Transformation of St Kilda
Seventy-five years ago, the residents of a group of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland packed up and left for good. Their home—St Kilda—now has World Heritage status but with the departure of the St Kildans in August 1930, a way of life that had existed for thousands of years, vanished. St Kilda was years for years known as the most remote settlement in the entire British Empire, but actually it is not so far away—around 200 km west of the nearest point of the Scottish mainland.
Seventy-five years ago, at the end of August 1930, the last 36 islanders banked up their turf fires, opened their Bibles at Exodus, put some oats on the table, then left forever, bringing to an end a habitation and a way of life that stretched back at least two thousand years.
St Kilda is an archipelago of sea stacks, skerries and four islands, of which only one, Hirta, was permanently inhabited. It was remote in ways other than geography. The people, who never numbered more than a couple of hundred, spoke not English but a distinctive form of Gaelic. Their economy, their whole culture, revolved round seabirds—fulmars, gannets and puffins. They ate them and exchanged their feathers and precious oil for goods such as tea and sugar from the mainland.
In the Victorian era, at the height of Britain’s imperial adventure, this self-sufficient life held a strange fascination. St Kilda became a fashionable tourist destination and steamers regularly dropped anchor in Village Bay. But the visitors could not comprehend the St Kildans they gawped at. There is an astonishing recording in the BBC’s archives of an islander saying that her mother, in payment for a bale of tweed which had taken all winter to weave, was given an orange. She didn’t know what it was.
There had been worse traumas: St Kilda’s graveyard is one of the most heartrending places. It is full of tiny hummocks, where infants are buried. Newborn babies were all anointed where the cord had been cut with a concoction of fulmar oil, dung and earth and 8 out of 10 of them died of neonatal tetanus. The minister finally put a stop to this in 1891 and after that the babies lived, but it was too late.
Add to this grief, emigration and harsh religion and it’s no wonder that the St Kildans lost heart. By the 1920s there were no longer enough people to do all the work. In 1930 they planted no crops and petitioned the government to take them off the island.
St Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. There are tow National Trust wardens and in the summer volunteer work parties come to maintain the buildings. There’s a resident archaeologist.
A century on St Kilda has become a chic destination once again. There were 15,000 visitors last year. Recently one of the wardens found the first piece of litter; a plastic water bottle wedged between the stones of a wall.