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Issue 34 - Islands of lost souls

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007

 

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Islands of lost souls

Scotland has numerous islands. Some of them are inhabited, others are deserted. More than 80 of them used to have inhabitants, but the locals left for several different reasons. Marieke McBean investigates

Scotland’s national tourist organisation, VisitScotland, says there are 790 Scottish islands, whereas Hamish Haswell-Smith, author of the book The Scottish Islands, a Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island says there are 165, but that’s because he only counts islands that are bigger than 40 hectares.

At least 80 islands that are deserted these days, used to have inhabitants. Why did the locals leave, and what makes the islands interesting nowadays? It is impossible to mention all islands here. What we can do instead is stick to a few examples; islands that are all interesting in their own way.

St Kilda is wrongly famous as an island. It is in fact a cluster of islands, and for more than 2,000 years, people have lived on the main island of Hirta.

St Kilda is the remotest part of the British Isles and lies 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. The island’s remoteness made the St Kildans unaware of many events on the mainland. On one occasion, the minister of Hirta was praying for the health of King William. It turned out he had been praying for the king’s health several months after his death. The minister quickly changed his prayers to ‘his majesty’ and it was only months after that, that he found that Great Britain’s new ‘king’ was Queen Victoria.

St Kilda has always had quite a large population; in 1695 it had about 180 inhabitants and in 1810 it is thought there were as many as 200. The islanders ate mainly seabirds and made a small income by selling fulmar oil, feathers and tweed to the mainland.

The islanders had no leadership.

Instead it used a ‘parliament’ that gathered every morning and decided what work had to be done.

The people on Hirta lived a happy life and were generally healthy. However, the ‘eight-day sickness’ killed eight out of 10 babies born on the island. The islanders thought it was God’s will that all these infants died. It was not until the 1890s that it was discovered the source of the disease probably lies with the midwives. They traditionally anointed the umbilicus with fulmar oil mixed with dung and this caused many babies to die.

There are two main reasons for the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930; the first is the tourist industry. A steam yacht called The Vulcan visited the island in 1834, and from 1877 another ship started regular trips to St Kilda. The islanders lost their independence because of all these visitors. In the past, the St Kildans were always fully self-sufficient but this became harder and harder. Local fishing boats regularly dropped off food and supplies.

Haswell-Smith states in his book that Christian religion, too, played a role in the island’s decline. He said the islanders were beaten into so much church attendance, that they did not have enough time to grow and gather food.

The community got near to starvation a number of times, and in 1930 this resulted in evacuation.

Although the islanders really did not want to leave, they had no choice.

In the 1960s St Kilda had a military base but since then the island has been uninhabited. It is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish National Heritage and the Ministry of Defence.

St Kilda has a mixed World Heritage Status for its natural and cultural significance. It is also Europe’s most important seabird colony. It has the world’s largest colony of gannets and Britain’s largest colony of fulmars.

You can visit the islands by chartering a boat from the Hebrides or you could join work parties on the island.

For more information check out www.kilda.org.uk or telephone the National Trust on: +44 (0)131 2430 9300 Scarp The isle of Scarp lies on the west coast of Harris. It was first inhabited in 1810 and its last inhabitants left in 1971. Scarp was the scene of the trial of ‘rocket mail.’ AGerman man called Herr Gerhard Zucker had invented a rocket which could be used to send mail. He wanted to try it out and chose Scarp as the ideal location.

Special stamps were printed for this mail delivery and a letter was written to the King.

Zucker brought with him a rocket that weighed 14kg and it was able to carry several thousand letters at 1,000 miles an hour.

However, when Zucker lit the rocket, it exploded prematurely – spreading the attached mail over a wide area. Of course the mail was damaged, but the local postmaster insisted in collecting it all. He put a message on all the mail. It read: ‘Damaged by first explosion at Scarp – Harris’.

Asecond rocket experiment was successful and a few letters addressed to Orkney actually reached their destination. Even so, the experiment was abandoned soon after.

Scarp never had any electricity and there was no place to anchor in bad weather. These things contributed in the island’s evacuation in 1971. Nowadays it is only used as a place to graze sheep.

You can visit Scarp with Sea Trek in Uig, Lewis. They organise adventurous scenic boat trips in the area.

Contact them at www.seatrek.co.uk or tel: +44 (0)1851 672 464

Handa Island lies much closer to
the Scottish mainland. It is situated
on the west coast near the village of
Scourie in the Lochinver area.
The island was first used as a
burial site. The people on the
mainland thought it was safer to use
the island for their burials, because
wolves were present on the mainland
and would scavenge the corpses if
they could get to them.
Years later, people decided to
move to the island.
Just like the St Kildans, seabirds
were an important part of their diet.
They also grew oats and potatoes
and ate fish. In 1841 the island had
65 inhabitants.
Another similarity to St Kilda was
the way the island was run. Just like
St Kilda, Handa had its own
parliament. It was headed by the
island’s ‘queen’: the oldest resident
woman. The parliament decided
every morning who would do which
tasks, and the island was run without
problems for many years.
This all came to an end in 1848, the
year of the potato famine. It struck
the island and all inhabitants
emigrated to Nova Scotia.
The island has been uninhabited
ever since, but nowadays it does
have rangers looking after the place.
It is run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust
and they send out volunteers for twoweek
stretches to welcome tourists
and look after the birds on the island.
The island attracts nearly 200,000
seabirds each summer and is
therefore a great attraction for bird
watchers. On a visit to the island you
can encounter guillemots, razorbills,
great skuas, kittiwakes and many
other seabirds.
You can also still see some ruined
houses. One marked grave in the
original graveyard is still visible.
You reach the island by taking the
ferry from Tarbet.
For more information check out
www.swt.org.uk or telephone the
Scottish Wildlife Trust on
+44 (0)131 312 7765
Handa Island