Leaving the Mainland
The first settled occupation of St Kilda isn’t entirely known. Archaeological excavations have revealed material from early Christianity, Norse, and possibly as far back as the Bronze Age.
However, by 1697, a small group of around 180 had settled to a life away from Scotland renting land from the Macleods of Harris and Dunvegan in Skye whose family would own the island until the evacuation in 1930. For over two hundred years that followed, St Kilda was a community in relative isolation from Scotland and the rest of the world.
Maintaining a small population, the St Kildans lived off of modest agriculture and husbandry while the primary contribution to their diet consisted of birds, specifically gannet, fulmar, and puffins. The St Kilda archipelago rests along the spring migration for over one million birds during the height of breeding season - several colonies of the eight visiting species are the largest in Europe.
Beginning in the 1700s, new diseases such as small pox and cholera were introduced setting off regular epidemics throughout the island. Most of the population succumbed to a smallpox outbreak in 1724. While World War I removed most of the young men for service, over the next ten years, additional factors such as failing crops and illness led to the necessary evacuation of the island residents in 1930.
Today, the island and the story of cultural survival stirs the imagination and spurs tourism among the remnants of the ghost town while eco-tourists come to see the impressive continuous bird migrations.
Documenting a Ghost Town
The remote islands of St Kilda lie 40 miles off Scotland’s west coast in the North Atlantic, making visitation to the abandoned villages difficult. In such cases of remote accessibility, digital documentation is useful for sharing the stories of those who lived there through virtual tourism. In July 2011, the Scottish Ten team recorded the natural and archaeological remains at Village Bay and Gleann Mhor using terrestrial 3D laser scanning, survey, and high-definition photography. Additionally, CDDV (a partnership between Historic Scotland and The Glasgow School of Art) commissioned aerial LiDAR survey of the St Kilda islands, which greatly enhanced the collected data in scale and geolocation. The resulting dataset will be utilized to create digital reconstructions and visualizations, contributing to ongoing conservation and management plans for the site. St Kilda joins 9 other heritage sites in the Scottish Ten, an ambitious five-year project using cutting edge technologies to create accurate 3D models of Scotland’s five World Heritage Sites and five international heritage sites.
Surviving in Isolation
For over two hundred years, the small population of St Kilda was able to maintain a relatively isolated existence. To achieve this, the St Kildans managed a balance of small-scaled husbandry and agriculture with subsistence on migrating birds.
Property was divided by a common highland method called runrig. Land was divided into townships with small cultivable lands that were cut into strips and reassigned annually to prevent any one person from owning the best land. Outside the township were larger pastoral areas for rough grazing goats, sheep, and cattle. With an agricultural reform in 1830, the runrig system was replaced with personal ownership and permanent houses called “Black Houses” were built.
Throughout the island, small stone structures, called cleits, were used as storehouses for birds, eggs, feathers, harvested crops as well as peat and turf for fuel. These have become an iconic structure of the island with some 1,260 of them found over the island.
Connecting to the Mainland
Throughout the occupation of the island, visits from the Scottish mainland weren’t uncommon, if infrequent. The largest gap in communication may have been during a Scottish civil war in 1746. Under rumors that Prince Charles Edward Stuart fled to St Kilda, soldiers were sent to investigate. Upon inquiries, the residents of the island had no knowledge of the war or of the Scottish King, George II.
Gradually, communication would increase, if with continued difficulty. In the 19th century, communication was limited to bonfire signals to passing ships or floating messages sent by way of ocean currents. The 19th century would also bring several religious reforms and a change in their economy towards tourism. However, this change in economy would open the island to further disease and to be viewed as a curiosity to the mainland Victorians. With an increase of epidemics and a faltering economy, the residents of St Kilda were eventually forced to evacuate in 1930.
A Natural Sanctuary
St Kilda stands with a unique designation with a UNESCO recognition for its cultural heritage and natural significance.
Among the world’s largest colonies, St Kilda hosts over one million birds during the breeding season. The largest colonies consist of the Leach Petrel with up to 90% of the world’s population, the Northern Gannet at 24%, and the Atlantic Puffin at 30% of the world’s population respectively.
However, the island is also host to unique species of small animals such as the St Kilda wren and two kinds of mice that were likely brought over with humans as far back as the Norse Vikings, the St Kilda Field Mouse and the St Kilda House Mouse. With the evacuation of the settlement in 1930, these two species have since become extinct.
The island is also noted for its sheep herds. The Soay sheep, which were brought during early human occupation, were feral during the more recent settlement and not used as domestic sheep. Through DNA analysis, these sheep have been found to be descendent from the earliest domesticated sheep from Europe. The St Kildans kept a variety of the Scottish Dunface sheep and though were removed from Hirta Island during evacuation, a small herd remained on Boreray and have evolved into a distinct species of their own.