New book challenges St Kilda’s ‘lost world’ tag

2 November 2015 From the section Highlands & Islands

St KildaImage copyrightRCAHMS

A new book challenges an idea of St Kilda as a lost world where islanders lived in isolation from wider society.

St Kilda: The Last and Outmost Isle draws on the most detailed archaeological survey of the archipelago ever undertaken.

It features rarely seen and previously unpublished photographs of its inhabitants, visitors and landscape.

People lived permanently on St Kilda for thousands of years until the last left 85 years ago.

St Kilda, a group of small islands and towering sea stacks, lies 40 miles (64km) west of North Uist in the Western Isles.

Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightNational Trust for Scotland
Image captionChildren pose for a photographer on Hirta, the main island of St Kilda
Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightNational Trust for Scotland
Image captionThe group of islands was home to generations of people for thousands of years
Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightNAtional Trust for Scotland
Image captionLife in St Kilda was similar to that in the Western Isles and west Highlands

The book follows an eight-year survey and research programme by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in partnership with National Trust for Scotland.

RCAHMS is now part of new body Historic Environment Scotland while the trust works with the Ministry of Defence and Scottish Natural Heritage in managing St Kilda, a designated World Heritage Site.

The book’s authors, archaeologists George Geddes and Angela Gannon, have lived for months at a time on St Kilda and this has given them an understanding of what life was like for former inhabitants.

Mr Geddes said the islanders were often thought of as a “lost tribe”, who escaped modern life until the last minute as “a virtue of their isolation and self-sufficiency”.

He said: “Most of us have a romantic notion of St Kilda as a place apart, a place that is somehow different.

“Having read a book on the islands as a teenager, I first went there to escape from another job, and found that living there changed my life completely.”

Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightSchool of Scottish Studies
Image captionThe new book includes rarely seen and previously unpublished photographs of the islands
Tourists visiting St Kilda in the 1970sImage copyrightNational Trust for Scotland
Image captionTourists visiting St Kilda in the 1970s

Mr Geddes said those who had lived on the islands on a more permanent basis were closely connected to communities in the Hebrides and west Highlands.

He said: “Their way of life was very similar to those living in the rest of the Western Isles.

“For all of the historical period, St Kilda was part of a farm with another island, Pabbay, and the islanders paid rent to the Macleod chiefs, much the same as any other Highland community.

“Of course, they were far more self-sufficient than you and I, but they were very much tuned into a complicated clan economy.”

Mountaineer Douglas ScottImage copyrightNational Trust for Scotland
Image captionPictures taken by climber Tom Weir are in the book, including one of kilted and barefoot mountaineer Douglas Scott
Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightNational Trust for Scotland
Image captionMilitary activity on Hirta in the late 1950s
Archive photograph of St KildaImage copyrightNewsquest/SCRAN
Image captionArmed forces personnel from all over Britain found them stationed in the islands

The book also explores islanders’ use of almost every corner of the archipelago.

Growing crops and raising cattle and sheep, they also famously harvested seabirds for their meat, feathers and eggs from cliffs and sea stacks, such as 196m (643ft) Stac an Armin.

Since 1957, people have lived on the main island of Hirta on a temporary basis to operate a military radar station.

Hirta is also busy during the summer months with researchers, volunteers and tourists.

Among the book’s rarely seen photographs are images taken by Scottish climber and broadcaster Tom Weir. They include pictures showing early work to establish the radar station in 1957.

Mr Geddes said: “Most writers at this time saw the arrival of the first machines on the island as a kind of desecration of the islands, just then becoming a National Nature Reserve.”

He added: “The military pictures are fascinating as they capture a huge change in the culture of St Kilda, many of the soldiers initially sent to build the base being far from happy about it.”

St KildaImage copyrightJill Harden
Image captionSt Kilda lies 40 miles west of North Uist in the Western Isles
St KildaImage copyrightRCAHMS
Image captionThe islands’ natural and human histories continues to be a major draw for scientists and tourists

From photographic archives, other powerful images were found for the book. Many of them show people who lived, worked and raised families on St Kilda.

“In a few cases, all that has been written on the back of some of these photographs was the word ‘natives’,” said Mr Geddes.

“The book tries to explain that St Kilda, its landscape and people, fit like a glove with the rest of Scotland.

“St Kildans were just as individual as you or I, and their story is as much about their choices and decisions when faced with living in this difficult place, as it is a story about wider historical and societal changes.”

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