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    St Kilda: Islands on the Edge

    By David Russell
    More by David

    Islands on the Edge of Everything

    One hundred miles west of the Scottish mainland lies one of the most extraordinary places in the world. Amid the restless waves of the North Atlantic, a group of islands rise brazenly, outrageously from the waters.

    Vast cliff faces of ancient plutonic rock echo the boom of waves and the calls of a million nesting seabirds. Mysterious stone structures dot the landscape from shore to summit. Along the crescent line of the only sheltered bay, the hollow stone houses of an abandoned village stand empty, their hearths open to the sky. The old fields are cropped short by the teeth of feral sheep who now roam at will.

    This is St Kilda, the archipelago that stands at the edge of the world.

    Take me straight to:

    1. Ancient Formations – St Kilda’s Geology
    2. Inhabiting the Uninhabitable – Island Life on St Kilda
    3. UNESCO and Renewal
    4. St Kilda Today
    5. Windswept Wildlife and Frozen Fauna
    6. Island Architecture
    7. How to Visit
    8. What to Do on St Kilda

    Ancient Formations - St Kilda's Geology

    St Kilda’s origins lie far back in ancient geological history. Some 60 million years ago, the rocks that are now Scotland were joined with North America and Greenland until massive tectonic changes began to tear them apart and create a new ocean – the Atlantic. These colossal forces gave birth to a chain of volcanoes in the tortured continental crust. The remains of these volcanoes now lie along the west coast of Scotland, forming the bedrock of many of our most spectacular mountainous areas, such as the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Mull, Ben Nevis and, of course, St Kilda. Eventually, these volcanoes became extinct and quiet, and the waters of the Atlantic did their erosive work. All that remains now is the hard core. The once molten heart of fire had now grown hard and cold as the waves.

    It’s impossible to say when exactly humans first arrived on St Kilda – but we are sure people were living there at least 2,000 years ago. Thanks to the recent discovery of pottery shards and other remains, settlement is now suspected to date as far back as 4,000 BC. Either way, we can be sure people not only visited but lived amid these seemingly inhospitable islands continuously for thousands of years. Therein lies one of the chief fascinations of the place – island life. The story of the St Kildans – the people who called this wild place home.

    Inhabiting the Uninhabitable - Island Life on St Kilda

    St Kilda is a unique place, and to live there required a unique lifestyle. We might assume that islanders would feed mainly on fish, but apparently not. Given the scarcity of wood, their few boats were precious – and too important to be risked on regular fishing expeditions. The St Kildans grew crops in the soils of Hirta; they reared sheep and kept a few small cattle and ponies. Most famously, however, they hunted for seabirds on the cliff faces of Boreray. This is the single most extraordinary feature of St Kildan life – the scaling of the most enormous cliffs in the whole British Isles in pursuit of guga meat – gannet. The islanders did not restrict themselves to the main island of Hirta in search of this prize, but even scaled the vertical cliffs of the sea stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.

    Sea cliffs of St Kilda, lined with seabirds.

    The islands provided meagre resources, but the St Kildans seem to have made the best of it. They quarried and made stone tools, wove ropes from horsehair (prized possessions) and built homes from the abundant rocks of the islands. Not only homes, but they also constructed hundreds of cleits – unique drystone structures that could be used as general purpose storehouses or temporary shelters – everywhere. When possible, they traded with outside visitors, but due to the severity of Atlantic winters, they would often be cut off for many months at a time. Even though St Kilda can be clearly seen from the hilltops of the Hebrides, visits were not common. When government troops landed on the isles in the aftermath of the last Jacobite rebellion, searching for the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie, the islanders had never heard of either the prince or of King George.

    Island life was hard, but the survival skills of the St Kildans were second to none. In August 1727, 3 men and eight boys were dropped off on Stac an Armin to spend a few days gathering guga. But, due to an outbreak of smallpox back in the village (remoteness meant the islanders had very poor immunity to disease), no one could go back for them. Many of us now would look at Stac an Armin and declare it impossible even to set foot there, yet this small group survived for nine months on that rock tower, through winter, on nothing but the birds they could catch. Sometimes the winter swells break over Stac an Armin. All 11 eventually went home alive. But temper the wonder of such a feat with the knowledge that the smallpox outbreak killed more than 80 St Kildans during the same period.

    That terrible outbreak reduced the population of the island by approximately two-thirds. Such a location could never support a large number of people, and it was this fact, combined with their vulnerability to illness, that eventually led to the evacuation of the island.

    The islanders faced their share of calamity, but by and large, life followed its familiar patterns through the centuries. Life would not have been all that different to the life of subsistence agriculture common across Europe throughout the middle ages, save for one key aspect: isolation. And so the most crucial element of island life was this: self-sufficiency.

    Sky full of sea birds and a man scowling at the waves off the shore of St Kilda islands.

    But, as the rest of the world began to industrialise and modernise, St Kilda eventually found itself less remote than it had once been. Fishing vessels began to visit more often for a respite from the Atlantic; ministers came to stay, bringing organised religion to the islands, followed by education. Eventually, tourists came to gawk at the villagers and buy their trinkets in the 19th century. The islanders started to depend more upon the trade this brought. In the first world war, the navy established a presence and built a radio mast and gun emplacement (it’s still there – ironically positioned next to the church), employing several islanders to man it, paying their first wages.

    All this led to the inevitable consequence that the St Kildan’s self-sufficiency was gradually eroded. More regular visitation brought both problems and opportunities. Epidemics broke out easily among the local population – many came down with flu-like symptoms when boats arrived, which they termed ‘stranger sickness’. The navy gave the young men a taste of regular employment and pay for the first time, but this prompted some to leave when the war ended to continue working elsewhere. When the islanders faced hardship, they now sought assistance from the mainland – tossing messages into the sea and hoping they would drift to their destination. There were even new settlers sent by the laird when the population dropped.

    Eventually, with the modern world knocking on the door, the remaining islanders who had not already succumbed to disease or emigrated decided it was no longer possible to remain. Only 36 St Kildans were left – the very young and the very old. The population was too low to be self-sufficient. They were evacuated in 1930 at their own request.

    There was an air of business-like cheerfulness at first. Optimism for the future and the opportunities of life elsewhere. But it was a sorrowful parting when it came to it. One resident described looking back at the island, as looking upon an open grave. In a tragic last act just before departure, the islanders took their working dogs down to the water in the village bay and drowned them, as they could not be taken aboard ship. The houses were left as if for a temporary absence – with a peat fire ready in the grate and a bible left open on the table. But they would not return. As the island disappeared over the horizon, the realisation set in that they were leaving everything they had ever known, and the tears began to flow.

    Moon over St Kilda

    UNESCO and Renewal

    St Kilda’s uniqueness as a natural wonder and cultural icon is reflected in its status as Scotland’s only double UNESCO World Heritage Site. It puts it in such company as Machu Picchu and Uluru, and is a status that should cause us to reflect upon the way that human life and nature had no separation in this place but were totally integrated.

    The story of the St Kildans is worthy of remembrance and study in all its typically human complexity. The St Kildans were hardy, resourceful people. They thrived for millennia in a place few of us can imagine. Theirs was a place that threw both the joys and the sorrows of life into the sharpest relief.

    St Kilda from afar.

    St Kilda Today

    St Kilda was not abandoned for long. Following the evacuation, there were in fact many who ‘applied’ to the laird, Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod, to be settled there, but he was of the opinion that it made no sense to settle a new population, having gone to the trouble of removing the old one.

    But the islands did get new residents in 1957, in the form of a military installation and radar station set up to track missiles fired in the South Uist Missile Range. In the same year, the island was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland by John Crichton-Stuart, the 5th Marquess of Bute, who had purchased the island from MacLeod of MacLeod after the evacuation. The island remains in the care of the National Trust for Scotland to this day, which manages the isles both for conservation of the local wildlife and the preservation of the remaining structures. To this end, several of the cottages have been reroofed, and these now provide homes again, at least temporarily, to the rangers and work groups who look after the island in the summer months.

    Happily, the ‘functional’ 1950s-style military buildings were replaced in recent years with modern structures designed to reduce the visual impact and blend with the landscape. The result is far less intrusive to both eye and ear, and village bay once again is a peaceful place.

    Remains of dwellings in the Highlands, in a long curving street.

    Windswept Wildlife and Frozen Fauna

    The islands of St Kilda are one of the most important breeding grounds for seabirds in the north Atlantic. The list of nesting species reads like a who’s who of seabird society. Northern Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Puffin, Razorbill, Skua, Cormorant, Shag – all present in their thousands. The cliffs of Borerary, in particular, are constantly patrolled by the wheeling scimitars of gannets in their myriads.

    Gannets in a feeding frenzy.

    Similarly, the waters around the island are rich in marine life. Ocean-going species such as whales and dolphins are frequently spotted in the waters around the islands, but they also provide a haven for all manner of creatures who thrive on the rocky outcrops below the waves. Swimming crabs, corals, shellfish, jellyfish, sea anemones, starfish… the list goes on; all thrive on the rocky real estate below the tide line.

    Tragically St Kilda was also the last known refuge in the British Isles of the flightless Great Auk. The last one was captured by islanders in 1840, but they beat it to death with a stick three days later when a storm arose, which they blamed on the bird being a witch.

    St Kilda still boasts, however, two endemic wild species found nowhere else on earth. The first of these is the St Kilda Wren – about twice the size of a regular wren – which can be seen and heard fluttering about the stones of village bay. The second is the St Kilda Field Mouse, also about twice the size of its mainland compatriots. Before St Kilda was evacuated, it also had a unique house mouse, but these went extinct once the islanders left and the houses were no longer maintained.

    St Kilda wren.

    Any visitor to St Kilda will, inevitably, still meet some of the other local residents. Here there are two breeds of feral sheep, named after the islands they originate from. The Soay sheep now live among the ruins of Village Bay on Hirta, where they spend their time grazing among the houses and clambering all across the ruined cleits and cottages, giving the National Trust for Scotland volunteers plenty of maintenance work to keep up with. Unlike more domesticated breeds, they shed their wool naturally, so do not need to be shorn. The islanders used their wool but, having no sheers, would ‘pluck’ the wool from their backs. The Soay sheep today are mostly wild, but their population is monitored, so their ears are tagged like farm sheep.

    The other breed is perhaps the most extraordinary, though, as these are the Boreray sheep, which are still confined (on St Kilda, at least) to the island which gives them their name. Boreray stands apart from the group of three islands (Hirta, Soay, and Dun) that are the main part of the archipelago. Lying several miles to the north, Boreray never had permanent inhabitants, as it is essentially one continuous cliff face – precipitous in the extreme upon all sides. It is, accordingly, also the last place on earth you would expect to find sheep – but they are there, grazing the grass among the nests of gannets and guillemots.

    Soay sheep, lamb

    Island Architecture

    St Kilda consists of four main islands, numerous skerries and a collection of fantastical sea stacks. The largest island, Hirta, was the permanent home of the St Kildans. It’s a surprisingly large island at around 3 square miles – large enough to boast not only the curving shoreline of the village bay itself but an entirely separate glen too. Inevitably, it is named Gleann Mor – the Big Glen. The island’s highest point is the summit of Connachair, at 430m above the sea. From the summit, the largest sea cliffs in Britain plunge straight to the waters far below. At the foot of the hill on the south side lies the curving shore of village bay – the only anchorage in the archipelago and the most fertile strip of land. It was here the St Kildans farmed oats and barley and quartered their livestock between enormous drystone walls.

    Village Bay is bound on its south side by the island of Dun – a long promontory of Hirta that was separated by erosion by the endless wearing of the Atlantic storms. Almost a mile long, it is a serrated slice of rock that angles steeply into the sea. Its grassy slopes are home to the largest puffin colony in the islands. Like many birds, they are struggling due to climate change, but their numbers here were once so great they were said to darken the skies “like a small cloud of locusts.” (MacAulay 1764)


    Soay is the last of the main group, just northwest of Hirta. Its Norse name literally means ‘isle of sheep’, and it does indeed give its name to the feral breed that still roams St Kilda today. Soay is best described as a grassy lump surrounded by rocky cliffs, though it is nowhere near as steep as the last island in the group.

    Boreray is the last island, and it lies several miles north of Hirta, Dun and Soay. Boreray is the island that most looks like something from a fantasists fever dream. The sea cliffs of its northwest corner are some of the most dramatic that could be imagined. Close by Boreray are also two sea stacks – Stac Lee and Stac an Armin – rising sheer from the waters like the prehistoric stone knives of some ancient giant.

    St Kilda islands rising from the waves on a clear day.

    How to Visit

    The only way to reach St Kilda is by boat, now as it has always been. Several boat operators run trips to the island from either Skye or Harris. St Kilda lies 66km west of Harris, and the crossing from there takes approximately 3 hours each way. It can be arduous in rough weather so sea sickness tablets are recommended.

    Visitors on these trips usually have around 4.5 hours to spend ashore before reembarking. The boats typically head north around the cliffs of Connachair before circling the incredible island of Boreray with its attendant sea stacks – a highlight of the whole experience.

    If you wish to stay longer, then the only accommodation on St Kilda for tourists is to camp, but this must be arranged in advance with the National Trust for Scotland. There is no phone signal or electricity so adequate supplies must be taken to cover your entire visit, plus extra in case bad weather prevents pick up as scheduled.

    What to Do on St Kilda

    While ashore on Hirta the main attraction is, of course, the village itself. It is a poignant experience simply wandering among the old houses, cleits and drystone walls and comparing the scenes to old photographs that show the St Kildans themselves. One of the old houses has been converted into a small museum, and the church has been restored. These can be a welcome refuge in bad weather, and a small toilet block is available.

    Weather, time and fitness all permitting, there are several hikes available from the village to explore more of the island of Hirta. These vary in the challenge level, but all are remote, so care is required. The easiest option is to take a stroll along the shore of village bay. At the other end of the scale Connachair, the highest point of the islands, is a challenging but incredibly rewarding hike in clear weather. That said, beware the skuas which sometimes nest near the summit and aggressively defend their territory!

    It goes without saying that cameras are essential, and wildlife spotters will be sorry if they forget their binoculars.

    Meet the Author: David Russell

    “I discovered the magic of the outdoors while studying Physics at the University of St Andrews. After graduating I decided to follow my dreams of freedom in the hills and rivers, and trained as an outdoor instructor. After several years of guiding with Wilderness Scotland I moved into the role of Adventure Consultant, but I still get out when I can to share my special places with adventurers from all walks of life.”

    View profileMore by David

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