But I suppose the same question could be asked of many parts of the world. Historical evidence suggests that life in any of the highlands and islands was pretty hard before the 20th century.
On Graemsay during the 1800s up to 200 people lived on the island – which is only about 1.5 x 2 miles in size! Most, if not all, would have been tenant crofters, living in “butt and ben” cottages with a few acres for livestock. Though at least Graemsay appears more fertile than St Kilda, plus we have the possibility of fishing around the island and access to the Orkney mainland for supplies. It would seem on St Kilda that vegetable crops were grown on an almost vertical slope that had very thin soil. And young kids aged about 8 years old would be sent to scramble over rocks and ridges to collect vegetables for dinner.
On St Kilda all the habitation was in one street in Village Bay. Again all the folk were tenants, the laird owning the island, land, houses etc. Most of the islanders lived in tiny one or two roomed houses, with a larger house for the Church Minister, a small shop (or shed) which also served as the post office.
The men would meet daily outside the houses to share out the days tasks. It would always be known where everyone was working during the day – which cliff face, or rock. So if someone failed to return at the end of the working day the rescuers knew immediately where to search.
It was always the men that went off to catch the birds, gather the eggs etc. The women-folk stayed at home, spun, knitted and looked after the houses, prepared the food etc. Not that there would have been much choice of ingredients for meals. Apart from the vegetables grown, they lived off the sea birds, eggs and sometimes meat from the livestock.
There were no medical facilities on St Kilda of course. Sadly at one time four out of five babies died in their first year usually from tetanus. Sometime in the late 1800s the Minister went and got some training from a Scottish Teaching Hospital and came back to the island to teach basic hygiene to folk, particularly for mothers giving birth. The mortality rate dropped sharply after that.
Boats would visit intermittently, but the islanders would have little communication with the outside world until the very late 1800s when the telegraph would have been introduced. When a Norwegian boat was shipwrecked and the survivors rescued by the islanders, they put a message in a bottle to send off for help!! Some months later a boat was sent to take the men off the island. The island folk willingly took in the sailors but of course rations were small for themselves, let alone sharing with the sailors.
Sitting in my nice cosy warm house it’s hard to imagine such a lifestyle. Once can only admire the tenacity of the people clinging to that rock in the rough Atlantic seas!!
Here’s a link to more information on St Kilda http://www.kilda.org.uk/ Remember all the photos are posed with the people being paid to pose. And notice many of them have bare feet – probably better for gripping the rocks than shoes!