St Kilda, Scotland
|Scottish Gaelic name||Hiort|
|Old Norse name||Possibly Skildir|
|Meaning of name||Unknown, possibly Gaelic for "westland"|
Overview of Village Bay, St Kilda
|OS grid reference|
|Island group||St Kilda|
|Area||3.3 square miles (8.5 km2)|
|Highest elevation||Conachair 430 metres (1,410 ft)|
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|Council area||Comhairle nan Eilean Siar|
|Population||No permanent population since 1930|
|Largest settlement||Am Baile ('the Village')|
|Criteria||Cultural: iii, v; Natural: vii, ix, x|
|Inscription||1986 (10th session)|
|Area||24,201.4004 hectares (59,803 acres)|
St Kilda (Scottish Gaelic: Hiort) is an isolated archipelago situated 40 miles (64 km) west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.[note 1] The largest island is Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom. Three other islands (Dùn, Soay and Boreray) were also used for grazing and seabird hunting. The islands are administratively a part of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar local authority area.
The origin of the name St Kilda is a matter of conjecture. The islands' human heritage includes numerous unique architectural features from the historic and prehistoric periods, although the earliest written records of island life date from the Late Middle Ages. The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island's evacuation in 1930. The story of St Kilda has attracted artistic interpretations, including Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World and an opera.
Permanent habitation on the islands possibly extends back two millennia, the population probably never exceeding 180; the peak was in the late 17th century. The population was 112 in 1851. According to the 1861 census, there were 71 inhabitants at that time; over subsequent years, the population ebbed and waned, eventually dropping to 36 as of May 1930. Virtually all of the population lived on Hirta. The entire remaining population was evacuated from Hirta, the only inhabited island, in 1930.
The islands house a unique form of stone structure known as cleitean. A cleit is a stone storage hut or bothy; while many still exist, they are slowly falling into disrepair. There are known to be 1,260 cleitean on Hirta and a further 170 on the other group islands. Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel; a variety of conservation workers, volunteers and scientists spend time there in the summer months.
The National Trust for Scotland owns the entire archipelago. It became one of Scotland's six World Heritage Sites in 1986 and is one of the few in the world to hold mixed status for both its natural and cultural qualities. Parties of volunteers work on the islands in the summer to restore the many ruined buildings that the native St Kildans left behind. They share the island with a small military base established in 1957.
Two different early sheep types have survived on these remote islands, the Soay, a Neolithic type, and the Boreray, an Iron Age type. The islands are a breeding ground for many important seabird species, including northern gannets, Atlantic puffins, and northern fulmars. The St Kilda wren and St Kilda field mouse are endemic subspecies.
There are numerous etymological theories proposed for the origin of the name Kilda – which is first recorded in the late 16th century – because there are no known saints by this name. The full name St Kilda, which first appeared on a Dutch 1666 nautical map, might be derived from the Norse words sunt kelda (meaning "sweet wellwater"), or from a mistaken Dutch assumption that the spring Tobar Childa was dedicated to a saint (Tobar Childa is a tautological place name, consisting of the Scottish Gaelic and Norse words for well, i.e., "well well"). Scottish writer Martin Martin, who visited the archipelago in 1697, believed the name Kilda was "taken from one Kilder, who lived here; and from him the large well Toubir-Kilda has also its name". Another theory is St Kilda is a corruption of the Old Norse for Childa, the name of the freshwater spring on Hirta.
As a 1588 map identifies the entire archipelago as Kilda, this might refer to the Culdees, anchorites who may have brought Christianity to the island. The name being a corruption of the Gaelic name for the main island of the group because the islanders tended to pronounce r as l, and thus habitually referred to the island as Hilta. The islanders also pronounced the H with a "somewhat guttural quality" making the spoken word for Hirta sound more like Kilta. Similarly, St Kilda speakers interviewed by the School of Scottish Studies in the 1960s show individual speakers using t-initial forms, leniting to /h/, e.g. ann an Tirte ([ˈan̪ˠən̪ˠ ˈtʰʲirˠʃt̪ʲə]) and gu Hirte ([kə ˈhirˠʃt̪ʲə]).
Another theory is that it was a series of cartographical transcription errors which resulted in the name, beginning with Dutch mapmakers who might have confused Hirta with Skildar (the old name for Haskeir island much nearer the main Outer Hebrides archipelago).[note 2] The Old Icelandic Skildir ("shields") appeared as Skildar on a 1583 map by French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay. It then became S.Kilda after it was erroneously transcribed without the r and a full stop after the S by the Dutch cartographer Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer for his 1592 nautical charts. Others then wrongly assumed S.Kilda was the name of a saint creating the form that has been used for several centuries: St Kilda.[note 3]
|Scottish Gaelic:||Am Baile|
|Pronunciation:||[əm ˈpalə] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||An Lag bhon Tuath|
|Pronunciation:||[ə ˈlˠ̪ak vɔn̪ˠ ˈt̪ʰuə] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Bàgh a' Bhaile|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈpaːɣ ə valə] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Cleitean MacPhàidein|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈkʰlehtʲan maxkˈfaːtʲɛɲ] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Cnatan nan Gall|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈkʰɾãht̪an nəŋ ˈkaulˠ̪] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Dòirneagan Hiort|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈt̪ɔːrˠɲakən ˈhirˠʃt̪] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Gleann Mòr|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈklaun̪ˠ ˈmoːɾ] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Ì Àrd|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈiː ˈaːrˠt̪] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Loch Hiort|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Mullach Bìgh|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈmulˠ̪əx ˈpiː] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Mullach Mòr|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈmulˠ̪əx ˈmoːɾ] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Seann Taigh|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈʃaun̪ˠ ˈt̪ʰɤj] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Taigh an t-Sithiche|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈt̪ʰɤj əɲ ˈtʰʲi.ɪçə] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Taigh Dugain|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Taigh na Banaghaisgich|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈt̪ʰɤj nə ˈpanaɣaʃkʲɪç] (listen)|
|Scottish Gaelic:||Taigh Stallair|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈt̪ʰɤj ˈs̪t̪alˠ̪əɾʲ] (listen)|
The origin of Hirta, which significantly pre-dates the use of St Kilda, is similarly open to interpretation. One theory is that Hirta is taken from the Irish Ier, which "signifies west". Other Celtic words such as "gloom" or "death", or the Scottish Gaelic h-Iar-Tìr ("westland") have also been suggested. An Icelandic saga describes an early 13th-century voyage to Ireland that mentions a visit to the islands of "Hirtir", so the name may be derived from the shape of the island which is said to resemble a stag, (as Hirtir means "stags" in Norse). The Reverend Neil Mackenzie, who lived on Hirta from 1829 to 1844, believed the name was derived from the Gaelic Ì Àrd ("high island"), and that a further possibility was it is from the Old Norse Hirt (which means "shepherd"). The Scottish mountaineer and writer W. H. Murray had the theory that the Norse word Hirðö (pronounced 'Hirtha'), which means "herd island", could be another origin of the name.
Geography & geology
At 670 hectares (1,700 acres) in extent, Hirta is the largest island in the group and comprises more than 78% of the land area of the archipelago. Next in size are Soay (English: "sheep island") at 99 hectares (240 acres) and Boreray ('the fortified isle'), which measures 77 hectares (190 acres). Soay is 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) north-west of Hirta, Boreray 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-east. Smaller islets and stacks in the group include Stac an Armin ('warrior's stack'), Stac Lee ('grey stack') and Stac Levenish ('stream' or 'torrent'). The island of Dùn ('fort'), which protects Village Bay from the prevailing southwesterly winds, was at one time joined to Hirta by a natural arch. One theory is the arch was struck by a galleon fleeing the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but other sources suggest the arch was swept away by one of the many fierce winter storms that annually batter the islands.
The highest point in the archipelago, Conachair ('the beacon') at 430 metres (1,410 ft), is on Hirta, immediately north of the village. In the southeast is Oiseval ('east fell'), which reaches 290 metres (950 ft), and Mullach Mòr ('big hill summit') 361 metres (1,184 ft) is due west of Conachair. Ruival ('red fell') 137 metres (449 ft) and Mullach Bi ('pillar summit') 358 metres (1,175 ft) dominate the western cliffs. Boreray reaches 384 metres (1,260 ft) and Soay 378 metres (1,240 ft). The extraordinary Stac an Armin reaches 196 metres (643 ft), and Stac Lee, 172 metres (564 ft), making them the highest sea stacks in Britain.[note 4] In modern times, St Kilda's only settlement was at Village Bay (Scottish Gaelic: Bàgh a' Bhaile or Loch Hiort) on Hirta. Gleann Mòr on the north coast of Hirta and Boreray also contains the remains of earlier habitations. Although the sea approach to Hirta into Village Bay suggests a small settlement flanked by high rolling hills in a semicircle behind it, Conachair, on the northern side, is faced with vertical rock cliffs up to 427 metres (1,401 ft) high, which constitute the highest sea cliffs in the UK.[note 5]
Although 40 miles (64 km) from the nearest land, St Kilda is visible from as far as the summit ridges of the Skye Cuillin, some 80 miles (130 km) distant. The climate is oceanic with high rainfall, 1,400 millimetres (55 in), and high humidity. Temperatures are generally cool, averaging 5.6 °C (42.1 °F) in January and 11.8 °C (53.2 °F) in July. The prevailing winds, especially strong in winter, are southerly and southwesterly. Wind speeds average 8 miles per hour (7.0 kn; 13 km/h) approximately 85 per cent of the time and more than 15 miles per hour (13 kn; 24 km/h) more than 30 per cent of the time. Gale-force winds occur less than 2 per cent of the time in any one year, but gusts of 115 miles per hour (100 kn; 185 km/h) and more occur regularly on the high tops, and speeds of 130 miles per hour (110 kn; 210 km/h) have occasionally been recorded near sea level. The tidal range is 2.9 metres (9.5 ft), and ocean swells of 5 metres (16 ft) frequently occur, which can make landings difficult or impossible at any time of year. The oceanic location protects the islands from snow, which lies for only about a dozen days per year.
The archipelago's remote location and oceanic climate are matched in the UK only by a few smaller outlying islands such as the Flannan Isles, North Rona, Sula Sgeir, and the Bishop's Isles at the southern edge of the Outer Hebrides. Administratively, St Kilda was part of the parish of Harris in the traditional county of Inverness-shire. It is now incorporated in the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) unitary authority.
It has been known for some time that St Kilda was continuously inhabited for two millennia or more, from the Bronze Age to the 20th century. Recently, the first direct evidence of earlier Neolithic settlement emerged, shards of pottery of the Hebridean ware style, found to the east of the village. The subsequent discovery of a quarry for stone tools on Mullach Sgar above Village Bay led to finds of numerous stone hoe-blades, grinders and Skaill knives[note 6] in the Village Bay cleitean, unique stone storage buildings (see below). These tools are also probably of Neolithic origin.
Archeologists working at the archipelago between 2017 and 2019 confirmed habitation as long as 2,000 years ago. Finds included Iron Age pottery and some shards that might be from Bronze Age pottery. The director of the project told BBC News that the work "revealed that the eastern end of Village Bay on St Kilda was occupied fairly intensively during the Iron Age period, although no house structures were found".
14th to 17th century
Early reports mentioned finds of brooches, an iron sword and Danish coins. The enduring Norse place names indicate a sustained Viking presence on Hirta, but the visible evidence has been lost. In the late 14th century John of Fordun referred to it as 'the isle of Irte (insula de Irte), which is agreed to be under the Circius and on the margins of the world'. The islands were historically part of the domain of the MacLeods of Harris, whose steward was responsible for the collection of rents in kind and other duties. The first detailed report of a visit to the islands dates from 1549, when Donald Munro suggested that: "The inhabitants thereof ar simple poor people, scarce learnit in aney religion, but M’Cloyd of Herray, his stewart, or he quhom he deputs in sic office, sailes anes in the zear ther at midsummer, with some chaplaine to baptize bairnes ther."[note 7]
By the mid-16th century the MacLeods definitely controlled Hirta and annually sent a man to collect rents.
A permanent mission was sent to Hirta in 1705; Alexander Buchan stayed till 1730. Subsequent missionaries achieved little. The islanders' isolation and dependence on the bounty of the natural world meant their philosophy bore as much relationship to Druidism as it did to Christianity. This changed upon the arrival of Rev. John MacDonald in 1822. Macauley (1764) reported the existence of five druidic altars, including a large circle of stones fixed perpendicularly in the ground near the Stallir House on Boreray.
Coll MacDonald of Colonsay raided Hirta in 1615, removing thirty sheep and a quantity of barley. Thereafter, the islands developed a reputation for abundance. At the time of Martin's visit in 1697 the population was 180, and the steward travelled with a "company" of up to 60 persons to which he "elected the most 'meagre' among his friends in the neighbouring islands, to that number and took them periodically to St Kilda to enjoy the nourishing and plentiful, if primitive, fare of the island, and so be restored to their wonted health and strength."
Visiting ships in the 18th century brought cholera and smallpox. In 1727, the loss of life was so high that too few residents remained to man the boats, and new families were brought in from Harris to replace them.[note 8] By 1758, the population had risen to 88 and reached just under 100 by the end of the century. This figure remained fairly constant from the 18th century until 1851, when 36 islanders emigrated to Australia on board the Priscilla, a loss from which the island never fully recovered. The emigration was in part a response to the laird's closure of the church and manse for several years during the Disruption that created the Free Church of Scotland.
A missionary called Alexander Buchan went to St Kilda in 1705, but despite his extended stay, the idea of organised religion did not take hold. This changed when Rev. John MacDonald, the "Apostle of the North", arrived in 1822. Reverend MacDonald set about his mission with zeal, preaching 13 lengthy sermons during his first 11 days. He returned regularly and raised funds on behalf of the St Kildans, although privately he was appalled by their lack of religious knowledge. The islanders took to him with enthusiasm and wept when he left for the last time eight years later. His successor, who arrived on 3 July 1830, was Rev. Neil Mackenzie, a resident Church of Scotland minister who significantly improved the conditions of the inhabitants. He reorganised island agriculture, was instrumental in the rebuilding of the village (see below) and supervised the building of a new church and manse. With help from the Gaelic School Society, MacKenzie and his wife introduced formal education to Hirta, beginning a daily school to teach reading, writing and arithmetic and a Sunday school for religious education.
Mackenzie left in 1844,[note 9] and although he had achieved a great deal, the weakness of the St Kildans' dependence on external authority was exposed in 1865 with the arrival of Rev. John Mackay. Despite their fondness for Mackenzie, who stayed in the Church of Scotland, the St Kildans "came out" in favour of the new Free Church during the Disruption. Mackay, the new Free Church minister, placed an uncommon emphasis on religious observance. He introduced a routine of three two-to-three-hour services on Sunday at which attendance was effectively compulsory. One visitor noted in 1875 that: "The Sabbath was a day of intolerable gloom. At the clink of the bell, the whole flock hurry to Church with sorrowful looks and eyes bent upon the ground. It is considered sinful to look to the right or to the left."
Mackay remained minister on St Kilda for 24 years.
18th to 20th Century
Most modern commentators feel that the predominant theme of life on St Kilda was isolation. When Martin Martin visited the islands in 1697, the only means of making the journey was by open boat, which could take several days to cross the ocean by rowing and sailing. It was next to impossible to make the journey in the autumn and winter. According to a St Kilda diarist writing in 1908, vicious storms could be expected at any time between September and March. More modern records from the National Trust for Scotland record gales for 75 days a year with peak winds around 144 mph (125 kn; 232 km/h) whilst peak wave heights on the Scottish west coast have been recorded at 16 m (52 ft).
Separated by distance and weather, the natives knew little of the mainland and international politics. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, it was rumoured that Prince Charles Edward Stuart and some of his senior Jacobite aides had escaped to St Kilda. An expedition was launched, and in due course, British soldiers were ferried ashore to Hirta. They found a deserted village, as the St Kildans, fearing pirates, had fled to caves to the west. When the St Kildans were persuaded to come down, the soldiers discovered that the isolated natives knew nothing of the prince and had never heard of King George II either.
Another significant feature of St Kildan life was the diet. The islanders kept sheep and a few cattle and were able to grow a limited amount of food crops, such as barley and potatoes, on the better-drained land in Village Bay; in many ways the islands can be seen as a large mixed farm. Samuel Johnson reported that in the 18th-century sheep's milk was made "into small cheeses" by the St Kildans. They generally eschewed fishing because of the heavy seas and unpredictable weather.[note 10] The mainstay of their food supplies was the profusion of island birds, especially gannet and fulmar. These they harvested as eggs and young birds and ate both fresh and cured. Adult puffins were also caught by the use of fowling rods. A 1764 census described a daily consumption for each of the 90 inhabitants at the same of "36 wild fouls eggs and 18 fouls" (i.e. seabirds). Seabird feathers were "used to stuff pillows and bedding; the oil in the stomachs of fulmars was used both as fuel and as a primitive form of medicine; and the whole skins of gannets, our largest seabird, were used as shoes" according to a BBC report.
The harvesting of seabirds had a distinct disadvantage. When Henry Brougham visited in 1799, he noted that "the air is infected by a stench almost insupportable – a compound of rotten fish, filth of all sorts and stinking seafowl". An excavation of the Taigh an t-Sithiche (the "house of the faeries" – see below) in 1877 by Sands unearthed the remains of gannet, sheep, cattle and limpets amidst various stone tools. The building is between 1,700 and 2,500 years old, which suggests that the St Kildan diet had changed little over the millennia. Indeed, the tools were recognised by the St Kildans, who could put names to them as similar devices were still in use.
An 1885 report by a surgeon who visited Hirta reported that the inhabitants had no fruit or vegetables, except for a few potatoes of poor quality. They ate "oatmeal, salted fowl, and seabird eggs during summer and salted mutton in winter. They obtained tea, sugar, flour and tobacco from tourists and from the owner's factor". Water was obtained from freshwater springs. A history of Village Bay states that some improvements in housing were made in the 1830s by the "landlord and the Rev. Neil MacKenzie". The report adds that "the old village further up the hill was replaced by a crescent of blackhouses ... From 1861, following a hurricane, 16 new dwellings replaced the blackhouses, which were relegated to byres".
An 1888 report on St Kilda stated that the islanders' primary occupation was "fishing, bird catching and the rearing of sickly sheep and cattle".
Their fowling activities involved considerable skills in climbing, especially on the precipitous sea stacks. An important island tradition involved the 'Mistress Stone', a door-shaped opening in the rocks north-west of Ruival over-hanging a gully. Young men of the island had to undertake a ritual there to prove themselves on the crags, and to be worthy of taking a wife. Martin Martin wrote:
In the face of the rock, south from the town, is the famous stone, known by the name of the mistress-stone; it resembles a door exactly; and is in the very front of this rock, which is twenty or thirty fathom [120 to 180 feet (37 to 55 m)] perpendicular in height, the figure of it being discernible about the distance of a mile; upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer is by an ancient custom obliged in honour to give a specimen of his affection for the love of his mistress, and it is thus; he is to stand on his left foot, having the one half of his sole over the rock, and then he draws the right foot further out to the left, and in this posture bowing, he puts both his fists further out to the right foot; and then after he has performed this, he has acquired no small reputation, being always after it accounted worthy of the finest mistress in the world: they firmly believe that this achievement is always attended with the desired success. This being the custom of the place, one of the inhabitants very gravely desired me to let him know the time limited by me for trying of this piece of gallantry before I design’d to leave the place, that he might attend me; I told him this performance would have a quite contrary effect upon me, by robbing me both of my life and mistress at the same moment.
Another important aspect of St Kildan life was the daily "parliament", part of a democratic system, consisting of all of the men. A meeting was held each morning, on the Street, after prayers and was attended by all the adult males. During the course of the meeting, they would decide upon the day's activities; no one led the meeting, and all men had the right to speak. According to Steel (1988), "Discussion frequently spread discord, but never in recorded history were feuds so bitter as to bring about a permanent division in the community". St Kilda's women who wanted suffrage were among the first to vote after the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed by the UK Parliament. This notion of a free society influenced Enric Miralles' vision for the new Scottish Parliament Building, opened in October 2004. This type of parliament still existed in the early 1900s according to a diary written by school teacher Alice MacLachlan who left St Kilda in 1909. A summary states that "the daily meeting was part of a group system of sharing jobs and necessary materials, such as ropes".
Whatever the privations, the St Kildans were fortunate in some respects, for their isolation spared them some of the evils of life elsewhere. Martin noted in 1697 that the citizens seemed "happier than the generality of mankind as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty". In the 19th century, their good health and well being was contrasted favourably with conditions elsewhere in the Hebrides. Theirs was not a utopian society; the islanders had ingenious wooden locks for their property, and financial penalties were exacted for misdemeanours. Nonetheless, no resident St Kildan is known to have fought in a war; and in the four centuries of history, no serious crime committed by an islander was recorded there.[note 11]
According to UNESCO, "St Kilda represents subsistence economies everywhere – living off the resources of land and sea and changing them over time, until external pressures led to decline". Indeed, the islanders had a tough life, and survived by exploiting the thousands of sea birds living on the islands. There are a large number of cleits, huts used for storing dried sea birds, fish, hay and turf.
Missionaries provided education for many years during the 1800s, but by 1872, the state took over; a true school building was not built and occupied until 1898. By the early 20th century, formal schooling had become a feature of the islands, and in 1906 the church was extended to make a schoolhouse. The children all now learned English, as well as their native Scottish Gaelic. Improved midwifery skills, denied to the island by John Mackay, reduced the problems of childhood tetanus. From the 1880s, trawlers fishing the North Atlantic made regular visits, bringing additional trade. Talk of an evacuation occurred in 1875, during MacKay's time as minister, but despite occasional food shortages and a flu epidemic in 1913, the population was stable at between 75 and 80. There was no obvious sign that within a few years the millennia-old occupation of the island was to end.
MacLachlan's diary (now owned by the NTS) sheds some light on life in the early 1900s, which, according to the BBC was
"relatively speaking, a vibrant, well-connected and economically successful place thanks to a booming tourist trade and a buoyant market for the island’s tweed. Whaling boats brought supplies of coal and the government was able to provide more services for the islanders – visiting doctors had spent the two weeks ... vaccinating its residents – and the frequent presence of English fishing fleets meant they were better linked to the wider world than ever before".
Medical care was always limited. In the late 1890s, there was a single nurse stationed on Hirta, with limited medical supplies. That level continued until the contingent for St Kilda was increased to nine in 1915.
In 1764 (according to the Census), there were 90 St Kindans, 105 in 1841, and 112 in 1851. The following year, 36 left for Australia; the latter was financed by the Highland and Island Emigration Society. By the 1861 census, the population was only 71; by 1911 it was 74, and 43 by 1927, declining to 36 by 1930.
St Kilda had a sub post office by 1900; in by 1906 steam trawlers brought mail "as often as six times a year". During the late 19th century, the islanders would often communicate with the outside by lighting a bonfire on the summit of Conachair which would, weather permitting, be visible to those on the isles of Harris and the Uists.
At times, the St Kildans built miniature "mail boats", waterproof, buoyant (often including a sheep’s bladder) rectangles containing mail and messages. Launched when the wind came from the north-west, two-thirds of the messages were later found on the west coast of Scotland or, less conveniently, in Norway. One report states that the mail sent in this manner "usually reached the mainland within a day or two but on occasions was picked up in Iceland and even Denmark".
This concept was first developed by journalist John Sands in 1876 when he and some shipwrecked sailors were trapped on St Kilda. Sands attached a message to a lifebuoy salvaged from the Peti Dubrovacki and threw it into the sea. Nine days later it was picked up in Birsay, Orkney, and a rescue was arranged.
When the islanders were facing starvation after a severe storm in September 1885, five small boats were launched and one reached Gallan Head, Lewis quite quickly. The locals collected money, bought foodstuffs and rented a boat to take them to St Kilda to save the inhabitants.
Sending mail boats became a regular event, even for more routine correspondence such as letters and postcards.
19th century tourism
Visits by tourists became quite common during the summers, starting in the 1870s when steamships and private yachts began arriving. A new pier was built in 1901, making it easier to land passengers from the larger craft, using rowboats.
The ships brought supplies to the St Kildans during summer. One 1889 report said that the islanders "spent time producing goods to sell to tourists, including sheepskins, tweeds, knitted gloves, stockings and scarves, eggs and ornithological items".
In 1898 and again in 1899 Norman Heathcote visited the islands and wrote a book about his experiences. During the 19th century, steamers had begun to visit Hirta, enabling the islanders to earn money from the sale of tweeds and birds' eggs; but it was at the expense of their self-esteem as the tourists regarded them as curiosities. It is also clear that the St Kildans were not so naïve as they sometimes appeared. "For example, when they boarded a yacht they would pretend they thought all the polished brass was gold, and that the owner must be enormously wealthy".
The boats brought other previously unknown diseases, especially tetanus infantum, which resulted in infant mortality rates as high as 80 per cent during the late 19th century. The cnatan na gall (English: "lowlander's cold") or boat-cough, an illness that struck after the arrival of a ship off Hirta, became a regular feature of life. A 2008 study provided this information about the illness:
the "respiratory tract infection known as the boat cough [occurred] every time strangers visited their isolated community between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. This condition has always been labelled influenza, but a review of contemporary records and modern microbiological evidence strongly suggests the illness was due to rhinovirus.
First World War
Early in the First World War, the Royal Navy erected a signal station on Hirta, and the first daily communications with the mainland were established. In a belated response, the German submarine SM U-90 arrived in Village Bay on the morning of 15 May 1918 and, after issuing a warning, started shelling the island. Seventy-two shells were fired, and the wireless station was destroyed. The manse, church, and jetty storehouse were damaged, but there was no loss of life. One eyewitness recalled: "It wasn't what you would call a bad submarine because it could have blowed every house down because they were all in a row there. He only wanted Admiralty property. One lamb was killed... all the cattle ran from one side of the island to the other when they heard the shots."
As a result of this attack, a 4-inch Mark III QF gun was erected on a promontory overlooking Village Bay, but it never saw action against the enemy. Of greater long-term significance to the islanders were the introduction of regular contact with the outside world and the slow development of a money-based economy. This made life easier for the St Kildans but also made them less self-reliant. Both were factors in the evacuation of the island a little more than a decade later. "Ironically, things improved with the war, which brought a naval detachment and regular deliveries of mail and food from naval supply vessels. But when these services were withdrawn at end of the war, the sense of isolation increased. Able bodied young islanders left for a better life, resulting in a breakdown of the island economy".
Evacuation and aftermath
Numerous factors led to the evacuation of St Kilda. The islands' inhabitants had existed for centuries in relative isolation until tourism and the presence of the military during the First World War led the islanders to seek alternatives to privations they routinely suffered. The changes on the island by visitors in the nineteenth century disconnected the islanders from their traditional way of life, which had allowed their forebears to survive in this unique environment. Despite the construction of a small jetty in 1902, the islands remained at the weather's mercy.[note 12]
After the War, most of the young men left the island, and the population fell from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928. After the death of four men from influenza in 1926, there was a succession of crop failures in the 1920s. University of Aberdeen investigations into the soil where crops had been grown has shown that there had been contamination of lead and other pollutants, caused by the use of seabird carcasses and peat ash in the manure used on the fields. Contamination occurred over a lengthy period of time, as manuring practices became more intensive, and may have been a factor in the evacuation. The last straw came in January 1930 when a young woman, Mary Gillies, fell ill and was taken to the mainland for treatment, where she died in hospital. For many years it was assumed that her death was caused by appendicitis; but her son, Norman John Gillies, discovered in 1991 that she had died of pneumonia after giving birth to a daughter, who also died. One of the main initiators of the evacuation was nurse Williamina Barclay, who had been stationed at St Kilda in 1928.
She reported her observations on the conditions on the island to the Scottish Department of Health. She convinced many of the islanders to evacuate and helped the islanders draw up an official petition to request assistance with the evacuation and resettlement on the mainland. The majority of inhabitants signed the petition on 10 May 1930, stating that "it would be impossible to stay on the island another winter." The plan was supported by Dugald Munro, the missionary and schoolteacher, and by Nurse Barclay.
At that time, thirteen men, ten women, eight girls and five boys lived in St Kilda, all on Hirta. The 10 households rented cottages from the landowner, with the other six cottages being unoccupied.
Barclay was appointed the government's representative on St Kilda in June 1930 and was made responsible for the planning of the evacuation and the resettlement of the St Kildans on the mainland. The sheep were to be taken off the island a few days before the actual evacuation for sale on the mainland.
The islanders took with them only the essentials, clothing, heirlooms and the wool they had collected that year. None of the furniture, fishing equipment or boats was taken. The islanders were paid one pound per day each to round up the sheep. The 1,200 sheep (and some cows and calves) were removed using the boats SS Dunara Castle and SS Hebrides before the St Kildans finally departed. The islanders had not owned their own homes; those were rented from the owner of the island.
The morning of the evacuation promised a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs of Oiseval. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7 am boarded the Harebell. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the long antler of Dun fell back onto the horizon and the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the St Kildans gave way to tears.
According to the National Records of Scotland, "officials found forestry work for the men, and most of them were settled at Lochaline near Oban, while other families went to live at Strome Ferry, Ross-shire, Culcabock near Inverness, and at Culross, Fife".
As of 1930, St Kilda was owned by Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod and sold to the Earl of Dumfries, later Marquess of Bute, in 1931. He bequeathed it National Trust for Scotland in 1957. For the next 26 years, the islands saw few people, save for the occasional summer visitors.
A film made by a private individual in summer 1930 was later discovered. It includes some scenes of the "preparations and evacuation of the island". It is owned by the National Library of Scotland and available for viewing on their Web site.
A documentary film broadcast in 1972 on Thames Television includes "interviews of former inhabitants of the island ... [for] a glimpse of what life was like for those living on such a remote island". The film is available for viewing on several Web sites.
St Kilda was designated as Scotland's first World Heritage Site in 1987. A few facilities for visitors are available on the island. The Ministry of Defence established a base on Hirta for tracking missiles fired from the station on South Uist.
The last of the native St Kildans, Rachel Johnson, died in April 2016 at the age of 93, having been evacuated at the age of 8. After the evacuation, she settled in Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire.
According to the NTS, this charity, with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence, work together "to further a continuing programme of conservation and research on the islands and to ensure the care and protection of this World Heritage Site".
Second World War
The islands saw no military activity during the Second World War, remaining uninhabited, but three aircraft crash sites remain from that period. A Beaufighter LX798 based at Port Ellen on Islay crashed into Conachair within 100 metres (330 ft) of the summit on the night of 3–4 June 1943. A year later, just before midnight on 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day, a Sunderland flying boat ML858 was wrecked at the head of Gleann Mòr. A small plaque in the church is dedicated to those who died in this accident. A Wellington bomber crashed on the south coast of Soay in 1942 or 1943. Not until 1978 was any formal attempt made to investigate the wreck, and its identity has not been absolutely determined. Amongst the wreckage, a Royal Canadian Air Force cap badge was discovered, which suggests it may have been HX448 of 7 OTU which went missing on a navigation exercise on 28 September 1942. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the Wellington is LA995 of 303 FTU which was lost on 23 February 1943.
In 1955, the British government decided to incorporate St Kilda into a missile tracking range based in Benbecula, where test firings and flights are carried out. Thus in 1957, St Kilda became permanently inhabited once again. A variety of military buildings and masts have since been erected, including a canteen (which is not open to the public), the Puff Inn. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) leases St Kilda from the National Trust for Scotland for a nominal fee.
The main island of Hirta is still occupied year-round by a small number of civilians employed by defence contractor QinetiQ working in the military base (Deep Sea Range) on a monthly rotation. In 2009 the MoD announced that it was considering closing down its missile testing ranges in the Western Isles, potentially leaving the Hirta base unmanned. In 2015 the base had to be temporarily evacuated due to adverse weather conditions.
In summer 2018, the MOD facilities were being restored as part of building a new base; one report stated that the project included "replacing aged generators and accommodation blocks". With no permanent population, the island population can vary between 20 and 70, most living here temporarily. These inhabitants include: MoD employees, National Trust for Scotland employees, and several scientists working on a Soay sheep research project.
Visits to St Kilda were encouraged until facilities closed due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic in 2020; as of early February 2021 the toilets, camp site and shopping facilities on Hirta were all closed.
The NTS has improved the village on Hirta over the years. "They have reroofed the cottages on the main street, restored the church, and re-stacked stones that years of gales had toppled from the cleits, or bothies, that dot the volcanic landscape". One cottage, #3 on "The Street" has been more extensively restored and turned into the museum. However, a full restoration of the other cottages is not expected. The Historic Environment Scotland website states that "the plain, two-bay church, with the schoolroom added to its north west in 1898" was "restored as they might have appeared in the 1920s". The site also explains that the "arrangement of St Kilda Village along a curving street is the result of mid-19th century improvement ... Distinctive drystone storage structures, known as cleitan, are scattered throughout the landscape. There are over 1,400 cleitan known throughout the St Kilda archipelago, but they are concentrated in the area around the village".
The NTS suggest that there is a great deal of interest in diving in the area as well as viewing of seabirds in "Europe’s most important seabird colony, and one of the major seabird breeding stations in the North Atlantic. Prior to the closure, day trips for tourists were readily available, by boat, leaving from Stein Jetty, Skye. A review of St Kilda, written before facilities closed, warned that landing at the pier can be difficult in rough seas.
The oldest structures on St Kilda are the most enigmatic. Large sheepfolds lie inland from the existing village at An Lag Bho'n Tuath (English: the hollow in the north) and contain unique 'boat-shaped' stone rings, or 'settings'. Soil samples suggest a date of 1850 BC, but they are unique to St Kilda, and their purpose is unknown. In Gleann Mòr, (north-west of Village Bay beyond Hirta's central ridge), there are twenty 'horned structures'. These are ruined buildings with a main court measuring about three by three metres (10 by 10 ft), with two or more smaller cells and a forecourt formed by two curved or horn-shaped walls. No structures like these exist anywhere else in Europe, and their original use is unknown. Also in Gleann Mòr is Taigh na Banaghaisgeich, the 'Amazon's House'. As Martin (1703) reported, many St Kilda tales are told about this female warrior.
This Amazon is famous in their traditions: her house or dairy of stone is yet extant; some of the inhabitants dwell in it all summer, though it be some hundred years old; the whole is built of stone, without any wood, lime, earth, or mortar to cement it, and is built in form of a circle pyramid-wise towards the top, having a vent in it, the fire being always in the centre of the floor; the stones are long and thin, which supplies the defect of wood; the body of this house contains not above nine persons sitting; there are three beds or low vaults that go off the side of the wall, a pillar betwixt each bed, which contains five men apiece; at the entry to one of these low vaults is a stone standing upon one end fix’d; upon this they say she ordinarily laid her helmet; there are two stones on the other side, upon which she is reported to have laid her sword: she is said to have been much addicted to hunting, and that in her time all the space betwixt this isle and that of Harries, was one continued tract of dry land.
Similar stories of a female warrior who hunted the now-submerged land between the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda are reported from Harris. The structure's forecourt is akin to the other 'horned structures' in the immediate area, but like Martin's "Amazon" its original purpose is the stuff of legend rather than archaeological fact.
Much more is known of the hundreds of unique cleitean that decorate the archipelago. These dome-shaped structures are constructed of flat boulders with a cap of turf on the top. This enables the wind to pass through the cavities in the wall but keeps the rain out. They were used for storing peat, nets, grain, preserved flesh and eggs, manure, and hay, and as a shelter for lambs in winter. The date of origin of this St Kildan invention is unknown, but they were in continuous use from prehistoric times until the 1930 evacuation. More than 1,200 ruined or intact cleitean remain on Hirta and a further 170 on the neighbouring islands. House no. 16 in the modern village has an early Christian stone cross built into the front wall, which may date from the 7th century.
A medieval village lay near Tobar Childa, about 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) from the shore, at the foot of the slopes of Conachair. The oldest building is an underground passage with two small annexes called Taigh an t-Sithiche (house of the faeries) which dates to between 500 BC and 300 AD. The St Kildans believed it was a house or hiding place, although a more recent theory suggests that it was an ice house.
Extensive ruins of field walls and cleitean and the remnants of a medieval 'house' with a beehive-shaped annexe remain. Nearby is the 'Bull's House', a roofless rectangular structure in which the island's bull was kept during winter. Tobar Childa itself is supplied by two springs that lie just outside the Head Wall that was constructed around the Village to prevent sheep and cattle gaining access to the cultivated areas within its boundary. There were 25 to 30 houses altogether. Most were blackhouses of typical Hebridean design, but some older buildings were made of corbelled stone and turfed rather than thatched. The turf was used to prevent the ingress of wind and rain, and the older "beehive" buildings resembled green hillocks rather than dwellings.
The Head Wall was built in 1834, when the medieval village was abandoned and a new one planned, between Tobar Childa and the sea which is some 700 feet (200 m) down the slope. This came about as the result of a visit by Sir Thomas Dyke Ackland, one of the members of parliament for Devon. Appalled by the primitive conditions, he gave money for the building of a completely new settlement of thirty new blackhouses. These houses were made of dry stone, had thick walls, and were roofed with turf. Each typically had only one tiny window and a small opening for letting out smoke from the peat fire that burnt in the middle of the room. As a result, the interiors were blackened by soot. The cattle occupied one end of the house in winter, and once a year, the straw from the floor was stripped out and spread on the ground. In October 1860, several of the new dwellings were damaged by a severe gale, and repairs were sufficient only to make them suitable for use as byres. According to Alasdair MacGregor's analysis of the settlement, the sixteen modern, zinc-roofed cottages amidst the black houses and new Factor's house seen in most photographs of the native islanders were constructed around 1862.
One of the more poignant ruins on Hirta is the site of 'Lady Grange's House'. Lady Grange had been married to the Jacobite sympathiser James Erskine, Lord Grange, for 25 years when he decided that she might have overheard too many of his treasonable plottings. He had her kidnapped and secretly confined in Edinburgh for six months. From there she was sent to the Monach Isles, where she lived in isolation for two years. She was then taken to Hirta from 1734 to 1740, which she described as "a vile neasty, stinking poor isle". After a failed rescue attempt, she was removed on her husband's orders to the Isle of Skye, where she died. The "house" on Hirta which carries her name is a large cleit in the Village meadows.
Boswell and Johnson discussed the subject during their 1773 tour of the Hebrides. Boswell wrote: "After dinner to-day, we talked of the extraordinary fact of Lady Grange’s being sent to St Kilda, and confined there for several years, without any means of relief. Dr Johnson said, if M’Leod would let it be known that he had such a place for naughty ladies, he might make it a very profitable island."
In the 1860s unsuccessful attempts were made to improve the landing area by blasting rocks. A small jetty was erected in 1877, but it was washed away in a storm two years later. In 1883 representations to the Napier Commission suggested the building of a replacement, but it was 1901 before the Congested Districts Board provided an engineer to enable one to be completed the following year. Nearby on the shore-line are some huge boulders which were known throughout the Highlands and Islands in the 19th century as Doirneagan Hirt, Hirta's pebbles.
At one time, three churches stood on Hirta. The largest, Christ Church, was at the centre of the village and was in use during 1697. But, its thatched-roof structure was too small to hold the entire population, so most of the congregation had to gather in the churchyard during services. St Brendan's Church lay around 3⁄4 mile (1.2 km) away on the slopes of Ruival, and St Columba's was at the west end of the village street, but little is left of these buildings. A new kirk and manse were erected at the east end of the village in 1830 and a Factor's house in 1860.
Dùn means "fort", and there is a single ruined wall of a structure said to have been built in the far-distant past by the Fir Bolg. The only "habitation" is Sean Taigh (old house), a natural cavern sometimes used as a shelter by the St Kildans when they were tending the sheep or catching birds. Soay has a primitive hut known as Taigh Dugan (Dugan's house). This is little more than an excavated hole under a massive stone with two crude walls on the sides. The story of its creation relates to two sheep-stealing brothers from Lewis who came to St Kilda only to cause further trouble. Dugan was exiled to Soay, where he died; the other, called Fearchar Mòr, was sent to Stac an Armin, where he found life so intolerable he cast himself into the sea.
Boreray boasts the Cleitean MacPhàidein, a "cleit village" of three small bothies used regularly during fowling expeditions. Here too are the ruins of Taigh Stallar (the steward's house), which was similar to the Amazon's house in Gleann Mòr although somewhat larger, and which had six-bed spaces. The local tradition said it was built by the "Man of the Rocks", who led a rebellion against the landlord's steward. It may be an example of an Iron Age wheelhouse, and the associated remains of an agricultural field system were discovered in 2011. As a result of a smallpox outbreak on Hirta in 1724, three men and eight boys were marooned on Boreray until the following May. No fewer than 78 storage cleitean exist on Stac an Armin and a small bothy. A small bothy exists on the precipitous Stac Lee too, also used by fowlers.
Fauna and flora
St Kilda is a breeding ground for many important seabird species. One of the world's largest colonies of northern gannets, totalling 30,000 pairs, amount to 24 per cent of the global population. There are 49,000 breeding pairs of Leach's petrels, up to 90 per cent of the European population; 136,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins, about 30 per cent of the UK total breeding population, and 67,000 northern fulmar pairs, about 13 per cent of the UK total. Dùn is home to the largest colony of fulmars in Britain. Before 1828, St Kilda was their only UK breeding ground, but they have since spread and established colonies elsewhere, such as Fowlsheugh. The last great auk (Pinguinus impennis) seen in Britain was killed on Stac an Armin in July 1840. Unusual behaviour by St Kilda's bonxies was recorded in 2007 during research into recent falls in the Leach's petrel population. Using night-vision gear, ecologists observed the skuas hunting petrels at night, a remarkable strategy for a seabird. The St Kilda archipelago has been recognised as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International for its seabird colonies.
Two wild animal taxa are unique to St Kilda: the St Kilda wren (Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis), which is a subspecies of the Eurasian wren, and a subspecies of wood mouse known as the St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis). A third taxon endemic to St Kilda, a subspecies of house mouse known as the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis), vanished entirely after the departure of human inhabitants, as it was strictly associated with settlements and buildings. It had several traits in common with a sub-species (Mus musculus mykinessiensis) found on Mykines island in the Faroe Islands. The grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) now breeds on Hirta but did not do so before the 1930 evacuation.
The archipelago's isolation has resulted in a lack of biodiversity. The most successful colonists with nearly two hundred species are the flies followed by beetles with approximately 140 species. There are no bees on the islands, so flies are probably important pollinators of plants. One beetle, the rare and endangered weevil, Ceutorhynchus insularis, is known from only Dùn and the Westmann Islands, an archipelago off the south-west coast of Iceland. Less than one hundred species of butterfly and moth occur, compared to 367 recorded on the Western Isles. Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui) are two of only seven species of butterflies, both well known and common migrants. Common summer moths are the antler (Cerapteryx graminis), dark arches (Apamea monoglypha) and the migrant silver Y (Autographa gamma). One unusual moth recorded is the least carpet (Idaea rusticata), an occasional migrant, and in the UK, usually recorded in the south-east of England. On 4 September 2014 a rare vagrant oleander hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii) was recorded. Oleander is not found in the UK every year, and the larva has never been recorded in Britain.
Its plant life is heavily influenced by island's natural environment such as the salt spray, strong winds and acidic peaty soils. No trees grow on the archipelago, although there are more than 130 different flowering plants, 162 species of fungi and 160 bryophytes. Several rarities exist amongst the 194 lichen species. Kelp thrives in the surrounding seas, which contain a diversity of unusual marine invertebrates.
The beach at Village Bay is unusual in that its short stretch of summer sand recedes in winter, exposing the large boulders on which it rests. A survey of the beach in 1953 found only a single resident species, the crustacean isopod Eurydice pulchra.
Seabirds at risk
A 2019 report by BBC News stated that "St Kilda is home to almost a million seabirds, including gannets, shearwaters and storm petrels". Less than a year earlier, however, an NTS publication warned that certain species on the archipelago were at risk due to climate change. "What we are seeing is a long-term decline ... And it’s not just the kittiwakes – while their decline is the most dramatic, other species on the archipelago are under threat too, with the Atlantic puffin creeping dangerously near to the endangered list", according to a property manager.
"They may be dying out because they are failing to breed or physically dying of starvation", as food supplies dwindle, according to Dr Richard Luxmoore, Senior Nature Conservation Adviser at NTS. "Carbon emissions around the world have caused sea temperatures to rise, and warming waters mean food sources such as sand eels and plankton, which need cooler temperatures, are shifting north – too far for many seabirds to fly".
On his death on 14 August 1956, the Marquess of Bute's will bequeathed the archipelago to the National Trust for Scotland provided they accepted the offer within six months. After much soul-searching, the Executive Committee agreed to do so in January 1957. The slow renovation and conservation of the village began, much of it undertaken by summer volunteer work parties. Also, scientific research began on the feral Soay sheep population and other aspects of the natural environment. In 1957 the area was designated a national nature reserve, and it is classified as a Category II protected area by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In 1986 the islands became the first place in Scotland to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its physical natural features. In 2004, the WHS was extended to include a large amount of the surrounding marine features as well as the islands themselves. In 2005 St Kilda became one of only two dozen global locations to be awarded mixed World Heritage Status for both 'natural' and 'cultural' significance. The islands share this honour with internationally important sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, Mount Athos in Greece and the Ukhahlamba/Drakensberg Park in South Africa.
The St Kilda World Heritage Site covers a total area of 24,201.4 hectares (59,800 acres) including the land and sea contained within a square with the coordinates 57°54'36"N / 08°42'W, 57°46'N / 08°42'W, 57°46'N / 08°25' 42"W, 57°54'36"N / 08°25'42'W. The land area is 854.6 hectares (2,112 acres).
St Kilda is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a National Scenic Area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a European Union Special Protection Area, and a Special Area of Conservation. Visiting yachts may find shelter in Village Bay, but those wishing to land are told to contact the National Trust for Scotland in advance. Concern exists about the introduction of non-native animal and plant species into such a fragile environment.
St Kilda's marine environment of underwater caves, arches and chasms offer a challenging but superlative diving experience. Such is the power of the North Atlantic swell that the effects of the waves can be detected 70 metres (230 ft) below sea level. In 2008, the National Trust for Scotland received the support of Scotland's Minister for Environment, Michael Russell for their plan to ensure no rats come ashore from the Spinningdale – a UK-registered, but Spanish-owned, fishing vessel grounded on Hirta. There was a concern that birdlife on the island could be seriously affected. Fortunately, potential contaminants from the vessel including fuel, oils, bait and stores were successfully removed by Dutch salvage company Mammoet before the bird breeding season in early April.
On the inaccessible island of Soay are sheep of a unique type, which lived as feral animals and belonged to the owner of the islands, not to the islanders. These Soay sheep are believed to be remnants of the earliest sheep kept in Europe in the Neolithic Era, and are small, short-tailed, usually brown with white bellies, and have naturally moulting fleeces. About 200 Soay sheep remain on Soay itself, and soon after the evacuation a second feral population of them was established on Hirta, which at that time had no sheep; these now number between 600 and 1,700. A few Soays have been exported to form breeding populations in other parts of the world, where they are valued for their hardiness, small size and unusual appearance. On Hirta and Soay, the sheep prefer the Plantago pastures, which grow well in locations exposed to sea spray and include red fescue (Festuca rubra), sea plantain (Plantago maritima) and sea pink (Armeria maritima).
The St Kildans kept up to 2,000 of a different type of sheep on the islands of Hirta and Boreray. These were a Hebridean variety of the Scottish Dunface, a primitive sheep probably similar to those kept throughout Britain during the Iron Age. During the evacuation, all the islanders' sheep were removed from Hirta, but those on Boreray were left to become feral. These sheep are now regarded as a breed in their own right, the Boreray. The Boreray is one of the rarest British sheep and is one of the few remaining descendants of the Dunface (although some Scottish Blackface blood was introduced in the nineteenth century).
Media and the arts
The steamship company running a service between Glasgow and St Kilda commissioned a short (18-minute) silent movie, St Kilda, Britain's Loneliest Isle. Released in 1928, it shows some scenes in the lives of the island's inhabitants. In 1937, after reading of the St Kilda evacuation, Michael Powell made the film The Edge of the World about the dangers of island depopulation. It was filmed on Foula, one of the Shetland Islands. The writer Dorothy Dunnett wrote a short story, "The Proving Climb", set on St Kilda; it was published in 1973 in the anthology Scottish Short Stories.
In 1982, the noted Scottish filmmaker and theatre director Bill Bryden made the Channel 4-funded film Ill Fares The Land about the last years of St Kilda. It is not currently on commercial release.
The fictional island of Laerg, which features in the 1962 novel Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes, is closely based on Hirta.
The Scottish folk-rock band Runrig recorded a song called "Edge of the World" on the album The Big Wheel, which dwells on the islanders' isolated existence. The folk music singer-songwriter Brian McNeill wrote about one of St. Kilda's prodigal sons, a restless fellow named Ewen Gillies, who left St. Kilda to seek his fortune by prospecting for gold first in Australia and later California. The song recounts fortunes won and lost, his return to the island, and concludes with his inability to stay. Entitled "Ewan and the Gold", it was published on the album Back O' The North Wind in 1991 and is the subject of McNeill's audio-visual presentation about the Scottish diaspora.
In a 2005 poll of Radio Times readers, St Kilda was named as the ninth greatest natural wonder in the British Isles. In 2007 an opera in Scots Gaelic called St Kilda: A European Opera about the story of the islands received funding from the Scottish Government. It was performed simultaneously at six venues in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Scotland over the summer solstice of 2007. As part of its legacy, the production left a year-long time-lapse camera on Hirta. Britain's Lost World, a three-part BBC documentary series about St Kilda began broadcasting on 19 June 2008.
In 2006, the documentary film "On the Edge of the World" by director Sylvestre Sbille was released. The film depicts the history of life on the isle and follows UNESCO volunteers, working on St Kilda.
In 2009 Pròiseact nan Ealan, the Gaelic Arts Agency, announced plans to commemorate the evacuation on 29 August, (the 79th anniversary) including an exhibition in Kelvingrove Art Gallery. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are planning a feasibility study for a new visitor centre to tell the story of St Kilda, although they have specifically ruled out using Hirta as a location.
In 2016 an album The Lost Songs of St Kilda was released. It included recordings of folk songs from the island played on the piano by Trevor Morrison, an older man who had been taught them as a child by a former St Kilda resident. The album also included orchestral arrangements of the songs by Sir James MacMillan and others.
In late 2016, during cataloguing by the National Register of Archives for Scotland (NRAS), a census of St Kilda from 1764 was discovered. It lists 90 people living on the remote archipelago on 15 June 1764: 38 males and 52 females, including 19 families and nine individuals.
Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean won the 2018 Carnegie Medal for best children's novel. The book tells the true story of a group of young fowlers (bird hunters) stranded on a sea stack for nine months in 1727.
The 5-pound note issued by the Clydesdale Bank in 2009 bears an image of St. Kilda on its reverse side as a part of the bank's series of banknotes to celebrate WHS sites in Scotland. In 2020, when the Clydesdale Bank revealed its polymer 20-pound note, this image reappeared on its reverse.
- List of islands of Scotland
- Banknotes of Scotland (featured on design)
- John Sands, a Scottish journalist mockingly described by his enemies as "the MP for St Kilda"
- List of Important Bird Areas in the United Kingdom
- List of outlying islands of Scotland
- Mingulay – the "near St Kilda"
- North Rona – most remote island in the UK
- Scarp – a Hebridean island which had a "parliament" similar to St Kilda's
- World Heritage Sites in Scotland
- Excluding the isolated pinnacle Rockall, the status of which was a matter of international dispute. See, for example, MacDonald, Fraser (1 August 2007). "The last outpost of Empire: Rockall and the Cold War". Journal of Historical Geography. 32 (3): 627–647. doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2005.10.009.
- Maclean does not state which island caused the confusion, but Fleming equates 'Skildir' with Haskeir.
- However, Martin (1703) states: "all seamen call it St. Kilda; and in sea maps St. Kilder, particularly in a Dutch sea map from Ireland to Zeland, published at Amsterdam by Peter Goas in the year, 1663". This is nearly a century after the publication of Waghenaer's charts, but it is unclear whether his misspelling led to a common spoken usage or the spoken version has a quite different origin. In a later passage concerning the traditions relating to the Flannan Isles, Martin adds "It is absolutely unlawful to call the island of St Kilda (which lies thirty leagues southward) by its proper Irish name Hirt, but only the high country". This refers to the St Kildan's habit of referring to Hirta as 'the high country' and Boreray as 'the north country'. See Fleming (2005).
- The heights are from Haswell-Smith (2004), although the National Trust website states 191 metres (627 ft) and 165 metres (541 ft) respectively.
- This is noted by several authorities including Steel (1988), p. 27, although Keay (1994) erroneously states they are the "highest in Europe". Croaghaun on Achill Island is considerably higher at 668 metres (2,192 ft); see for example "Geographical Facts and Figures". Wesleyjohnston.com. Retrieved on 9 September 2007.
- A flaked stone with a sharp edge used for cutting. This neolithic tool is named after Skaill Bay, the location of World Heritage Site Skara Brae in Orkney.
- Monro (1549) "Hirta" No. 158. English translation from Lowland Scots: "The inhabitants are simple poor people, hardly educated in any religion, but the steward of MacLeod of Harris, or his deputy, sails there once a year at midsummer with a chaplain to baptise the children".
- This is the date provided by Quine (2000) for the marooning of the group on Stac an Armin, (see 'Buildings on other islands' above), although Steel (1988) states that the outbreak took place in 1724.
- Maclean (1977) page 116. No new minister was appointed for a decade and as a result the school closed on the MacKenzie's departure.
- The St Kildans fished from the rocks and even organised fishing trips from their boat(s) from time to time, but this was an occasional event, sometimes undertaken to pay rent, rather than a crucial aspect of day-to-day island life. See Maclean (1977) pp 102–03, who also quotes J. MacCulloch's 1824 Description of the Western Islands of Scotland as stating "The neglect of fishing proceeds from the wealth of the inhabitants. They possess already as much food as they can consume, and are under no temptation to augment it by another perilous and laborious employment".
- A 19th-century commentator wrote: "If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda". Maclean, Lachlan (1838) Sketches on the Island of St Kilda. McPhun.
- Even in the 21st century this is a problem. The National Trust reported in 2006 that it was cancelling 2007 work parties as "adverse weather conditions resulted in our supplies failing to reach St Kilda and our next opportunity to get supplies out is May 2007." "Work party information" Archived 2 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 18 March 2007.
- General Register Office for Scotland (28 November 2003). "Statistics for Inhabited Islands" (PDF). Occasional Paper No 10. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 August 2008. Retrieved 25 July 2007.
- Grid reference
- Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. pp. 314–26. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
- "Protected Areas and World Heritage—St Kilda". Archived 5 July 2007 at Archive.today United Nations Environment Programme: World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Retrieved 18 March 2007.
- Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Ainmean-àite/Placenames. (pdf) Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
- Steel (1988) page 254.
- See especially Maclean (1977), Steel (1988), Fleming (2005).
- McMillan, Joyce (3 March 2007) "St Kilda the Opera brings out the bully-boys". Edinburgh. The Scotsman. Retrieved 3 March 2007.
- "Stories from St Kilda". National Records of Scotland. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
- "Cleit of the Week". Ranger's Diary. St Kilda Today. 13 August 2007. Archived from the original on 12 December 2013. Retrieved 19 July 2020.
- St Kilda – David Quine (Colin Baxter Island Guides) 1995
- "The new residents of St Kilda archipelago". (29 August 2010). BBC News. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- National Trust for Scotland. Guide. "St Kilda Houses". Archived from the original on 11 March 2013. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
- "World Heritage: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". UNESCO. Retrieved 3 January 2007.
- Steel (1988) page 273.
- Buchanan (1983) Pages 2–6.
- Martin, Martin (1703).
- Maclean (1977) page 33.
- Steel (1988) page 27.
- Bruford, A. (ed.) Tocher Vol 36–37 (1982) School of Scottish Studies
- Fleming (2005) page 27.
- Quine (2000) page 21.
- de Nicolay, Niholas (1583). Vraye & exacte description Hydrographique des costes maritimes d'Escosse & des Isles Orchades Hebrides avec partie d'Angleterre & d'Irlande servant a la navigation. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland.
- Haswell-Smith (2004) suggests this might be Ei hirt – dangerous or deathlike.
- Steel (1988) pages 26–27.
- Murray, W.H. (1966). The Hebrides. London: Heinemann. pp. 196, 236.
- Coates, Richard (1990).
- "World Heritage Sites Protected Areas Programme – St Kilda" (PDF). United Nations Environment Programme. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 5 January 2008.
- Quine (2000) pages 99, 109, 111, 125, 137, 145.
- Maclean (1977) page 18.
- Fleming (2005) page 64.
- "Dual World Heritage Status For Unique Scottish Islands" Archived 2 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine. National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 6 January 2007.
- Maclean (1977) page 19.
- Baxter and Crumley (1988) page 87. "Village Bay and its hills... a stupendous sham, a masterly St Kildan deception."
- Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins. Pages 840–2.
- Murray (1966) page 163.
- Fraser Darling, F. and Boyd, J.M. (1969) Natural History in the Highlands and Islands. London. Bloomsbury.
- "St Kilda World Heritage Site Management Plan 2003 – 2008" (PDF) National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 24 January 2007.
- Steel (1988) page 199.
- St Kilda: Revised Nomination of St Kilda for inclusion in the World Heritage Site List (January 2003) (pdf) National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 21 March 2007.
- "Skaill knife" National Museums Scotland. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
- Fleming (2005) pages 37–56.
- "Evidence St Kilda was inhabited 2,000 years ago". BBC News. 9 February 2021. Retrieved 10 February 2021.
These few clues tell us that people were well established on St Kilda as part of the wider settlement of the Western Isles.
- Fleming (2005) page 27 quoting Taylor, A.B. (1968) "The Norsemen in St Kilda". Saga book of the Viking Society. 17. 116–43.
- St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island
- Fleming (2005) page 63.
- Maclean (1972) page 34 quoting John of Fordun's Scotichronicon of c. 1380.
- St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island
- Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda, page 122
- Macauley, Rev Kenneth (1764) History of St Kilda. London
- Fleming (2005) page 28.
- Harvie-Brown, J.A. and Buckley, T. E. (1888) Facing P. XXIV.
- Maclean (1977) page 125.
- Fleming (2005) page 32.
- Maclean (1977) pages 115–6.
- John Sands, quoted in Maclean (1977) page 117.
- Maclean (1977) pages 116–9.
- James. "St Kilda: Extreme Weather on the Edge of the World". University of Nottingham. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
- "Power restored as 'weather bomb' storm subsides". BBC Scotland. 11 December 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
- Steel (1988) page 32.
- Johnson, Samuel (1775) A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Republished, Chapman & Dodd, London, 1924. Page 121.
- BBC News. (29 December 2016) "Census find sheds new light on St Kilda's history". BBC. Retrieved 29 December 2016.
- Moss, Stephen (16 November 2021) The 'bird people' of St Kilda. Earth News. BBC. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
- Cooper, Derek (1979) Road to the Isles: Travellers in the Hebrides 1770–1914. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Maclean (1977) page 26.
- "Stories from St Kilda". Historic Environment Scotland. 11 January 2008. Retrieved 10 February 2021.
- The Wild Sports and Natural History of the Scottish Highlands, page 2
- Steel (1988) pages 44–6
- Horton, Julia. "St Kilda sisterhood among first to take up right to vote". ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
- Balfour, Alan, and McCrone, David (2005) Creating a Scottish Parliament Edinburgh. StudioLR. ISBN 0-9550016-0-9. Retrieved 4 January 2008. Miralles wrote:
Late XIX St Kilda Parliament
To Remember this is not an archaic activity
My generation (myself) has experienced that emotion
Consider how different movements exist in present times
Architecture should be able to talk about this.
- Smyth, Kirsty (15 November 2019). "Remote Possibilities When People Lived On St Kilda". Scottish Field. Retrieved 10 February 2021.
- See for example Steel (1988) page 71 quoting Macauley in 1756, MacCulloch in 1819 and Ross in 1887.
- Fleming (2005) pages 107 and 110.
- Steel (1988) pages 33–4.
- "St Kilda". UNESCO. 6 February 2018. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
- Steel (1988), pp. 150–5.
- Maclean (1977) p. 140.
- Fleming (2005) p. 165.
- 1764 census reveals St Kilda residents feasted on 1,600 seabirds a day 29 December 2016
- Scotland's History: Emigration from St Kilda 27 February 2019
- Maclean (1977) pages 136–8.
- "St Kilda mailboat" Glasgow Digital Library. Retrieved 4 March 2008.
- Mailboat from St Kilda Island
- "Life in St. Kilda", an account by J. Sands in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art, 1877. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
- Sandwick bairns find ‘St Kilda Mailboat’ 27 March 2016
- Mailboats helped islanders communicate with outside world 28th August 2020
- St Kilda mailboat’s epic journey 29 August 2020
- St Kilda mailboat’s epic journey 29 August 2020
- Heathcote, Norman (1900). St Kilda. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
- Rev. Neil MacKenzie, quoted by Fleming (2005), p. 8
- The St Kilda boat cough under the microscope National Library of Medicine
- "Das Marine-Nachrichtenblatt". www.mnb.seekrieg14-18.de.
- Steel (1988) p. 167
- Neil Gilles, quoted in Steel (1988) p. 167
- Steel (1988), p. 168
- The Evacuation kilda.org.uk Accessed 2 December 2008
- "Poison in Paradise" National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
- Meharga, Andrew. A et al. (September 2006) "Ancient manuring practices pollute arable soils at the St Kilda World Heritage Site, Scottish North Atlantic" Chemosphere 64, Issue 11, pp. 1818–1828. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
- Rix, Juliet (24 March 2012) "St Kilda: On the street where we lived". London. The Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
- The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women. Ewan, Elizabeth. Edinburgh. ISBN 9781474436298. OCLC 1057237368.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Team, National Records of Scotland Web (31 May 2013). "National Records of Scotland". National Records of Scotland.
- Petition to Secretary of State for Scotland signed by the islanders of St Kilda requesting government assistance to leave the island, 10 May 1930
- Scotland's History: The last households on St Kilda in 1930
- | The Life and Death of St. Kilda: The moving story of a vanished island community |Tom Steel |page 15-21
- Scotland's History: The last households on St Kilda in 1930
- Scotland's History: The last households on St Kilda in 1930
- "The evacuation of St Kilda – archive, 1930". The Guardian. 1 December 1930. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
The Parliamentary Under Secretary for Scotland responds to criticism of the removal of the inhabitants from the remote island
- "Eighty years ago St Kilda was evacuated". Retrieved 11 February 2021.
- On this day 1930: The evacuation of St Kilda
- "St Kildans' New Homes". The Scotsman (27225). British Newspaper Archive (subscription). 30 August 1930. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
- Maclean (1977), p. 142.
- Thompson, Francis (1970) St Kilda and other Hebridean Outliers. David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-4885-X
- "EVACUATION OF ST. KILDA". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
- "St. Kilda, Past and Present". NTS. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
The cameras of Thames Television visit the remote archipelago of St Kilda that once was the home to a remote Scottish community. With exclusive interviews of former inhabitants of the island, we get a glimpse of what life was like for those living on such a remote island. First broadcast 04/04/1972
- "St. Kilda / Hirta". Virtual Hebrides. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 21 February 2010.
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- "Conservation Work". NTS. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
- Steel (1988) page 234.
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- Earl, David W, and Dobson, Peter "Scottish Island Air Crashes" wanadoo.co.uk. Retrieved 27 June 2008.[dead link]
- Steel (1988), p. 236
- Barry, John C. (1980) "Wartime Wrecks on St. Kilda" After the Battle. 30 p. 28
- "Puff Inn statement". Provided by QinetiQ, approved by the MoD and published by the National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Steel (1988) pp. 238–55.
- "Advice for visitors" Archived 16 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine (2004) National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 18 March 2007. This notes that the name 'Puff Inn' is misleading in that it is not open to the public.
- Ross, John (31 July 2009). "Historic evacuation of islands will be commemorated on St Kilda Day". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved 10 August 2009.
- "Qinetiq: St Kilda recovery plan already in motion". 12 January 2015.
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Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice.
- Why you should visit St Kilda 17 July 2020
- Quine (2000) page 91–2.
- It is possible they are Pictish structures dating from 400 to 900 AD. Fleming (2005) page 23.
- Maclean (1977) pages 27–8.
- Maclean (1977) pages 65–6.
- Quine (2000) page 32.
- Quine (2000) page 51.
- Quine (2000) pages 52–3.
- Quine (2000) page 30.
- Maclean (1977) page 66.
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- Steel (1988) pages 31–2.
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- "St Kilda: Fascinating Facts" National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 19 August 2007.
- Boswell, James (1785) Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 April 2007. Retrieved 6 April 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Quine (2000) pages 29–30.
- Maclean (1977) page 31.
- Quine (2000) page 37.
- Maclean (1977) page 29.
- Quine (2000) page 99.
- Quine (2000) pages 99 and 146.
- Maclean (1977) page 28.
- Fleming (2005) page 58.
- "Evidence of Ancient Settlement Found on Boreray". (16 June 2011) RCHAMS. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- "Prehistoric finds on remote St Kilda's Boreray isle". (17 June 2011) BBC News. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
- Maclean (1977) pages 48–9
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- Benvie, Neil (2000) Scotland's Wildlife. London. Aurum Press.
- Fisher, James; Waterston, George (1941), "The Breeding Distribution, History and Population of the Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) in the British Isles", Journal of Animal Ecology, 10 (2): 204–272, doi:10.2307/1312, JSTOR 1312
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to St Kilda.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for St Kilda.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article St Kilda (Scotland) .|
- 1930 – evacuation of St Kilda (29 August 1930) National Library of Scotland reprint of report from The Times. London. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- Digitised manuscript map of St Kilda drawn by the Scottish civil engineer Robert Stevenson in approximately 1818
- Archive films about St Kilda from the Scottish Screen Archive at National Library of Scotland
- abandonedcommunities.co.uk Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- Revised nomination of St Kilda for inclusion on the World Heritage Site List (January 2003) (pdf) Retrieved 28 December 2007. Includes a detailed map.
- "Revised Nomination of St Kilda for inclusion in the World Heritage Site List". (12 May 2003) The Scottish Executive. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- "St Kilda – Death of an Island Republic" Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments 1325 – 1945. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- "St Kilda" National Trust for Scotland. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- Protected Planet Factsheet about St Kilda
- The cleitean of the St Kilda Archipelago. An architectural and historical account by Christian Lassure. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
- St Kilda (Hirta) National Nature Reserve, United Kingdom
- Abandonment of St Kilda recalled BBC News 28 August 2009
- St Kilda: A Wildlife Mystery
- St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) – extract
- St Kilda: Britain's Loneliest Isle (1928)
- Obituary of Norman John Gillies, the last voice of St Kilda, died on 29 September 2013, aged 88. The Economist.
- St Kilda Rangers' Twitter account