St Kilda (Scottish Gaelic: Hiort) is an isolated archipelago situated 64 kilometres (40 mi) west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides, of Scotland and of the United Kingdom, not counting Rockall. The largest island is Hirta whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom. The Gaelic-speaking population probably never exceeded 180 in number and was never more than 100 after 1851. Although St Kilda was permanently inhabited for at least two millennia and had a unique way of life, the local population was evacuated in 1930. The islands continue to be administratively a part of the Western Isles of Scotland,
Origin of names
The geology of the islands is comprised of Tertiary igneous formations of granites and gabbro, heavily weathered by the elements. The archipelago represents the remnants of a long extinct ring volcano rising from a seabed plateau approximately 40 m (130 ft) below sea level.
Fauna and flora
The predominant theme of life on St Kilda was isolation. When Martin Martin visited the islands in 1697,
Way of life
It has been known for some time that St Kilda was continuously inhabited for two millennia or more, from the Bronze Age to the 20th century.
Little is known of the early history and the first written record may date from 1202 when an Icelandic cleric writes of taking shelter on "the islands that are called Hirtir".
14th to 17th century
However, visiting ships in the 18th century brought cholera and smallpox
Religion and tourism in the 18th and 19th centuries
Early in the 'Great War' the Royal Navy erected a signal station on Hirta and daily communications with the mainland were established for the first time in St Kilda's history. In a belated response a German submarine arrived in Village Bay on the morning of 15 May 1918 and after issuing a warning, started shelling the island. Seventy two shells in all were fired and the wireless station was destroyed. The manse, church and jetty storehouse were also damaged but there was no loss of life.
World War One
There were thus numerous reasons for the evacuation. The islands had existed for centuries with only fleeting contacts with the rest of the world. The advent of tourism and the presence of the military in World War One had enabled the islanders to understand that there were alternatives to the privations they had routinely suffered. Despite the provision of a small jetty in 1902 the islands remained at the mercy of the weather. and for the next twenty six years the island experienced quietude, save for the occasional summer visit from tourists or a returning St Kildan family.
The islands took no active part in World War II during which they were completely abandoned,
Later military events
On his death on 14 August 1956 the Marquess of Bute's will bequeathed the archipelago to the National Trust for Scotland, provided they took up the offer within six months of his death. After much soul-searching the Executive Committee agreed to do so in January 1957, and the slow renovation and conservation of the village was begun. Much of this has been undertaken by summer volunteer work parties.
The oldest structures on St Kilda are the most enigmatic. There are large sheep folds inland from the existing village at An Lag Bho'n Tuath (English: the hollow in the north) which contain curious 'boat-shaped' stone rings, or 'settings'. Soil samples suggest a date of 1850 BC but they are unique to St Kilda and their purpose is unknown. In Gleann Mòr there are 20 'horned structures'; essentially ruined buildings with a main court measuring about 3 x 3 m (10 ft by 10 ft), two or more smaller cells and a forecourt formed by two curved or horn-shaped walls. Again, there is nothing like them anywhere else in Britain or Europe and their original use is unknown.
This was located near Tobar Childa about 350 metres (400 yards) from the shore, at the foot of the slopes of Connachair. The oldest building is an underground passage with two small annexes called Taigh an t-Sithiche (house of the faeries) which dates to between 500 BC and 300 AD. The St Kildans believed it was a house or hiding place although a more recent theory suggests that it was an ice house.
The Head Wall was built in 1834 when the mediaeval village was abandoned and a new one planned between Tobar Childa and the sea some 200 metres (700 ft) down the slope. This came about as the result of a visit by Sir Thomas Dyke Ackland, the MP for Devon. Appalled by the primitive conditions he made a donation that ultimately resulted in the construction of a completely new settlement of 30 new black houses. These were further modified after several of the new dwellings were damaged by a severe gale in October 1860. 16 modern houses were then constructed amidst the blackhouses and a new Factor's house as well.
These houses were of dry stone construction with thick walls and roofed with turf. There was typically only one tiny window and a small aperture for letting out smoke from the peat fire which burnt in the middle of the room. As a result, the interiors were blackened by soot. The cattle occupied one end of the house in winter and once a year the straw from the floor was stripped out and spread on the ground.
Dùn means 'fort' and there is but a single ruined wall of a structure said to have been built in the far-distant past by the Fir Bolg.
There are no fewer than 78 storage cleitean on Stac an Armin and a small bothy. As a result of a smallpox outbreak on Hirta in 1727 three men and eight boys were marooned here until the following May. Incredibly, there is a small bothy on the precipitous Stac Lee too, also used by fowlers.
Buildings on other islands
In 1937, after reading of the St Kilda evacuation, Michael Powell made the film The Edge of the World about the dangers of island depopulation. It was shot, however, not on St Kilda but on Foula, one of the Shetland Islands.
Baxter, Colin and Crumley, Jim St Kilda: A portrait of Britain's remotest island landscape, Biggar, Colin Baxter Photography, 1988
Coates, Richard The place-names of St Kilda, Lampeter, Edwin Mellen Press, 1990
Fraser Darling, F. & Boyd, J.M. (1969) Natural History in the Highlands and Islands. London. Bloomsbury.
Fleming, Andrew St. Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island, Windgather Press, 2005
Haswell-Smith, Hamish The Scottish Islands, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2004.
Keay, J. & Keay, J. Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, London, HarperCollins, 1994
Maclean, Charles Island on the Edge of the World: the Story of St. Kilda, Canongate, 1977
Martin, Martin - A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland and St. Kilda - Birlinn, 1994 (reissue of first written account of St. Kilda from 1697).
Murray, W.H. The Hebrides, London, Heinemann, 1966
Quine, David St. Kilda, Grantown-on-Spey, Colin Baxter Island Guides, 2000
Steel, Tom The Life and Death of St. Kilda, London, Fontana, 1988