The St Kilda archipelago lies a choppy 45 miles west across the Atlantic Ocean from the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Western Isles. Constantly settled from at least 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the inhabitants were finally evacuated, it is impossible to overestimate the brave determination of those early settlers who, seeing these rocky islands poke tantalisingly above the horizon in the far distance, pointed their flimsy boats in that direction and rowed through murderous seas to reach new land.
Rather than fish, the economy of the island – the main and only consistently settled one was also the largest, Hirta – was always linked to seabirds – gannets and fulmars in particular – and bare-footed St Kilda men used to gamble their lives dangling on horsehair ropes down treacherous cliffs faces in order to collect nesting birds and eggs.
Once upon a time there was a demand for fulmar oil as a fuel and St Kildans were able to barter this plentiful resource for the items they needed like grain and tobacco. But the coming of the modern age meant that the demand for this commodity waned dramatically and many of the island’s young people started to leave in order to seek their fortune on the Scottish mainland and even as far afield as Australia. Given this sudden decline in what had hitherto been a small but relatively stable population, it was perhaps inevitable that Hirta’s population would finally ask to be evacuated in 1930. For their own part, centuries of inbreeding and the islanders’ insistence on using fulmar oil to anoint the umbilical cord of newborn babies had already ensured a savagely high infant mortality rate. An evacuation was arranged but, despite having spent their entire lives on a windswept island entirely devoid of trees, the displaced islanders were offered jobs in forestry on the mainland. Such ironies did not ensure a happy outcome.
Hirta’s cottages, cleits and blackhouses may be empty and roofless now but the fulmars and gannets are still there in number, as are the high winds that characterise this archipelago, the most westerly situated group of islands in the entire United Kingdom. Visiting St Kilda is hardly straightforward even today – there is no regular transport and it’s a long rough sea trip west from the Western Isles. I am lucky to have arrived here yesterday morning on the MSS Clipper Odyssey on its Island Race expedition cruise around the British Isles. Today we visit Barra and Mingulay in the southern Outer Hebrides before heading south towards Donegal in Eire. By the miracle of a satellite-connected internet connection I am able to communicate this fact whilst on board (the connection was too slow to add images though – I added these later).
At over 8 degrees west, East of Elveden it certainly isn’t – West of Wester Ross might be a better description – but the St Kilda archipelago in the shape of Hirta, Soay, Berneray and other monumental stacks is still a place apart worthy of honour in any discussion of Britain’s special places. Not only does it stand at the very edge of the British Isles but it would seem to lie at the very edge of Europe and the entire Western world.
St Kilda already feels like a dream just one day after having left its shore. But St Kilda does not exist (the name is probably just a Norse corruption); you will find no saint of that name in the hagiographic annals.
15 Replies to “St Kilda”
Of course, St Kilda is really east of Elvedon if you go the long way round. I really like the thought that communities called St Kilda in Australia and New Zealand take their name from a Scottish community that no longer exists and which, in turn, is named after a saint who never existed. Very postmodern.
A super post, Laurence.
Very interesting text. I didn’t know about that island before…
Ivana Dukcevic Budja
Thanks Nicky and Ivana for your comments.
Ivana, the island is little known to most people in the UK, although it was famous in the years after 1930 when its population was evacuated. Believe it or not, it was also quite a popular place for wealthy Scottish tourists in the late 19th century.
I enjoyed reading your post Laurence. St Kilda is the place I would most like to visit in the British Isles and you have whetted my appetite even further! Did you stay overnight or was it a day trip? It sounds like a great place to mooch around for a few days if anyone would let you.
Hello James. I was really lucky. I visited as part of a press trip on an expedition cruise around the British Isles. Like you, it was a place that I always wanted to visit. Apart from cruises or private charters, the only way to visit is on a day trip (3-4 hours each way, rough seas – heave ho!) from Harris. Or, you can volunteer to work on the island for two weeks in summer (contact Scottish National Trust) – the trouble is that this tends to be booked up years ahead and it costs around £800 to take part.
Nice post Laurence – I was wondering about the etymology of ‘cleit’ – any ideas?
Thanks Simon. Good question. A cleit is a turf-topped dry-stone hut used for storing food – fulmars, gannets, barley etc – the St Kildans even lived in larger ones before they upgraded to blackhouses. There’s some shown in the post photos. The plural is ‘cleitan’. I don’t know the etymology though – normally I’d say it was Gaelic but I can’t be absolutely sure as there are quite a few Old Norse names used on St Kilda. According the delightfully authoritative The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith the name ‘St Kilda’ itself is probably derived from ‘sunt kelda’, the Old Norse for ‘sweet wellwater’. If you bump into any old Norwegians you might ask them about ‘cleit’ too.
Many thanks for this – I’ll keep an eye out for old Norwegians!
I really enjoyed your post, Izzie commented on your amazing photography! You should listen to a song by Brian McNeil entitled “Ewen and the Gold” on his album “the Back o’ the North Wind”, which tells the true story of someone who left the island to make his fortune but was ostracised when he returned and had to leave again.
Great post Laurence. You’ve made me want to go there now… ;~)
thanks for this well written article about the edge. Now we know where we are heading to when we go up to Scotland again. We love edges. Our coast here was called “the edge” in literature. Do you know the northern edge of Europe? Geologically seen these are the Seven Islands – sjuöyane – noth off Spitzbergen. Another great edge worth a visit.
All the best and have an easy week
The Fab Four of Cley
Thank you, Klausbernd, I love edges too. I would love to visit the seven islands north of Spitzbergen that you describe – one day perhaps? All the best, Laurence
Dear Laurence, what a fantastic journey! You make me want to go there. I looked out for MSS Clipper Odyssey in the net and found more articles from you, I couldn’t comment though. How big is this ship, I wonder?
Ever since we visited “Britannia” and I actually saw the all the maps of the truly fascinating Western Isles that The Royal Family visited every year before they settled for Balmoral, this northern Islands have gone to the very top of my list of places to visit. First we thought about visiting the Outer Hebrides, but I’d really love to go on a (not too big but comfortable) ship for at least two weeks and see almost everything … could you please make a post about such a trip, where to start, to book, what to see, what to neglect …? Or even better; write a book about it! 🙂
Thank you so much!
Thank you, Dina. I was very lucky to experience this on a press trip (one of the very few I have participated in over the years). It was certainly an exceptional experience. The ship I was on was relatively small – about 200 passengers – and very comfortable, even quite luxurious. Nobel Caledonia are the company to look at, as every year they have cruises that visit the Western Isles of Scotland and, weather permitting, visit St Kilda. Sometimes they even visit North Rona, which is even more remote and mystical. They have other boats similar in size to this one that do trips of 9-14 days or so. I’m afraid it is pretty expensive – well beyond my usual budget.