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.