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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

St Kilda

Yesterday was a busy day. I had visitors with me all day and then in the evening I collected a chap from the boat, Donald, who was going to be giving a talk on Graemsay about the history of St Kilda (another Scottish island!). So after I had provided him with dinner we went up to the hall and met the rest of the folk on the island over a glass of wine and then Donald kept us all enthralled for a couple of hours about life on St Kilda.

For those who aren’t sure where St Kilda is – it’s 40 miles to the West of the Scottish Mainland. Miles from any other inhabited island or land. The last inhabitants left St Kilda in the 1930’s when life became unsustainable. How on earth folk lived there for so many years is beyond me. They were really just eking out an existence. Mainly they survived by living off the fulmar sea birds and puffins, collecting the eggs, and catching the birds. But egg collecting was seasonal, so they would clamber over cliffs (literally) and collect eggs which would have to last them months – so they got used to the taste of rotten eggs! They also collected oil from the fulmars, and the feathers were paid as rent to the Laird. The island is all cliff-bound, with only a small bay where the village grew up on one side. But hauling boats in and out of the water was heavy work and as the waters are rough and treacherous there was no fishing industry on the island. The islanders did keep sheep, mainly a type of Soay sheep which is quite primitive and not like modern day flocks.

Two stories that stuck in my mind are of the islanders making Fulmar slippers (no you really don’t want to know…..) and one story of a group of islanders being taken over to a rock to catch fulmars for a couple of days. However no boat came to collect them when expected and they ended up living precariously on this rock for NINE months until a boat came for them. The tragedy was that they left St Kilda where over 200 souls were living, but a smallpox outbreak wiped out most of the population within weeks and no one could go and collect the men on the rock. Eventually help arrived after nine months and the men returned to St Kilda where only 30 people remained living – a handful of adults and many orphan children. One can’t even begin to imagine how those men survived on the inhospitable rock for so long and then their joy at being rescued turning to grief on their return to St Kilda.

We were also shown a number of photographs of the local folk taken during the late 1800s early 1900s, but these were all artificially posed. The folk would have been paid to pose and there were tell tale signs that they weren’t just photos of “everyday” life. For example a woman sitting outside a croft with a spinning wheel. She is huddled in a cape and hat, with her hands buried in the folds of her shawl to keep warm, and the likelihood is the wool would have blown away anyway! But as there was little natural light in the houses it was easier to take photos outside.

Donald seemed to have studied St Kilda with a passion and could put names to many of the people in the photos. It really was a fascinating evening and thoroughly enjoyed by all I think. It’s certainly sparked my interest and I now want to learn more about the people that lived there.

Donald hadn’t visited Graemsay before and he seemed to enjoy his short visit. We had a good turn out with about 90% of the population coming along to hear the talk, and the remaining 10% being absent largely because they were off the island. So I think he was pleased with the reception he got!


  1. Sounds like a very interesting talk, St Kilda is a fantastic place.

    The "type of Soay sheep" you mention - actually St Kilda is where the breed came from I think. Soay is one of the islands in St Kilda, and the sheep were probably there in Viking times (9th and 10th centrues AD).

  2. I had a feeling that Donald said the sheep on St Kilda kind of evolved from the Soay sheep (which as you say were probably there in Viking times) - but I'd had a glass of wine by then! And yes the Soay sheep come from one of the islands on the St Kilda archipeligo. Soay - actually means sheep island, so the sheep are Sheep Island Sheep!