St Kilda is Britain’s most isolated archipelago. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural features and unique breed of sheep. But St Kilda has a long, dark history before it was abandoned in 1930. Residents knew nothing of the world, ate multiple birds a day, and struggled to survive. Keep reading to learn about the disturbing history behind these abandoned islands.
The Most Remote Islands In Britain
St Kilda, Scotland, is an archipelago that contains the most isolated and desolate islands in Britain. It has jagged cliffsides, strong winds, and violent currents, making it almost impossible to travel to. It’s also abandoned; but it didn’t used to be.
St Kilda once had residents before it became abandoned in 1930. In fact, people had been living on the island for at least 200 years beforehand. So what happened? It was a combination of many things, and few former residents are alive to tell the tale.
It’s Almost Impossible To Get To
St Kilda is 100 miles off the shore of Scotland and 40 miles away from the nearest land, North Uist. Today, people have to sail for two and a half hours to get there. In the past, sailors took a lot longer to get to Hirta, the largest island in the archipelago.
The weather at St Kilda was unpredictable. Wild winds and high waves could toss sailors into rocks. Even today, trips to St Kilda often get canceled due to poor weather. Perhaps this is why people did not visit the island for centuries.
Ancient People Might Have Been There In The Iron Age
There is evidence that ancient people might have inhabited St Kilda. In 2011, archaeologists found evidence of people on Hirta dating back 2,000 years ago. The research team discovered three settlement mounds, primitive tools, and pottery pieces from the Iron and Bronze Ages.
At the time, the island would have been closer to other land due to continental drift. That might explain why archaeologists found evidence of ancient farming, whereas farming there nowadays is twice as difficult. Surveyor Ian Parker said, “This new discovery shows that a farming community actually lived on the island, perhaps as long ago as the prehistoric period.”
After That, People Didn’t Arrive For Hundreds Of Years
The first written record of St Kilda came from 1202. In it, the author claims that Vikings visited the archipelago in the 900s. Early reports claim that people found Viking brooches, Danish coins, and iron swords there. They even provided illustrations, but the actual objects have yet to be found.
Some authors called the largest island “Hirtir,” while 14th-century chronicler John of Fordun called it “the isle of Irte.” It is unclear when people began inhabiting the island. Based on reports, it seems to be somewhere around the 14th century.
Surprisingly, St Kilda Is Not A Catholic Saint
Historians have long debated where the name St Kilda came from. Kilda is not a saint in any religion. The name first appeared on a 1666 Dutch map. Perhaps it was derived from the Old Norse phrase sunt kelda, which means “sweet wellwater.”
Others claim that it was the Norse name for spring on Hirta, called Childa. Perhaps cartographers mistook that name for a saint. We know that the island Hirta was named first. As a result, people might have pronounced Hirta similarly to Kilda, some historians suggest. Although there are many theories, we might never know how the name was created.
Families Have Lived There Since The 1500s
We know for a fact that people lived on St Kilda by the 16th century. In 1547, clergyman Donald Munro visited the island and reported on it. At the time, St Kilda was run by the steward MacLeods of Harris, part of the Scottish Clan McLeods.
Munro wrote that the island featured “simple poor people,” who had not “learnt any religion”–which in this case, meant Christianity. He also claimed that the steward sailed there once a year around the summer solstice. According to Munro, he visited to baptize the children.
St Kilda Got Popular After Someone Raided It
During the 17th century, St Kilda’s reputation would become more popular. In 1615, Coll MacDonald of Colonsay sailed to Hirta to raid it. He stole 30 sheep and a large quantity of barley. Believe it or not, this event gave St Kilda a reputation for abundance.
When Scottish writer Martin Martin visited Hirta in 1697, the population was at its peak. Around 180 people lived on St Kilda. But after the 17th century, the population would continuously decline, rarely reaching over 100 residents at a time.
Isolation Defined Their Way Of Life
Isolation defined everyday life for the residents of St Kilda. They rarely knew about the events on the mainland. Because of the vicious storms in autumn and winter, traveling there by open boat was rarely done.
That said, life on the island was also fruitful and satisfying. Author Martin, who joined a crew of 60, wrote that he “took them periodically to St Kilda to enjoy the nourishing and plentiful, if primitive, fare of the island, and so be restored to their wonted health and strength.”
Islanders Ate Dozens Of Birds Every Day
Because of its harsh weather and tough soil, residents of St Kilda could not farm much. They ended up adjusting their diet to the climate. Dr Alison Rosie, a member of the Registrar of the National Register of Archives for Scotland, said that the residents ate a “huge number of eggs and sea birds.”
Although islanders could not grow fruits and vegetables, they had almost limitless access to seabirds. In the 18th century, every resident consumed 18 seabirds and 37 eggs daily! Many even traded birds as a substitute for currency.
In The 18th Century, Plagues Struck
Life was relatively peaceful for the islanders until the early 18th century. Visitors and traders brought cholera and smallpox on their boats. Since vaccines had not been invented yet, the loss of life was devastating.
By 1727, most of the residents had passed away. Few men were available to man the boats, so MacLeod of Harris sent new families to replace them. By 1758, the population rose to 88 people, and at the end of the century, it neared 100. This is where the population would remain until the mid-19th century.
The Residents Might Have Been Druids
There is evidence that St Kilda’s residents were Druids, even in the 16th century. Druidic altars have been found on the island. Although little is known about ancient Druids, we know that they date back to at least the 4th century.
Historians are not sure when Christianity came to St Kilda, but the two religions co-mingled there for a while. One stone cross on the island possibly dates back to the 7th century, but ministers from the Church of Scotland did not permanently settle on the island until the 19th century.
Christianity Finally Took Root With A Kind Reverand
For centuries, Christian missionaries struggled to root the religion in St Kilda. Missionary Alexander Buchan tried to enact organized religion there in 1705, but it did not stick. That is, until Reverend John MacDonald, the “Apostle of the North”, visited the island in 1822.
Although MacDonald was secretly appalled by the residents’ lack of religious knowledge, he zealously took charge. He gave 13 long sermons in 11 days. For eight years, he traveled back and forth from the mainland to St Kilda, raising funds for the islanders. The inhabitants loved him.
Life And Education Finally Improved
After MacDonald left for the last time, his successor Reverend Neil Mackenzie arrived at St Kilda on July 3, 1830. Mackenzie was a minister for the Church of Scotland, and he strived to improve the living conditions on St. Kilda.
Mackenzie reorganized the island’s agriculture and built a village around it. He helped the islanders build a church, manse, and school. With the help of the Gaelic School Society, he boosted the island’s literacy by offering children formal education and Sunday school. Things seemed to be going well…until the next Reverend.
St Kilda Never Recovered When Half The Population Left
In 1851, several inhabitants of St Kilda decided that they had had enough. Thirty-six residents boarded a large ship, called the Priscilla, and emigrated to Australia. At the time, that was nearly half of St Kilda’s population.
The reasons for this exodus are largely unknown, but scholars believe that it had to do with the Disruption of 1843, which created a split in the Scottish church. One of the new churches, the Free Church of Scotland, sent 450 missionaries to convert people. They made life on Kilda much worse.
Then, Life Suddenly Went Downhill
As if the population split wasn’t bad enough, the islanders also struggled with a strict, brutal religious culture. In 1865, Reverend John Mackay introduced a new wave of religion from the Free Church. In other words, he placed an uncommon emphasis on religious living.
Islanders could not look right or left in church, and anyone who made noise faced dire punishments. Children were forbidden from playing and had to carry a Bible everywhere. No midwifery was allowed. These are just a few of the harsh rules imposed while Mackay stayed on the island for 24 years.
Tourists Came…And Brought Diseases
In the 19th century, St Kilda’s tourism skyrocketed. The tourists called them “curiosities” and were fascinated with the isolated life. Many visitors brought supplies like tweed in exchange for money and birds’ eggs.
Unfortunately, tourism came with several unknown diseases (at the time). One was tetanus infantum, a type of tetanus that affects newborns. By the late 19th century, St Kilda’s infant mortality rate rose to 80%. Another illness, called the cnatan na gall or “boat-cough,” struck residents of all ages and became a hinderance to everyday life.
By The Early 1900s, Things Were Finally Looking Up
Fortunately, life improved on St Kilda in the early 20th century. The strict Reverends left, and the Scottish church brought more education to the island. Children now learned English and their native language, Gaelic.
Midwifery, which was originally outlawed, got reinstated and reduced the rates of infant tetanus. Fishing vessels called trawlers routinely visited St Kilda, selling fish and increasing trade profits. Despite a flu outbreak in 1913, the islanders lived relatively well off. But nobody expected World War I to start the next year.
Then World War I Hit
When World War I began, the Royal Navy established military stations on Hirta. These included a signal station, which was the first time in history that St Kilda had direct contact with the mainland. One battle occurred with a German submarine, but nobody got hurt.
Journalist Kirsty Smyth wrote, “Ironically, things improved with the war, which brought a naval detachment and regular deliveries of mail and food from naval supply vessels….Able bodied young islanders left for a better life, resulting in a breakdown of the island economy.”
After The War, The Islanders Greatly Suffered
Although life improved during World War I, it declined afterward. Military support left the island, so residents had to re-adjust to the harsh weather and scarce food. Because much of the population got drafted for the War, the population fell.
Many who left for War never returned to St Kilda. They found a better life on the mainland, and many visited to take their families with them. By 1928, the population of St Kilda dropped from 73 people to 37. Four of the men passed away from influenza in 1926.
Life Became Harder And Harder With A Blight
Because fewer people lived on St Kilda, their economy and food sources were suffering. To make matters worse, their crops began dying. Pollutants on the island caused both seabirds and livestock to die.
Research from the University of Aberdeen showed that there was contamination in the soil, resulting in a blight. But at the time, islanders did not know that. They only understood that their crops and livestock were dying, and life was already hard enough with the rough sea and petulant weather. They were running out of options.
The Last Straw
The last straw occurred in January 1930. A young woman, Mary Gillies, fell ill with appendicitis. With few resources to treat her, the residents sent Gillies to a hospital in the Scottish mainland. Appendicitis is time-sensitive and can be fatal.
Oddly, it was later revealed that Mary Gillies did not have appendicitis; she had pneumonia. But that did not change her fate. She died in the mainland hospital. Because of this, the residents realized that living on an isolated island is dangerous. They gathered in their small parliament and collectively decided to evacuate.
Abandoning St Kilda
On August 23, 1930, the residents of St Kilda abandoned the island. All of the cattle and sheep were evacuated the day before. A tourist boat called Dunara Castle brought them to the mainland and sold them. Meanwhile, the ship Harebell docked to pick up the residents. Thirty-six islanders sailed to Morvern, Scotland, never to return.
In 1931, the island’s owner, Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod, sold it to Lord Dumfries, the 5th Marquess of Bute. For the next 26 years, nobody lived on the island, except for the occasional tourist on summer vacation.
Outsiders Became Obsessed With St Kilda
Writer Lawrence Durrell claimed that St Kilda caused “islomania,” or more specifically, “Kildamania.” Outsiders became obsessed with St Kilda, mainly because of its isolation and unique lifestyle that developed outside of the Scottish mainland. People have made novels, poems, and songs about it.
When director Michael Powell read about the evacuation, he carried the newspaper clipping with him for six years. His debut film, The Edge of the World, was based on the St Kilda story. His movie led to a successful career and an annual St Kilda Day, set on the anniversary of the evacuation.
Although People Love The Island, Few Go There
Although many artists, historians, and explorers get “Kildamania,” few actually go there. The 80 miles of ocean between Scotland and St Kilda is dangerous and unpredictable. Even Powell didn’t film on the island; he shot it on Foula in the Orkneys.
There are boat rides to St Kilda, mainly in Leverburgh, Benbecula, and Stornoway. But these trips often get canceled due to harsh weather. When author Martin Martin sailed there in 1697, he said that the trip was “full of danger.” Soft breezes would suddenly transform into storms, and the wind kept pushing the boat in the opposite direction.
A Former Resident Shed Light On St Kilda Life
In 2009, The Guardian interviewed one of the surviving residents from St Kilda. Norman John Gillies was the son of Mary Gillies, the woman who was rushed to the mainland and died from pneumonia. Although he was five years old during the evacuation, he remembered it vividly.
“I remember several of the women at the rear of the boat waving to the island until it was out of sight,” he recalled. “I can see that as plain as anything. It was a hard life, as you can see.”
Livestock Would Get Blown Off Cliffs
Although residents of St Kilda mostly ate birds, they also raised livestock, mainly cattle and sheep. According to writer Samuel Johnson, the islanders turned sheep milk “into small cheeses.” At times, the wind was so strong that it blew sheep and cattle off of cliffs.
Along with livestock, the residents also farmed food such as potatoes and barley. But the sea water would occasionally contaminate their produce. Catching island birds, like gannet and fulmar, was much easier than farming or even raising livestock. They used the feathers and bones for tools.
Fishing Was Life-Threatening
According to Gillies, fishing on St Kilda was incredibly dangerous. Many fishermen were tossed overboard from the harsh waves, which would often rise out of nowhere. Some ignored fish entirely and went after puffins with fowling rods.
Two of Gillies’s uncles, Norman and John (whom he was named after) died while fishing. They got thrown into the water and drowned just a few hundred yards from the shore. “They never did find them,” Gillies told The Guardian. If fishing was that difficult, imagine how hard it could be to leave and enter the island.
They Tried To Communicate Through The “St Kilda Mailboat”
Even in the late 1800s, the residents of St Kilda could not communicate with the mainland unless they lit a giant bonfire. However, islanders soon came up with an idea. They made a tiny boat called the “St Kilda mailboat.”
The islanders built a tiny boat, attached a sheepskin bladder, and put a message in a bottle inside. They then launched the boat and prayed for it to reach the Scottish mainland. But years later, two-thirds of their boats ended up on the west Scottish coast or as far north as Norway.
St Kilda Developed A Unique Breed Of Sheep
Because St Kilda is so isolated, it developed a unique breed of sheep. Soay sheep descended from the ancient wild sheep on Soay, an island the archipelago. The island’s name, based off of the Old Norse Seyðoy, means “Island of Sheep.”
Residents brought the Soay sheep over to Hirta and domesticated them. Today, Soay sheep still live on St Kilda, and they are now feral. Although they are biologically similar to Mediterranean and Central Asian sheep, you will not find this breed anywhere else in the world.
Despite The Harsh Life, The People Were Peaceful
Although the residents of St Kilda struggled to survive, they got along with each other. Throughout the village’s 400-year-long history, no serious crime had ever been reported. Martin wrote that the residents appeared “happier than the generality of mankind.”
Part of this had to do with the St Kilda Parliament. Every day, the islanders would meet there and divvy tasks. There was no leader; anyone could speak. If somebody became ill, their neighbors would help. Although some fights broke out, the islanders mostly got along and enjoyed life there while it lasted.