The island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides is the story of isolated people living on a harsh and remote island in the North Atlantic. It is also a story of their their accommodation with nature.
Getting there, a long journey by sea
The St Kilda Archipelago is one of those places in the world where just getting there is hard. These islands form the outer sentinels of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and for more than a millennia they were the home to an isolated and totally self sufficient community. Forty one miles from Benbecula on the Isle of Lewis and more than one hundred miles from the west coast of Scotland, the main island of the archipelago is Hirta, formed by the collapse of an ancient North Atlantic volcano.
Prehistoric origins with hints of monks and Norsemen
Stone tools revealed during archeological excavations have indicated that the islands may have been visit, or even settled, as long ago as 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The remains of an Iron Age Earth House were identified in 1844. Other studies of the island have brought to light early Christian crosses carved in stones that were later incorporated into the walls of stone cottages, indicating the probable visitation and settlement of Irish missionaries seeking the “White Martyrdom” of exile from their homeland. The Norse also managed to find their way to this remote spot as evidenced by brooches and steatite vessels. The hill at the east arm of the harbor, Oiseval, and the red hill, Ruaival both derive their names from Norse origins.
Self sufficiency borne of harsh conditions
Whatever the period, the people who occupied this island lived self sufficient and extremely isolated lives. Long lines of stone walls and the stone remains of houses and outbuildings attest to their hard work and struggle to sustain a living. St Kilda’s location on the leading edge of the North Atlantic meant that it was constantly buffeted by the harsh winds and seas blowing across that cold and rough sea. The growing of crops, such as barley and wheat, had to be done within stone walled enclosures to protect them from wind. For a substantial part of the existence of settlement on the island its occupants were tenants of a absentee landlord in Scotland, MacLeod of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. The rents due to the MacLeod were paid in wool, barley, tweed, milk, cheese and particularly, feathers and oil from seabirds caught by the natives on the cliffs of Hirta, Soay, Boreray and the sea stacs of Lee and An Armin.
The wild sheep of Hirta and a diet based on sea birds
The sheep of St Kilda were primarily a wild variety similar to those found on the island of Soay. And closely resemble the wild mouflon of Europe and sheep domesticated during the Bronze age. While the inhabitants of Hirta kept mixed herds of sheep, the herd on the island today are descended from pure bred Soay sheep landed on the island in 1932, after the evacuation of the island inhabitants. These sheep have been the subject of study since 1955. The cliffs and craggy rocks of Hirta, Dun and Boreray and the sea stacs of Lee and An Armin are home to millions of sea birds, particularly during the mating season. A full quarter of all of the world population of Northern gannets live here, 80% of the European population of Leach’s petrels are here and there are 136,000 pair of puffin. It was these birds that served as the major source of food and income for the inhabitants. While some fishing was done, the men and boys climbed the cliffs and even lowered themselves over the edges to capture the birds and seize their eggs. The feathers of the birds were plucked and sent to the landlord for use as beds, their oil was also collected and sent on for sale and the meat from the birds was dried and, along with other foodstuffs, kept in sod topped stone cleits, storage chambers, built into the hillsides.
A settlement of stone houses
While the earliest settlers lived in sod covered stone structures, the location of the earliest settlements has not been discovered. By the 1830s people were living in “black Houses”, unmortared and windowless stone buildings with an inner and outer walls filled between with earth and having a roof of barley stalk thatch. Inside were two rooms, one for the people and one for the family animals. These rudimentary houses had no chimneys. Starting around 1860, as a result of hurricane damage, these “black houses” were replaced by more modern “white houses” with mortared stone walls, windows and fireplaces in their gabled ends. The roofs were of zinc sheeting and both of the rooms were used by the family. The continued use of the limited arable land of the island over thousands of years and, some say, the repeated use of bird offal as fertilizer eventually led to the degradation of the land and worsening crops. In 1930, at the request of the entire population, all of the residents of the island were relocated, together with their household goods and livestock, to mainland Scotland and the other, larger, islands.
St Kilda, a time warp
For the twenty-first century visitor, a trip to the island of Hirta is a rare chance to drop back a century and examine a life style totally in tune with nature. The main “street” of the village is a grassy path six feet, or so, wide in a wide arc set back several hundred feet from the harbor. Fewer than 20 stone houses line the north side of the lane giving each house and any one on the lane a clear view of the Village Bay. While all of the houses fell to ruin after the evacuation of 1930, a number have been restored for use by researchers and one of them serves as an excellent museum of island life. Well done panels explain the origins of the archipelago, its natural history and its human story. Down by the harbor side another stone building houses the restored church, built in the nineteenth century by the Rev. Neil Mackenzie. It is also the location of the restored island school. The island of Hirta belongs to the National Trust of Scotland and, because of its almost unique human and natural heritage, access is somewhat restricted.
The island is so remote and difficult to access that only approximately 2,000 visitors a year are able to reach it. Often rough seas and high winds prevent landing. The landing of any pet is forbidden and for most visitors the visit is limited to a few hours. There are no overnight accommodations on the island for visitors other than 5 camping sites which must be reserved in advance. All vessels landing at the island must anchor in the bay and land their passengers by ship’s dinghy.
Getting to St Kilda
The easiest, and most gracious, way to get to St Kilda and the island of Hirta is via the Hebridean Princess, an outstanding, five star, limited passenger cruise ship where everything from shore excursions to your afternoon single malt scotch is included. Day charter cruises are also available from Oban (on the western shore of Scotland, about 14 hours), Leverburgh and Stornoway on the Isle of Harris, Berneray on North Uist,