Brief History of St Kilda

St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Day 19 , 17th July.

Hebrides, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel, Seascape

Here is a boatload of us heading off into the heavy fog and mist in the early-ish morning.

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Hebrides, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel, Seascape, Wildlife

Soay sheep on the shore.  You can see the self-moulting characteristic on a couple of them.

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Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel

Soay sheep and the Village

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St Kilda History

People have lived in the Hebrides for 6,000 to 8,000 years and it is likely that they have lived in St Kilda for 5,000 to 5,500 years – so from 3000BC to 3500BC. There are extensive signs of Neolithic tool making on St Kilda with many dolerite quarries.  Some of these are visible from the shore but I didn’t know at the time to make the right photograph.  They produced numerous stone tools including hoe-blades, pounder/grinders and skaill knives. Many of these were worked into the structures of the houses much later, when stone tools were no longer in use.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The pounder/grinders are like the pestle in a mortar and pestle. The equivalent of the mortar is the cylinder quern, which are now very scarce because the islanders used to sell them to tourists in the nineteenth century. The skaill knives are roughly circular with one side for holding and a sharp edge.  One curious thing for this early period is that the stone tools show connections to Orkney and Shetland rather than the nearer islands of Lewis and Harris.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel

Cleit and houses. The drystone structure in the middle distance with a turf roof is probably an 1830s house converted to a byre (for animals to stay in over winter).

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In the Iron Age period (500BC to 500AD), the cultivated area of Village Bay was larger, including a low-lying plain largely now eroded by the sea. There may or may not have been a roundhouse or fort on Hilda or Dun though there are some clues that a souterrain (an underground passageway for storage ) near the current village may have been associated with one.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel

Cleit and 1860s house

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However, there was clearly a round house from this period on Boreray, which collapsed in the 1840s and has never been excavated. Boreray is an island off the coast of Hirta that we glimpsed in the distance in an image in a previous post. Its name is of Norse origin and means “Fortress Island”.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The Boreray roundhouse was called Tigh an Stallair, or “House of the Steward”. There would never have been a permanent population on Boreray, so this must have been something of a hunting lodge. It may have been built and used by regular visitors from Harris or Lewis. Bones of seabirds likely to have come from St Kilda have been found at sites in Harris and Orkney, also indicating contact by sea.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The people on St Kilda grew barley and ran cattle and sheep. Though their soil was poor their yields were high due to a judicious use of different kinds of seaweed as fertiliser. They grew sorrel for green vegetables and harvested seabirds and their eggs, including gannets, fulmars, puffins, guillemots and razorbills. Until the nineteenth century they also harvested great auks. In the late nineteenth century they consumed between 300 and 350 seabirds per person per year but this was a tiny fraction of the seabirds available. They also fished from rocks and to some extent from boats using hand lines, being able to catch deep sea fish from the rocks. They also caught some seals but that was a difficult and dangerous exercise.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel

Some of the longer, rounded cleits are remaining houses from before the 1830s. For example, they may have bed cavities in their thick walls. This might be such a case, though it is outside the zone of the old village.

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The last great auk was captured on Stac an Armin in 1840 and was also the last known sighting of a great auk in the British Isles, though a couple were killed in Iceland a few years later. They tied up its feet and held it in their bothy (temporary hut) for three days. Then a storm blew up, preventing their departure. They decided it must be a witch and had caused the storm, so they beat it to death with sticks. It just goes to show that you can romanticise living in a wild bygone age but you can never know what it was truly like.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The Norse ruled the Western Isles between about 800AD and the Battle of Largs in 1263 (an inconclusive battle but it ended Norse control of the Western Isles). After that the McLeods of Dunvegan held sway over St Kilda for 500 years. For much of that period, the Lairds operated as predatory raiders, descending annually with a large retinue for some weeks and demanding to be fed and housed. In this they may not have been much different from earlier Viking raiders. They exacted taxes in the form of commodities but also provided some support such as the occasional boat and assistance in times of disaster.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The early years of the eighteenth century were a time of hardship and the population fell from 180-200 at the start of that century to 120-130 in 1727. Then in that year there was a devastating smallpox epidemic. Only four adults and twenty-six children survived, and that many only because three men and eight boys were stranded for nine months over the winter when they went fowling on Stac an Armin. There were not enough adults left to launch a boat and come to get them back. The Laird repopulated the island with people from Skye and Harris.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

The men were mainly hunter-gatherers, harvesting seabirds, eggs, to a lesser extent fish and sometimes seals. Gathering eggs and catching birds was a precarious task requiring great skill, agility and courage. Using home-made straw ropes, they descended the vertical cliffs and swung sideways if necessary to access distant ledges. The women were cultivators, growing barley and oats. The islanders stored and dried birds, feathers, eggs, barley and oats in the cleits. There were no cleits on Dun but 40 on Soay, 50 on Boreray and 80 on Stac an Armin (north of Boreray).

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

They were communalistic in many ways, supporting the sick and infirm and evenly dividing up labour, responsibilities and harvesting of birds. Maintenance of the boat and allocation of berths on hunting expeditions was also divided up communally. On the other hand, they locked their houses with ingenious wooden locks that they made and maintained themselves. The reason for this may have been stores of coins gathered from trading with visitors that individuals wanted to retain for themselves rather than give up to the Community.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

Life in St Kilda in the nineteenth century was significantly changed by a succession of priests who came from outside. In the early years there was a developing split in Scotland between two wings of the Presbyterian Church. The establishment wing featured clerics who were appointed by the Lairds to comfortable benefices and who had little inclination to make any waves. The evangelical wing practised a fervent, committed faith that owed no allegiance to the Lairds. It was evangelicals who came to St Kilda.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

At the same time there was a movement to replace common land with private crofts and on the mainland many were forcibly displaced from their land in the Clearances. This never happened in St Kilda, largely due to the isolation and rugged conditions, but there was a move from communal to private ownership of land.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The first Minister was John MacDonald, who first visited in 1822. His successor, Neil MacKenzie, who first visited in 1829, was more influential. We have already seen that Sir Thomas Ackland’s yacht gave its name to the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. In 1834, on one of his visits to the island, Ackland donated £20 towards the building of new homes, which apparently was matched by the Laird. Prior to this, the villagers were living in a cluster of twenty-six rounded dry-stone houses. MacKenzie organised a rebuild.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The new village was laid along a street vaguely parallel to the shore. Each house had its own narrow strip of land, stretching in front of it to near the shore and behind to the head dyke, the long wall enclosing the village and its agricultural land. The houses, still using dry stone construction, faced perpendicular to the street, sheltering from the strong winds which could come off the bay. The houses featured thick walls, some of which included recesses for beds, and a partition for a byre, where cattle would stay for the winter.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

In 1843 the evangelicals broke away to form the free church. The St Kildans adhered to this but the Laird did not and locked their church and tried to harass them in other ways. In 1852, 8 families and 36 people emigrated to Australia out of a population of about 110. 18 died on the way there, mainly of measles and their departure weakened the viability of St Kilda. Shortly following this, perhaps fearing further abscondments, the Laird gave in, reopened their church and allowed them their religious freedom.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

In 1860, a Captain Otter was charting the seas around the Outer Hebrides for the Royal Navy. He was at anchor at St Kilda when a huge storm struck that was in danger of sinking his ship but it survived. The villagers at St Kilda fared rather worse. The storm blew the thatches off all their houses which were knee-deep in water. Their barley had been harvested but not stored and was all destroyed, as was the oats crop.
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Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

Otter organised a public appeal and quickly brought effective relief to the islanders, much greater and more quickly than they would have got from their Laird. This was partly due to money from a £700 bequest in a will in 1857 for improvements in the Highlands of Scotland. The Laird, stung by bad publicity, insisted this was his responsibility and built new houses for the village in 1861 and 1862, which were mortared rather than dry stone and had roofs of zinc. The roofs however, were less than watertight and must have been very noisy when it rained so they had to be refurbished later. The newer houses face the bay whereas the earlier dry stone houses are perpendicular to that, sheltering from the weather coming from that direction.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

The mass emigration of 1852 may have pushed the population below a sustainable level and this was made much worse by very high rates of infant mortality due to tetanus, which had probably started in the eighteenth century. In 1889 the Minister brought in a new nurse who delivered a couple of babies that survived. In 1892, after the nurse had left, the Minister went to Glasgow to obtain detailed instructions on good hygienic practice and started delivering them himself, thereby solving the problem. The likely cause was that the Hirta midwives had been smearing the rag that dressed the umbilical cord with fulmar oil, unfortunately kept in a gannet’s stomach.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

In the late nineteenth century, agricultural productivity had declined due to declining soil productivity. It occurs to me that a cause of this may have been the delivery of two tonnes of guano as part of the relief measures of 1860. I have seen a documentary suggesting that imported guano brought with it organisms that caused the potato blight in Ireland. Perhaps the use of the guano instead of their traditional seaweed fertiliser significantly eroded the productivity of the soil.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

The island gained a school in 1899 but hard times were coming. Their economy was now largely based on producing tweed and in 1914 the bottom fell out of the tweed market. They got some relief including employment from a naval wireless station during the war but this did not continue after the war. By 1925 the population had fallen to 46 and in 1830 they agreed to leave. The promises of conditions on the mainland were not fulfilled and most would have returned if they could but this was not to be. St Kilda is now a World Heritage area and the only inhabitants are personnel of a small naval base, and a few archaeologists and their volunteers.

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 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

 Archaeology, Architecture, Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, St Kilda, Travel .

Hebrides, History, Landscape, Photography, Scotland, Soay sheep, St Kilda, Travel .

 

Reference: Andrew Fleming: St Kilda and the Wider World (Tales of an iconic island)

15 comments on “Brief History of St Kilda

  1. Rajiv says:

    Good photos. Nice bit of history. Weather better than what you experienced in India?

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    • Murray Foote says:

      You’re probably expecting me to say no but overall it was about the same. I was expecting Scotland to be cold and wet, having researched weather in previous years but it was usually warm and dry. St Kilda was very misty, though not actually raining, and I thought that was good because it helped preserve a feel of mystery.

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      • Rajiv says:

        Well, actually I thought the weather is better in Scotland. We’re closing out on the hottest and driest June in years.

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      • Murray Foote says:

        Ah, well we were there in February and everywhere the temperature was between 20degC and 24degC, which as it happens was about the same as Northern Scotland when I was there last July in the middle of their summer. That was something of a heatwave for them but I am quite happy not to experience a heatwave in the middle of the Indian summer.

        When I was in Iceland, though, they were in the middle of the wettest summer for 28 years. Global warming is catching up on us, like as not.

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  2. todoparatucocina says:

    Hola ! He estado siguiendo la lectura de su bitácora para algún tiempo ahora y finalmente tuvo la valentía
    coraje para seguir adelante y darle un agradecimiento desde Lubbock
    Texas ! Sólo quería decirte decir excelente trabajo !

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  3. leecleland says:

    Thank you for a potted history of these isles. Fascinating. The bit about the guano maybe bringing in an organism that caused the potato blight in Ireland makes sense to me. Sometimes things are done by well meaning people that actually make it worse, as may be the case here. A hard life but a sad ending to it.

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    • Murray Foote says:

      Being persuaded by the Minister to string all their houses out in a line might possibly be another. With their houses all in a huddle they might have been less susceptible in the huge storm of 1860.

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  4. uplandpete says:

    St Kilda is definitely on my list of places in the UK that I have to get to some day, although I would probably want to survey it all! I always wistlfully glance at the job advert when the archaeologist post there periodically comes up.

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    • Murray Foote says:

      I can imagine! Still you could always volunteer for a couple of weeks to get a taste. It’s a bit more difficult for me to pop back there from Australia. Excavating the roundhouse on Boreray would be a fascinating prospect for example.

      Unfortunately I bought the book on the history of St Kilda when I was there and I didn’t know to go looking for the souterrain or try to find some pre-1830 houses and photograph something of their interiors. Also, even though I was there for a full day (at least better than the usual couple of hours) I was tied to the group and was not able to get far from the village. I would have liked to have the time to walk all over the island.

      Stac an Armin sounds intriguing, too. It looks little more than a big rock pocking out of the sea yet three men and eight boys survived there for nine months, presumably in Am Biran Bothy which is marked on the map I photographed, and there are 80 cleits there!

      I still have five posts to go on St Kilda and one or two sailing around it and away….

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      • uplandpete says:

        I can’t wait for your other posts too!. It was back 1999 I first heard about the archaeology of St Kilda, the hardships of the inhabitants, especially those who were stuck on the stack for nine months and eating seagull and eggs all that time must have been harsh. It bet it was probably a bitter pill when they realised almost all the other islanders had perished in the mean time too. I WILL get there one day 🙂

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  5. Thank you for a very interesting post. The mist was a fortuitous mood to the photography, too.

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  6. […] In historic times, the island has been notable for the great number of birds nesting there.  Many intrepid locals would scale the cliffs and suspend themselves from ropes to gather eggs and birds, much as the residents of St Kilda did for thousands of years. […]

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