St. Kilda, comprising the main island of Hirta together with Soay, Boreray, Dun and several notable stacks, lies 41 miles (66 km) west northwest of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides and 102 miles (165 km) west of the Scottish Mainland. This volcanic archipelago provides spectacular landscapes and includes some of the highest cliffs in Europe, which offer a refuge for colonies of endangered bird species. Forming a unique ecosystem, the islands support their own sub-species of mouse and wren, together with the world's largest gannetry, the largest British colony of fulmars and half of Britain's puffins.
The origin of the name is interesting - there is no Saint Kilda - rather it likely derives from a misinterpretation by 17th C. map-makers of the Old Norse word Skildar or Skaldir meaning 'shield' and became firmly established following the publication of the book A Late Voyage to St. Kilda whose author Martin Martin visited the islands in 1697. St. Kilda was not mapped in detail until 1927, the work of John Mathieson (1855 - 1945), a retired Ordnance Survey surveyor, who also recorded the placenames for the first time and its archaeology. He was assisted by Alexander Cockburn, who later returned to the islands to complete a map of its geology.
The rocks are distinct from the gneiss of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, representing one of the Tertiary volcanoes which marked the birth of the Atlantic Ocean and today observed as the igneous complexes of Ardnamurchan, Mull and Skye. Hirta features the frozen remains of the magma which once powered one of these volcanoes, now forming light-coloured granophyre, together with dark dolerite and gabbro. The other islands of the group are almost exclusively composed of the latter.
The islands have a great wealth of archaeology, including evidence of Bronze Age occupation and of Viking visits. They are thought to have been more or less continuously occupied for around 2000 years with habitation concentrated at Village Bay and Gleann Mor, although the small area previously cultivated has now reverted to grassland. For much of the last 800 years the islands were owned by the Macleods of Macleod, with two successive settlements being constructed at Am Baille in 1836 and 1865. The inhabitants harvested seabirds and grazed up to 2000 sheep.
Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) clearly did not enjoy his journey out into the North Atlantic when he said that St. Kilda was "worth seeing but it is not worth going to see." The first tourist ship to visit the islands was the Glen Albyn in 1834, with the Dunara Castle calling in the summer from 1877. It was this ship which was to evacuate the island's residents in 1930. Modern cruise ships now pass regularly and occasionally land.
Following a series of external influences, including disease, malnutrition and emigration of many of the young men, the remaining population asked to leave in 1930. The following year the islands became the property of John Crichton-Stuart, the 5th Marquess of Bute (1907-56), who maintained them as a wildlife sanctuary and left them to the National Trust for Scotland in 1957. St. Kilda is now managed jointly with Scottish Natural Heritage. Part of Hirta was leased to the Ministry of Defence to build a radar station to monitor the Hebrides Missile Range to the east. The population today is restricted to transient staff associated with this base, a seasonal warden, scientific workers and summer visitors.
Declared a National Nature Reserve (1957), a biosphere reserve (1976), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (1981), the islands were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and designated a Special Protection Area in 1992. The World Heritage Site was enlarged in 2004 to encompass the surrounding marine environment and, the following year, extended to include the archipelago's unique cultural heritage, making St. Kilda one of only a few places in the world with dual World Heritage status.