It is the ultimate “get away”, a wind-swept visit to the island on the edge of the world. Bored with sun and sand, but not sea, tourists are flocking in record numbers to St. Kilda.
Once described as Britain’s bleakest outpost, the tiny island in the Atlantic, 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland, is expecting a record 75 per cent rise in visitors over the summer.
The remote island, whose generations of inhabitants harvested puffins from Britain’s highest cliffs before finally abandoning their home in 1930, has become a popular destination for visiting cruise ships, with 5,000 visitors expected this year, up from 3,000 last year.
It is an ironic twist in St Kilda’s long and curious tale for it was tourism in the late 19th century that helped seal the fate of Britain’s most isolated community. The “steamer season” brought Victorian tourists who bought tweed and birds’ eggs, but their ridicule eroded the islanders’ respect for their ancient customs. The Victorians also brought tetanus to a population with little natural defence.
In August, 1930, the last 36 islanders accepted government assisted evacuation onboard the sloop, Harebell.
But now people are coming back, as holidaymakers queue in their thousands to board cruise ships that allow them to savour the unique St Kilda experience.
To greet them will be Ian MacNee, 24, of Edinburgh, who arrived on the island last week to start his new job as National Trust for Scotland seasonal ranger on St Kilda.
Tomorrow he will welcome the first of a steady succession of small cruise ships, which are booked to call in to the island this year. Mr MacNee said: “Back in the 1930s the people were trying so hard to get off, but now people are trying hard to get here. There are already 24 cruise ships booked to come in here this year.”
Yesterday, Susan Bain, Western Isles manager for the National Trust for Scotland, said: ”
We are expecting just under 5,000 visitors this year if they all manage to land. Last year we had our highest number of visitors, we had 3,000 visitors. There are more specialist holidays now, cruise ships are becoming more and more popular and there are two boats from Harris doing regular day trips to St Kilda.”
St Kilda is one of only 24 places to be awarded mixed World Heritage Status for its natural and cultural significance and is now Europe’s most important seabird colony.