St Kilda

The St Kilda archipelago lies a choppy 45 miles west across the Atlantic Ocean from the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Western Isles. Constantly settled from at least 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the inhabitants were finally evacuated, it is impossible to overestimate the brave determination of those early settlers who, seeing these rocky islands poke tantalisingly above the horizon in the far distance, pointed their flimsy boats in that direction and rowed through murderous seas to reach new land.

Rather than fish, the economy of the island – the main and only consistently settled one was also the largest, Hirta – was always linked to seabirds – gannets and fulmars in particular – and bare-footed St Kilda men used to gamble their lives dangling on horsehair ropes down treacherous cliffs faces in order to collect nesting birds and eggs.

Once upon a time there was a demand for fulmar oil as a fuel and St Kildans were able to barter this plentiful resource for the items they needed like grain and tobacco. But the coming of the modern age meant that the demand for this commodity waned dramatically and many of the island’s young people started to leave in order to seek their fortune on the Scottish mainland and even as far afield as Australia. Given this sudden decline in what had hitherto been a small but relatively stable population, it was perhaps inevitable that Hirta’s population would finally ask to be evacuated in 1930. For their own part, centuries of inbreeding and the islanders’ insistence on using fulmar oil to anoint the umbilical cord of newborn babies had already ensured a savagely high infant mortality rate. An evacuation was arranged but, despite having spent their entire lives on a windswept island entirely devoid of trees, the displaced islanders were offered jobs in forestry on the mainland. Such ironies did not ensure a happy outcome.

Hirta’s cottages, cleits and blackhouses may be empty and roofless now but the fulmars and gannets are still there in number, as are the high winds that characterise this archipelago, the most westerly situated group of islands in the entire United Kingdom. Visiting St Kilda is hardly straightforward even today – there is no regular transport and it’s a long rough sea trip west from the Western Isles. I am lucky to have arrived here yesterday morning on the MSS Clipper Odyssey on its Island Race expedition cruise around the British Isles. Today we visit Barra and Mingulay in the southern Outer Hebrides before heading south towards Donegal in Eire. By the miracle of a satellite-connected internet connection I am able to communicate this fact whilst on board (the connection was too slow to add images though – I added these later).

At over 8 degrees west, East of Elveden it certainly isn’t – West of Wester Ross might be a better description – but the St Kilda archipelago in the shape of Hirta, Soay, Berneray and other monumental stacks is still a place apart worthy of honour in any discussion of Britain’s special places. Not only does it stand at the very edge of the British Isles but it would seem to lie at the very edge of Europe and the entire Western world.

St Kilda already feels like a dream just one day after having left its shore. But St Kilda does not exist (the name is probably just a Norse corruption); you will find no saint of that name in the hagiographic annals.

Architecture without Architects

It all started more than 25 years ago when I bought a book called Architecture without Architects in a second-hand bookshop. The book, pithily subtitled A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, and authored by Bernard Rudolfsky, came as a revelation, presenting all manner of strange and wonderful vernacular buildings from all over the globe.

The book was actually a follow up to an earlier exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Within its pages were numerous black and white photographs of African mud huts, Galician stone granaries, Cappadocian cave dwellings and the tightly clustered dwellings of Italian hill towns. What struck me most though was
three grainy old photograph of titled: The fortified villages of Svaneti. Of all the fanciful structures depicted in the book, the buildings in these images looked the oddest, the most improbable of the lot – menacing stone skyscrapers set against a snow-covered mountainous backdrop. Accompanying the photos was a little text that explained that they
dated back to the 12th-century and were built and maintained by local families as defence against the ‘blood feuds and vendettas that raged unchecked’ in the region. It didn’t even say which country they were in, just ‘western Caucasus’. They were, I subsequently found out, in the Georgian SSSR of what was then still the Soviet Union.

Almost two decades later I get to visit Georgia – following the breakup of the USSR such things have become altogether easier – but it was not until my third visit to the country that I finally managed to travel to Svaneti and see the towers for myself. Svaneti happens to be home to some of Europe’s highest villages, with permanent settlements where snow lingers late into May, but the region is better known for its unique ancient culture and for its somewhat sinister reputation. Even within Georgia, the Svan inhabitants of the valley are treated with suspicion as Svaneti is usually thought of as a backward, lawless region with a reputation for brigandage. This certainly used to be the case, and until a decade ago Svaneti was a risky place to visit with robberies at gunpoint not uncommon. Thanks to a big clean-up operation a few years ago – the Georgian government is keen to develop tourism – it is now pretty safe.

Visiting Svaneti  for the first time I realise that the place I saw in Rudolfsky’s book all those years ago was a collection of villages  called Ushguli, nestled beneath high Caucasus peaks and stretching high up a valley. At 2,200 metres altitude, Ushguli is probably the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (although currently no-go Dagestan on the other side of the Caucasus range also has contenders to the title) but it is its magnificent medieval towers that make it truly extraordinary. Some have collapsed over the years but there still sufficient to present an imposing spectacle and render Ushguli’s towers a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has never been a better time to visit Svaneti, although things are changing fast – too fast for comfort perhaps. Following centuries of isolation – both the wheel and the internal combustion engine arrived here at roughly the same time during the 1930s – Svan villagers are starting to leave their high valleys for an easier life in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The building of a new road will no doubt help accelerate this change and the days of unadulterated Svan culture may now be numbered. For the time being though, travelling there is still to take part in an adventure.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the country. Authored by Tim Burford and recently updated by yours truly for the 4th edition, it contains all that you need to know about Georgia – Svaneti and Ushguli included.