Provisioning on St Kilda

Words by Elaine Hutchinson

Catering so far from civilization.

The 1764 census on St Kilda recorded some of the dietary requirements of the resident population, as being 36 eggs and 18 fowls for each person per day. Which gives the daily total for the 90 islanders – 38 males and 52 females – as 3,240 eggs and 1620 birds per day. One puffin equalled one snack!

Last year Marcus questioned me, in his own inimitable way, regarding the number of eggs to be ordered from a local crofter on Skye. This was for 13 people across 12 days, and equated to approximately 500 eggs in total. Seems like a lot. I would say that I wasn’t actually asking too much, after all I could instead have requested a puffin hunt to provide the morning snacks!

When I first saw the advert for a chef to work on St Kilda, my reply was immediate and decisive. I’ve always wanted to visit the Archipelago, and this was it, this was my opportunity. I won’t go into detail here but there is, I hope, more to me than mere burger flipper. But as Marcus didn’t have anyone else lined up, having had been recently let down by another chef, I sent some sample menus and he decided to take a punt on me. What an opportunity had come my way. I was going to St Kilda – whoo hoo! Had I realised all the logistics involved at the time then I might have thought twice, but hey, I didn’t, and I would not really have thought twice anyway because after all, I was now going to St Kilda!

According to Marcus, the cooking facilities were limited. Oh boy, he wasn’t joking. There was also a weight & space limit on the boat. He wasn’t joking about that either. The first sight of the boat was a real reality check, maybe I should have done at least a little bit of research. But then again the most important thing was getting to St Kilda, and of course, doing a good job.

I was also informed that we may get stuck on the island for additional days because of adverse weather, so this had to be factored in to the amount of supplies required. As nothing is available on St Kilda there would be no prospect of getting additional food sent over from the mainland on this first trip. No pressure then!

This all sounds ok-ish until you start to put together shopping lists and other lists of stuff! But I was going to St Kilda and that was the main thing …wasn’t it?

I asked about equipment then promptly wished I hadn’t. Pots, pans and knives had now to be added. Fridge space? Okay, that’s cool boxes added to the list as well then. Basically everything was required bar the kitchen sink, and perhaps that should have been added too. There was a cooker in situ, which was good news. It was only a domestic one but that was fine. What wasn’t mentioned though was that not all the rings worked.

Armed with my lists, some fresh crab claws, meat from my local butcher and a load of baking supplies, I left my home on the Isle of Tiree and headed to Gourock to my youngest son’s home and to continue the rest of the shopping.

I had seriously underestimated how long the shopping would take, especially as I was working to another’s budget. What I also had not fully taken into account was how I was going to transport all the food. So, a quick trip to purchase plastic boxes, then repack everything in a Tesco car park. A trip to the cash’n’carry followed, then another repacking of the boxes. And how about having a panic attack about not having enough vegetables. Thats a good idea!

Then a sleepless night and an early morning trip to the shops for all those little bits I thought I must have forgotten, empty my sons freezer and put it all into cool boxes, repack everything yet again, and finally set off for Uig in my now vastly overloaded Pug (Peugeot 207).

All the way up the road to Skye, I had the menu careering around my head, shopping lists were re-read and mini panic attacks foiled, my mind was a blur. So much so that I took the wrong road, ended up in Mallaig and had another attack of the panics. The boat was just leaving, I hadn’t booked the boat as I was always going to go via the Skye bridge, so I should never have been there in the first place. it’s amazing what the mind does when it’s focussing on sausage requirements.

Also I was under a time constraint. I was supposed to be meeting James and Marcus and the guests for dinner in Uig. So, no time for indecision, I got back in the car, turned into a rally driver and retraced my route to get back on the right road. All thoughts of having enough food or not were banished as I screamed up the road towards Skye trying not to be too late for the meeting with my new employers. That would not have been a good start.

I screeched to a halt outside the Uig hotel, luckily only a very few minutes late, I then had a thought: what did Marcus look like? Where exactly was I supposed to meet him? Undeterred, I headed towards reception and was directed into the restaurant.

What a surreal experience it was, meeting your ‘Bosses’ and their guests who you alone, will be feeding in the coming days, then promptly sitting straight down to dinner with them. A baptism of fire! But I was at least, still on my way to St Kilda.

When I look back at the amount of shopping I had for that first trip, the time it took and the angst it caused I wonder why I ended up doing more trips. But it’s simple really. It’s the allure of St Kilda.

Main Street

I have always said that the more people you feed, the easier it becomes and in the case of St Kilda this is true. It especially became easier in our second year when we moved to using the cooking facilities within one of the restored houses of Main Street, instead of the old Feather Store.

The Feather Store was compact and cosy and in many ways I miss its romance but as I said, the cooker was down a ring or two and very erratic – basically an antique. The sink at least had water for washing but the waste pipe drained straight into a bucket which then had to be emptied down at the Manse, this was a downhill walk. St Kilda is all about hills by the way. Large containers of drinking water had to be collected daily from a tap outside the Manse, this return journey was of course uphill. Did I mention St Kilda is all about hills! You can’t imagine how much water is used daily for drinking and cooking! However, all that water hauling did make me appreciate that I was lucky enough to be on St Kilda and working on the very edge of the world.

The Feather Store

It is worth noting that many many people try time and time again and often ultimately fail to even get to this remote land. Towards the end of our first trip, everyone had been fed, I hadn’t run out of anything and things seemed to have gone smoothly. Marcus and James were discussing the trip the following year and the possibility of extending it to accommodate two groups. I was on the edge of this discussion and was feeling a bit deflated to be quite honest. I presumed that the original chef would be contacted to do these trips. In the end, I just had to ask James if their plans included me. “Well, why the bloody hell wouldn’t they?”, was his answer, “or don’t you want to do it?”. “Well, of course I do!” I replied. It looked like my first visit to St Kilda was not going to be my last. Result!

These days, the Feather Store is a romantic memory. I now have a lovely stainless steel kitchen, loads of cupboard space, a large freezer, a big fridge, even two cookers! Plus a sink that is connected to a drain, not to mention drinking water on tap. Pure heaven!

The shopping has grown substantially as the trips have expanded, but the basic list is still the same as it was back in the Feather Store days. It hasn’t increased, we just use more and ensure there is less left over. Pepper and salt, sauces, seasonings, herbs and spices are still brought in the same quantities.

The rest of the list, however, has changed and now we need replenishing from the mainland a couple of times during our stay. This is mainly because of the space & weight constraints on the first boat out, However the weather still has to be taken into account as a delay in return is always possible.
All the main ingredients are on the first boat. There is always extra flour to make bread if required and keep those with a sweet tooth supplied with ample cakes and biscuits. Extra whisky and honey is ensured for the daily porridge – there would be a riot if this ran out!

The shopping list alters slightly from year to year, the menu also evolves year on year. The basic ingredients however stay pretty much the same, all that changes is what goes with what. And I always ensure any specific dietary requirements are met. Veganists & Vegetablists as James calls them, for example.

I’m also aware that if James doesn’t get his morning coffee and Marcus his orange juice, then according to them the world WILL simply end. Young Harry just needs his hairbands to keep his locks from his porridge.

The basic provisions for the three groups I now annually look after on St Kilda are, 400 sausages, 500 eggs, 10 kilos of beef, 5 kilos of mince, 400 slices of bacon, 3 dozen chicken breasts, 3 whole chickens, 6 kilos of pork loin, plus dozens of apples and oranges, these are just a few of the items on the shopping list. I always ensure there is enough booze, plus an ever lasting plate of cakes, scones and tasty treats is on the table. All the ingredients and provisions have to wheelbarrowed up the hill in Village Bay from the harbour to Main Street.

Maybe just providing beans on toast, pasta and burgers would have been easier but I pride myself that we as a team always provide hearty breakfasts and lunches and at least two-course dinners as well as numerous snacks during the day, thus making sure that no one ever goes hungry. This is actually vital on St Kilda as the hills are real calorie burners. I know that if my little pug car is full of boxes and the boxes are filled to capacity and if the boxes fill the entire car and boot including the passenger seat leaving no space between floor and roof, then I have enough food. I must look quite a sight!

What I have to remembered though, is to make sure the boot is closed securely, before heading up the hills of Skye. I once made this mistake, and still have to live it down with James and Marcus, especially as the local crofter had been maniacally squeezing eggs out of his chickens to fulfil his order in time, and yes it was indeed his eggs as well as other varying produce that were launched from the boot of my car. Full car + Hill + Open Boot = Bemusement from local passersby and much hilarity from colleagues.

What I’m going to do now that the Pug has gone to the great car pound in the sky and I’ve replaced it with a bumblebee van I don’t know. One thing is certain though, I will have space enough for food.

I have what I like to call my St Kilda bible, this is full of shopping lists and menus from previous years. Having mislaid it once for several months, I never want to have to go through that trauma again. So it is now kept securely and is one of my most treasured possessions.

Although the shopping now takes three days on average to complete, it’s a time of year I look forward to. St Kilda is one of, if not my favourite, places on earth. Undoubtedly it’s hard work and the hours are long, but it’s a place where people can’t hide behind technology, where people converse and get to know each other, where people can appreciate each other and all the wondrous nature that surrounds them.

It’s where the land meets the sea, and where a cup of coffee is really appreciated as you sit watching the sunrise, with porridge bubbling away on a stove behind, all ready for those intrepid, bonkers, but always ravenous photographers to return from another thigh busting sunrise jaunt. It is just the best place in the world. St Kilda is special and it is, for sure, my happy place.

James’ two pence worth:

Having just read this prior to posting – I just had to write something to accompany it.

Firstly – Many many thanks to Mark who is lucky enough to be Mr Elaine for these fabulous illustrations.

Secondly – Elaine vastly undersells herself and her organisational skills in this blog. Remember, an army marches on its stomach, and this provision of provisions requires military precision, and this is what Elaine provides in spades. Yes, she did once leave the boot of her car open, thus leaving a trail of goodies down the road, and although not mentioned here she did once nearly remove her own finger with a blunt knife!

However, this lady is astonishing and her skill in the kitchen is beyond reproach. Quite frankly she is a miracle worker – freshly baked things appear as if by magic. Without full tummies and warm welcomes into her kitchen the St Kildan experience for our guests would simply not be the same. I can confidently say on behalf of every single person who has experienced Elaine’s kitchen on St Kilda, five stars are to be awarded by one and all. And make them Michelin ones at that.