Fortified

What beverage did Andreas and I learn to appreciate while we were on holiday?

I’ll give you a hint. We were in Portugal. In a city called Porto.

Yes, you got it.

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Port!

Within the EU, only fortified wine from this particular region in northern Portugal is allowed to be called port. They grow the grapes in a designated area called the Douro valley. Andreas and I found out there was a daily steam train excursion running on the Linha do Douro through the valley. Steam trains? Wine? We’re in.

It was a beautiful day and a gorgeous ride along the Douro river. We saw acres and acres of vineyards, some with signs identifying which of the port houses they belong to. Attendants handed out snacks and little cups of port as we chugged along. There were even some traditional musicians along to entertain us on board and at the tiny tiled stations.

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Later in the week, we walked across one of the bridges from Porto to Gaia, the city on the opposite side of the river.

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The grapes for port wine are crushed in the countryside, then trucked into Gaia to be made into port. The old port houses are clustered together near the river, and most offer tasting tours.

We took the tour at Ferreira first

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and then one at Cálem. On both tours we heard how the natural fermentation of the wine is arrested by adding a neutral brandy while there is still a lot of sugar in the wine. This fortifies the wine, making it stronger, and also leaving it sweeter. Tawny port is aged in wooden barrels for a long time, sometimes 40 years or more.

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Afterwards and in between we enjoyed the lively scene along the riverside

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Feeling fortified, we made our way back across the bridge to home.

 

 

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Porto

Tucked away like it is on the far side of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal was one the few western European countries that neither Andreas nor I had ever been to. It sounded like a fun end-of-summer stopover before we had to get home to Cairo and back to work.

We budgeted ten days for our visit. We have friends who swear by the Algarve, an area of sunny beaches down in the south, but we thought it might be too warm for us there in August. Instead we opted for a week on the northern coast in the city of Porto followed by two nights in Lisbon.

The Airbnb listing said the apartment was in a good location. It turned out to be absolutely fantastic, on an old street now pedestrianized and lively with artists and musicians late into the night.

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Our apartment was at the back of the building, away from the street noise where we could leave our bedroom balcony door open all night.

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The first place I had to go to was the Lello book store.  I’d seen pictures of it before on one of those “most beautiful book shops in the world” lists on the Internet. I agree, it’s awfully nice.

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We also saw some gorgeous churches. One of them, San Francisco, is entirely covered inside with gold from colonial Brazil. I heard a tour guide said that in the early 18th century the wealthy importers and port manufacturers gave generously to the church to atone for their sins in the business world. He also made the joke (in rather bad taste) that Portugal wasn’t worried about bringing home the gold from the Olympics in Brazil this year, as they’d already brought most of it home a couple of centuries ago.

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The old stock exchange is another beautifully decorated structure

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One day we took the metro and bus to the modern art museum

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Another day we took the trolley to the beach and walked along the coast, then had a dinner of fried sardines and vinho verde

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I love visiting food markets in big cities. Porto’s did not disappoint. We put together some nice lunches at our apartment with the goodies we picked up here.

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And of course we had some great meals in restaurants. Our favorite was recommended by the owner of our apartment – a little place with an unmarked door where you choose between the two dishes cooked by the mom and served by her two daughters on a patio with a view (super cheap, too!).

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And finally some miscellaneous views from around the city

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As

 

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Our town

I grew up in a suburban town in the San Francisco Bay area. Like Alhambra, where my husband Andreas was raised, Lafayette was (and still is) a quiet community with good schools, pleasant parks, and attractions both cultural and natural nearby.  I could hardly wait to finish high school so I could get out of there and go somewhere (anywhere!) less wholesome. But a few years later, married and with kids ourselves, my husband and I moved our family from LA to Medford so they could have the same kind of childhood we’d had.  Of course, like us, they could hardly wait to grow up and get out. Truth be told, Andreas and I looked forward to the day the house would be empty and we could move on too.  But now after a few years away we are starting to remember what we liked about small-town Medford.

Medford’s actually grown a lot since we arrived in 1991 with our carload of small children. But it retains much of the semi-rural charm that attracted us.

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Wild turkeys in our front yard

It’s the kind of place where people drive trucks.

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A couple of blocks away is the best donut shop ever

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Logging is over but the wine industry really took off during the years we lived there. Southern Oregon makes excellent wines now

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And this is the northwest, so of course we have our craft beer, too. Quality Market in our neighborhood used to be a small full-service grocery store with the best meat counter in town and handy home delivery service. I was sad when the family sold it a couple of years ago and the new owners turned into a mini-market/liquor store. But my now-adult children are very pleased that the new place offers growlers to go (refillable beer jugs, in case you didn’t know).

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When we first moved to Medford, they were just putting the finishing touches on the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, an old movie house renovated into a performance space. Now the local public radio station has purchased another long-closed Medford movie house and is restoring it to its former glory. Pretty soon the Holly will be the venue for lots of great musical acts on west coast tours. On Saturdays now you can visit the building and see what they are up to in there.

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Every month the Medford Food Project collects donations for local food banks. Alice is a neighborhood coordinator. I went out with her on Saturday morning to do the rounds.

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The Americans among you have probably heard of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club, a popular corporate holiday gift. In 1937 orchardist brothers Harry and David Rosenberg of Medford came up with the idea of perfect seasonal fruit delivered by mail order subscription each month. Nowadays the company’s orchards, packing and processing plant, shipping department, call center, and retail store make Harry & David one of the valley’s biggest employers. Most everyone I know in Medford has worked there at one time or another.

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The art deco headquarters are getting fresh paint this summer

To find all those pristine Fruit-of-the-Month specimens the company also produces a whole lot of (by their standard) less than perfect fruit. It’s a bonanza for Medford canners when they sort it out and offer the rejects to the public. Midsummer heralds the weekly Peachapalooza. People get in line on Saturday morning with empty wagons, boxes, strollers, grocery carts, and crates and wait eagerly for the “go” signal so they can load up on Harry & David peaches at 20 cents a pound.

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It’s kind of a nice place, Medford.

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Crater Lake

Sometimes you hear the last child in a large family complaining that there is no picture of them alone without a brother or sister in it. I was actually pretty good about the photographic record, but I’ll admit we missed a few other marks with our youngest. Alekka will tell you how we neglected to teach her to how ride a bike until she was ten, or how to swim until she was 13.  Her big sister was shocked to discover a couple of years ago that the poor child had never seen a single episode of Star Trek (to be fair, not owning a TV probably had something to do with that). When we went to Portland last weekend Alekka told us it was her first time there. Also, she reminded us, she had never visited Oregon’s only national park, Crater Lake.

Better late than never, I said as we set out for Crater Lake on Friday morning. It just so happens that the Britt Festivals commissioned a new piece of music this year honoring the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and they were premiering it at a free outdoor performance in the park this weekend. Not only did we get to make up for a significant parental oversight, we got to go to a concert.

Crater Lake is a couple of hours from our home in Medford. It’s a pretty drive along the Rogue River through miles and miles of pine forest.

We stopped a couple of times along the way to stretch our legs and look at the river

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In the park, we made our way to the clearing near the lodge where the performance was being set up. The performers included the Britt orchestra, a regional choir, drummers from the local Klamath tribe, and music students from Southern Oregon University. Half of Ashland and Medford was there; I must have spotted 20 people I knew among the musicians and audience.

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The composer Michael Gordon took his inspiration from the natural environment of the lake:  “Natural History is designed to be an experiential, spatial work…The idea is to draw out the natural sounds in and around Crater Lake and connect the natural sonic environment to the orchestra.” The conductor encouraged the audience to walk around the clearing during the performance to hear the different voices in the piece. It was grand to experience something interesting and different on a clear warm morning in the forest.

After the concert we stopped in to have a look at the restored lodge

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On the deck of the lodge. As you would guess from the name, Crater Lake was formed in a collapsed volcanic caldera.

Then we took a walk on the path that goes around the lake

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Crater Lake mission accomplished (and notice, there are no siblings in the picture!):

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As we made our way back along the trail we saw a plume of smoke rising

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The sky gradually yellowed as the smoke spread over the lake

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Fires are common in southern Oregon in the summer. I hope this one is over quickly.

[update: As it turns out, this was the start of the Bybee Creek fire, a wildfire that destroyed 1000 acres in the park. 400 firefighters were finally able to extinguish it two weeks later]

 

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Home sweet home

When I was planning this trip to Medford it had already been a long time since my last visit. I had pretty much come to the conclusion that because I didn’t miss it, I wouldn’t feel at home here anymore.

It took me all of about 60 seconds to settle back in.

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A very excited greeting from our old dog, Bailey.

I spent a lot of the first day puttering around our big green yard with its productive kitchen garden, thriving these days thanks to my-daughter-Alice-the-master-gardener

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and reacquainting myself indoors with our comfortably lived-in rooms. So many reminders of fun times and good people here.

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And of course communing with the books in every room (and hallways too). I do have a lot of books. They are my oldest friends.

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Just a couple of days ago we were looking at houses to buy in Portland.We arrived here in Medford with a plan to get this house ready for sale so we could move up there next summer. I’d still like one of those little houses in Portland, and we’re all still working on fixing up this one. But I’m not so sure I’m ready to to let this place go yet. It’s still home. Maybe there’s a way we can have it both ways. Gonna work on that idea a little bit I think.

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Portlandia

Portland. Say what you will, it is indubitably the locus of quirky hipster cool in America.

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Which is why, say what he will, our actor/barista son Nik is so happy here.

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We arrived late.

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They are replacing the iconic PDX carpet with a slightly different design. Don’t know if Portlanders are going to be able to handle it.

In the morning we rented a car and picked up eldest son Dimitri at the airport. Then we all went to meet Alekka at the train station – it is called Union Station, same name as the one in LA where Alekka started her journey on the Coast Starlight the morning before.

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Our dear friends Terry and Gary had invited us to stay with them. Their beautiful home is in a forest just across the river in Washington state.

Gary and Terry's back yard

Gary and Terry’s back yard

Gary and Terry are wonderful hosts who put together two(!) parties in honor of our visit.

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For many years we used to go on an annual camping vacation with a few other families. All of us were friends of Gary and Terry’s, and some of us (though not Andreas and myself) were bluegrass musicians. Listening to them picking and singing around the campfire was always a highlight of the trip. A few of those friends were here at the barbecue and I was very pleased to see they’d brought their instruments.

One of the main events of the weekend was the marriage of my great-niece Nicolette to her fiancé Eric. The wedding was at a park nearby and had a Star Wars theme (they’d gotten engaged at Comic-Con). Andreas’s brother James, the bride’s grandmother Jean and aunts Siestini and Stassi and their families, our great-nephew Steven, and Nik’s girlfriend Grace also helped represent the bride’s side of the family.

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After the wedding festivities wound down our group paid a visit to Portland’s rose garden.

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Over the next couple of days we visited our old haunts in downtown and let Nik introduce us to some new ones.

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One of the best new destinations was “Salt and Straw,” an ice cream shop with some very interesting flavors. I got a double scoop of arbequina olive oil and blue cheese/pear.

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Something new since our last visit to Oregon is the legalization of marijuana. The sight of so many “dispensaries” and all the attendant paraphernalia, now legal, was surprising to me.

Andreas loves that Portland is a bicycle city

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And I love that it is a book city.

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Overall we were so charmed with Portland that we decided to move here.

One of my former students from Medford is now a real estate agent in Portland, so we made an appointment with Brad at his office, Living Room Realty. We talked a lot about the different neighborhoods and went out to look at a few listed homes.

Alas, we did not see our dream house on this trip. But I am pretty sure it’s here, so we will keep looking. Maybe next summer we’ll find it.

 

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Back in the USA

Andreas had already been in LA for ten days when Alekka and I arrived from London. We were sorry to have missed the mnemosio service that he and his brothers held for their mother at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox church last week. Happily, though, we were able to schedule time with most everybody we wanted to see during our three-day stopover.

Andreas’s family lives in Alhambra, a suburban town in the San Gabriel Valley eight miles from downtown LA.

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It’s a classic southern California kind of place.

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We did classic southern California summer things like

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Of course the best part was visiting with family and friends. I regret that my camera battery gave out so I couldn’t capture the dinner hosted by my wonderful grad school friend Leslie Jones. Also no photos of Andreas’s lovely cousin Marianthe, who was feeling camera shy.

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Alekka doesn’t like air travel and will choose an alternative form of transportation if she can. When Andreas and I decided to save time by flying up to Portland, she opted for the train. We took her to LA’s Union Station to see her off.

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With Alekka on her way, Andreas and his twin brother James and I walked around the area near the station. It’s very close to both Chinatown and Olvera St., the old Mexican neighborhood where Los Angeles had its beginnings.

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At the end of the day James drove Andreas and me to the airport. There were more people we would have enjoyed seeing in the LA area but the time was too short. We’ll catch up with them next time around.

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Next stop: Portland, Oregon.

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Planes, trains, and automobiles

Stornoway, Lewis, Scotland to Alhambra, California, USA in one go. Not the most exciting post, but taking pictures gave me something to do for 50 hours.

Sunday, 7 am. Stornaway.

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7:10 am. Nice taxi driver offers us a lift to the ferry, no charge… he’s going that way anyway. Scotland’s people are the best.

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8 am. Ferry Stornaway to Ullapool.

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10:50 am. Ullapool to Inverness by coach.

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12:10 pm. A few hours in Inverness.

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8:26 pm. Caledonian Sleeper train to London.

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Monday, 7:47 am. Walk from Euston rail station to Russell Square underground.

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9:30 am. Tube to Heathrow.

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1:25 pm. Heathrow to Dublin, and goodbye to Alekka, who is taking an alternate route.

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4:20 pm. Dublin to Boston.

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8:40 pm. Boston to Los Angeles.

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11:57 pm. LAX, meet up with Alekka again. (Oops, no picture)

1:00 am. Alhambra!

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Happy to be here

It’s that time of year again… when lads and lassies don kilts, wristbands, and anoraks to stand in the rain

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and listen to rock and roll played on the bagpipes.

It’s HebCelt 2016, and these are my people.

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There’s good beer, too.

Photo by Alekka

Photo by Alekka

We got to Lewis a few days early so that I could do the St. Kilda trip and also to enjoy a couple of quiet days on the island before all the excitement of the festival.

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Alekka and I spent Monday driving down to the south end of Harris and back. It’s not very far and it would have been much quicker if I hadn’t stopped every kilometer to take a photo.

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As it turned out, Wednesday (when I took a quick trip up to the north of the island) was the last sunny day.

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No matter, a little precipitation isn’t going to stop a pipe band parade, and at the festival the bands perform under big circus tents.

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Here are a few more pictures from around the town

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It’s almost ridiculous how happy I am to be here.

 

 

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St. Kilda

I love islands. The two places I return to again and again are the island of Ikaria in Greece and my location at this moment, Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I keep a sort of life list of other islands I would like to visit. On it are the Faroe Islands, the Galapagos, Pitcairn, Shetland, Easter Island, and my personal holy grail, Tristan da Cunha. On this trip I was able to cross one island goal off that list: St. Kilda.

St. Kilda is a volcanic island group situated about 60 miles from Harris. Up to 180 people at a time lived there in almost complete isolation from at least 2000 years ago (likely twice that long) until 1930. In the last hundred of those years, contact with the outside world had changed the way of life on St. Kilda such that it became unsustainable. The last 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated from the island, bringing their sheep with them to pay for their passage. The last of the native St. Kildans died this year.

Getting there is a 2-1/2 hour journey by fast catamaran from Harris. I went with an outfit called Kilda Cruises. Angus and his crew were outstanding.

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Motoring out of Leverburgh, Harris

The tall rocky islands rose almost magically out of the sea as we approached.

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The magical effect was only slightly diminished by the sound of my fellow passengers barfing into paper cups. It was a lumpy ride, as the captain put it. We were all glad to get into the rubber dinghy and set ashore at Village Bay.

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St. Kilda is a designated UNESCO world heritage site for both its natural and cultural significance. It is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and it is one of the most important sea-bird breeding grounds in the world with about a million birds. It has the largest colonies of fulmars and puffins in Britain and the largest colony of gannets in the world. There are also large numbers of skuas, guillemots, kittiwakes, petrels, razorbills, and others.

A skua repeatedly dive-bombed this hiker to try to chase him away

The skua repeatedly dive-bombed this hiker to try to chase him away

I walked up out of the harbor area to the opposite side of the island, where there is a sheer drop down to the ocean.

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Seabirds and their eggs were the mainstay of the St. Kildan diet. The men climbed around on the rock faces, using fowling rods to harvest the birds. They ate them fresh and preserved.

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The people of St. Kilda lived on the island of Hirta, but they also traveled to other islands in the archipelago on fowling expeditions and to leave sheep for summer grazing. When the St. Kildans departed for the mainland in 1930 they took the sheep from Hirta, but they left behind the sheep on the island of Soay. Those little brown sheep are the descendants of a kind of prehistoric sheep and are genetically unique in the world. Some of that flock was later brought to Hirta where their descendants still live.

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The first mate on our boat told us a true story about St. Kilda. In 1727 a St. Kildan visited the Isle of Harris, where he caught smallpox and died. Soon afterward, the St. Kildans dropped off a group of three men and eight boys for a fowling expedition on Stac an Armin. While they were on the stac, the clothes of the dead man were returned to St. Kilda resulting in a smallpox outbreak that killed everyone on the island except one adult and 18 children. It was nine months before the stranded fowlers were rescued. The owner of the islands sent some families from Harris to repopulate St. Kilda after this. This influx of Harris people introduced the genes for thick beards as seen in photos from the 19th and 20th centuries, whereas visitors described the men of earlier centuries as nearly beardless.

Hairy St. Kildans on The Street, photo from the museum

St. Kildans on The Street, photo from the museum

I visited the ruins of the village, some of which is restored, and checked out the the small museum in House #3.

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The islanders built small stone huts called cleits which they used to store the seabirds they caught.

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Behind the cemetery is the House of the Fairies, an underground storage space built between 500 BC and 300 AD. When it was excavated in 1877, St. Kildans were able to identify the use of all the objects found inside.

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In the late afternoon we got back on the boat for a tour around the sea stacks before heading home to Harris.

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