St. Kilda, the Islands at the Edge of the World

A summary of the life of the people of St. Kilda and the reasons for their exodus in 1930.

The village

The village

The people of St Kilda, one of the western isles of Scotland, situated 40 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, were a hardy, close-knit community of cliff-climbing Gaelic speakers who inhabited the UK’s most north-westerly archipelago for around 3000 years. They had little contact with mainland Scotland until the mid-19th century when the steamship, the Vulcan, visited the islands, trading goods for local hand-knitted wear. From an early 21st century perspective, theirs was an austere, bizarre, exciting and dangerous life, as islanders battled with extreme weather and subsisted on harvesting the high, dangerous cliffs and crags of its birds, which furnished every home on the island with food, eggs, oil for lamps, shoes made from sea-bird carcasses and feathers for pillows. Early visitors to the islands alerted the world outside to the hardy people who lived and endured for centuries, without influence of media, newspapers or recognition by the political system.

The Community of St Kilda

This was a community that was settled for around 2000 years, nothing changing in their lifestyles since the first settlers to the archipelago. Its breathtaking landscape of cliffs, which rise sheer and high out of an endless ocean dictated the labours of its inhabitants for centuries. Sea-birds were the staple diet; at St Kilda’s exodus in 1930, there is no mention of cattle being brought from the islands, although some sheep were brought by the migrants to their new lives on the mainland west coast of Scotland. There was (and is) a multitude of puffins, fulmars, gannets, great skuas, Arctic skuas, which were captured by the wily cliff-climbing prowess of the men of the islands. Soay sheep were also raised, although this species is a wild-roaming, self-sufficient breed that still fends for itself on St Kilda today. This was a hunter-gatherer community – that which the men gathered, the women transformed into food, clothing and bedding.

The St. Kilda Parliament

Council

Council

The First Historical Record of St KildaIn his journal, “Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,” of 1695, Martin Martin wrote of a similar way of life as had been observed in the early 20th century, as visitors became aware of the enigmatic curiousity that St Kilda became. He wrote,…”The inhabitants live together in a little village, which carries all the signs of extreme poverty; the houses are of a low form, having all the doors to the northeast…..The walls of the houses are rudely built of stone, the short couples joining at the ends of the roof, upon whose sides small ribs of wood are laid, these being covered with straw; the whole secured by ropes made of twisted heath, the extremity of which on each side is poised with stone to preserve the thatch from being blown away by the winds.” At the exodus in 1930, the same style of house was discovered.

The Beginning of the End

During the Great War, many of the young men of St Kilda volunteered for military service. This depleted the islands’ stock of fit, strong manpower, whose duty it had been to climb the high stacs in order to harvest the sea-birds. (St Kilda’s cliffs are the highest in the British Isles.) Of course, some never returned and the advent of tourist boats to the islands to see the what had been perceived to be curiosities brought illnesses that the islanders had never before experienced. Influenza, colds and other minor ailments decimated the population, as did childhood diseases such as tetanus and whooping cough. Eight out of ten children born during the early part of the 20th century died in infancy, further depleting the working stock of the island, which had been crucial to its survival. Eventually, the population dwindled to around 30, many of those old people and mothers and it was no longer viable to remain in their idyll at the edge of the world with few young men to harvest their staple diet.

St Kilda – World Heritage Site

Today, St Kilda is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. Its remoteness and rare ecosystem has attracted the title of World Heritage Site. For a while, a small area of the main island was leased to the Ministry of Defence as a radar tracking station for its missile range on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. Together with the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, the MoD work to continue a programme of conservation and research and to ensure the care and protection of this site.

St Kilda’s Parliament was held outside the cottages on the main street of Hirta, the main island of the archipelago, and consisted purely of men. Needs were basic and the islanders had their own honourable system of living side-by-side for the common good of everyone. Nothing was written down. The wisdom for living primitively was passed from generation to generation until the island became so depleted in the late 1920s that continuation of a reasonable community was impossible. The St Kilda ‘parliamentarians’ were a glorified committee whose ‘political’ discussions were solely of the hunting of sea-birds. There was no dissent. Everyone was descendent from the first settlers to the islands. Nothing changed and respect for all that was known in their limited community was absolute.

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