St Kilda is a dream destination for many people visiting Scotland, yet you might have never heard about it – and it’s hard to blame you. While it’s on the bucket list of anyone who ‘collects’ World Heritage Sites and a paradise for birders, St Kilda is hardly a regular stop on typical Scotland itineraries. Too far away and tricky to get to, the islands are still a secret among Scotland fans – a secret that will be unveiled for you in this guide to planning your St Kilda trip!
St Kilda is a small island group, approximately 50 miles west off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. There are four main islands – Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray – as well as numerous sea stacks surrounding them. St Kilda is a double Unesco World Heritage Site – the only one in Scotland which carries this title due to its unique natural landscape and its history.
Having been home to a thriving Gaelic community for hundreds of years (more on that below) it is now mostly uninhabited, apart from a year-round military presence as well as wardens and scientists from the National Trust for Scotland who spend several months here during the summer.
All this makes St Kilda a popular day trip destination for nature lovers and history buffs alike. But how do you incorporate this unique location into your already bursting Scotland itinerary? This guide tells you everything you need to know about visiting St Kilda on a day trip.
Booking a St Kilda trip
The main ingredients of a successful trip to St Kilda are planning and flexibility. You need to know where tour options start from, how to get there and how much time to spend in the area.
Tours run from mid-April to mid-September which coincides with the breeding season of the many seabirds that flock to St Kilda to mate and nest.
Most operators will require you to book far in advance and be available on at least 2 days, just in case a trip has to be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. While the tours theoretically run Monday to Saturday, there are only 3 trips a week on average.
The flexibility required for a visit to St Kilda means, that you should be prepared to spend a few days in or near the destination from where the tour starts. And that is often the tricky part when trying to fit St Kilda on a regular Scotland holiday.
St Kilda last minute
With all that said though, it is possible to visit St Kilda on fairly short notice if you are flexible and the weather gods are on your side. It is certainly also easier to secure one last minute spot, than 4 if you wanted to visit as a group. I managed to score a spot on a Monday boat trip and only phoned the Saturday before – I even managed to fit my hike on the Hebridean Way around the last-minute booking. It can be done, but I had not much choice in terms of dates and if the weather was bad that day, I would not have been able to reschedule for another time.
Tour operator going to St Kilda
There are three tour operators offering day trips to St Kilda. They leave either from Stein on Skye or Leverburgh on Harris. Both locations have their benefits and disadvantages.
Skye to St Kilda day trips
The Isle of Skye is very easy to get to and since it is already a popular stop on many people’s Scotland itinerary, it would be the easier location to incorporate a St Kilda boat tour in your trip. There is also plenty of things to do on Skye in case you have to wait for the right conditions to board your cruise. You just need to book your accommodation on the island well in advance.
The downside of leaving for St Kilda from Skye is that it’s going to be a long way to get there. It takes 4 hours by speedboat from Stein to St Kilda, which is over an hour more than the journey from Harris. The sea can be rough even in good weather conditions and if you have a sensitive stomach, this is something worth considering.
The company operating from Skye is called Go to St Kilda. Their tour leaves the jetty in Stein at 7 am and returns at 8.30 pm. It takes about 40 minutes to drive from Portree to Stein, so you are in for a very long day.
Harris to St Kilda day trips
The Isle of Harris is part of the Outer Hebrides archipelago which is a beautiful holiday destination in and of itself. Since it takes a couple of hours to get here by car ferry, the islands – also called Western Isles – are not often found on traditional Scotland itineraries. However, they are well worth a visit and there is plenty to do even just on the two connected islands Harris and Lewis, should you have to wait for your cruise to go ahead. Accommodation here is easier to come by, but should also be booked in advance for the summer months.
St Kilda boat tours leave from Leverburgh in the south of Harris and it takes only about 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach St Kilda from here. The major downside of leaving from Leverburgh is that you need to get here first. If you only have a week or 10 days, planning a trip to the Western Isles will quickly dominate your Scotland itinerary. When navigating the best connections between the mainland and the islands, I would go for the ferries between Uig and Tarbert on the way there and Stornoway to Ullapool on the way back. For the rest of your trip, why not utilise my 7-day Scotland itinerary and cut it down accordingly?
There are two companies operating from Leverburgh, Kilda Cruises and Sea Harris. Both leave the harbour at 8 am and aim to be back between 7 and 7.30 pm. The boat of Sea Harris is slightly faster – it takes only 2.5 hours to St Kilda. If you don’t particularly enjoy spending time at sea, every minute can count.
Costs of a St Kilda trip
A day trip to St Kilda does not come cheap. As a World Heritage Site and a military base, a lot of resources go into making the island hospitable and accessible to the public, and the long boat journey explains the high cost on top of that.
The prices vary. The most expensive is the tour from Skye – most likely because it is also the longest time you spend on the boat. It costs £260. Cruises from Harris are cheaper and cost between £205 (Sea Harris) and £225 (Kilda Cruises). – 2019 prices
This includes the boat transfer with an onboard toilet and knowledgable skippers who are happy to answer questions about the local wildlife. Before landing on St Kilda we all received an informative map of the island. The landing fee of £5/person is also included in the ticket, as are teas and coffees and cake back on the boat after your stay on Hirta. We even got a dram of whisky towards the end of our boat journey with Kilda Cruises!
What to expect on a day trip to St Kilda?
Personally, I went with Kilda Cruises, so I only know for certain what they do – but it seems that Go to St Kilda and Sea Harris offer a very similar experience.
We met our boat and skippers at the harbour for check-in at 7.45 am and set sail at 8 am sharp. They gave us a run-down of the day’s plan, people made introductions to their seat neighbours and off we were. On the way, we could already see our first seabirds, mostly flocks of gannets fishing or flying in graceful formations. At some point out skippers spotted a fin on the surface and slowed down immediately. They do what they can to make the boat ride about more than the destination – without wasting too much time, of course. The fun turned out to be a sunfish lying on its side as they normally do – the first they saw this season, our skipper told us.
We reached St Kilda around 10.45 am, were provided with flotation aids and got onto our little zodiac dinghy to go on shore. Back on land, our skippers left us in the experienced hands of the resident wildlife wardens, who explained a few rules about moving around the island. They also gave us tips and advice on where to walk, in which order to do it and how to behave if we had an encounter with an angry bird parent – it is the birds’ island after all!
After this brief introduction, we were let loose and had over 4.5 hours to explore at our own pace. St Kilda is a Cultural and a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site – the only site in Scotland that has this double status.
Following the advice of the wardens, I decided to start by exploring the natural sites of the island. I began making my way to the Gap, a vantage point high above the village, but I did not even have to leave the village to get my first glimpse of the unique natural landscape. Among the ruins, you can see sheep that look different than any sheep you have ever seen in Scotland. They come in different shades of brown and are smaller and somehow look woollier than sheep back on the mainland. They are Soay sheep, a breed of domesticated sheep from the island of Soay. For centuries they have developed in isolation and can graze in places domesticated sheep could never go to – they are so agile and sure-footed. The breed is at risk today and the subject of a long-running ecological research project.
After about 30 minutes, I made it to the Gap and my effort to climb the hill behind the village was immediately rewarded with gorgeous views across to Boreray and down the tall sea cliffs of the island. The cliffs here are the tallest in the UK and home to a variety of seabirds. There are no fences or barriers, so you can go up as close as you like – but be aware of the wind; it can change quickly and come in quick bursts, so it’s best to keep a safe distance.
From the Gap, the next obvious natural site to visit, is the highest peak of the island, Conachair. It is about a 45-minute climb up the steep hillside. Unfortunately, the clouds were rolling in and covered the entire hill in a white blanket and the wind was picking up. Considering the no-barrier-situation, I decided not to risk anything climbing any higher and returned to the village. On a good day, the views from the top must be beautiful though – a full 360-degree view of all the islands and sea stacks of St Kilda.
Back in the village, I visited the small museum to learn about the life people had led on this remote archipelago. Their unique lifestyle is the reason why St Kilda is also a cultural heritage site. The island has been inhabited for thousands of years – there are remains of prehistoric sheepfolds and the oldest building in the medieval village below Conachair dates to between 500 BC and 300 AD. People lived on the site of this medieval village until well into the 19th century, but in the 1830s they moved into a new settlement of blackhouses. These houses were traditionally built from stone with a turf roof, had only one entrance for people and animals, and a peat fire in the middle. In the ceiling, there would have been a small opening to let out the smoke from the fire, but since this was not particularly efficient, the smoke remained inside, darkening the walls and the lungs of its inhabitants – hence the name, blackhouse. Thirty years later, new houses with zinc roofs, fireplaces and chimneys were built and life slowly became more modern on the island. WWI disturbed the isolation St Kildans had lived in for centuries and by 1928, most young men had left the island. In 1930 the islanders decided for a new life and were evacuated to the mainland, along with their cattle and sheep. After thousands of years, the island was once again uninhabited.
Today, there is a military base on Hirta, which has been permanently inhabited since 1957 and provides essential infrastructure for the wardens of the National Trust for Scotland. It is an unlikely, but symbiotic relationship on the edge of Europe.
After exploring the museum and the remains of the village, I still had plenty of time and started to make my way towards the southern part of Hirta. I left the village, walked through a lush green gully and emerged up the slope facing the south of the village. The views from here were beautiful and I was surrounded by curly Soay sheep. From here I would have loved to walk further south, towards Dun, but I was slowly running out of time and had to return to the jetty.
Back on the boat, around 3.30 pm, our skippers served tea, coffee and cake and we exchanged stories of our adventures on Hirta. But the trip was not over yet.
For the next 1.5 hours, we slowly cruised around the remaining islands and sea stacks of St Kilda – and learnt more about the seabirds that come here to nest. Our first stop was Dun, home to the UK’s largest puffin colony. Since you can’t go on land here, you don’t actually get near any of the burrows – rather you are surrounded by puffins zooming through the air and diving into the waves to catch fish. They are like a swarm of midges, moving too fast to tell the individuals apart – until they land in the sea, holding still long enough for you to marvel at them. It was an amazing experience.
After a 15 minute ride, we reached Boreray which is surrounded by some of the highest sea stacks in the UK. As inhospitable as these rocks look, they offer ideal nesting conditions for millions of seabirds. The world’s second-largest gannet colony comes here to breed, but also other birds like guillemots, fulmars, petrels and skuas. Throughout the cruise, one of our skippers is out on the deck with us, telling us more about the birds and pointing out the little stone bothies were locals would have stayed every year during hunting season. They would spend several weeks each year on one of these rocks, hunting for gugas (gannet chicks) in the harshest conditions.
Which birds will you see on St Kilda?
“If you don’t see a gannet today, you can get your money back!” – our skipper said with a big smile as we left the harbour of Leverburgh. Minutes later, we were surrounded by flocks of gannets, flying up and down the sides of our boat, diving into the waves to catch fish or simply resting on the water surface. There is no way, you won’t see a gannet on a trip to St Kilda…
But Gannets are not the only birds breeding on St Kilda. I won’t tell you all – you can pick up a small leaflet at the shop on the island, but it is very likely that you will encounter fulmars, oystercatchers, various kinds of gulls, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, Great and Arctic skuas, storm-petrels, shearwaters and shags.
Around 5 pm we started making our way back to the Harris – this time with the wind in our back. Gently rocked by the waves, I actually fell asleep on the boat. A peaty smell in my nose woke me – did someone open a whisky? And indeed, our skipper handed out golden drams – the perfect finish to an adventurous day at sea. We reached Leverburgh just after 7 pm, a once-in-a-lifetime experience richer.
Packing tips for St Kilda
St Kilda is a very isolated place and once you have left the harbour of Leverburgh or Stein, there are no facilities to stock up on supplies. It is important to bring everything you need with you.
What to wear
I wore active clothes – a hiking outfit, sturdy hiking boots and a rainproof jacket. In my day bag, I had my waterproof trousers, an additional warm layer and a buff. Throughout the day, I wore them all, so I’m glad I packed in layers!
What else to bring
Since it is a long day, you have to bring your own lunch pack and water – there is no cafe on St Kilda, only a small shop and toilets. Don’t forget your camera and plenty of batteries and if you’re into bird watching, make sure you have some good zoom lenses and binoculars.
St Kilda is a unique place to visit in Scotland and the fact that it takes quite a bit of effort to reach it, makes it even more special. When you do go all the way, you are rewarded with one of the most isolated places in Europe, fascinating history and breathtaking scenery.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.