Flying Penguins of the North

Europe's most important Seabird Colony

Flying Penguins of the North

06 October, 2017

Remote and battered by Atlantic seas and with the highest sea cliffs in Britain, St Kilda is a near mystical island and one of only 24 places in the world with dual World Heritage site status for its natural and cultural significance.

Original mediaeval houses on the island are unique stone huts or bothys known as a cleitean, found only here. But life changed as world travel became the norm.

Visiting ships had started to render the tiny population prone to sickness including outbreaks of cholera and smallpox. It was inhabited only until forced evacuation during the first world war in 1930.

In the 1850s forty-two islanders emigrated to Australia. Many died enroute but a few settled in Melbourne, hence the suburb of St Kilda - named after the schooner The Lady of St Kilda anchored offshore around that time.

Visitors to St Kilda today can see the 19th century village layout that still remains, indicating what life must have been like on this incredibly remote and inhospitable island. It’s so remote, wrens (a small terrestrial bird) have evolved differently and larger and the island’s famous Soay Sheep are a unique survival of a primitive breed dating back to the Bronze Age.

Villagers’ diets always comprised of seabirds. Fishing was too dangerous in the storm-ridden waters and there was limited land for crops and livestock.

So the St Kildans become skilled hunters of the wild ‘fowl’. Their fowling activities involved climbing on precipitous sea stacks. One of the island rites was to scale the 'Mistress Stone', a door-shaped opening in rocks over-hanging a gully. Young men had to undertake the ritual to prove themselves worthy of marriage.

It’s been estimated that a St Kildan would eat 115 fulmars every year and in 1876 islanders took nearly 90,000 puffins for food and feathers.

Puffins nest in holes in cliff-tops that they dig with their colourful beaks. The birds are surprisingly small, only about the size of a milk carton, but they fly strongly.

Today, St Kilda is Europe's most important seabird colony, home to abundant Atlantic Puffins, both species of guillemot, Razorbills, Fulmars and the largest colony of European Gannets in Britain.

Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills are in the Auk family and while they are strong fliers, each year they moult and for a time, become flightless. With their primary wings ‘clipped’ for a while, they adapt to become strong swimmers and some groups will travel many hundreds of miles across the Atlantic.

St Kilda would also once have been the home to the flightless Great Auk, a famous and tragic extinction, rather like the Dodo. The bird’s flightlessness made it easy hunting and the last birds disappeared in the mid-1800s.

To visit the legendary island of St Kilda is a privilege few can boast.

Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel; a variety of conservation workers, volunteers and scientists spend time there in the summer months.

Visit St Kilda aboard our Scotland in Depth voyage, speak to a cruise consultant or see https://www.wildearth-travel.com/trip/scotland-depth-2018/ for more information.

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