St Kilda

Boreray is one of four islands making up the St Kilda archipelago

By Helen

I recently had the great pleasure of ticking a longstanding wish off my bucket list, made possible by the suggestion of my good friend Jen and some superb autumn weather. On 5 October 2021, Jen and I took a day trip to the island of St Kilda.

If you think the Outer Hebrides are remote, you ain’t seen nothing yet. St Kilda is located approximately 40 miles further west, being the remains of a large volcano active about 60 million years ago, which left behind four islands and a number of sea stacs.

St Kilda is located 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides

The archipelago is host to the largest seabird colony in the UK, and the world’s largest colony of gannets, with numbers approaching one million birds each year. The islands have been designated a National Nature Reserve and are today administered by the National Trust for Scotland.

Of the four islands, the largest, Hirta, supported human settlement of up to 200 people for over two thousand years, until the depleted population of 36 residents were evacuated in 1930, bringing to an end a unique culture and an extremely challenging way of life. What sustained the islanders for millennia was primarily the seabirds, which were harvested by the menfolk climbing some of the highest cliffs and sea stacs in the British Isles.

Stac Lee (170m) - the natural 'groove' from lower right to upper left is the path the islanders took to reach the seabirds

The people lived in a semi-circular village facing Village Bay, on the most sheltered side of the island, where boats could be moored. The highest point on Hirta is Conachair at 376m and it took us around two hours to walk up it. From there we had spectacular views of the village and the bay, as well as to the neighbouring islands of Soay, Dun and Boreray and far out into the North Atlantic.

People lived on Hirta, the largest island. The other three islands are Soay, Dun and Boreray
View of Village Bay from the top of Conachair, with the island of Dun in the background
The island of Soay from Mullach Mòr
Jen at the peak of Conachair, with the island of Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin in the background
Helen at the peak of Conachair, with the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean in the background

Society on St Kilda was based on feudalism. The island was owned by a clan chief, Macleod of Macleod, who ensured the wellbeing of his people. In return, they would provide their landlord with payment in kind, such as oil and feathers from the seabirds and tweed woven from sheep wool to be sold in commercial markets. The goods were kept in the storehouse until they were collected. Barter was the means of trade and the islanders had no use for money.

The storehouse, where island produce was kept until the rent-collector visited
The village comprised one 'street' facing the bay
Many of the houses fell into disrepair after the evacuation, but some have been restored

The religion practised on the islands was Christianity, probably originally brought there in the 6th century by Irish monks. In the early 18th century, a church and manse were constructed and ministers and missionaries were sent to St Kilda to “root out pagan customs” and “save Scotland’s most remote souls”. A visitor to St Kilda in 1697 observed that the islanders were “amongst the happiest people in the world, fond of song, poetry and games”. By the end of the 19th century, such frivolity was frowned upon and the St Kildans had been reduced to puritan slaves.*

The church and manse, with Village Bay and the island of Dun in the background

There is so much more to say about St Kilda that will fit on a short blog post. If you’d like to learn more, I’d recommend the book The Life & Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel (HarperCollins, 2011).

And if you’d like to take a trip to the islands yourself, I’d recommend Sea Harris. The trip takes 2½ hours and allows for five hours on Hirta. (A word of warning – even on a relatively calm day, the ride can be bouncy!)

The 'Enchanted Isle', operated by Sea Harris, took us safely to St Kilda and back

*Source: The Life & Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel (HarperCollins, 2011)

3 thoughts on “St Kilda”

  1. This is wonderful, I am going to visit for sure! Do you reckon dogs would be allowed on the boat? What a place… Jen x

    1. Thanks, Jen, it is indeed a wonderful place. Regarding dogs, this is what it says on the Sea Harris FAQ page: “Due to the ecological fragility of St Kilda, there are very strictly no pets allowed. If you have a dog and wish to join one of our trips there are a couple folk in Harris who provide a ‘dog sitting’ service”

  2. This has been on my bucket list for a long time too, Helen, so thank you! The history, the people, the power of nature makes for a very humbling story. One of my most memorable days ever ❤️

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