This volcanic archipelago, with its spectacular landscapes, is situated off the coast of the Hebrides and comprises the islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray. It has some of the highest cliffs in Europe, which have large colonies of rare and endangered species of birds, especially puffins and gannets. The archipelago, uninhabited since 1930, bears the evidence of more than 2,000 years of human occupation in the extreme conditions prevalent in the Hebrides. Human vestiges include built structures and field systems, the cleits and the traditional Highland stone houses. They feature the vulnerable remains of a subsistence economy based on the products of birds, agriculture and sheep farming.
St Kilda is of exceptional natural beauty and supports significant natural habitats. It is unique in the very high bird densities that occur in a relatively small area which is conditioned by the complex and different ecological niches existing in the site. There is also a complex ecological dynamic in the three marine zones present in the site that is essential to the maintenance of both marine and terrestrial biodiversity.
The cultural landscape of St Kilda is an outstanding example of land use resulting from a type of subsistence economy based on the products of birds, agriculture and sheep farming; reflecting age-old traditions. The built structures and field systems, the cleits and the traditional stone houses of the Highlands bear testimony to over two millennia of human occupation of distant land in extreme conditions.
The archipelago of St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, is the remains of a Tertiary ring volcano, weathered and glaciated to produce dramatic precipitous cliffs. Two stacks adjoining Boreray are the highest in the country: Stac an Armin (191 m) and Stac Lee (165 m). the rocks are predominantly gabbro, granophyre, dolerite and basalt.
There is archaeological evidence of habitation from over 2,000 years ago, concentrated at Village Bay and Gleann Mor, including evidence of Bronze Age occupation and Viking visits. Important changes came in the 19th century, when most of the earlier structures and residential buildings were replaced with new. The church is a relatively plain two-bay oblong structure built in 1826, a schoolroom being added on the north-west side in 1898-1900. As a result of several outside influences, including religious missionaries, a devastating outbreak of smallpox, and tourism, the islands were finally evacuated in 1930.
The most common traditional structure on St Kilda is the cleit, of which is about 1,260 have been recorded on Hirta, distributed all over the island, and more than 170 others on the outlying islands and stacks. Cleits are small drystone structures of round-ended rectilinear form, with drystone walls and a roof of slabs covered with earth and turf. Within this basic plan are numerous variations of door position and examples even includes integral adjoining cells. Cleits were usually used to store materials, and their generally open wall construction was designed to allow a through-flow of air. They were used to store birds, eggs and feathers, and harvested crops as well as peat and turf which were both used as fuel.
The protected settlement areas on St Kilda are:
- the Village, the largest settlement, on the south side of the island, overlooking the Village Bay or Loch Hirta;
- Gleann Mor settlement, on the north side of the island, on the Glen Bay or Loch a' Ghlinne,
- Geo Chrubaidh settlement, north-west of Gleann Mor;
- Claigeann an Tigh Faire, a small site on the west coast.
The origins of the name St. Kilda are uncertain, as there has never been a saint called Kilda. Skildar is the Old Icelandic word for ‘shield' which would describe the shape of the islands as they appear to rest on the surface of the water. Archaeological evidence suggests that Hirta has been occupied, almost continuously, for well over 2,000 years. It is certain that the Vikings visited and may have settled the islands. The place names on the islands reflect both the Norse and Gaelic influence.
The first comprehensive account of life on St. Kilda was provided by Martin Martin, who visited the islands in 1697. At this time, St. Kilda was owned by the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan, and would remain with a branch of the family until the time of evacuation in 1930. At the time of Martin's visit there were approximately 180 people on Hirta, living in a main settlement in Village Bay. They kept sheep and cattle and grew crops, but mainly used the products from seabirds and their eggs. They caught the birds by either scaling the cliffs from the bottom, or by lowering themselves down to the cliff ledges where the birds nested. The birds provided them with oil and feathers, which they collected and used as payment in kind for their rent.
In 1822, the Reverend John MacDonald, a renowned evangelical preacher, the ‘Apostle of the North', visited St. Kilda. He set about the foundations of a puritanical religion, built upon by the Reverend Neil MacKenzie who arrived as resident minister in 1830. He decided to try to improve the standard of living of the St. Kildans. The traditional ‘run-rig' system of agriculture was now replaced by a permanent allocation of land to each family. The old village houses were demolished and replaced by a line of black houses on Village Bay. In 1861, MacLeod paid for a new set of cottages, which were built by his masons from Dunvegan. These were erected alongside the black houses, many of which were retained as byres.
In 1865 the Reverend John Mackay was sent to St. Kilda and set about imposing a strict rule over the islanders. By this time, much of the tradition of music and poetry on the island was forgotten and now it was replaced by the requirements of this strict faith. Other factors in the history of the St. Kildans were the diseases. A smallpox epidemic in 1724 killed most of the population. The population never again exceeded 110, and the traditional economy began to falter. From the 1870s, visitors started coming to the Village Bay. Money was introduced and the St. Kildans came to rely on the tourists for income. By the beginning of the 20th century this uncertain source of income also began to decline. Communication with the mainland was difficult though a post office was opened in 1899.
During the First World War, 1918-19, a naval unit stationed on the island bringing radio communication, regular mail, employment and supplies. The naval gun and ammunition store were added in 1918 in response to a German U-boat attack which destroyed the communications mast, the Store and some other buildings. By 1928 the population had fallen to 37. In 1930 the remaining islanders signed a petition requesting evacuation, which was granted. On 29th August 1930 they left the islands. The majority settled to work for the Forestry Commission on the mainland. In 1931 the islands were sold by the MacLeods to the Earl of Dumfries, later to become the 5th Marquess of Bute. He retained the property, unoccupied and managed as a bird sanctuary, until his death in 1956. In January 1957, it was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland.Source: Advisory Body Evaluation