Farewell to the edge of the world


EARLY in the morning of August 29, 1930, 92 years ago tomorrow, a way of life came to an end after at least 2,000 years.

The last 36 residents of St Kilda, an isolated group of granite islands 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland sometimes called ‘the edge of the world’, were evacuated to the mainland at their own request because they feared they could not survive another winter.

The 13 men, ten women and 13 children (eight girls, five boys) occupied ten neighbouring cottages on the main island of Hirta. This is a contemporary account of their departure on the Fishery Protection vessel Harebell:

‘The morning of the evacuation promised a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7am boarded the Harebell. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the St Kildans gave way to tears.’

St Kilda is a group of four islands with towering sheer cliffs at almost every point: Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray (there isn’t one called St Kilda, and there is no such saint – the name may have come from a mis-spelling on an old chart).

The first settlers on Hirta, the only island to be inhabited, seem to have been Norse people and later ones were Gaelic-speaking Scots, but I can’t find out much about them, how they happened on the remote, forbidding outcrops in the stormy North Atlantic or why on earth they thought it would be a good idea to settle there.

It was far from a romantic existence. The climate is what you could only call awful, being cold (July average 53 deg F) wet (55in per year and high humidity) and windy (gales for 75 days a year peaking at around 144mph), and the islands are cut off by rough seas for nine months out of 12.

The population, never much above 200, was ravaged by leprosy in 1684, smallpox in 1727 and influenza in 1912 and 1926 (carried by rare visiting ships, which also brought cholera). As if things were not bad enough, until the late 19th century tetanus killed at least two-thirds of newborn babies. Eventually it was realised that the ‘eight-day sickness’ was caused by lack of hygiene concerning the umbilical cord, and with better practice the death rate fell dramatically.

Until the 20th century, the islanders could communicate with the rest of the world only by lighting a bonfire on the highest point which would, weather permitting, be visible to those on the isles of Harris and the Uists, by waving sheets at passing fishing boats, or by using the ‘St Kilda mailboat’ – a piece of wood carved into the shape of a boat containing a small bottle or tin in which a message was placed. A sheep’s bladder made a sail. Launched into the sea when the wind came from the north-west, with luck it would wash up on the west coast of Scotland or in Norway.

St Kilda is an important breeding ground for gannets, fulmars and puffins, and the islanders’ main source of food came from collecting nesting birds and their eggs. This was a hair-raising enterprise carried out by men who lowered themselves on ropes down the sea cliffs which reach 1,400ft, the highest in Britain. You can read a wonderful account of fulmar hunting in 1906 by a woman named Zillah Goudie here.

Fulmars squirt a vile-smelling oil over predators so the trick was to catch them before they had a chance to do it; the oil was used for lighting. The birds were eaten fresh or dried in small stone stores called cleits, unique to St Kilda, where there are 1,430.

The islanders farmed cattle and sheep, making tweed from the wool which was exchanged for supplies of oatmeal, and grew some barley and potatoes. The sea is too rough and inaccessible to permit much fishing. In fact the islanders had remarkably little contact with the sea, and none of them could swim.

A visitor in 1799 noted that ‘the air is infected by a stench almost insupportable – a compound of rotten fish, filth of all sorts and stinking seafowl’.

The beginning of the end came when contact with the outside world increased in the 19th century. Tourists regaled the islanders with stories of a better, easier life on the mainland or in Australia or Canada. In 1851, 36 islanders emigrated to Australia, a loss from which the community never fully recovered. With fewer able-bodied inhabitants to do the daily labour, life for those who stayed became harder.

During the First World War the Royal Navy established a radio station on Hirta to convey news of enemy ship movements. This enabled the islanders for the first time to make contact with the mainland and receive regular mail and supplies. On May 15, 1918, a German U-boat surfaced in Village Bay. The commander used a loudhailer to warn the islanders to leave their houses before an hour-long shell bombardment destroyed the radio station, the church and manse, two cottages, a storehouse and two boats. The death toll was one lamb, the cattle having stampeded to the other side of the island. Later that year, just in time for the Armistice, an impressive deterrent was installed – a solitary mounted gun which was greased and polished by the postmaster every month. It was never fired.

When the 16 Naval personnel left at the end of the war there were no more food and mail deliveries, and the departed servicemen’s tales of the exciting life on the mainland prompted a number of young men to leave. Between 1919 and 1920 the population dropped by a quarter, increasing the remaining islanders’ sense of isolation. Towards the end of the 1920s, the crops failed several times. (This is now thought to be because of the islanders’ practice of burying seabird corpses which eventually resulted in a build-up of contaminants such as lead, zinc and arsenic in the soil.)

In the autumn of 1929 a passing fisherman found the population bleeding and itching with blisters brought on by eczema. During the winter of 1929-30 the islanders nearly starved to death. In the spring the general atmosphere of resignation was such that only one man bothered to sow crops. A nurse recently posted to Hirta, Williamina Barclay, persuaded the islanders the time had come to leave. On May 10, 1930 a petition to the government for resettlement on the mainland was signed by all the adults and handed to the next trawler to appear in the bay. The urgency was underlined by the recent deaths of two women, one after childbirth (the baby died too) and one, aged 22, from TB.

All the cattle and most of the 1,500 sheep were taken off Hirta two days before the evacuation for sale on the mainland. However, it was decided that the working dogs could not be taken. The islanders put them in sacks weighted with rocks, and dropped them from the pier into the sea.

The crossing on August 29 took 12 hours, with 28 residents coming ashore at Lochaline on the west coast of mainland Scotland, while the others headed for Oban and onward destinations.

Arrival at Lochaline, where despite attempts by the authorities to keep the evacuation secret a crowd of 200 or more were waiting, must have been an overwhelming experience for the St Kildans. They had never seen cars or trees. Oddly enough most of the men were given jobs by the Forestry Commission, and their experience on the Hirta cliffs made them excellent foresters.

The last of the native St Kildans, Rachel Johnson, died in 2016 in Clydebank at the age of 93, having been evacuated at the age of eight.

The archipelago is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is one of the few places in the world to have dual World Heritage Site status for both cultural and natural significance. There is a Ministry of Defence base on Hirta.

There are plenty of details and pictures on the National Records of Scotland website and a silent film partly taken two days before the evacuation can be seen here. This film by a company that runs day cruises from the Isle of Harris shows how St Kilda looks today. 

All this leads me on to . . .

Sheep of the Week

In fact two Sheep of the Week, because there are two distinct breeds on St Kilda.

This is the Boreray, which the St Kildans farmed on Hirta and Boreray.  

It is a variety of the extinct Scottish Dunface, a primitive sheep of the Northern European short-tailed group probably similar to those kept throughout Britain during the Iron Age. There were about 2,000 animals on the two islands, and during the evacuation the 1,500 or so on Hirta were taken to the mainland to be sold. Those on Boreray were left to become feral. Later a group were taken off the island and registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as ‘critically endangered’. Small numbers are now kept around the UK to preserve the genetics.

They are very small sheep. Most animals are creamy white with various black or tan markings, and a few are dark. Both rams and ewes have horns. They moult their fleece naturally so that it can be plucked rather than shorn in a technique called rooing.

Soay sheep are similar to the wild mouflon in Corsica, Sardinia and Cyprus.

No one knows how or when they arrived on 250-acre Soay, where they live wild. After the evacuation a number were taken to Hirta where they continue to live ferally so that they can be studied. 

They exhibit a phenomenon known as ‘overcompensatory density dependence’, a cycle in which the population grows beyond the capacity of the land to support them, when there is a dramatic crash in numbers, followed by another build-up and so on. They lack the flocking instinct of many breeds so they cannot easily be rounded up with dogs.

They are very small and hardy, usually brown or tan, and exceptionally agile. The meat is said to be particularly flavoursome. They have been introduced from Hirta to the Bristol Channel island of Lundy, and a small population lives wild in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, as in this picture.

According to the Boreray and Soay Sheep Society they are ‘intelligent, nimble animals with excellent mothering habits, always with quirky behavioural traits and lots of fun to watch’. Here’s a video. You can read more about both breeds on the society website.

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