Hirta, less than five square miles in size, is the biggest of St Kilda’s clustered isles, a group too small for most atlases and maps, too small to be called an archipelago.
One of the elders in the photograph taken on Hirta’s cobbled single street looks like David Livingstone. Hirta was as far as Africa until the photographer arrived.
Spun wool, salted mutton and sheepskins, tweeds and shawls dyed lichen-crotal gold were bartered for roof timbers and steel-blade tools.
Tourists drawn by whims of hardihood came ashore in tailored clothes. Tourists had no goods for bartering; they paid cash. The islanders bought paraffin, tinned meat, chemical dyes and dreams of abundant worlds across the sea.
A ranger’s wrist-hold steadied me for the step from MV Quest’s zodiac, a rigid inflatable powered by Yamaha, to Hirta’s quay.
In gift-shop greetings cards, illustrated histories and guides there were no photographs of the command, accommodation and storage blocks jerry-built by the Ministry of Defence and painted a shade of green too deep for Hirta’s sparse grey grass.
There were no photographs of radar discs and antennae on the skyline of this westernmost Cold War listening post; no photographs of the helicopter that can reach the Scottish mainland in an hour.
Young men migrated. Surnames disappeared from the register. Cousin married cousin. The gene pool shrank. No one tilled the soil. No one harvested crops of sea-birds’ eggs from Hirta’s cliffs. Turf roofs fell on floors of beaten earth.
The factor’s house has been renovated and whitewashed for guardians of our natural heritage. 'Factor’: a land agent who collected rents − on Hirta he collected rents-in-kind – for an absentee laird. Two lost cottages have been rebuilt for bird-ringers.
Dozens of cleits, dry-stone storage kilns like empty cairns, were whole; sheltered nestings for St Kilda wrens.
A wrist-hold steadied me onto the zodiac; another wrist-hold and I boarded MV Quest.
The last St Kildans were willing evacuees. They were transported to mainland farms, tubercular alleyways, vast skies, millennial forests and pasturelands.
The dark-fleeced, long-legged flocks of Soay sheep ran feral years before the people left the land.
I couldn’t walk against the wind
made visible by flying sand.
I needed both feet on the ground
and even then I couldn’t stand
upright against the roar: I leaned
on an Atlantic wall of sound.
The west wind whummeled Barra’s shore;
I tasted sea-salt on my tongue.
I stood, or stooped, for three or four
minutes with arms outstretched. I hung
my weight on the Atlantic roar
until I …I? The 'I’ is wrong.
Back to the car. We turned away
from the Atlantic wind whose source
was the first cosmic interplay
of star-clouds in the universe.
The wind that sandblasts Vatersay
and blows our Calmac world off course
is a galactic force.
At Loch of Harray, Orkney
On the morning of the second day
the hotel was an island in the mist
and the loch was lost.
By noon the October sun was warm enough
to uncover the water
where mute swans browsed in separate families.
On Sunday morning gusts of wind and rain
thrashed ripples into breaking waves:
the scattered swans assembled near the shore.
Whooper swans would soon be coming south
from Iceland and Arctic Scandinavia
to the lesser winter of the Northern Isles.
The primordial sextant in a whooper’s brain
is as sure as satnav.
* * *
Two offset crosses, blue girdled by gold on a red ground –
I thought the hotel was flying the Norwegian flag.
'No,’ the barman said. 'It’s the Orkney flag.’
I should have known.
The flag is a twenty-first century design
but Orkney islanders were Norse for centuries.
Their new flag widens the gulf of the Pentland Firth;
the white St Andrew’s cross on a blue ground
is the X of a foreign country.
I fly no flags.
I’m at ease here, where the North sea
becomes migrating swans’ Norwegian Sea.
* * *
At Ness of Brodgar,
the isthmus between Loch of Harray and Loch of Stenness,
a metropolis rises from our lost millennia.