The Last of St. Kilda

Órlaith Roe

 

 

In August of 1930, after petitioning the government, the last remaining 36 islanders of St. Kilda were evacuated to the Scottish mainland. Situated in the North Atlantic Ocean as the westernmost island of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, St. Kilda, with Hirta as the archipelago’s largest island, today stands out as a growing tourist attraction for those willing to take a rough boat ride in unsettled weather to one of Scotland’s six World Heritage Sites. Plagued by unpredictable storms autumn through winter, life on the island became untenable by 1930 and emigration, crop failure, and lack of adequate healthcare all contributed to the resettlement of the islanders to places like Lochaline, Strome Ferry, Ross-shire, Culcabock, and Culross.

 

To call this tiny archipelago breath-taking would be an understatement. On a clear day the choppy Atlantic waves seamlessly sweep along with the vast array of sea-life and an abundance of flying fowl. The emptied stone cottages that dot the ‘main street’ are stacked with history and life. Like many abandoned Atlantic islands, there is an eeriness that drapes the emptied fields and standing stones of St. Kilda. Its jagged coastline and towering cliff edges are like a magnificently re-centring punch to the human eye. Wandering around its coastline quite literally brings you back in time, shooting you into a heightened spatial awareness of history.

St. Kilda is a prime example of the human ability to survive off natural resources and farming alone. The eventual evacuation of the island proved difficult for many islanders to adapt to mainland living, but their simplicity of sustenance remained for the most part. Throughout the centuries there has been a handful of explorers and those of a curious nature who have ventured westwards to the island. In 1776 the dietary needs of the islanders were recorded by a mainland visitor. Each inhabitant was said to have consumed, daily, 36 eggs and 18 fouls, bringing the total to 3,240 eggs and 1,620 birds. What they lacked for in variation they certainly made up for in quantity.

 

The remoteness of St. Kilda has contributed to its isolated heritage and customs, from farming to the makeup of its landscape and architectural ruins, exists today as a rare accessible representation of the lands left behind. For minority language speakers and current isolated communities, the importance of cultural recognition is a pressing issue. Many of the Celtic language and heritage advocates look to the renewal and vibrancy of how St. Kilda has been transformed in recent years into a growing tourist attraction for guidance in drawing attention to the plight of dwindling native tongues. Indeed, St. Kilda had been left for many years abandoned and crumbling, but with one of the main street cottages now transformed into an island museum and with regular summer excursions offered, it is part of a wider resurgence in reclaiming forgotten cultural heritage.

The island’s isolation has allowed for an ecological flourishing of sub-species and sea life throughout the centuries. On a clear day (yes, on the rare side in Scotland), the island’s shores are a deep Caribbean blue, opening like a glassy kaleidoscope that reveals St. Kilda’s rich seabed. The Atlantic swell keeps the colour and sea-life that envelope the underwater rocks in constant motion, piecing together the mirrored landscape beneath the surface. 

 

St. Kilda’s marine biodiversity is key to the island’s preservation and ecological survival. Its landscape is a major pull for its touristic boosts and has long cemented the archipelago’s place as a protected UNESCO heritage site.

Along with bird-eggs and fish meals, St. Kilda’s population survived with the help of freshwater springs. Fuel for lamps was taken from the oil of fulmars and various other birds. The quantity of food on St. Kilda was not a problem, but the variety of nutrients provided difficulties. Apart from poor-quality potatoes, the island had little to no fruit or vegetables. According to J. Acheson, a surgeon who visited the island in 1885, “The islanders ate oatmeal, salted fowl, and seabird eggs during summer and salted mutton in winter. They obtained tea, sugar, flour and tobacco from tourists”. As with many other examples of struggling isolated communities in the latter half of the 19th century, the rapid modernisation and industrialisation of the Scottish mainland made it increasingly difficult for St. Kilda to maintain their way of life along with the surging crop failures of the island at the start of the 20th century.

 

After the brutal winter of 1929-30, the islanders collectively pushed for evacuation to the mainland.

The community was further rocked by the deaths of two young women, as told by the National Records of Scotland, “On 26 May, Mary Gillies, of no. 10 Main Street, who had

been rushed to hospital in Glasgow, died of complications after giving birth to her daughter Annie, who also died. She was 35 years old, married to John Gillies. On 21 July another Mary Gillies died at no. 14 Main Street of a form of tuberculosis, aged 22.” The tragedy of these events on the back half of the islands bleakest winter made life on the island untenable.

 

The eventual evacuation of the islanders was labelled a “great adventure” by local papers, and the resettlement into various mainland communities was treated with care and sensitivity as the Scottish authorities did their best to resettle people according to family wishes.

The last of the native St Kildans, Rachel Johnson, died in April 2016 at the age of 93, having been evacuated at the age of 8.

It was on a whim that I stumbled across the story of St. Kilda and its standing today, hidden within the pages of a small-circulation travel magazine. In recent years, there has been somewhat of a return to lost heritage, to forgotten history. We are more inclined to unearth hidden stories now than ever before. In Scotland’s recent preservation of St. Kilda and UNESCO’s recognition of it comes a sacred example of environmental and historical saviour: our isolated communities are often the missing pieces in the modern stories we are trying to piece together from the past. The world lays claim to many forgotten rocky shores and hidden heritages, but it takes collective will and governmental support in order to preserve their teachings.