By Alex Boyd
Standing by the quayside in Leverburgh, a small harbour on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, I watched as tourists and crew clambered aboard the Orca, the vessel which would take me the 40 or so miles across the North Atlantic to St Kilda.
Making his way up the gangway, the vessel's skipper Angus Campbell looked at me with an expression of concern. Solemnly he informed me that while I could get out to the islands, it wasn't clear when I would be able to get back. I had provisions for only a couple of days on Hirta, and an incoming storm looked like it would make a safe pick-up in the next two weeks almost impossible.
With some reluctance, I decided to travel out once the weather seemed more promising. With a heavy heart I watched as the Orca cast off, her diesel engines rumbled into life, propelling her out of the harbour towards the distant islands beyond. So it would be many times that coming year as Atlantic storms continually battered the islands.
St Kilda had always occupied a special place in my thoughts. The islands of Boreray, Hirta and the Stacs which tower around them seemed impossible, immutable and unreachable, distant in their position on the edges of Europe, almost on the peripheries of the imagination.
I can still remember the first time I learned about the archipelago. I was a young boy who had only just moved to Scotland from Germany, and was discovering the country for the first time. I visited my great-uncle James in his home in Old Kilpatrick near Glasgow. Born on a farm in West Kilbride in Ayrshire in the 1920s, he had spent his life largely pursuing his favourite pursuits, such as learning Gaelic, travelling around the Scottish Islands, sometimes on an old Clyde built steam puffer. His other great love was photography, and with his Leica camera slung over his shoulder he would meticulously document his travels, in particular a journey he made out to St Kilda with a National Trust work party in the 1960s. Fifty years later I would follow in his footsteps, making my own journey out to the islands.
On my first trip out I had the weather on my side, as well as a benevolent North Atlantic - the swell rocking the boat only enough to remind me of its presence. I thought about the story of the islands, and their now legendary evacuation in the 1930s. I quietly spent my time reading letters from the islanders to give me some insight into their plight. It was not long before the summit of Conachair, the highest point of the islands appeared on the horizon.
My initial impressions of the archipelago were not of a lonely and forgotten outpost of the British Isles, abandoned, remote and forlorn, but of blue skies and a warm sun illuminating the cliffs of Hirta and Boreray. As our small vessel wound its way into the relatively calm waters of Village Bay, we prepared for the next stage of the journey, alighting from the stern into an inflatable rib which would take us to shore.
Having carefully lowered my camera cases into the boat, a task sometimes made impossible due to the rising and falling of the sea, we then set off, my eyes fixed on that most iconic of sights, the ruins of village bay beyond. It was not however the empty streets of Hirta which fascinated me, but something more modern, something absent from the countless tourist images of the islands, and much less sympathetic to the surroundings — a cold war military base.
Instead of a structure hewn from local stone, the concrete and steel of a crumbling military installation are what first greet the eye of the visitor. Foremost among these is the unsightly but essential power station which keeps the modern St Kildans supplied with electricity, the one building which for obvious reasons rarely appears in the vast visual documentation of the islands.
Coming ashore, the extent of the military base becomes clearer, with the long low buildings of the 1960s accommodation blocks, sergeants’ mess, and the rather Victorian sounding 'ablution block' sitting side by side with the more well known cottages and cleits. It is in many ways an uneasy balance, but one which has allowed St Kilda to thrive, with the efforts of National Trust work parties supported by that of QinetiQ, the company who run the military base on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.
Turning my back on the base I looked out over the harbour, towards Dun, observing the strange spectacle of a bay full of yachts, tour boats and other pleasure craft. Hirta of course is a regular stopping point for a variety of cruise ships, and it is not unusual to find Village Bay thronged with tourists, wandering with guide books in hand around the ruins of the cottages, stopping to take self portraits, viewing the home and sometime prison of Lady Grange, and finishing the day by visiting the National Trust gift shop for a tea-towel or commemorative mug before boarding launches back to their ships.
Deciding to go somewhere quieter, I sought to leave Village Bay behind entirely, with the intention of exploring the lesser known areas of the island such as Gleann Mor, the Amazon's House, and to walk the ridge leading between Mullach Mor and Mullach Sgar, both hills crowned with radar stations which track live rocket firing from South Uist.
It was from the vantage point of the hills above Hirta that the island began to show a different side, with the long grassy valley of Gleann Mor offering a sense of solitude largely absent from the busy working environment of Village Bay. It was also here I began to get a sense of the knife-edge existence that those who had lived on this island must have endured, with the exposed landscapes, sheer cliff drops down to the Atlantic below, and fragile rocky promontories adding to the sense of the dramatic. It would be to this place that I would often return on my visits to the island, slowly watching mist and cloud drifting in the valley before me, concealing and then revealing the vista below.
It would be a year until I would next return to the islands, these images staying with me, the thoughts and feelings I had experienced slowly coming together in a way that made me want to respond to the environment, to document what I had seen and had felt.
I had resolved to respond in a way which did not obscure the true St Kilda. I would document the military presence as well as the natural beauty of the islands, and the ruins of Village Bay, to show a more balanced view, something which in truth is still rarely seen. I would do this all with a battered medium format camera which had once belonged to the English landscape photographer, Fay Godwin, whose work I would often return to as guidance and as a point of departure.
The result is St Kilda – The Silent Islands, a collection of images made over the course of several years and several journeys. They tell of days when the islands were bathed in a singular Hebridean light, or more likely completely obscured by clouds and mist. They are a journey around the Archipelago, and are intended as a visual poem of the place rather than as a guide.
The one element missing from the book is of course the modern day St Kildans, who are forbidden to be photographed due to military secrecy laws and a reluctance on behalf of the National Trust to have their staff documented.
Having now spoken about St Kilda at book festivals across the country, I've had the chance to meet many people with personal links to the islands, even sharing the room with the children of islanders.
It is clear that the story of Hirta, and the desire of people to make the pilgrimage out to the islands, is as strong as ever, many almost in tears recounting their own journeys out across the North Atlantic.
I've also encountered hostility for documenting the base, and been accused of showing the island in a negative light as a result. The same is true for showing the islands enveloped in cloud and stormy weather, the bleak days that tourists rarely see as the boats are unable to land in Village Bay.
I think it's important to tell the full story of these islands, to show them as they really are today while acknowledging the past. We in Scotland are in danger of over simplifying our landscapes, and succumbing to simplistic touristic narratives that don't acknowledge the complexity of our story. St Kilda is not a theme park. It's a breathtaking UNESCO dual-heritage site which also plays a key role in the United Kingdom's lucrative weapons development industry.
The tracking stations point East towards the rocket ranges of Uist. The tourist season has ended. The National Trust workers have left. Now the islands wait silently as the next weapons are prepared on their launch ramps, their targeting systems aimed at those lonely islands out in West.
Alex Boyd is a landscape and documentary photographer. His work has been widely exhibited internationally with solo exhibitions at the Scottish Parliament, as well as group exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Royal Ulster Academy and Royal Scottish Academy. His work is held in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, The Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Scottish Academy, the V&A and the Yale Centre for British Arts in the US. His first book St Kilda – The Silent Islands was recently shortlisted for the Saltire Awards. More of his work can be found here.