St. Kilda – Britain’s Lost World
As an anthropology student, I was fascinated by strange cultures; not those that grow on the two-week-old bread or the forgotten cheese at the back of the communal student refrigerator, but the rich diversity of belief systems, social structure, kinship, and ways of living that were to be found in the world of men. A key element in the attraction of social anthropology, for myself at least, was the fascination of the remote. The more distant or exotic a culture the more I wanted to know about it even if I could not go there. But sometimes the strangest things are close to home and back then I did not know that off the coast of Great Britain lay a small group of islands known as St. Kilda that, until 1936, was home to a tiny community with a unique way of life.
The Outer Hebrides are a string of islands off Scotland’s North West coast. Beautiful and often inaccessible, it is their very remoteness that makes them special. But the St. Kilda archipelago lies 120 miles from mainland Scotland, 41 miles from its nearest neighbor the island of Benbecula, and is the most remote place in Great Britain. Even today it is not an easy place to get to. Small boats do take visitors out to St. Kilda, but landing is never guaranteed. The weather can change in minutes and the tides and currents are treacherous; the wild forces of the Atlantic move in from the West to meet the highest sea cliffs in Britain, which are known as Stacs, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin being the highest.
Often cut off from the mainland for weeks or even months, it was this sheer isolation that saw the inhabitants of St. Kilda become almost like Britain’s lost tribe. Theirs was a hard and simple life and they had to become self-sufficient, using whatever they could find on the islands to make a living. But as in so many places, the modern world eventually crept up on the islanders and the last residents abandoned St. Kilda in 1930, so ending an amazing story of survival and tragedy.
The islands today have been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site after receiving this status in 1986 for their outstanding natural beauty and the unique habitats they support. In 2004 this status was extended to include the marine environment around St. Kilda. The following year the area was granted World Heritage Site status for its cultural importance. St. Kilda therefore has become one of a tiny number of places in the world holding Dual World Heritage Status for both natural and cultural significance.
Apart from the fascinating history of human life on St. Kilda, these islands are home to a huge number of seabirds and in spite of their tiny size they are recognised as the most important seabird breeding colony in North West Europe.
We are still discovering today the real history and natural significance of this community and its surroundings and much work in preservation, research, and conservation of the site is being done by the three groups tasked with the care of the islands. The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Ministry of Defence are working in partnership to protect both the past and the future.
In my next article on St. Kilda, I will look at what it was about this place that made it unique.
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