I love islands. The two places I return to again and again are the island of Ikaria in Greece and my location at this moment, Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I keep a sort of life list of other islands I would like to visit. On it are the Faroe Islands, the Galapagos, Pitcairn, Shetland, Easter Island, and my personal holy grail, Tristan da Cunha. On this trip I was able to cross one island goal off that list: St. Kilda.
St. Kilda is a volcanic island group situated about 60 miles from Harris. Up to 180 people at a time lived there in almost complete isolation from at least 2000 years ago (likely twice that long) until 1930. In the last hundred of those years, contact with the outside world had changed the way of life on St. Kilda such that it became unsustainable. The last 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated from the island, bringing their sheep with them to pay for their passage. The last of the native St. Kildans died this year.
Getting there is a 2-1/2 hour journey by fast catamaran from Harris. I went with an outfit called Kilda Cruises. Angus and his crew were outstanding.
The tall rocky islands rose almost magically out of the sea as we approached.
The magical effect was only slightly diminished by the sound of my fellow passengers barfing into paper cups. It was a lumpy ride, as the captain put it. We were all glad to get into the rubber dinghy and set ashore at Village Bay.
St. Kilda is a designated UNESCO world heritage site for both its natural and cultural significance. It is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and it is one of the most important sea-bird breeding grounds in the world with about a million birds. It has the largest colonies of fulmars and puffins in Britain and the largest colony of gannets in the world. There are also large numbers of skuas, guillemots, kittiwakes, petrels, razorbills, and others.
I walked up out of the harbor area to the opposite side of the island, where there is a sheer drop down to the ocean.
Seabirds and their eggs were the mainstay of the St. Kildan diet. The men climbed around on the rock faces, using fowling rods to harvest the birds. They ate them fresh and preserved.
The people of St. Kilda lived on the island of Hirta, but they also traveled to other islands in the archipelago on fowling expeditions and to leave sheep for summer grazing. When the St. Kildans departed for the mainland in 1930 they took the sheep from Hirta, but they left behind the sheep on the island of Soay. Those little brown sheep are the descendants of a kind of prehistoric sheep and are genetically unique in the world. Some of that flock was later brought to Hirta where their descendants still live.
The first mate on our boat told us a true story about St. Kilda. In 1727 a St. Kildan visited the Isle of Harris, where he caught smallpox and died. Soon afterward, the St. Kildans dropped off a group of three men and eight boys for a fowling expedition on Stac an Armin. While they were on the stac, the clothes of the dead man were returned to St. Kilda resulting in a smallpox outbreak that killed everyone on the island except one adult and 18 children. It was nine months before the stranded fowlers were rescued. The owner of the islands sent some families from Harris to repopulate St. Kilda after this. This influx of Harris people introduced the genes for thick beards as seen in photos from the 19th and 20th centuries, whereas visitors described the men of earlier centuries as nearly beardless.
I visited the ruins of the village, some of which is restored, and checked out the the small museum in House #3.
The islanders built small stone huts called cleits which they used to store the seabirds they caught.
Behind the cemetery is the House of the Fairies, an underground storage space built between 500 BC and 300 AD. When it was excavated in 1877, St. Kildans were able to identify the use of all the objects found inside.
In the late afternoon we got back on the boat for a tour around the sea stacks before heading home to Harris.