Located in the midst of the wild North Atlantic Ocean, St. Kilda is a strange and lonely place. Today, the jagged rocks and hillsides are populated by sheep and seabirds, the stubborn creatures who refuse to leave their island home. But less than 100 years ago, a community of men, women and children eked out a living on these far-flung rocks. Then, one day, they disappeared, leaving a haunting ghost town behind.
Of course, life on St. Kilda, like in many remote places, was never easy. As the locals battled against harsh winters and devastating storms, they had little to sustain them. And while the march of progress continued in the modern world, the people on this archipelago remained stubbornly stuck in the past.
For centuries, the residents of St. Kilda lived a life almost completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Hunting seabirds for food, they dug ramshackle homes out of the peaty soil, sheltering between the churning ocean and the rocky peaks. But today, these cottages stand empty, a huddle of eerie relics from a forgotten past.
So what happened to the families that once called St. Kilda home? And why did they abandon their village to the elements? The answer reveals a grim truth about the remote reaches of the British Isles and a way of life that has now vanished into the mists of time.
An archipelago of four islands located more than 100 miles off Scotland’s western coast, St. Kilda is considered the most remote spot in the British Isles. In fact, there are 40 miles of ocean between its wild shores and the nearest inhabited place: North Uist. And even today, the fastest boat crossing takes two-and-a-half hours.
Historically, of course, the crossing would have taken much longer. As a result, the archipelago, which is technically part of the Outer Hebrides, has always been isolated from the other island communities. But that hasn’t stopped hardy souls from making their home on its rocky shores over the years.
The first, experts believe, may have arrived as many as 7,000 years ago, leaving behind fragments of ancient pottery on Hirta, the largest island. And by the time of the Bronze Age, it’s believed that there was a permanent population here. Amazingly, for the next 2,000 years, there would always be people living on St. Kilda.
Later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings arrived on the islands, passing through on one of their epic voyages by sea. But much of the history of life on St. Kilda is shrouded in mystery, with no written records existing before the 13th century. Even then, it seems, one Scottish chronicler referred to the archipelago as “the margins of the world.”
Cut off from the rest of Scotland, the inhabitants of St. Kilda developed their own way of life to suit the challenging conditions of their island home. And as a result, they clung to the older, druidic beliefs for far longer than their contemporaries on the mainland. Nevertheless, by the 1600s, three chapels had been built on Hirta, serving a community of some 180 people.
Life on St. Kilda, then, has been established for a very long time. So why do the cottages of Hirta lie empty and abandoned today? Looking at the records, it soon becomes clear that the inhabitants of these remote islands were locked in a permanent struggle for survival. Was it one, perhaps, that they eventually would lose?
Part of the struggle, it seems, was the lack of decent sustenance to be found on St. Kilda. Faced with the rough seas of the North Atlantic, the islanders did not rely on fishing in the same way as many other coastal communities. Moreover, the peaty soil made it difficult to grow any substantial crops of vegetables or fruit.
But the St. Kildans were nothing if not resourceful. And when a census was conducted in 1764, it revealed that the islanders had adapted to a unique diet. If the records are to be believed, each individual consumed a staggering 18 seabirds every day, along with 36 of their eggs.
Even today, the islands are swarming with the birds that sustained life here for so many years. But centuries ago, their numbers were much greater. And while the women of St. Kilda tended to the livestock and the land, the men mounted perilous expeditions to hunt puffins, guillemots and gannets on the steep cliffs.
In this harsh environment, with little else to rely on, the humble seabird became a source of much more than food. Across the islands, oil from their carcasses was used to fuel lamps, while everything from the flesh to the feathers found a use. Meanwhile, the creatures were also traded with the local lairds, the MacLeods of Harris, in lieu of rent.
Not that the people of St. Kilda had much contact with their overlords elsewhere, of course. In fact, the archipelago was often inaccessible for as many as nine months every year. As storms raged, the locals – none of whom was able to swim – were forced to brave wild seas to tend to the sheep grazing on the smaller islands.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them died. And not just in the rough seas either. Over the centuries, a number of diseases arrived on the remote islands, decimating the isolated population. In 1724, for example, an epidemic of what is believed to have been smallpox tore through the community.
By the time that the disease had been eradicated from the islands, there were only four adults left alive. And as they struggled to bury their dead, the future of St. Kilda must have looked bleak. But remarkably, the community endured for another 200 years before coming to an abrupt and mysterious end.
For most of their time on St. Kilda, the islanders constructed dwellings known as blackhouses, uniquely adapted to help them weather the bleak conditions. On top, heavy turf roofs helped to keep the structures warm, while foundations dug deep into the ground provided further insulation. In the winter months, the inhabitants would layer waste, both human and animal, on the ground to generate more heat.
But as the St. Kildans cuddled up to their livestock to keep warm, those living on the mainland had begun to enjoy the comforts of an altogether more modern world. And in 1877 the first cruise ship arrived on Hirta, bringing passengers to gawp at the islanders’ quaint way of life.
Around the same time, the MacLeods decided that the living conditions on St. Kilda were unacceptable by modern standards. No doubt spurred on by the Victorian trend for philanthropy, the laird decided to build new cottages to replace the blackhouses on the island. But unfortunately, the builders paid little attention to the realities of life on the bleak rocks.
From the beginning, everything about these new cottages was wrong. Instead of angling away from the wind, like the old blackhouses, they faced it head on. And rather than insulating turf, these structures were roofed with tin. In the winter, heat from the fires leaked straight through the thin metal sheets.
According to the BBC, a violent storm soon made short work of the new cottages, sending doors and windows flying. Unimpressed by these attempts at modernization, the islanders returned to the warmth and safety of the blackhouses. But after conducting hasty repairs, the authorities insisted that they return to the new cottages.
Despite these teething problems, though, the islanders must have eventually gotten used to life in the cottages. Years later, long after the structures had been abandoned, some of the last St. Kildans would recall a childhood spent within their stone walls. But by that point, the main street of Hirta was no more than a road in a ghost town.
In short, life on St. Kilda had always been hard. But as time passed, it grew harder. In 1912 the islands were hit by food shortages, leaving the people weakened and vulnerable to the influenza that swept through the community. Tired of struggling to survive, some inhabitants chose to escape by emigrating to places such as Australia.
But the population of St. Kilda didn’t just dwindle to nothing slowly over time. It was abandoned suddenly, in one day, its buildings left to rot and decay. So what happened? The beginning of the end came in the 1920s, when conditions on the islands had become difficult for their remaining inhabitants to bear.
Around that time, a nurse, Williamina Bradley, had been assigned to care for the people of St. Kilda. Coming from the mainland, with its electricity and automobiles, she was shocked by what she saw. So she began the daunting task of persuading the locals to leave their island home.
In his 1965 book The Life and Death of St. Kilda, author Tom Steel described the scenes when Bradley first approached the islanders with her plan. Apparently, she told them that the community was on its “last legs” and offered to provide them with jobs and housing on the mainland.
Of particular concern, according to Steel, was the plight of the children who remained on the islands. With many of them still in school, it seemed, there would not be much of a future for them on St. Kilda. Then in 1929 a particularly cold winter hit, further strengthening Bradley’s case that life would be better on the mainland.
On May 10, 1930, a group of 20 St. Kildans signed a petition asking the government to resettle them elsewhere. According to the Scottish newspaper Press and Journal, the document stated that “it would be impossible to stay another winter.” Moreover, it also detailed exactly what the islanders expected their government to deliver.
“We do not ask to be settled together as a separate community, but in the meantime we would collectively be very grateful of assistance, and transference where there would be a better opportunity of securing our livelihood,” the petition read. Then, as the government debated the future of the islanders, a double tragedy struck the struggling community of St. Kilda.
In the spring of 1930, a pregnant women fell ill and needed to go to the mainland for medical treatment. But because there were no boats visiting the islands, it took weeks for the message to get through. Eventually, a ship was sent, but it was too late. Both mother and baby died on May 26 – just 16 days after the islanders had signed the petition to leave.
Less than two months later, on July 21, a 22-year-old woman died from tuberculosis. With the precarious nature of their lives on the islands brought into sharp relief, the St. Kildans waited to see what would become of them. And finally, on August 29, the last inhabitants of this remote rock were evacuated for good.
That day, 13 men, 13 children and ten women boarded the H.M.S. Harebell and waved goodbye to their island home. According to the Press and Journal, one military commander noted that the evacuees seemed “cheerful.” But the paper also quotes another account, in which the former residents are said to have referred to St. Kilda as an “open grave.”
On reaching the mainland, the St. Kildans were mostly resettled along the western coast of Scotland, in places such as Lochaline, Oban and the Isle of Skye. But for some, the new life that they had been promised did not quite live up to expectations. In a 2012 interview with U.K. newspaper The Guardian, for example, former resident Norman John Gillies recalled his father’s reaction to their new house.
“This home is worse than the cattle byre I had on St. Kilda,” Norman’s father reportedly wrote in a letter to the Scottish Office. “I understood from Nurse Barclay that we were to be situated in better homes, but this is worse than a dungeon hole.” Meanwhile, others islanders found it difficult to adjust to life far away from their close-knit community.
Eventually, though, the evacuees settled into life away from the islands. And for people such as Gillies, who was five when he boarded the Harebell, a whole new world of opportunities opened up before them. Aged 86, he mused, “My life has been tremendous. Much better than it could have been on St. Kilda.”
In the years since the evacuation, some of the islanders have made the long journey back to St. Kilda to visit their former homes. But once there, they have found something very different to the bustling community that they left behind. Today, the cottages of Hirta are abandoned and overgrown, with many of them roofless and open to the wild Hebridean sky.
Now, in the 21st century, a haunting sight awaits the few tourists who make it as far as St. Kilda. From the rough seas to the bleak hilltops, everywhere appears empty and forgotten. In places, Soay sheep, an ancient breed that dates back to prehistoric times, wander the land where children once played. And in front of the ruined cottages, slates spell out the names of the last people to call them home.
But although St. Kilda might have the appearance of a ghost town, it is not completely empty. In 1957 a military installation opened on the islands, housing a small number of U.K. Ministry of Defence personnel. And today, Hirta supports a fluctuating population of government workers, National Trust staff and scientists conducting wildlife research.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, the story of St. Kilda continues as well. In February 2020 it was announced that work would begin on a visitors center on the Isle of Lewis, located some 40 miles east of the abandoned islands. Given that the last of the evacuees died in April 2016, projects such as this will be essential to ensuring that their story is never forgotten.