St Kilda – on the map


Being remote and uninhabited is not reason enough for Ordnance Survey to cease worrying about St Kilda. It is part of Great Britain, visited by researchers and tourists, and it contains the echo of population in buildings which still exist on the island. St Kilda has had a bigger effect on our data than it would initially seem from first glance. The islands and the unique practices of its former inhabitants has yielded its own lexicon – cleits – which feature in the surveyor bible known as the Data Capture and Edit Guide.

            Cleit – A dry stone structure, usually with a turfed roof, used for storage. Unique to the St Kilda archipelago.

There are approximately 1400 cleits across the islands. They were mostly used for storing harvested sea birds. They now perform a vital role in the continuation of the Soay sheep population, offering them shelter from the harsh conditions.


Earlier this year, our flying unit turned left at the Outer Hebrides and kept going to capture the following images of St Kilda which is subject to the same image capture policy (in that we aim to fly it every 3-5 years) as the rest of the country:

St Kilda

Village Bay – the outline of the original village settlement on the hill is clear. The roads and modern buildings are the result of use by the military.

St Kilda 2

A close-up of Village Bay – some houses have been re-roofed and form the museum maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.

A history of St Kilda, Scotland

St Kilda has a fascinating story behind it. Part of the allure, drawing travellers back to Scotland time again, is the seeming ease with which one can feel a great sense of remoteness – you don’t even have to leave the mainland. For the more adventurous, by which I mean those who are not averse to a ferry journey which can only be politely described as ‘choppy’, there are great rewards in reaching ever further from Scotland’s Cairngorm-y epicentre. Beyond the mainland are multifarious islands, a patchwork of small communities, lonely crofts and endless horizons, but, if you think that by standing upon the cliffs of Lewis you are at the western edge of our islands, you would be wrong.

40 miles west of North Uist, caught in the cold, wild Atlantic hinterland, lies a small group of treeless islands and stacks – Hirta, Soay, Dun, Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac An Armin – collectively known as St Kilda. Subject to the tumult of sudden storms, punishing winds and seas so rough that being able to land on the islands is not guaranteed; these islands would be unremarkable had they not been inhabited for at least 2000 years and that this lengthy history of survival in spite of the elements came to an abrupt end on 29th August 1930.

Life on St Kilda had an appealing simplicity; the price of this was an often gruelling existence and lengthy isolation from the rest of the world. Despite the challenges of existence, the main island of Hirta was permanently inhabited for over 2000 years. The islanders made a scant living from selling the feathers and fat harvested from the abundant seabird populations. There was much courage and daring needed to make this harvest; the birds nested in holes in the high cliffs and could often only be reached by a treacherous climb above a boat waiting in violent waters. A secondary income came from the spinning of wool that was woven into tweed for sale on the mainland. The basic needs of the islanders were often met through the charity of passing ships, and later through the involvement of the church in island affairs. The islanders had no source of wood for construction and few foodstuffs beyond birds and the native Soay sheep (they were curiously unwilling to eat fish), it was truly a knife-edged existence.

The islanders traded their wares in order to pay rent on Hirta but felt no need to trade amongst themselves. No currency existed on the island until very late in its history. All harvests and deliveries from the mainland were considered collective and distributed according to family size. Everyone was as wealthy or poor as everyone else. Decision-making was also collectivized with every man on the island meeting at a given point in the village every morning to plan the day ahead. Despite this patriarchal leaning, gender roles were not quite as traditional as they were on the mainland (and across the rest of Europe); women would help with the dangerous harvesting and management of animals and birds and the laborious hauling of peat for fuel; the men would sew clothes for the family. Preparing the wool for sale was a joint activity. Women led on the carding and spinning of yarn and the men would stay up late into the summer nights weaving wool into tweed by the light of the midnight sun.

Island life subtly shifted as first a nurse was permanently posted to the community, followed later by a representative of the Scottish Church. But nothing changed life on the islands as dramatically as the arrival of Victorian travellers. Suddenly, several ships of tourists made the journey to St Kilda every year, bringing with them information, ideas and a glimpse into life beyond the cliffs. They also facilitated the shift from a currency-less economy based on need and fairness, to an economy modelled on that of the mainland. St Kildans could now sell knitted wares, tweed and crafts to regular visitors. It was the first time in 2000 years that not every man, woman and child on St Kilda was of equal standing.

For several centuries, decisions makers in Edinburgh had opted to post both a representative from the church, who doubled as preacher and teacher to the island’s children; and a nurse in an attempt to improve the health of islanders. It was Nurse Williamina Barclay who persuaded the islanders to abandon their home and seek a new life on the mainland following a period of helplessly watching many of the young people of the island succumb to tuberculosis. She petitioned the Department of Health who agreed to assist the resettlement of St Kilda’s population.

Early on the morning of 29th August 1930 the 36 remaining St Kildans boarded the Harebell with a few belongings and their sheep. They were resettled across Scotland with varying degrees of success. Their island home lay in ruins for a few years before the outbreak of war gave the remote outpost a new significance. It continued to be used by the armed forces (who built the first road and several large buildings) until relatively recently, and is now used by researchers studying Soay sheep and National Trust for Scotland volunteers who maintain the cottages.

St Kilda now holds double UNESCO World Heritage Site status, recognised for both its natural landscape and culture. Wind and rain still take charge and visiting the islands is no more a certainty now than at any other point in the last 2000 years.

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