St Kilda and the Hebrides
The ultimate Outer Hebridean experience!
This very exciting holiday is truly unique, perhaps the ultimate Outer Hebridean experience. We combine a few days in the Uists with a 6-day cruise aimed at wonderful St Kilda, for an overnight stay followed by a full day on the archipelago.
Our journey begins in Nethy Bridge, and we travel via Skye to South Uist for two nights, exploring North Uist and Benbecula to see Golden and White-tailed Eagles, Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Merlin, Otter, Red-necked Phalarope and more. Next we head north, taking a scenic ferry to Leverburgh to enjoy the islands of Harris and Lewis. We also explore the machair and its flora including very rare orchids in flower.
On the second part of this spectacular tour we enjoy six nights on the ocean wave, climaxing in an expedition westwards to reach the outpost of St Kilda, one of Scotland’s five World Heritage Sites. There are no guarantees, but with reasonable weather we hope to moor overnight here, and spend a full day on the largest island, Hirta. This should give us time to look for the St Kilda Wren, a distinctive subspecies, and St Kilda Field Mouse. Soay Sheep, and the history of this remote community will likewise be of great interest. Our chances of both Storm and Leach's Petrels will be very good (rarely seen by day-trippers) and sunrise and sunset will be spectacular in good weather. Extra time at sea will also be very good for cetaceans.
We have carefully chosen this itinerary to give perhaps the best chances of visiting St Kilda. Our voyage begins and ends in the northern Outer Hebrides, meaning we can choose the best weather to head due west on the most suitable day. We feel this is better than a pre-booked day-trip, or Oban-based cruise, which is more subject to the vagaries of the weather. In 2012 we succeeded in reaching the islands, enjoying an unforgettable full day on Hirta. We spent time ashore on three different days, and had time to thoroughly explore, an unforgettable experience.
St Kilda is rightly famous for its huge seabird colonies. The spectacle and clamour of one million birds at the height of their breeding season in north-west Europe’s largest seabird colony is an unforgettable experience. Highlights include Puffin (more than 250,000 – the largest colony in Britain), Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel and Leach’s Petrel (over 90,000 birds, and 90% of the European breeding population). The rocky cliffs contain extensive ledges for breeding Fulmar (more than 100,000 – the largest colony in Western Europe), Guillemots and Razorbill. The St Kilda Gannet colony is the largest in the world, estimated at over 120,000 birds.
Perhaps the most notable land bird is St Kilda’s own distinctive subspecies of Wren, 2-3g heavier than mainland birds. Wrens are common in the village arera, and in 2012 we watched family groups close to our landing point. The other endemic subspecies to find is the St Kilda Field Mouse as it scurries about deserted houses in search of food. A third notable local creature is Soay Sheep – Europe’s most primitive domestic breed, and these are numerous in the village area.
During our voyage, we visit many other remote places, perhaps including the Shiant Islands, twelve miles from the northern tip of Skye. This is another major Puffin site, hosting around 240,000 birds, two percent of the world’s population! As we sail, Manx Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Great Skua around the ‘flurries’ of fish, hosts of Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, the occasional Storm Petrel, and more will the seas can teem with birds. We should encounter Otter on rocky beaches and inlets, and Minke Whale, Basking Shark, Bottle-nosed, Common and Risso’s Dolphin and Harbour Porpoise, are all very possible.
There is no fixed itinerary for this second part of the holiday, though spectacular island scenery is all around, and we should visit a selection of islands, bays and unspoilt beaches as we watch the weather and await the right conditions for St Kilda. In 2012 we visited Taransay, Scarp and Pabbay Mor, three very different and quite fascinating islands, in addition to our three day adventure on St Kilda.
Day 1, Wed 3 July
Depart Nethy Bridge in our minibus, and travel across Skye to join the ferry to South Uist. On our voyage the first seabirds might include Common Eider, Kittiwake, Gannet, Cormorant, Shag, Black Guillemot, Razorbill, Common Guillemot, Great Skua, Arctic Skua and Manx Shearwater. Grey and Common Seal may be seen as we move away from Skye, and we begin cetacean watching too, with Minke Whale and Basking Shark very possible. Once on South Uist we transfer to our comfortable accommodation, perhaps taking time to explore the machair grasslands of this lovely island. Overnight South Uist.
Days 2 and 3, Thurs 4 and Fri 5 July
We explore the Uists, from seawatching sites on South Uist to the raptor rich moors of North Uist. Our targets include White-tailed and Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Merlin and Otter. We may see Red-necked Phalarope, and perhaps hear or even glimpse Corncrake (the grasses are long now, and with the birds breeding, they are hard to see). We will visit the lovely RSPB reserve of Balranald, developed with care for the local Corncrake population. After a second night on South Uist, we cross the picturesque Sound of Harris, travelling through Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, where we stay overnight on Friday.
Day 4, Sat 6 July
Today we do a little shopping for essential supplies, with some time for birding in the Stornoway area for the Hebridean race of Wren amongst other delights. We board our comfortable vessel, and sail late afternoon – heading westwards!
Days 5 – 9, Sun 7 – Thurs 11 July
Our prime target is of course St Kilda, and if the weather is suitable, we head across the Atlantic Ocean. As we sail we watch for birds and cetaceans, going out of our way if we see feeding flurries or whales. On Monday we plan to spend the full day on St Kilda, getting to know the archipelago, visiting the Village, and enjoying the spectacle of more than a million seabirds at the height of the breeding season. With a second night moored here, we have much more time than would be possible on a daytrip, and hope to see petrels moving at dusk. Sunrise and sunset should be special in decent weather, and the whole experience on this rugged, desolate outpost will be unforgettable.
During the rest of our voyage we might visit the Shiant Islands, another very significant seabird breeding site. Over 2% of the world’s Puffin breed here, and although not as breathtaking as St Kilda, the Shiants are extremely exciting. Other destinations may include the Monach Islands or the isle of Taransay (where ‘Castaway’ was filmed). On one day we enjoy the west coast of Lewis, and these outermost parts of Britain are characterised by steep and rugged cliffs, pristine beaches with shining sands, and rolling fields of flowers. Rare orchids are present, and we will make time to enjoy the flora as we go.
By Thursday evening we will be back at Stornoway for our last night on board.
Day 10, Fri 12 July
Our final day. We disembark in the morning, in time for the ferry across the Minch to Ullapool, and onwards to Nethy Bridge, where the holiday ends.
About our vessel
Comfortable accommodation is provided for twelve persons in six twin berth cabins, each with hot and cold water and independent heating. Cabins are small, and ladders on-board are steep. Duvets, linen and towels are provided. There are three seperate toilets and two showers. Communal accommodation centres around a large deck saloon with seating and large viewing windows. Open air seating is also available, and these are excellent areas for eating and viewing. Mobile telephone coverage is patchy and variable. There is ample power on board for charging batteries etc. and a tumble drier is availabile. Hair dryers are not supplied. The vessel carries good water stocks for general purposes. Crew accommodation is separate.
'Full board' includes a variety of cereals and a good choice of Scottish breakfast, lunch (or packed lunch if ashore), and dinner, all prepared by our excellent cook. Special diets are catered for. Tea, coffee, drinking water or hot chocolate are available, and we also have tea and cakes around 5pm. For safety reasons, hot meals and drinks are not provided whilst the vessel is at sea. The galley is equipped with gas cookers, microwave, fridge and deep freeze.
Getting ashore is usually by dinghy, and you will need to be reasonably mobile to climb short ladders and alight on rocky shores.
The wheelhouse is well equipped and instrumentation includes radar, two GPS navigators, two VHF radios and one DSC controller, Navtex, MF single sideband radio, autopilot and depth sounder. There is a diving compressor feeding the bottle bank on deck. There is also a dive ladder and tender with outboard motor. The skipper and crew hold valid First Aid Certificates, and we will be within range of the coastguard at all times in case of emergency.
Smoking is permitted on the outside deck only.
Our thanks to Murdo MacDonald for some of the images on this page!
Expect a wide variation in weather conditions, which can be wild and unpredictable, with temperatures perhaps averaging around 15 degrees Celsius. Sunshine, rain and strong winds are all possible, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Biting insects are not expected. Please bring walking boots or shoes, weatherproof clothing and a small rucksack. The holiday will be run at a relaxed pace, with time for photography and botany as well as fabulous birdwatching in a spectacular setting! There will be short to moderate (1 to 3 mile) walks some days.
Please note that with six days aboard a boat, seasickness is a possibility. You may wish to bring supplies of preventative medicine. 'Sealegs' usually develop after a day or two aboard! Alcohol is not supplied onboard, though you are welcome to brimng and consume your own supply! There is a well-stocked shop on St Kilda, run by the permanent staff. This shop usually offers clothing, books and memorabilia.
What's included in your Outer Hebrides in Spring holiday price
•Three nights comfortable en-suite hotel/guest house accommodation on the Outer Hebrides. We choose from our personally inspected shortlist, where birders are welcome and the hospitality is special. Guests are never expected to share. All rooms are en-suite. Full details with your joining pack.
•Six nights cabin accommodation onboard our boat. Cabins are small, and have a private hand basin. Toilet/shower facilities are shared. Hairdryers not available onboard.
•Full Scottish breakfast and dinner from Thursday evening til Friday morning, packed lunch daily.
•All transfers by comfortable minibus. All ferries and other boat trips. Drivers can leave vehicles safely parked at The Mountview Hotel.
•Guidance from a professional Group Leader.
What's not included in your Outer Hebrides in Spring holiday price
•Extra night in Nethybridge area at beginning and end of holiday. This can be arranged for you if requested at time of holiday booking. Price £45 per person B&B.
•Transfers from/to rail links in Aviemore.
•Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.