St Kilda’s Diet

St Kilda is one of the most isolated places in the British Isles, an archipelago in the Outer Hebrides whose final human inhabitants left in 1930. It is now home to 600,000 nesting birds each year. This is from the i paper of 29 December:

A 250-year-old census has revealed that islanders on St Kilda… ate more than 1,600 seabirds every day. The document is the earliest recorded list of the island’s population and was discovered by archivists among a hoard of clan papers. the census lists 90 people living on the main island of Hirta on 15 June, 1764. Further light is shed on the islanders’ diet, with each resident said to eat “36 wild fowls eggs and 18 fowls” daily – an island wide total of 3,240 eggs and 1,620 birds every day.

The census also includes the ancestors of the final 5 families to be evacuated from the archipelago in 1930. Until now, the oldest known record of the population dated from 1822. The census was discovered among the papers of Clan Maclachlan during cataloguing by the National Register of Archives for Scotland. the archipelago is he largest seabird colony in the North-east Atlantic.

I am intrigued by this, as such figures were highly seasonal. The birds came there to breed, so eggs were only available for a short time, so what do these figures actually mean? Are they the numbers collected, with some stored – the birds smoked, the eggs coated in oil – to provide food in the winter when the seas were too rough to fish and the birds were long gone? Were some birds and eggs exported to provide what the islanders could not obtain themselves such as wheat, pottery?

Such huge numbers also flag up the dangers of their lives. Collecting eggs and birds involved scaling dangerous wind blown cliffs, often reached by small boats in rough seas, so such large numbers represent a lot of very hard work and perhaps a lot of drownings and broken bones for the men.

It’s an intriguing article, but seems to raise many questions.

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