Monday, April 5, 2010

The lonely islands of St Kilda

The islands of St Kilda fascinate me. If one looks at the map below, the inset shows Scotland (Ecosse) and the tiny red square represents St Kilda. This tiny, windswept archipelago juts up into the frigid Atlantic Ocean 64 kilometres west from the rest of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, which are themselves considered remote. Up until 1930, when the entire population was evacuated, a small community always lived there, cut off from the rest of Britain in what is surely one of the most remote, isolated places in the world.

Here is my list of things about St Kilda that fascinate me:

· Its geography

The largest island is Hirta and this is the island where people have lived since time immemorial. Technically St Kilda is part of the Hebrides, but it is so far removed that its inhabitants – though also Gaelic – developed their society in relative seclusion. Its climate is harsh and unforgiving: there are no trees and little biodiversity; it is surrounded by turbulent waters; and it is frequently blasted by fierce winds. The other islands making up St Kilda are Soay, Boreray and Dùn.

The surrounding sea stacks (sheer, rocky islets) are the highest in Britain, with Stac an Armin (on the left) reaching 196 metres. They are an awesome, imposing sight. St Kilda has been described as a “hoard of all unnecessary lavish landscape luxuries”.*

· Its prehistory

When and how the first settlers arrived at St Kilda is, for now at least, a matter of conjecture. An ancient settlement known as the ‘Amazon’s house’ has been discovered on Hirta’s north shore, and some believe it indicates that a matriarchal society once dwelt there.

· Its name

The origin of the name ‘St Kilda’ is uncertain. Firstly, there is no saint named Kilda. Various suggestions have been made. Some think ‘St Kilda’ comes from the Old Norse for ‘sweet well water’. There are also other place names that suggest a Scandinavian presence or influence on the islands.

· Its isolation

St Kilda has been described as the Macchu Picchu of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the remotest inhabited place in all Britain. The tiny Gaelic community that lived there was cut off from the rest of the world both geographically as well as socially and mentally. Most of its inhabitants would not have been able to tell you who the reigning British monarch was at any given point in time.

· Its late entry into the written record

The oldest written records we have regarding St Kilda come from the late Middle Ages, even though the archaeological records go much further back. The St Kildians don’t appear to have had a literary culture of their own.

· Its self-sufficiency

The St Kildians were a hardy, self-sufficient community. They farmed sheep and a few cattle and chickens, and they fished a little, though they did not go out onto the water as the seas were too dangerous. They also grew potatoes, barley, oats and corn. Everyone worked during the warmer months to grow, gather and stow food. During winter they would live on the stores.

· The importance of seabirds

The islanders also relied heavily on St Kilda's large seabird colonies for meat, oil and eggs. All able-bodied men were essentially ornithologists and cragsmen. They would climb and abseil seemingly impossible rockfaces to reach bird nests and retrieve eggs. Rough shelters can even be found on the islands and sea stacks surrounding Hirta, as they did not limit themselves to going after eggs only to be found on the main island.

St Kilda is the most significant seabird breeding habitat in all of northwest Europe, hosting millions of gannets, puffins, petrels and fulmars. They are a brilliant sight when seen flying en masse.^

The St Kildians would preserve the eggs in small stone pyramids called cleitean (like the one to the right), which were capped with turf and then padded inside with peat and turf to keep out the wind and damp.

· Accessibility and communicating with the outside world

The 'mailboat'
St Kilda is only accessible by boat, and then only in summer. The waters in winter are too treacherous and landing on the island becomes nigh on impossible (though coming ashore is difficult at the best of times). The first jetty was only built in 1902. There is no airstrip.

In the past the only way for the inhabitants of St Kilda to contact the wider world was for them to light a bonfire and hope a passing ship would see it. They would sometimes also use the St Kildian ‘mailboat’: this was a message-in-a-bottle affair, with an inflated sheep's bladder attached, that was dropped in the ocean when the winds were coming from the northwest. Amazingly, two-thirds of their missives were eventually washed up and found on the shores of Scotland (or of Scandinavia when less lucky).

· Its population

The population of St Kilda has always been small. In 1758 there was a population of 88, and that was recorded as an improvement. In an 1841 census (the first time Britain remembered that it had some distant islanders in its kingdom who also ought to be tallied) there were 96 people, coming from only eight family names: Mackinnon, Macdonald, MacQueen, MacLeod, Macrimmon, Morrison, Gillies and Ferguson.

The village

The village street, 1886
A new village was built in Village Bay in the 1860s to replace the medieval one. Village Bay, which is on the east coast of Hirta, is the most sheltered part of the island as Dùn protects it from southeasterly winds. Since the island has no trees for wood, the cottages were made from stone and thatch. There are only a couple dozen cottages along the street – you would literally come to know all the people whom you were likely ever to know!

· Its unique society

St Kilda, owing to its isolation, essentially became an island republic, though officially it was under the lairdship of its Scottish landowner. It developed a type of socialism. Resources and food were shared amongst the community. There was no private property and inhabitants bartered for what they needed.

There was no local government. A ‘parliament’ of all the able-bodied men would meet every morning after prayers on the grass in front of the village to decide on the day’s work activities. The downside of this was that when a poor decision was made (one, for example, that would lead to the loss of a crop), the entire community would suffer the consequences and there was no backup to be had.

· The privations

Infant mortality was always high. A staggering 80% of the babies born between 1830 and 1834 died from tetanus as there was no proper midwifery. And medical help was literally an ocean away.

There was no electricity or running water on the island.

· Winters

The village in winter
Winters were incredibly long and bitter. There were frequently food shortages. The cattle would occupy one end of the house. The men worked in their sheds while the women sewed. The importance of community and mental strength really came into play at this time of the year. The St Kildians fought against depression with music and dance, which they loved, and they would also tell humorous story poetry.

· Religion

It isn’t known when and how Christianity first came to St Kilda, though some suggest anchorites took the religion there. One stone cross that can be found at house no. 16 in the village is thought to possibly date from as far back as the C7th. But until the arrival of missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the St Kildians’ religion was in many ways druidic, and druidic altars have been found on the islands.

Church of Scotland ministers became a permanent feature on St Kilda from the beginning of the C19th. They instigated the building of a church and manse, started a school (thereby introducing the islanders to formal education) and helped improve agriculture. Observance of the Sabbath was enforced.

· Visitors and tourists

In the C17th the only way of reaching St Kilda was in a longboat, which meant days and nights on the open, rough sea. While the occasional wayward ship would shelter in Village Bay, and the odd explorer would also visit, the inhabitants’ interaction with outsiders was sporadic.

In the late nineteenth century, however, Victorian steamcruisers started to take in St Kilda as part of their itinerary. This introduced the islanders to monetary trade, as they could sell visitors tweeds and bird eggs. It brought the St Kildians some new comforts, but their pride was hurt as they were made to feel curiosities. Their way of life was also increasingly undermined as their previous isolation had forced them to work hard at cultivating a self-sufficient society.

It was missionaries and tourists who prompted many St Kildians to learn English.

· The effects of WW1

The St Kildians lived in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world’s troubles and for centuries were unaffected by the turmoil of European politics and warfare. No St Kildian ever fought in a war. Furthermore, there were no guns on the island, no prisons, and no serious crimes were ever recorded.

WW1 increased the islanders’ contact with the outside world. The Royal Navy installed a signal station and guns on Hirta. No fighting actually took place on the island, though a German submarine did shell the station. But for the first time ever the St Kildians had regular contact with the mainland. This chipped away at their self-reliance.

· Its evacuation

Life on St Kilda was not always as difficult as it became in the last few centuries. The islanders were reportedly flourishing in the C17th, having a high population and plenty of food. But visiting ships in the C18th introduced previously unknown diseases to the St Kildians. In 1851 thirty-six St Kildians emigrated to Australia, and the community never really recovered from this sizeable loss.

In the twentieth century circumstances conspired to wear down those who remained. There was an outbreak of influenza in 1913. Many of the young men left the island after WW1 and the population went from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928. The number of able-bodied men was not sufficient to enable the small community to weather the endless winters. Then, in 1929, a young woman died from appendicitis.

So in 1930 the entire community of 36 people was evacuated off the island, in response to their request for the British government to transport them to the mainland. (Many of the men subsequently became involved in forestry, because although they had lived where there are no trees, their rock climbing skills made them excellent tree climbers.) St Kilda was left to the birds and sheep.

· After 1930

Three plane wrecks from WW2 can be found on the islands. These occurred at a time when the islands were completely abandoned. There were no survivors.

The village street in 1988
People returned to St Kilda in 1957 when a small army complex was built in Village Bay as part of the Hebrides missile tracking system. Military personnel live on Hirta year-round. Scientists also now stay on the islands so as to research the feral Soay sheep population. Volunteer work parties frequently make summer trips to help renovate and preserve the buildings of the village.

· Its World Heritage status

In 1931, the Marquess of Bute, an avid ornithologist, bought the islands and then conferred them on the National Trust for Scotland in 1957. St Kilda was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 because of its extraordinary landscape. In 2004 this status was extended to include the islands’ surrounding marine life. The following year St Kilda was chosen as one of a few dozen sites around the world to be honoured as a dual status World Heritage Site, noted for its geological as well as cultural significance.

* Baxter, C. and Crumley, J. (1988). St Kilda: A portrait of Britian’s remotest island landscape, 7.
^ Go to to see my favourite photo of gannets in flight over Boreray.

Photo credits:
- Soay. (Olaf1950, public domain.)
- Saint Kilda archipelago topographic map. (Eric Gaba – Wikimedia Commons user: Sting. March 2009. Used under GNU FDL.)
- Stac an Armin and Boreray. (Stephen Hodges. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
- Fulmar hunting. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- Cleit above Village Bay on Hirta. (Bob Jones. Taken 2006. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
- The 'mailboat', 1898. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- St Kildans sitting on the village street, 1886. (Unknown, public domain. Property of the National Trust for Scotland.)
- Hirta village in the snow. (Owen Jones. Taken Feb 2001. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
- The inhabitants, 1898. (Richard Kearton, public domain.)
- The village street, 11 May 1988. (Des Colhoun. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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  2. So fascinating and such alien livestyles they had. The genetic studies on St Kildians would be, er, very simple I think. Yikes! I quite randomly read about the Faroes yesterday (islands a little more to the north east) which are more recently inhabited (ca 800) and still speak a version of old norse. Keep the super interesting stuff coming!

  3. Thanks, Karen! I'll have to read up on the Faroes. I find the whole Norse aspect so intriguing, as Scandinavia is so far away!

  4. Thanks Megan, this was really interesting!

    Perhaps St Kilda was named after someone's wife, as things in history often seem to follow that trail. Just a thought...

  5. Hey Sharna,
    Well, one suggestion was that it might have been named after a man of that name. And so maybe he wanted it for his wife - you never know :-) Glad you enjoyed it!


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