I recently had the great pleasure of ticking a longstanding wish off my bucket list, made possible by the suggestion of my good friend Jen and some superb autumn weather. On 5 October 2021, Jen and I took a day trip to the island of St Kilda.
If you think the Outer Hebrides are remote, you ain’t seen nothing yet. St Kilda is located approximately 40 miles further west, being the remains of a large volcano active about 60 million years ago, which left behind four islands and a number of sea stacs.
The archipelago is host to the largest seabird colony in the UK, and the world’s largest colony of gannets, with numbers approaching one million birds each year. The islands have been designated a National Nature Reserve and are today administered by the National Trust for Scotland.
Of the four islands, the largest, Hirta, supported human settlement of up to 200 people for over two thousand years, until the depleted population of 36 residents were evacuated in 1930, bringing to an end a unique culture and an extremely challenging way of life. What sustained the islanders for millennia was primarily the seabirds, which were harvested by the menfolk climbing some of the highest cliffs and sea stacs in the British Isles.
The people lived in a semi-circular village facing Village Bay, on the most sheltered side of the island, where boats could be moored. The highest point on Hirta is Conachair at 376m and it took us around two hours to walk up it. From there we had spectacular views of the village and the bay, as well as to the neighbouring islands of Soay, Dun and Boreray and far out into the North Atlantic.
Society on St Kilda was based on feudalism. The island was owned by a clan chief, Macleod of Macleod, who ensured the wellbeing of his people. In return, they would provide their landlord with payment in kind, such as oil and feathers from the seabirds and tweed woven from sheep wool to be sold in commercial markets. The goods were kept in the storehouse until they were collected. Barter was the means of trade and the islanders had no use for money.
The religion practised on the islands was Christianity, probably originally brought there in the 6th century by Irish monks. In the early 18th century, a church and manse were constructed and ministers and missionaries were sent to St Kilda to “root out pagan customs” and “save Scotland’s most remote souls”. A visitor to St Kilda in 1697 observed that the islanders were “amongst the happiest people in the world, fond of song, poetry and games”. By the end of the 19th century, such frivolity was frowned upon and the St Kildans had been reduced to puritan slaves.*
There is so much more to say about St Kilda that will fit on a short blog post. If you’d like to learn more, I’d recommend the book The Life & Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel (HarperCollins, 2011).
And if you’d like to take a trip to the islands yourself, I’d recommend Sea Harris. The trip takes 2½ hours and allows for five hours on Hirta. (A word of warning – even on a relatively calm day, the ride can be bouncy!)
*Source: The Life & Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel (HarperCollins, 2011)