Many thanks to our new contributor Colin Muir for this first hand account of his visit to St. Kilda. Colin works as a Stone Conservator at Historic Scotland and also specialises in close range 3D scanning of many of Scotland’s treasures. Smarty-pants extraordinaire, smok’n babe and my hubby, and you can read more about some of his “official” works here at the Historic Scotland’s “Scottish Ten” Link http://www.scottishten.org/index/scotten/property3/orkneycloserangeblog.htm.
As the winter storms start to batter Scotland (a near record gust of 165mph was recorded in the Grampian Mountains last week) it serves as a reminder of just how cosseted we are from the realities of the natural world by central heating, running water and electric lighting. Not so our hardy forbears, and least of all those almost mythic inhabitants of St. Kilda, Britain’s most remote corner. I was fortunate enough to visit this memorable place in September of this year, just before the end of ‘the season’. (By October the visitors are too scarce, and the seas too dangerous to justify a seven-hour long, round-trip by boat that still may not manage to achieve a landing.)
Little known outside of Scotland, the St Kilda archipelago holds a special place in the Scottish psyche, in part due to it’s remoteness and also the incredibly hardy and self-sufficient nature of its inhabitants. For over 3,000 years this harsh and isolated location had supported human habitation, and is today one of only 28 locations in the world to hold world heritage status for it built heritage as well as its terrestrial and marine environments.
This summer I found myself working on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, tantalisingly close to fulfilling one of my life’s quests – to land on Hirta, the once inhabited island within the St Kilda group. This is a goal that has become something of a secular pilgrimage for Scots of a wistful and hardy nature, as the islanders had been regarded as an extraordinary, and even “heroic” community.
There is no easy way to the island – it’s either by small boat, cruise ship or if in the military – helicopter. All of which are subject to be turned back at the very last moment by the extremes of weather that scour the ragged peaks and cliffs of these islands. Apparently the islands’ jagged demeanour is the result of having avoided the grinding glaciation that shaped the distinctive features of the rest of Scotland.
Human existence on these isolated, tree-less fists of land was entirely dependent on the abundance of seabirds, and it has been accurately termed a “bird-culture”. The islands are a summer home to in excess of a million birds, with as many as 210 species having been recorded. Indeed a quarter of the GLOBAL gannet population nest in the area. It was said that in 1876 around 89,600 puffins alone were harvested for food and feathers; that does not take into account the fulmars and gannets that were also principle elements of the St Kildan daily diet.
These seabirds were snared and captured from the cliffs by barefoot islanders, and their eggs harvested for additional nutrition. They were the source of oil, as well as down and feathers. These by-products provided for a meagre subsistence economy and a modicum of trade.
The St Kildans rarely ate fish; as the fishing in the surrounding seas was considered poor, and extremely hazardous – they also preferred the taste of birds. Since the majority of birds migrated over the winter, those caught had to be carefully stored and dried to last through to the spring. To facilitate this, the islanders built in excess of 1300 ‘cleits’ of varying forms and functions; to shelter in, store provisions and dry birds. These unique dry-stone built structures pepper the island from Village Bay to near the summits of the highest peaks.
The history of human habitation on the islands is complex and too rich to abridge here. However Martin Martin, who visited the islands in 1697 and wrote the first detailed description of the people and their customs adjudged them “.. much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty”. Ironically however, recent research has found evidence that this isolated community, long held to be the epitome of a natural, sustainable and holistic lifestyle, at one with its surroundings, may eventually have succumbed from their peculiarly waste-free lifestyle. The population dwindled as greater contact with the outside world led some to leave and the traditional skills that supported the islanders survival diminished. The community was susceptible to high infant-mortality, outbreaks of disease and became increasingly less self sufficient, to the point that it was finally unsustainable. In 1930 the remaining 36 islanders were, at their own request, evacuated.
It is now believed that a contributing factor may have been that the islanders’ suffered from the gradual contamination of their homes and fields with heavy metals, from their continuous use of burnt bird remains. This was used as fertiliser in the narrow fields, and the ash as a flooring material in their homes. The fish on which the birds gorged had themselves ingested naturally occurring heavy metals from the surrounding sea. With each step in the food chain these concentrations were magnified, further compounded by generations of agricultural use on the same small areas of tillable land.
One tale in particular highlights the rigours and tragedy of the St Kildan’s way of life, and their almost superhuman hardiness, and is one of remarkable human survival. In 1727 three men and eight boys were dropped off on the near vertical ‘Stac an Armin’ (at over 600ft high, the highest sea stack in Britain) on a bird-hunting expedition that was intended to last a couple of days before the boat came to retrieve them from the pinnacle.
However, the boat did not return. In the interim the islanders on Hirta had been afflicted by a smallpox epidemic that was to leave only one adult and eighteen children alive. None of those that survived were able to handle a boat on such a perilous voyage, and most tantalising of all – the Stac was in clear view from the top of the main Island of Hirta. The men and boys were only finally rescued when the Factor (the landlord’s agent and rent collector) had come for his annual payment, found the island all but empty, and heard of their plight. They had all survived through pounding Atlantic storms, and the cold of a Scottish winter, on nothing but rainwater and dried seabirds for an astonishing nine months! After such an ordeal it must have been a tragically bitter sweet rescue for them to then hear that almost all their loved ones and neighbours had perished in their absence.
Whilst a journey to St Kilda today is still an uncertain one, liable to be cancelled at the last moment, or turned back within sight of the island by treacherous conditions, it is one very much recommended. I travelled with these good folk and would recommend them highly http://www.seaharris.co.uk
(check out their gallery in particular). It’s a journey that certainly fills you with admiration for the early peoples that not only braved this crossing in much more rudimentary craft, but also managed to thrive in an environment both harsh and beautiful. It is a vigourous, fresh world of wind-scoured moors and salt-sprayed cliffs that, that when blessed with a shard of sunshine, feels like an Eden on the edge of the world. Most importantly it’s a place that lingers in the memory and the soul of all that experience it.