Article | Scotland

St. Kilda: A World Apart

Now an abandoned, uninhabited archipelago, St. Kilda is rich in human history. Here, hearty “bird people” made a simple but fulfilling life until they were relocated in 1930. Having travelled there many times himself, beloved photographer Dennis Minty shares the fascinating history of St. Kilda's islands, people, and seabirds.
Traveller admires hills of St Kilda

© Dennis Minty

It was Friday, August 29, 1930 when the lives of St. Kildans changed utterly. As dawn broke, a bone-chilling mist rolled in over the Atlantic, down the green slope of Conachair, and penetrated the open doors of the stone cottages. The doors were open because people were gathering their few, meagre belongings and carrying them on their backs down to the shoreline and the waiting boat. By the 7:00 a.m. departure, the sun broke through in time for the boat, now loaded with the islanders, to pull away from the pier and across the sea to a new life.

Historical photo departing St Kilda locals carrying trunks on their backs

© Newsquest (Herald and Times) / National Records of Scotland

Departing St. Kilda

Those departing, and their ancestors, had lived in one of the most remote corners of the British Isles for six centuries or so, largely unknown to the rest of the world. Even before them, ancient peoples were there, perhaps two thousand or more years before. Now, on that poignant Friday, only thirty-six people—thirteen men, ten women, eight girls, and five boys—remained.

Historical photo women of St Kilda

© National Trust for Scotland, St. Kilda, #134

Women of St. Kilda

It must have been with very mixed feelings that they departed the shoreline to resettle in Scottish villages far away, all the while knowing that their new lives would be radically different from what they had known. Family names like Gillies, MacQueen, MacDonald, McKenzie, Ferguson, and Campbell would be lost from these hills.

Historical photo men forming St Kilda parliament in laneway

© Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Edinburgh Central Library, #38917

Men forming the St. Kilda Parliament in the late 1880s, photo by George Washington Wilson

Why did this happen? To understand, we must go back and consider the lives of these incredible, hardy people and the place in which they lived.

Landscape of St Kilda

© Dennis Minty

The Place

St. Kilda is an isolated archipelago, the most western of the Hebrides and the hardest to reach, considered by some to be “at the margin of the world.” Most of the islands are bounded by steep cliffs—amongst the highest in the British Isles. Only on Hirta, the largest of St. Kilda’s islands, is there a rough, cobble beach that permits reasonable landing.

Modern day Main Street St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

When you to visit today, you can land on a sturdy concrete wharf built in 1901, but through most of the island’s history there was no such convenience. As you walk up the slope from the wharf, you can see the remains of the sixteen stone cottages perfectly aligned along the gentle arc of the main street. At most, two hundred people once occupied their few rooms. Women sat on their doorsteps spinning wool as children laughed in the meadow below. Behind the cottages, a great green, treeless sward rises to the crowns of encircling hills, the tallest of which is Conachair at 430 metres.

Historical photo people watch St Kilda woman spinning wool

© National Trust for Scotland, St. Kilda, #368

Curious tourists watch a St. Kildan woman spinning wool

The effect is that the village sits near the bottom of a giant, verdant bowl slightly tipped toward the sea. Part way up the slopes are rough, stone paddocks—remainders from the days of habitation—that pattern the hillside; their builders clearly paid no attention to geometry. About thirteen hundred cleits—dome-topped, oblong shelters that resemble stone igloos—dot the hillsides above the village on Hirta. One can’t help but wonder about their purpose.

St Kilda cleits stone storehouses

© Dennis Minty

Their size varies, but on average each one is about two or three metres across and perhaps twice that length. They are constructed of large, mortarless boulders, wide at the base and narrower at the top, where they were capped with sod to help keep out some of the rain. The gaps between rocks provided good ventilation in the wind-blown landscape, so the cleits were used to dry and store both food, such as seabirds, eggs, fish, meat, and produce; and gear, like ropes, feathers, and peat.

Sheep grazing St Kilda

© Dennis Minty

The primitive and hardy breed of local sheep, known as Soay, still wander the islands and can be found nibbling blissfully away on the steepest of bluffs. Historically, they ran wild over the hills and were only penned for plucking (they moult naturally so they were not sheared) or slaughter.

Visitors walking hills of St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Beyond the hills, the cliffs plummet to the pounding sea. But from the clifftops you can see the other larger islands—Boreray, Soay, Dun, Stac Levenish, Stac Lee, and Stac an Armin—separated from Hirta by formidable seas. Mists come and go in the constant sea breeze, giving the place a timeless, otherworldly quality. One feels like they should speak in a whisper, as in church.

Stac Lee island St Kilda archipelago

© Dennis Minty

Some of the islands look snow covered to the naked eye, but with binoculars, you can see they are alive with gannets—great white seabirds bigger than large geese. Together the islands comprise one of the most significant seabird colonies in the British Isles. Were you to peer downwards over the edge of the cliffs on Hirta, you would see that they too abound with life, mainly northern fulmars sitting on narrow, grassy ledges. Both the gannets and the fulmars are a vital part of this story.

Seabird cliffs St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

The Bird People

In 1824 John MacCulloch wrote of his visit to St. Kilda:

“The air is full of feathered animals, the sea is covered with them, the houses are ornamented by them, the ground is speckled with them like a flowery meadow in May. The town is paved with feathers, the very dunghills are made of feathers, the ploughed land seems as if it had been sown with feathers, and the inhabitants look as if they had been all tarred and feathered, for their hair is full of feathers, and their clothes are covered with feathers.”

Clearly, seabirds played a big role in the lives of St. Kildans, enough for them to be known by some as “the bird people.”

Historical photo children and women carrying birds

© National Trust for Scotland

Anne MacKinnon and her son Finlay MacKinnon during the fulmar harvest

Almost anywhere else, the people of an island like this would have relied mostly on fish, both for food and livelihood, but not here. Fish and shellfish made only a minor contribution to their diet. Sheep were important for wool, mutton, and milk. A few cattle also provided milk and beef on occasion. The islanders grew some potatoes, barley, and oats, but the stiff, nearly constant, salt-laden wind was not conducive to copious crop production. Bread was a luxury—made and eaten only at christenings, weddings, and New Year’s. Seabird meat and eggs were the staples.

Northern gannet St Kilda Scotland in flight

© Dennis Minty

Northern gannet

A visitor to the island in the late 1600s estimated that about twenty-two thousand gannets (known locally as solan geese, and the chicks as guga) were consumed on average every year. Gannets, fulmars, and puffins were eaten fresh in the summer, while gannets and fulmars were salted for the winter. Another early visitor to Hirta estimated that about twelve thousand birds per year were preserved in this way—that was one hundred and fifty birds for every man, woman, and child.

"Mrs. M'Vean mentions that every family has about three or four barrels of fulmars salted for winter use, the flavour of which she considers similar to that of salted pork. Their principal food in summer is roasted puffin. 'For breakfast,' she observes, 'they have some thin porridge or gruel, with a puffin boiled in it to give it a flavour. Dinner consists of puffin again, this time roasted, with a large quantity of hard-boiled eggs, which they eat just as the peasantry eat potatoes.'" —George Seton, 1877
Northern fulmar roosting on rock St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Northern fulmar

Cragsmen

Cragsmen were those who scaled the cliffs to catch the seabirds and gather the eggs. Although some girls and women did it too, it was mainly barefoot boys who would begin to learn the skills by scaling the walls of their houses, or any other rocky face that was available. It was the ambition of every young man to excel as a cragsman and crawl spider-like up the highest of stacks or be lowered from the top by trusted mates clutching cowhide ropes.

Cliffs of Conachair St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Cliffs of Conachair

Some witnesses observed that the cragsmen had wide, strong feet with big toes that were longer and stouter than that of other people—all the better for gripping the narrow climbing cracks and ledges. In fact, most everyone went barefoot on St. Kilda, at least in the warmer months.

Historical drawing St Kilda man landing on Stac Lee cliffs

© Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal

"Landing place on Stac Lii" drawing by John Norman Heathcote, 1901

The cragsmen would travel to the base of the cliffs in a small boat, along with skilled rowers who maneuvered the vessel on the undulating swells until the timing was right for the cragsman to leap to a small ledge, just enough to find purchase. Then the climb would begin, usually in pairs joined by a rope.

“But if he misseth that footstep (as oftentimes they do), he falls into the sea, and the company takes him in by the small cord, and he sits still until he be a little refreshed, and then he tries it again; for everyone there is not able for that sport.” —Sir Robert Moray, 1677

Their equipment varied with the intended catch. For live birds, they used a strong, slender pole with a noose on the end big enough to encircle the bird’s head. They would approach to within reach and gingerly drop the noose over the head of the bird, which would have been reluctant to leave the nest. If they were collecting eggs, they carried a large basket.

Martin Martin, a visitor in 1697, said that he witnessed the cragsmen return in a single morning with twenty-nine baskets of eggs, carrying between four hundred and eight hundred eggs each depending on the size of the eggs. I estimate the weight of one of those baskets to be about eighty pounds, based on my average-sized chicken eggs from the fridge. Imagine scaling a near-vertical rock face over a savage sea with that on your back! No wonder Martin Martin called this “the feat of the fowlers.”

“About the age of twelve or fourteen, they first essay the cliffs, no unimportant day to a St. Kilda youth. During the last thirty years, five men have, in the language of the island, ‘gone over the rocks.’ In these words are registered the deaths of the daring spirits who fall victims to the dangers of their calling. Their bodies are seldom, if ever, recovered, being ruthlessly engulfed by the voracious deep.” —George Seton, 1877
Historical photo the fowlers

© Richard Kearton, "With Nature and a Camera"

The Fowlers, 1898

The birds were captured not just for food but also for oil and feathers, which were exported along with the Soay sheep fleeces to help pay the rent to landowners a world away. Feathers were also used to make pillows and mattresses, both locally and in factories on the mainland.

The Decline

In 1697, Martin Martin noted that the population was 180. By 1759, according to the Rev. Kenneth Macauley, it had declined to eighty-eight. The decline continued over the decades with smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, cholera, and emigration all contributing.

The provision of adequate health care was a constant challenge. Nurse Aitchison was appointed to serve in 1914, one of a series of nurses that tried to help. She reported: "it is almost impossible to teach them hygiene in their own homes... They are without exception the dirtiest people I ever nursed…"

High infant mortality was first reported in 1750. It was known as the “eight-day sickness” because that was the time from onset to death. It was tetanus (also called lockjaw) and was only conquered in 1891 through the introduction of improved hygiene by the nurses.

Historical photo children on Main Street Hirta St Kilda Scotland

© National Trust for Scotland

Children on the main street of Hirta, St. Kilda, photographed by R. Milne, 1907

Apparently, the church also had a role in the decline. For most of the community’s history, there was no resident minister. Religious practices were a mix of Druidism and Christianity. Regular church attendance was certainly not prevalent. There was simply too much work to do to survive.

Alexander Buchan and his wife were the first resident missionaries arriving in 1705. They are credited with the beginnings of education and teaching important home craft like knitting. However, there followed a series of ministers who insisted on regular church attendance and holding Sunday as a day of rest and worship.

High hills and seaside Hirta St Kilda Scotland

© Dennis Minty

From 1830 to 1844 the missionary and zealot Neil Mackenzie established compulsory church attendance everyday except for Monday and Saturday—but twice on Sunday! Mackenzie was followed in 1865 by the minister, John McKay who, it was said, “may have done more to undo the St. Kildan way of life than any other individual.” As faith practices replaced vital chores, the work needed to allow the population to survive was not getting done.

Tourism also contributed to the population decline and shift in thinking of the St. Kildans. The first steamship arrived in 1834. Such events became regular occurrences thereafter, giving the islanders increased contact with the outside world and notions about the possibilities of living elsewhere.

The Evacuation

By the late 1920s, the population was below the critical threshold needed for people to thrive. St. Kildans knew that their continued survival was in jeopardy. At the beginning of 1930, the resident nurse Williamina Barclay, seeing the situation was precarious, helped sow the idea of resettlement.

Finally, after two tragic deaths of young women that year, the islanders, with Williamina’s help, petitioned the government for resettlement to the mainland. On Wednesday, August 27, 1930, fifteen hundred sheep and all the remaining cattle were removed and taken to the mainland for auction. Two days later, the island was empty, but for the birds.

Historical photo cottages on Main Street Hirta St Kilda Scotland

© National Trust for Scotland

Cottages on the main street of Hirta, St. Kilda, photographed by R. Milne, 1907

Like any other isolated peoples, the St. Kildans had thrived in their remoteness and insularity, living simply, in balance with their local, limited environment, and enduring its challenges. They are a powerful example of how the human spirit can adapt to its circumstance. No one reading this today would want to live like that. But, nonetheless, their lives do remind us that there are alternative ways of relating to the world.

After centuries of landownership by various noble families, all living elsewhere, the St. Kilda archipelago is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland. In 1986 it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both its natural and cultural attributes, and is a wonderful destination that we feel privileged to visit.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.

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