Posted in Film, History, Museum, Rural Heritage

St. Kilda – Britain’s Remotest And Loneliest Islands

Inside of a typical 19th century croft blackhouse in the Highlands of Scotland which would have been similar to the dwellings occupied by the inhabitants of St. Kilda. Above croft blackhouse can be seen at Colbost Folk Museum, Colbost, Isle of Skye.

The men are of medium stature, fresh complexion, sandy hair, face rather puffy, movements languid.  The women are of average height, dark complexion, pale-faced, and many of them unhealthy-looking; the children are pale, languid and flabby….They are all well clad and evidently well fed, in fact, they seem to be better-off in these respects than the peasants of many other parts of Great Britain…Clothing is all home-made; the wool of their sheep is woven on hand-looms into thick tweed, into a coarse flannel, and into a finer tweed, which is dyed and used for women’s wear….most of them have boots and shoes, but, as a rule, they go barefoot, except on Sunday…On the 14th September, 1884, with the thermometer 68F in the shade, I found a healthy adult male wearing a thick tweed waistcoat, with flannel back and sleeves, two thick flannel under vests, a flannel shirt, tweed trousers, flannel drawers, boots and stockings, Tam O’Shanter cap, and a thick, scarlet worsted muffler around his neck.

                             (Extract from Dr Acheson’s report, 1885)

St. Kilda is an archipelago located in the remotest part of the British Isles, forty-one miles west of Benbecula in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and is the last bit of land between Scotland and America.  St. Kilda was created from a huge volcano between 54-65 million years ago, in the Tertiary Era. Bronze Age Man first made his home on Hirta (name of the main island) 3,000 years ago and the first earth house was built there c500 BCE.  In 1994, stone tools and a Bronze Age tool factory were found on Mullach Sgar.  The name St. Kilda comes from the old Norse ‘skildir’ meaning shields.  Hirta appears in an Icelandic Saga as ‘Hirtir’ which is old Norse for stags. The Vikings arrived in c900 AD and it is thought that the famous St. Kilda field mouse first arrived on the islands then, transported in a sack of hay aboard a Viking longship. The community of St. Kilda ended on 29th August 1930 when the last remaining inhabitants were evacuated by HMS Harebell to Lochaline and Oban. The following year Sir Reginald MacLeod sold the islands to the 5th Marquis of Bute who subsequently bequeathed them to the National Trust for Scotland in 1956.

The National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Natural Heritage now jointly manage St. Kilda.  Wardens from both organisations reside there between April and September every year.  However, Hirta is occupied all year round by members of the civilian workforce employed by the military base situated there.  St. Kilda now holds the distinction of having Dual World Heritage Status for both its natural and cultural significance.  It is possible to visit the islands today but these visits are subject to strict regulations in order to protect the islands’ fragile eco-systems. The majority of visitors that now arrive on Hirta do so by way of an organised tour or as part of annual conservation work parties. The journey is not for the faint-hearted and depending on where you begin your voyage on the Scottish mainland, it can take between eight and fourteen hours by boat. For further information on travelling to St. Kilda, CLICK HERE. It is my dream to visit this incredible place, the nearest I have come to St. Kilda is the Isle of Skye, ninety-five miles away.

Dr J. Acheson was commissioned by the British government to undertake a report on the health of the inhabitants of St. Kilda on two separate occasions, September 1884 and October 1885. The above quote is taken from Dr Acheson’s report. A second report was also commissioned.  This report was undertaken by Malcolm McNeill, an Inspecting Officer of the Board of Supervision.  McNeill’s paper was subsequently issued as a Parliamentary Paper. The two reports provide the historian with a fascinating insight into life on St. Kilda in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

At the time the reports were written, fifty-three adults and twenty children under the age of fourteen lived there.  Infant mortality at this time was common, with many newborns not surviving beyond their first month of life. This was due to an outbreak of infantile tetanus, known as the ‘eight day sickness’. Between 1884 and 1886 Ann McKinlay was the resident nurse and did much to try to prevent the tragedy of infantile tetanus.  Dr Acheson observed that the islanders suffered from a number of common health problems: rheumatism, dyspepsia; anaemia; palpitations and chronic bronchitis.  Rheumatism was brought about by the wet climate, going barefoot and only wearing flannels.  Between August 1727 and May 1728 an outbreak of smallpox devastated Hirta’s community. It is believed that a man from St. Kilda had been visiting the Isle of Harris, caught the disease and died. The following year one of his friends brought the man’s clothing back to Hirta thus infecting and killing ninety-four people. The population shrank to four adults and twenty-six children.

In the 1880s, the island had eighteen one storey high houses.  Each house had a zinc roof, glass windows, hearth and chimney, clay floors and scanty furniture.  The conditions were pretty rough and interiors quite dirty by Victorian standards.  There were no indoor toilets or other conveniences.  The houses were far from cramped though with on average four or five people living in each dwelling.  Cats and dogs were kept in the house and cattle kept in the old thatched houses.  Dr Acheson recommended in his report that quicklime be provided to the islanders in order that they may be able to whitewash the interiors of their homes. Water came from springs at the base of the hill, close to the houses and by all accounts was of pretty good quality.

Fuel was peaty turf that had been dug from the hillside during the summer months.  The peat would be stored in small stacks, surrounded by a thick, stone wall. These dome-shaped, stone constructions were called “cleitean“. The interiors of the homesteads during winter would fill with thick, acrid smoke from the burning peat.  Unfortunately, the quality of peat on St. Kilda was poor, it burned badly and smouldered heavily due to it containing a large proportion of clay and pebbles.

St. Kildans did not have a varied diet and a number of children suffered from scurvy due to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Everyday diet consisted of: Oatmeal in the form of porridge and cakes; salted sea-fowl (fulmar and solan goose); milk and seabirds’ eggs (in summer); salted mutton (in winter); tea; potatoes; sugar and flour, when available.  Tobacco and spirits were indulged in on a fairly regular basis too.  Malcolm McNeill commented in his 1885 report that:

A large part of the food of the inhabitants consists of the eggs of sea-fowl during the spring and early summer, and the carcasses of the fulmar and solan goose, salted for winter use.  I have ascertained that a single salted fulmar furnishes a full meal for an adult…Each family cures the carcasses from three to six wedders;…they have, besides, the milk of eighteen cows, their potatoes, and a large store of tea, sugar, and tobacco presented to them by tourists…. A large sum of money, said to average not less than £20 a family, is known to be hoarded in the island.

Tourism became an important source of income and supplies to the St. Kildans in the nineteenth century.  The first tourist ship, Vulcan, visited the island in 1838 and brought with it furniture for the houses. On average two hundred people visited the settlement every year. The canny islanders made a per head charge of five shillings which generated an annual income of £50 for the community coffers.  In addition the islanders sold to the tourists: woven cloth, eggs of sea birds and bird skins.

Also residing on the island in 1885 was a schoolmaster, a Minister and a nurse. The first teacher, Mr Campbell, arrived on St. Kilda in 1883, sponsored by the Ladies Society of the Free Church. The first official school classes were held in the Factor’s House from 1884. In 1898 a new designated schoolroom was built with help from Dunvegan craftsmen brought over from the mainland.

St. Kildan’s children on the one hand enjoyed relative freedom, with opportunities to roam the wild and rugged landscape.  However, there were many restrictions placed on their seemingly carefree upbringing.  The children were not allowed to sing songs, play games or musical instruments and whistling was forbidden. These restrictions were as a result of religious teachings laid down by the Free Church of Scotland, to which St. Kildans had declared their adherence to in 1846.

St. Kilda was back in the news again earlier this year.  The BBC reported on 9th February that a horror/gothic romance, School of the Damned by John Farman, Jim Devlin and Dave Alexander (published by Glasgow-based BlackHearted Press), may soon be turned into a feature film.  The comic book story begins in the month of the island’s evacuation, August 1930.  This historical fact is given a fictional twist, the evacuation in School of the Damned has occurred because of an infestation of vampires.  Mandragora Productions and Invictus Films have taken out a live action film option on the comic book story.  Watch this space!

St. Kilda has its own excellent website which is packed full of interesting information about its history and current day activities. CLICK HERE.

I have also found a couple of early film reels showing what life was like on St. Kilda in the early part of the twentieth century:

  • The Island of St. Kilda (1908) – British Pathe silent gem and rare example of an early travelogue. CLICK HERE.
  • ST. KILDA – BRITAIN’S LONELIEST ISLE (1923 & 1928)- an eighteen minute film from the Scottish Screen Archive. The film, although originally silent, has had a later music soundtrack added by David Allison.  It shows a voyage from Glasgow to St. Kilda and scenes of the Western Isles shot in May 1923.  Also included is later footage, c.1928, showing the life and inhabitants of St. Kilda.  CLICK HERE.

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