St Kilda

The island of St Kilda is known for its population being removed in the 20th century, but an article in Current Archaeology provides some fascinating information on it, starting with the fact that it is not an island but an archipelago made up of Hirta, Boreray, Soay and Dunn, plus 3 sea stacks that are home to protected sea bird colonies.

Thousands of years of permanent human colonisation ended when 36 people left in 1930, allegedly due to the colony being no longer sustainable, along with other islands in the Outer Hebrides. But since 1957 Hirta has had a sizeable military base, supplied by helicopter.

So, why is this place important? In 1985 it was nominated as a World Heritage site, being home to the largest seabird colonies in northern Europe, along with other wildlife. In 2005 it was recognised by the new ‘cultural landscape, a mixture of natural and manmade works.  In 2006, 50 years after the Marquis of Bute bequeathed the region to the National trust for Scotland, a detailed mapping project has been carried out by Angela Gannon and George Geddes. One of the aspects they have concentrated on is the notion that it was so isolated the inhabitants so insular, but all communities need to be connected with the wider world i order to survive.

They have found that almost 4,000 years BC woodland was declining and an increase in cereal type pollen from around 3100 BC. They have also found flint implements, even though the stone is not native to the islands. Christian hermits were drawn to the islands in search of solitude, and chapels to St Columba and St Brendon were recorded in the 1690s. Vikings made the islands part of their world until they were ceded to the Scots in 1266, and some place names reflect this. It is possible that St Kilda is Norse, possibly from sunt kelda, sweet well water from the healing springs

Nineteenth century agricultural improvements led to better houses for the tenants, especially after a hurricane that caused much damage in 1860. A telegraph station was sponsored by the Daily Mirror in  1913 which was used in World War I and in WWII the region watched for German ships and U-boats.

But after the islanders were moved to the mainland, some returned by steamer every spring, returning to their lifestyle of catching birds, harvesting eggs and weaving wool for Harris tweed. It was only when the steamer service was ended by WWII that these visits  ended, and the residents became military and scientific archaeologists and conservationists.

The islands seem to have been early source for the ‘message in a bottle’. This is from Wikipedia:

Even in the late 19th century, the islanders could communicate with the rest of the world only by lighting a bonfire on the summit of Conachair and hoping a passing ship might see it, or by using the “St Kilda mailboat”. This was the invention of John Sands, who visited in 1877. During his stay, a shipwreck left nine Austrian sailors marooned there, and by February supplies were running low. Sands attached a message to a lifebuoy salvaged from the Peti Dubrovacki and threw it into the sea.[57] Nine days later it was picked up in Birsay, Orkney, and a rescue was arranged. The St Kildans, building on this idea, would fashion a piece of wood into the shape of a boat, attach it to a bladder made of sheepskin, and place in it a small bottle or tin containing a message. Launched when the wind came from the north-west, two-thirds of the messages were later found on the west coast of Scotland or, less conveniently, in Norway.

It is a mystery to me how St Kilda became the name for a bayside resort in inner Melbourne, Australia. But given that the island had been owned by the fantastically rich Earl of Bute who was responsible for much of the coal in South Wales, t may have been a holiday destination. Though I doubt if they had the fantastic cakes and icecreams of the Melbourne namesake.



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