Click on pictures to see them enlarged in a photo stream. Comments: word verification on to allow anyone to comment but try and deter excessive amounts of spam! I LOVE getting comments!

Friday, 14 March 2008

St Kilda II

Several folk have been asking why people chose to live on St Kilda. Donald, the speaker at our talk, didn’t actually specify that. Although he did say there was evidence of people living on St Kilda from Neolithic times (remains of an old fort on the headland for example).

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 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!


  1. The story of St. Kilda is fascinating - thanks for sharing it. Like you, I wonder why people chose to settle in such "hard" places.

  2. Fascinating. I'm trying to imagine Graemsay with a population of 200!!! The story of St. Kilda reminds me somewhat of the Skelligs in Ireland, though not quite as remote or as harsh.

  3. Hi Sian- glad I noticed that you have started blogging. I went back to the beginning and nosed through. Amazed at how early the daffs came out! Congrats on your new car:)

  4. Glad folk enjoyed hearing about St Kilda. Jill - lovely to see you here. Yes the daffs are out early this year - I first came to Graemsay in 1999 in May and the daffs and tulips were only just in full bloom then. This year the daffs are ready to bloom in March on the road from the pier up to Windbreck!