The small archipelago of St Kilda consists of five islands (Hirta, Boreray, Soay, Dun and Levenish) situated 40 miles west of the Hebrides. The sheer cliffs rise 1300 feet from the water and are the highest seacliffs in the UK. The name may not refer to a saint but rather be a corruption of the Norse word skilder, shields, or alternatively of the name of the largest island, Hirta.
The group has been inhabited continually since prehistoric times, with the principal settlement on Hirta, and was visited in 1697 by Martin Martin who recorded the self-sufficient way of life then. The community became known for its tradition of harvesting seabirds for food, oil and feathers, and for the St Kilda Parliament, a daily meeting of the men of the village to discuss the day’s business. Sheep were naturally a crucial element in the economy and rent to the Macleod landlords was paid annually in kind.
A ‘mail boat’ was used to deliver messages to the mainland or other islands – sometimes desperate ones asking for assistance when food was short. The mail boat was a small wooden box attached to an inflated sheep’s bladder, cast into the water to be taken (usually north-east) by the current, in the hope that it would eventually reach the mainland.
See also the imprisonment of Lady Grange.
From the middle of the nineteenth century, illness, food shortages and contact with the wider world began to impact on the sustainability of the community. After years of decline and emigration, the remaining 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated to the mainland in 1930. Details of the island’s last households can be found on the ScotlandsPeople website, A digitisation of the St Kilda school logbook covering the years 1900-1930 can be downloaded via the Tasglann nan Eilean website.
St Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland (which maintains a detailed website on the islands) and is a dual World Heritage Site, recognised for both its cultural and its natural significance. Further historical information can be found on the website of the National Records of Scotland.
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