The islands at the end of the world

About ten years ago, I started drafting my “bucket list”. A top item was to visit the Rosa Parks museum in wonderful Montgomery, Alabama, which I did a few years ago. Up there with Rosa was St Kilda. I started to read about these magical islands and their enchanting history of human habitation by the extraordinary St Kildans. The more I read, the more I became determined to pay a visit to that remote archipelago, some 110 miles off the coast of the Scottish mainland.

They were continuously inhabited by self-reliant islanders for about two millennia from the Bronze Age until the evacuation of the remaining 36 in 1930. The sturdy and resourceful islanders were tenants of various Scottish aristocrats in more recent history. They lived in the one village settlement and survived on sea birds, plucked from the cliffs by skill and daring, plus sheep meat and a small variety of vegetables and arable crops.

The sense of community was very strong. They had their own daily “Parliament” where the men allocated work and ensured weaker residents were looked after. They survived many long winters when force ten gales batter the islands for weeks on end. (Indeed there were reports of temporary deafness brought on by the continuous storms).

But in the end the modern world enticed many young St Kildans to seek their fortunes elsewhere, depleting population numbers to unsustainably low levels. After a fallow period following the evacuation, since 1957 the Ministry of Defence has had a (latterly) rocket monitoring base on the main island, Hirta, which was refurbished recently at a cost of a reputed £14 million. Nowadays the rota of MOD staff on Hirta is supplemented by a small number of rangers and scientific researchers.

After about five years of planning and failed attempts to visit St Kilda, I finally made it to the islands last month. Bear in mind that the trip out takes at least three hours in a boat and is highly “weather dependent”. In the event I was extremely lucky – some might say “highly jammy”. I managed to get out (without sea sickness) to St Kilda for my four planned days in, at times, excellent weather and enjoy at least two of those days in reasonable seclusion.

The islands did not disappoint. They are absolutely magical. Firstly the natural landscape is just stunning. Add to that the wild birds and sheep, plus the great work of the National Trust for Scotland in restoring some of the buildings, providing a museum and rangers plus the great company of their rangers and the folks from the Soay sheep project and our fellow campers.  It was a great visiting experience.

The things that struck me the most were the Cleits or Cleitan. They are large stone walled storage huts or bothies. They were used by the St Kildans to store and dry a wide variety of items from bird meat and eggs to hay, peat and wool. I had seen them in photos but you have to go to St Kilda to appreciate their breathtaking widespread numbers. They are just everywhere – including three quarters of the way up high hills. They are supplemented by a vast dry-store wall around the main village and are testament to the toughness and community endeavour of the St Kildans. When you add in the multitudes of sea birds to the cleits, it is easy to understand why St Kilda has a double world heritage site rating.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Brad Barrows 10th Jun '22 - 4:47pm

    Interesting article though the title itself is worthy of comment. While there is no doubt that St Kilda, today, does appear ‘at the end of the world’, it would not been so isolated 1500 years ago when roads were non-existent and sea travel was the only real way to trade and communicate over distance. The decision of St Columba to establish Celtic Christianity in Scotland from a base in Iona may seem strange when looking at a map of the country as it appears a particularly remote location, but it was close to the main transport routes when you think of the reliance on sea travel at the time. I have visited Iona…perhaps one day I will add St Kilda to the list.

  • Thank you Brad. Excellent point. I remember when visiting the monastery remains on an island in the middle of Strangford Lough – the guide said that although it looks remote and deserted today, in bygone days Strangford Lough was like the M4 nowadays!

  • They weren’t always remote, our Bronze Age and Neolithic ancestors used the sea in preference to land travel often. They were however not well served by the ‘modern’ society that decided to claim the islands and people. They also had some problems arising from relative isolation (particularly birthing techniques). However by the early 20c the folk were depleted by ‘emigration’ and by influenza. It says it all that the last of the people were taken from a tree free environment to work in forestry in the mainland. So beautiful yes, but tragic.

  • rural liberal 14th Jun '22 - 11:43am

    of course, Michael Powell’s excellent 1937 film about the evacuation was called The Edge of the World – so I wondered if the title was an homage to that?

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