Introduction Over 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides lie the spectacular and isolated islands of St Kilda, Scotland's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. St Kilda captures the imagination of most visitors to the Outer Hebrides, whether they actually get there or just dream about romantic voyages to mysterious lands across perilous seas. The largest of the islands, Hirta, was the remotest community in Britain, if not Europe, until 1930, when the remaining 36 Gaelic-speaking inhabitants were evacuated at their own request, in one of the most poignant episodes of Scottish history.
In 1957 the islands become the property of the National Trust for Scotland, who in turn leased them to the Nature Conservancy (the forerunner of Scottish Natural Heritage) as a National Nature Reserve. St Kilda is the most important seabird breeding station in northwest Europe. The islands are home to the largest colony of gannets in the world, the largest colony of fulmars in Britain, and one the largest colonies of puffins in Scotland. These huge numbers of seabirds were vital to the islanders' survival. Their eggs provided food in the summer, and gannets and fulmers were caught each season to be plucked, dried and stored for the winter. Their feathers and oil were kept for export to generate income, whilst their bones were shaped into useful tools and their skins into shoes.
Today Hirta is partly occupied by the army as a radar-tracking station for the rocket range on South Uist and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. For more information, contact Scottish Natural Heritage, 135 Stilligarry, South Uist, HS8 5RS, Tel. 01870-620238. For details of tours, ask at one of the main tourist information centres in the Outer Hebrides.
The story of the end of St Kilda as an inhabited island...
Friday 29th August 1930 was the end of the life of St Kilda as it had been for centuries. For a least 1,000 years the inhabitants of this remote group of islands had been tenants of the Macleods of Dunvegan on Skye. In earlier days the trip from Skye, undertaken in longboats, would require 16 hours of rigorous rowing and sailing. Even now, the trip to St Kilda is no easy matter.
St Kilda consists of several islands. Hirta, the main habitable island, is now a permanent home only to the largest colony of fulmars in Britain. Across a narrow channel lies Dun. Nearby Boreray is home to the world's largest colony of gannets. Soay virtually completes the group. There are several dramatic 'stacs' rising sheer from the Atlantic Ocean. At 430 m, the sea cliffs at Conachair are the highest in the British Isles.
Until 1930 the islanders had been supported by the mainland by the provision of a nurse and a post office. But the Scottish Office decided that their subsidy of the islands was no longer economic. This meant that life for the residents without those facilities would be untenable. Now owned by the National trust for Scotland, St Kilda is a National Nature reserve. Each year, during the brief summer months when travel to the islands is possible, teams of volunteers work on Hirta, maintaining what remains of the abandoned houses, studying the wildlife and glorying in the peace and isolation of the place.
But in 1930, to the younger of the 36 residents, including a man with nine children, evacuation was an attractive prospect. There would be better schooling for the children, and better health care. Although many had never seen a tree, a new life in forestry appealed. The more elderly residents, most of whom had never left the island and who could not speak English, must have viewed the drastic change with alarm. But the younger majority view prevailed and evacuation was planned. There were five hundred Soay sheep to be moved first. Their coats of fine wool were not sheared but plucked by the inhabitants with just the help of a penknife. The resultant locally woven tweed, either shipped ashore or sold to rare visitors, had provided the inhabitants' only contact with actual money. No taxes on income or on anything else were paid. Their internal economy took the form of barter. The plentiful supply of gannets, when dried, provided winter food. No inhabitant had ever fought in any war. Their distance and isolation earned them no consideration by the rest of Scotland.
Despite protestations by The Canine Defence League, all dogs were destroyed. Just two were put down by injections of hydrocyanic acid. The rest, at the islanders' insistence, had stones tied around their necks and were hurled from the jetty. Small boats, holding only a dozen or so sheep, were used to ferry them out to the SS Dunara Castle. Ten cows with four calves were also evacuated. Then HMS Harebell, of the Fishery Protection Service, came on the final day to take the islanders to the mainland. The Under Secretary of State for Scotland imposed a ban on photography, thus ensuring the people of St Kilda privacy during the evacuation. It was not possible to house all of the inhabitants in Argyll, as had been hoped, so the community was split, their communal lives coming to an end. The history of the island has been documented in a number of scholarly works, including The Life and Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel, and Island on the Edge of the World (Google Books), by Charles Maclean.
The biggest problem apart from accessibility is cost, although it is definitely possible if you're prepared to break the bank. Island Cruising in Uig, on Lewis (Tel. 01851-672381, Fax. 672212) arranges boat trips to St Kilda from April to October starting from about £300 (4-day all-inclusive). The tour comprises the journey to and from St Kilda and a landing on Hirta with a visit to the museum, the old village and a wider exploration of the island including a climb up to the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles at Conachair (430 m).