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Issue 94 - St Kilda Remembered

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017

 

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St Kilda Remembered

Janice Hopper visits the lonely Scottish isle in the North Atlantic

St Kilda is the most remote part of the British Isles. Abandoned by the men, women and children who once lived there, the crofts that they left behind have sunk into eerie ruin and disrepair. Now the islands are a home for birdlife rather than for humans. As such, its appeal endures as a corner of the world that mankind could not tame or overrun.

The St Kildans hung onto survival by their fingertips until, in 1930, the final 36 islanders decided to leave, their way of life no longer considered sustainable. From that point onwards, the now globally-renowned flora and fauna reclaimed the land as their own. St Kilda's almost haunting quality captures the imagination. Its desolate ruins, situated on an isolated archipelago buffeted by the North Atlantic Ocean, tell stories of people, of livelihoods, of the landscape, and of families that live no more.

St Kilda is notoriously hard to get to. This is a challenging yet, in its own way, attractive quality. Take a quick look at a map to discover St Kilda, a tiny speck in the ocean that is far west of any other Scottish land mass, and then you can begin to understand the isolation of the people who once lived there.

The National Trust for Scotland is one of three caretakers of the isles — the others are Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence — and officially states on its website that ‘getting to St Kilda is not easy'. While it can't be denied that only travellers with true grit can weave tales of St Kilda upon their return, from chartering boats from Lewis, Harris and Skye, or sailing a yacht, or even cruising into harbour, there are still ways and means for the truly determined. Upon arrival, the only accommodation on the island is a small campsite with room for a maximum of six people. There’s no mobile phone reception or Wi-Fi, but this is exactly why visitors are entranced by St Kilda. The only other people visitors may come across are military personnel, conservation workers, volunteers and the occasional scientist. It’s the land that the rest of the world forgot.

St Kilda comprises a mix of small islands and towering sea stacks. The main island where the St Kildans lived is Hirta; others include Soay, Dùn, and Boreray. It’s unclear when the land was first populated, but Bronze Age remains reveal a human presence or visitation as far back as 4000--5000 years ago. The population has always been notably small, about 180 in the late 17th Century, and the people had to work together to survive. Life was run by a system called the ‘Parliament'. The men of St Kilda would gather outside a house to discuss issues, jobs for the day, and allocate work amongst the group. Trade operated on a barter system and the greatest priority would have been paying a remote landlord the annual rent. Every year the islanders would offer up feathers, dried birds, wool, butter, cheese, horses, oil and barley to pay their way. It’s clear that nothing went to waste and a purpose could be found for almost everything.

Before the importation of goods became more popular, St Kildans had to make whatever they needed to live — and their inventiveness is clear to see. Fulmar bones, fishhooks and the bills of Oystercatchers were used as clothes fastenings, and in the 18th Century the soft skins of Gannets’ necks were transformed into shoes. However, by the early 19th Century leather and sheepskin were more popular. In terms of diet, birdlife, so rich on St Kilda, was a true lifeline and the locals lived off gannets, fulmars and puffins in a harvest called fowling. Eggs were, unsurprisingly, also popular. Despite being surrounded by water, the Atlantic’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature meant that the St Kildans rarely harvested the seas, instead growing basic crops and keeping a livestock. Survival was tough, but possible.

Food wasn’t the only pressing issue. Due to the islands’ isolation, illness proved particularly fatal. In 1726, a St Kildan died of smallpox whilst visiting Harris. When his clothes were returned home an epidemic tore through the island of Hirta, killing most of the islanders. In fact, the disease was so destructive that people had to be sent from Harris to repopulate St Kilda. In many parts of Scotland the rise of tourism — driven by the increased influence of the steamship and the railway, and the concept of going ‘doon the watter’ on holiday — aided island economies and brought with it both prosperity and resources. From 1877, the SS Dunara Castle began regular summer cruises to St Kilda but the island’s particular isolation meant that boats generally brought illness. The islanders sold souvenirs to the tourists, but it could be argued that the people themselves were treated as the true curiosities and they often acted out this role to encourage smooth business. Tourism, it seems, created as many problems as it solved on St Kilda.

Another development that backfired was the erection of a wireless telegraph station for the British Navy during WW1. In 1918 it was blown up by a German submarine with a hail of shells. Whilst it can hardly be said that the islands become embroiled in the heat and suffering of the First World War (no islanders lost their lives during the attack), the shelling of a painfully quiet island like Hirta must have been truly traumatic and terrifying. As the outside world began to increasingly encroach on St Kilda, the lure of the mainland, the privations of island life, and the impact of the diminishing population began to hit home. Between the two world wars the islanders made the most significant decisions of their lives – they voted to evacuate. On 29 August 1930 the last permanent residents of St Kilda left their beautiful, tough, idyllic, isolated home and headed for Morvern on the west coast of Scotland. The emotional wrench must have been unimaginable.

The last surviving resident of St Kilda, Rachel Johnson, was born on Hirta in 1922 and was just eight years old when she was evacuated. She died in spring 2016 and her passing marked the end of an era. Beyond the startling and moving social history, St Kilda boasts a number of ‘biggest and best’ titles for the UK and the world. For example, it is home to the UK's largest colony of Atlantic puffins and fulmars, the world's largest colony of gannets nests on Boreray and the surrounding sea stacks, and 90% of the European population of Leach's petrels are also at home here. What's more, the islands boast their own St Kilda wren, mice and Soay sheep — all unique due to their isolated gene pools. At St Kilda you’ll also find the highest sea stacks in Britain, the underwater ones are a diving legend, and the islands have received World Heritage Status for both their cultural and natural significance. Guests can even visit the abandoned 19th Century village that remains to this day. For a tiny archipelago it punches above its weight on the global stage.

St Kilda offers up a fascinating and unique exploration of a relatively untouched corner of Scotland. Celebrating 60 years of ownership by the National Trust for Scotland in 2017, after it was gifted to the charity by the 5th Marquess of Bute in 1957, it’s an anniversary year that's worthy of remembrance for this epic wilderness.