St Kilda is thought to have been inhabited for at least two thousand years. There are traces of Neolithic sites and of a Norse presence prior to the settlement by Gaelic-speaking Scots. At its peak the population approached 200 people who carved out a life in this remote and inhospitable environment.
The St Kildan diet was not of fish, as one might expect, as the seas were too treacherous. Instead they survived on seabirds – gannets and fulmars mostly – which they caught and used for food, and many other things. The meat was dried and stored and the eggs were eaten; their oil provided fuel for lamps, and their feathers were stored and sold to the few visitors who came to the island. The St Kildans were very economical, they had to be. Every part of the bird was used: the beaks became brooch-pins, the bones were fashioned into needles, the skins of gannets were turned into shoes.
In 1697 Martin Martin found a vibrant community and recorded that: “The inhabitants of St Kilda, are much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty, simplicity, mutual love and cordial friendship, free from solicitous cares, and anxious covetousness; and the consequences that attend them.”
There are over a thousand cleits scattered throughout the archipelago. These were used as store houses food.
However, life was hard and became even harder as the population declined and contact with the outside world increased in the 19th and 20th centuries. Disease caused many deaths on the island. Stories of a better, easier life on the mainland, Australia or Canada encouraged many to leave.
With fewer able-bodied people, life for those who stayed became harder. Towards the end of the 1920s, the crops failed several times, the islanders nearly starved to death and the decision was made to evacuate. On the 29th of August 1930 the 36 remaining islanders were removed to the Scottish mainland.
The extraordinary human history of St Kilda is carefully preserved in the village with its neat little street of cottages, field allotments, traditional Highland stone houses and over a thousand cleits scattered throughout the islands. Visitors to St Kilda can witness the vulnerable remains of an economy based on the products of birds, agriculture and sheep farming.
St Kilda remains a symbol of the ability of man to survive in the most hostile of environments and it remains a fascination unique among islands.