The Saint in St Kilda
There is no reason to believe that a Saint called Kilda ever lived, and the islanders rarely referred to their home by that name. To the St Kildans, the island of their birth was Hiort (Hirta), and they were the Hiortaich.
The first record of the archipelago comes from 1202 when the vessel that Gudmundur Arason (an influential Icelandic clergyman) was travelling on towards Norway was blown off-course, and his Norse crewmen ran for shelter ‘to the islands that are called Hirtir’. A map issued in Italy in 1563 plots an island called Hirtha.
In 1570, Flemish map engraver Abraham Ortelius published his Theatre of the Earth, the first modern atlas of the known world. It contained a specific map of Scotland, and many errors, but the information on the Hebrides was relatively accurate. Just to the west of the Isle of Lewis, an oval island was depicted, which Ortelius titled ‘S. Kylder’.
Pre-1700s Life on St Kilda
Martin Martin (birthdate unknown – 9 October 1718) was a Scottish writer from Skye, best known for his work A Late Voyage to St Kilda (1968).
In 1697, Martin Martin travelled to Hirta with the Minister of Harris, the Rev. John Campbell, and his party to carry out a general inspection of the condition (both religious observance and health) of the inhabitants.
He is seen as the first tourist to visit St Kilda, although the 1697 trip was certainly much rougher than any visitor would have since experienced, being caught in a storm for 16 hours, and disembarking on the wrong side of Hirta, at the foot of towering cliffs.
Even though it was written in 1697, much of what he observed continued unchanged until the advent of organised tourism to St Kilda almost a century later.
The people of St Kilda were self-sufficient, with occasional supplements brought to them from elsewhere, mainly courtesy of the Steward’s annual visits. All timber had to be brought in, as there were “no sort of trees, no, not the least shrub grows here, nor ever a bee seen at any time”.
They lived off the bounty of the land, with a diet of mutton, beef, milk, fowl, eggs, barley, oats, fish and limpets. They produced their own oat-bread, butter and cheese, and manufactured all their own clothing from the available wool, which they collected and spun themselves.
Their food preparation and preservation was also very basic – all their beef and mutton was eaten fresh, and fowl and fish were dried in one of the multitude of cleits (small stone houses used for drying food, storing various items, and taking shelter in a sudden storm) scattered on the hillsides.
There was no money, the economy was based almost completely on trading and bartering, including the rent paid to the Steward. Payment was comprised of down, wool, butter, fowl, oils, and other locally-produced items. “They are reputed very cunning, and there is scarce any circumventing of them in trafffick and bartering the voice of one is the voice of all the rest, they being all of a piece, their common interest uniting them firmly together.”
The men were mainly tasked with ‘heroic’ acts that is, collecting the eggs from very dangerous locations on the cliffs, chasing the sheep to round them up (the sheep would sometimes run from them straight over a cliff’s edge to their deaths), and landing the boat between swells – all of which required great dexterity, agility, balance and timing. They would travel to the stacs to collect additional stocks of eggs and feathers during the summer months, staying around a fortnight each time.
“The inhabitants, I must tell you, run no small danger in the quest of the fowls and eggs, insomuch that I fear it would be thought an hyperbole to relate the inaccessibleness, steepness, and height, of those formidable rocks which they venture to climb. I my self have seen some of them climb up the corner of a rock with their backs to it, making use only of their heels and elbows, without any other assistance…” according to Martin.
As well as spinning, sewing, producing and raising children, the women did most of the – literally – heavy lifting, carrying goods to and from the single boat that belonged to the whole community (as did the ropes), tilling the soil, walking miles and miles twice a day to milk the cattle, and then carrying the milk back to the village.
Tasks were completed with the assistance of working dogs, which were only slightly domesticated. Their teeth were filed down to stop them damaging the sheep, and one of their front legs was often tied up to prevent them from running away from the village when they weren’t at work.
As far as their personalities went, Martin reported: “There are some of both sexes who have a genius for poetry, and are great admirers of musick the trump or Jewish harp is all the musical instrument they have, which disposes them to dance mightily. Their sight is extraordinary good, and they can discern things at a great distance they have very good memories, and are resolute in their undertakings, chaste and honest, and the men reputed jealous of their wives…
“They marry very young, the women at about thirteen or fourteen years of age and are nice in examining the degrees of consanguinity before they marry. They give suck to their children for the space of two years. The most ancient person among them at present, is not above eighty years of age.”
According to Martin “They leave off working after twelve of the clock on Saturday, as being an ancient custom delivered down to them from their ancestors, and go no more to it till Monday morning. They believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost and a state of future happiness and misery, and that all events, whether good or bad, are determined by God. They use a set form of prayer at the poising of their sails: they lie down, rise, and begin their labours in the name of God. They have a notion, that spirits are embodied these they fancy to be locally in rocks, hills, and where-ever Cleits they list in an instant.”
The Arrival of Tourism
St Kildans have long been romanticised as an isolated population, living an idyllic life with little to no contact with the outside world for centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The islands were a place of refuge for shipping, as well as a stop off point for supplies and fresh water, meaning the locals came into contact with outsiders from the very beginning of settlement. St Kildans also had to pay rent, necessarily requiring visits from the Laird’s Steward (or Baille) on a regular basis.
Then, from the late 1700s, tourism began.
St Kilda became the place to visit for the wealthy, and it became the done thing to write about ‘My Visit to St Kilda’. Few of the visitors really understood what they saw there, but that did not reduce the popularity of their books. The islands were seen as unspoilt, with the locals leading an idyllic life, but of course the visitors exclusively saw it in perfect weather – the only time that boats could make the journey safely.
Some visitors were beneficial to the island community, like Sir Thomas Acland (the selfsame owner of the Lady of St Kilda and for who Acland Street is named) who gave assistance in rebuilding the village in the 1830s, but in general the influence of the visitors was negative. It encouraged the St Kildans to rely on the bounty of visitors, rather than being self-sufficient, and inspired them to play up to the expectations of the tourists, as ignorant yokels amazed at the modern dress and technology of the outsiders (St Kildans were actually quite well educated).
In August 1727, a party of three men and eight boys were put ashore on Stac an Armainn to gather young gannets and feathers. The boat was due to return to collect them a couple of weeks later, but it never showed up. They were left stranded on the stac until May the following year, when they were eventually picked up by the Factor’s boat.
While these 11 people were on the stac, Donald MacDonald from St Kilda had died of smallpox during a visit to Harris. His contaminated clothes had been taken back to St Kilda, and carried the infection into the population, killing everyone on Hirta apart from one old man and 18 children.
The island was repopulated with newcomers from other parts of the Hebrides, changing the physical characteristics of the population – for example, the original inhabitants had very thin facial hair, but those who came after the repopulation had luxurious, thick beards!
1852 – From St Kilda to St Kilda
On 13 October 1852, 36 people from the most remote islands in the Outer Hebrides – St Kilda – boarded the clipper Priscilla on the final stage of their journey to the other side of the world. Their destination was Port Phillip.
The eight families made up just a small fraction of the 5,000 highlanders and islanders that migrated to Australia from 1852-1857.
They were the first St Kildans to emigrate from the islands in its 2,000 years of continuous habitation, and were a third of the islands’ population.
It was to prove disastrous.
On arrival at Port Phillip heads on 24 February 1853, only 17 St Kildans disembarked. The rest had perished on the journey from Liverpool. St Kildans accounted for 12% of the passengers, but 45% of the fatalities. Part of the explanation for this discrepancy was that the St Kildans had not developed immunities to many common diseases, due to their remote existence. The main killer on the passage was measles.
In 1852, the gold rush was at its peak in South East Australia, creating a severe agricultural labour shortage.
A collection of local landowners and philanthropic interests promoted the movement to Australia, through the main organising body, the Highland and Island Emigration Society. The object of the Society was to assist the “destitute” inhabitants of northern parts of Scotland to emigrate in groups or families.
Following a major schism with the Church of Scotland that left St Kildans without a physical church to worship and encouraged by the possibility of a richer life outside the islands the people for the first time had the means and opportunity to make the long journey to Melbourne.
Unfortunately for the St Kildans and other highlanders, by the time they arrived in 1853, the immigration boom had turned to bust with Melbourne experiencing high unemployment and destitution – the colony had responded too energetically to labour shortages by importing too many workers
Despite the economic circumstances in Melbourne at the time, most of the St Kildans found work at the newly-established brick works in New Brighton, and a few families settled in what had become known as Gaelic Town in the Mordialloc district.
The 1930s Mass Exodus
In 1930, the entire population of St Kilda requested to be removed from the archipelago permanently.
Numerous factors led to the evacuation. The population had never fully recovered from losing a critical mass in 1852, with 36 out of a population of approximately 110 migrating to Australia, and an infant mortality rate of up to 90% during some periods, depriving them of natural population increases.
The changes on the island caused 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. The presence of the military during the First World War led the islanders to seek alternatives to the privations they routinely suffered.
After the First World War, most of the young men left the island, and the population fell from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928.
At the start of 1930, the St Kilda community was in a precarious state. Only 36 islanders remained: 13 men, 10 women, 8 girls and 5 boys.
The decision to evacuate was taken because life there was becoming untenable.
The population had dwindled to a point where the traditional livelihoods of raising sheep for wool, spinning and weaving tweed, fishing, and harvesting of seabird eggs and oil, was almost impossible to sustain. Weather conditions often prevented adequate food supplies, as well as mail, from being delivered between autumn and spring.
After the harsh winter of 1929-30, many of the islanders felt that they could not continue on St Kilda much longer. The authorities in Edinburgh, as well as Williamina Barclay (the resident Queen’s Nurse) advised them of the benefits of leaving. In the middle of the year, they lost another two young female residents, from childbirth complications and a form of tuberculosis respectively.
On 10 May 1930, after many deliberations, 20 islanders petitioned the government for resettlement on the mainland. They stated that several men had decided to leave. Without them to tend the sheep, weave cloth and look after the widows, “it would be impossible to stay on the island another winter”.
The islanders’ precarious existence was already well known to the Secretary of State and his departmental officials, as well as to local government officials. His response to the petition was to organise the evacuation of all the islanders and most of their 1,500 sheep. All the cattle and sheep were taken off the island two days before the evacuation by the tourist boat, Dunara Castle, for sale on the mainland. However, all the island’s working dogs were drowned in the bay because they could not be taken.
On 29 August 1930, the last St Kildans were evacuated on HMS Harebell, observed by a large number of tourists, journalists and officials who had travelled to the island to witness the occasion.
The St Kildans were settled on the estate of the Scottish Forestry Commission in Morvern, with each family offered a house and a piece of land suitable for livestock or tillage. Each man was guaranteed a minimum of 105 days’ employment a year with the Commission (ironic for men who came from a treeless isle).
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.
St Kilda Today
St Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and classified as a National Nature Reserve by Scottish National Heritage. The archipelago is managed in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.
In 1955, the British government decided to incorporate St Kilda into a missile tracking range based on Benbecula, where test firings and flights are carried out, and as a result, in 1957 St Kilda became inhabited once again.
These days, the number of people staying on Hirta varies between 20 and 70 (none of them permanent residents), including MoD employees, National Trust employees, work parties to maintain the village buildings, archeologists, a warden, and several scientists working on a research project involving soay sheep.
The slow renovation and conservation of the village began in 1957, much of it undertaken by summer volunteer work parties. Scientific research began on aspects of the natural environment. In the same year, 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, and in 2005 St Kilda was awarded mixed World Heritage Status for both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ significance. St Kilda is the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of only 39 in the World.