliffs.
  • Conachair (430 m); 2,5 -3,5 hours: The highest mountain on Hirta and the highest sea cliff in Britain.
  • Oiseval (290 m); 2-3 hours: Great views
  • Mullach Bi (358 m); about 3.5 hours: Best view of Soay and Herta's largest colony Puffins
  • Lover’s Stone; 2.5 - 3 hours: Wreckage of the Sunderland flying boat from the 2nd world war; many seagulls
  • Glen Bay; about 4 hours: Wreckage of the Sunderland flying boat from World War II; you will also see the Amazon House, many cleats, a waterfall at the end of the bay and possibly seals.

Pay attention to ground-breeding skuas and keep a safe distance. The parents-birds defend its offspring vehemently and always attack the highest point on that occasion. Hold up a trekking pole or your water bottle and keep going quickly.

There is also a small museum and a souvenir storeon St. Kilda. From the most remote post office in Britain you can send a postcard to your loved ones back home. When we were on St. Kilda in September 2020, unfortunately everything was closed due to Covid-19.

An old ship's bell was reused as a school bell.

What do I take with me on the Day Tour?

  • Rainwear. Even in sunshine it can get wet on the boat due to the spray.
  • Something warm to wear, if necessary a scarf, cap and gloves (it is cold and windy on the boat deck)
  • Sturdy shoes, hiking boots if necessary
  • Camera and if you have binoculars
  • Provisions including drinks, because there are no facilities on the islands

Good Bye St. Kilda!

Luckily the wind has calmed down a bit on the way back and I sit outside on deck for a long time. Gannets accompany our boat and we even see dolphins. Slowly the outline of St. Kilda disappears on the horizon, I get thoughtful. What might this moment have been like for the islanders on board the ship Harebell? I stare at the water, I can't find an answer. Just a few more dolphins riding on our bow wave.

A last view of the St. Kilda archipelago.

Book Recommendations for Scotland

You want to know where the journey goes? Then I recommend the following travel guides, which have proven themselves on my trip:


Have you ever been to St. Kilda? How did you like it? Do you have any questions or suggestions regarding my article? If so, please write me a comment!

Do you want to know when there are new articles on my blog? Then follow me on Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram. I would also be very happy if you share my article with your friends.


Recommendations for further Reading

Do you love lonely islands as much as I do? Then you might also be interested in my articles about the Faroe Islands and the Lofoten and Vesterålen in winter.

Lofoten und Vesterålen - Highlights im Winter
Färöer-Inseln

4 COMMENTS

  1. Vielen lieben Dank für diesen tollen Einblick und die wunderschönen Fotos von diesem magischen Ort. Habe mal in Glasgow gelebt, es aber dummerweise damals nicht nach St. Kilda geschafft, da es sogar von dort aus gesehen echt weit weg war 🙂 Doch St. Kilda steht noch immer ganz oben auf meiner Liste. Danke auch für den Hinweis zur Übernachtung, die sicher sinnvoll ist, wenn man die Insel erkunden möchte. Viele Grüße und alles Gute für 2021! PS: Die Webseite ist toll gemacht und sehr inspirierend.

    • Hallo Dorit!
      Vielen Dank für dein Feedback zu meinem Artikel und ich freu mich, dass dir meine Webseite gefällt.
      St. Kilda ist ein ganz besonderer Ort, es gibt so viel zu entdecken, dass die Zeit einer Tagestour gar nicht ausreicht… 🙂
      Liebe Grüsse und hab ein tolles Jahr 2021,
      Mareike

      • Hallo Mareike, es gibt eine super tolle Audioproduktion zu St. Kilda. Ich bin jedenfalls total begeistert von der Story und wie sie gemacht ist und dachte mir, dass es dich vielleicht interessiert, da du die Insel ja kennst. Und man kann gut schottisch üben 🙂 Hier ist der Link: https://www.thebiglight.com/atlantic Liebe Grüße, Dorit

        • Liebe Dorit, danke für den Link, das klingt interessant und ich werd mir das am Wochenende gleich mal anhören 🙂 Viele Grüße, Mareike

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