St. Kilda lies in the north Atlantic over 40 miles west of the island of North Uist. The semi-circular shape of the main island of Hirta, in combination with Dun, reveals that these islands are the top of an extinct volcano. St. Kilda had been on my bucket list since my first visit in 1983 to North Uist. In 2011, I had the great fortune of finally making the trip on the 67-foot former racing yacht, Elinca, with a 2-man father-and-son crew from the Isle of Lewis.
The birds in the foreground of "The Stacs" are northern gannets.When you approach a heavily nested stac such as the one on the far left, the sound of gannets calling and the smell of guano are strong and distinctive, but not unpleasant. The rattling calls and the diving skills of gannets thrill me.
Most graves in "Saint Kilda Cemetery" date from the first third of the 20th century and earlier, but people who were born there before it was evacuated in 1930 can receive burial in St. Kilda's cemetery. In this painting, afternoon sun shines over Mullach Mor and casts shadows from headstones.
In "Village and Wool House" you can see the wool house in the center foreground. This multi-story building was used to store fleeces of Soay sheep before they were picked up by tradesmen from other parts of Scotland.
"Storm Over Dun" gives you a pretty good idea of typical St. Kildan weather. Dun was once connected to Hirta, but erosion has separated the main land mass into two parts.
The stone building in "Soay Sheep and Cleit" shows a feral Soay sheep grazing by a cleit. Around 1,400 cleits, which were used to store supplies and food, are spread over the lower slopes of Hirta.
The somewhat sheltered body of water between the village on Hirta and Dun is known as "Village Bay".
A bit of the history of St. kilda
In actuality, there was no saint named Kilda, but the name of the archipelago is likely a mispronunciation of an Old Norse name for the islands. Most of the islands of St. Kilda would not support human habitation, but Hirta has been occupied several times since the Bronze Age. A 19th/20th century Gàidhlig-speaking community maintained a church, cemetery and school there. Over time, the islanders relied increasingly on summer trade from outside the islands. They sold the wool of Soay sheep, which were transported to St. Kilda from the island of Soay, and obtained some foods and other items this way.
St. Kildans spoke the native language of the western Highlands and islands, Gàidhlig. (Scottish Gaelic). They grew some grain crops and relied for protein mainly on the eggs and flesh of seabirds, particularly gannets. These birds nested on the high "stacs" nearby which could be reached in small boats. Men had to be adept at climbing sheer rock faces in their bare feet in cold, wet, windy weather in order to rob the nests of birds and eggs, so no man was allowed to marry until he could prove he was capable of the successful birding required to support a family. Though I only read it from one source and it sounds more like Scottish humor than fact to me, it has been said that some birds could only be caught early in the morning at about sunrise, obliging some men to spend the night lying on narrow ledges waiting until morning in less than ideal weather. Why they didn't fish in the teeming waters around St. Kilda, I have never learned.
History has it that a woman called Lady Grange was so troublesome to her husband that he banished her to a miserable life on St. Kilda. Some say she probably occupied a cleit, though others claim that she was more kindly treated by the native St. Kildans, who were, after all, practicing Christians. I would like to think that, in time, she may have loved some things about St. Kilda almost as much as many of the natives did, in spite of the weather and other hardships. However, having known better circumstances, small pleasures on St. Kilda were probably far outweighed by memories of her earlier, easier life. After all, the wind and rains are so violent here that there isn't a single tree or bush on these islands, though wild "flag" (yellow iris) blooms beside wet rivulets. (You can see the foliage of flag plants in "Village Bay View of Dun", though the blossoms are a couple of months past.)
Infant mortality was at one time so high on St. Kilda that couples avoided naming their children for at least the first couple of weeks of life. Eventually, it was discovered that newborns were dying of tetanus. The island's soil had a high content of tetanus, and umbilical cords were being cut with unsterilized knives used for various household purposes, including bird cleaning. Although the infant mortality rate was reduced after this discovery, the population of St. Kilda continued to decline because increasing numbers of young islanders left St. Kilda's hard life for more comfortable lifestyles on islands like North Uist or on the Scottish maintland. The population of the last group of St. Kilda inhabitants was never more than about 200, and it dwindled down to a little less than three dozen before the people were removed from the island at their request.
Before satellite telecommunications, St. Kildans conversed with the outside world via the St. Kilda "mailboat". This operated on the same principle as a message-in-a-bottle. It consisted of a wood box or tin sealed up with tar and tossed in the ocean, to be carried eastward by ocean currents. It might eventually come ashore as far away as Norway, France or Germany, so several languages besides English were written with paint on the outside of the container.
After a villager died of appendicitis because help could not arrive in time to save her, the St. Kildans finally asked the British government to evacuate them from their beloved home to more hospitable locations; the village was abandoned in 1930. Today, the National Trust for Scotland maintains the major village buildings, and the islands have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site not only for the village, but for St. Kilda's importance as a major north Atlantic seabird breeding ground and the home of a species of wren and mouse known only to St. Kilda. The British military maintains the most westerly radar outpost on top of Mullach Mor on Hirta. Due to the depressingly poor weather, assignments to duty on St. Kilda are very short.
Today, visitors make day trips to St. Kilda during the summer months on small converted fishing boats or small high-speed craft that "scream" passengers there and back, but only when the weather allows. Sometimes luxury cruise ships visit, but for me, that would be like wearing an evening gown to go camping. I feel very lucky that I had a more authentic experience, taking nearly five days in total to go from Stornoway, Lewis to St. Kilda and back again on a sailboat, with the sound of the sails, the sea and the wind in my hair, and escorted by dolphins, seabirds, minke whales, golden eagles and sun fish.
If you go, take care that you are not attacked by a bonxie, and be prepared for the possibility of severe seasickness. One visitor to St. Kilda suffered several spinal disk fractures because of his very rough speedboat ride to St. Kilda.