The History of Scotland’s St. Kilda Islands

The St. Kilda islands are the most remote of Scotland’s Western Isles. Created by a massive volcanic explosion, the archipelago consists of three larger islands—Hirta, Soay, and Boreray—and several small islets. Small and remote though they are, a tour of these Scotland islands offers travelers stunning scenery, geology, and wildlife. Hirta, the largest island, boasts the highest sea cliffs in the UK. Conachair, on the northern face of the island, rises from the sea in a sheer vertical cliff that towers 1400 feet above the waves. Even the cliffs of smaller Soay and Boreray rise 1200 feet above sea level, treating Scotland travelers to spectacular views. Beyond the islands are offshore vertical pillars of rock, called stacks, with Stac An Armin, near Boreray, the highest at an impressive 650 feet.

St. Kilda has been uninhabited since 1930, when the last 36 residents were evacuated at their own request. Previous to 1930, however, the islands had been continuously inhabited for millennia; excavations have uncovered stone tools that date back four or five thousand years. In the more recent past—a few hundred years ago—a distant landlord rented the land to the small population. Rent was collected during the landlord’s annual visit. Rent was generally paid in raw goods, such as barley, oats, fish, or seabirds. St. Kilda has long been a breeding ground for a substantial seabird population, and St. Kildans used the birds for meat, feathers, and oil. By the 1830s, each tenant worked the same piece of land from year to year, enabling the people to build permanent homes on their rented properties.

The early St. Kildans spoke Gaelic, and lived and dressed in a similar way to the rest of Scotland’s Western Isles. They were a people who loved music, stories, and games, but by the late 1800s the influence of the Free Church of Scotland had somewhat sobered their traditional lifestyle. The church was built in the early 1800s for the resident minister, and by 1884 a school had been built for the small number of St. Kildan children.

The remains of a village exist on Hirta, the largest island. It is likely that this village was rebuilt on various different sites over the years. During a Scotland tour to Hirta visitors will now see the ruined stone houses laid out in a crescent running roughly parallel to the shoreline, a reminder of the last decades of the native population. As St. Kildans began relying more and more on imports, they became less and less self-sufficient, and much more aware of the relative isolation of their home. In 1852, a group of islanders emigrated to Australia. In the early years of the 20th century, there were serious food shortages and an influenza epidemic that decreased the already diminished population. Finally, in 1930, the last 36 St. Kildans asked to be evacuated to the mainland, and the islands were left empty of human life for the first time in a millennia. In 1931 St. Kilda was sold to the Marquess of Bute, who bequeathed them to the National Trust for Scotland in 1957.