Why are so many people drawn to wildness, and wild places? Is it some inner dissatisfaction with our own nature as humans, some hardly acknowledged guilt that what we touch rarely turns to gold? For by wild, we tend to mean places unhandled by us, free from our malign influence, and the less touched they are, the wilder we perceive them to be and the more we admire them.
What is it that we are looking for? Unspoiled beauty, certainly, and the bliss of solitude, and peace; but I have a sense that there is something more, a hunger or a longing, and perhaps that is to do with the quite astonishing fecundity of the natural world in its natural – that is, pre-human – state.
There are not many places where you can get a sense of this, in Britain at least, but one of them, I found three weeks ago visiting with my children, is St Kilda, the small archipelago of four islands more than 40 miles out into the Atlantic from the Hebrides.
Despite its isolation. St Kilda was occupied for centuries by a community of about 100 who lived mainly on seabirds, which they harvested by scaling the precipitous sea cliffs. In the early part of the 20th century, the attractions of modern living began to draw the community's young people away, and in 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants asked to leave, and were resettled in mainland Scotland.
The melancholy of this story has captured imaginations ever since and is a principal reason why people go to see the remains of the settlement at Village Bay on Hirta, the largest island, with its abandoned "main street" now looked after by the National Trust for Scotland.
But there is another reason to go to St Kilda, and that is its wildness, for despite the remnants of its community, despite even the small military base, it is a place which in essence feels untouched. You sense that, sailing around all the islands, Hirta, Dun and Soay, astonishingly green in their deep blue sea, but most of all at Boreray, four miles out, home to the biggest gannet colony in the world: perhaps 100,000 of the great white birds are in the air above you, jostling, calling, diving, being harassed by skuas, while below there are cliffs full of guillemots and razorbills and rafts of puffins on the water.
Here is the profusion of life that our distant ancestors knew, the natural abundance which calls to us, insistent, over the millennia. Going to St Kilda feels more than a journey, it feels like a pilgrimage. If your longing is for the world before we altered it, this is where it will be fulfilled.