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.