St Kilda

(Saint Kilda)

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2022.

It has taken much time and money to make the six-volumes of Groome's text freely accessible. Please help us continue and develop by making a donation. If only one out of every ten people who view this page gave £5 or $10, the project would be self-sustaining. Sadly less than one in thirty-thousand contribute, so please give what you can.

Use the tabs on the right of this page to see other parts of this entry Arrow

St Kilda, called anciently and by the natives Hirta or Hirt (Gael. Iorta), is the chief islet of a rocky group included among the Hebrides, though lying far out in the Atlantic, and quite detached from these islands. Situated in N lat. 57° 48' 35", and W long. 8° 35' 30", St Kilda is nominally included in the parish of Harris in Inverness-shire. It lies 40 miles almost due W of Griminish Point, the NW extremity of North Uist, and about 76 nautical miles NW of Dunvegan in Skye. It measures 3 miles from E to W, 2 from N to S, and about 7 in circumference; and its area has been estimated at from 3000 to 4000 acres. In shape it resembles a roughly formed stunted letter H, sloping NW and SE; and its coasts are faced with lofty precipitous cliffs, rising sheer out of deep water, at nearly all points except the landing place in the SE, or village bay. In the NW bay also, the cliffs are lower, and in favourable weather a landing may sometimes be effected there. The other islets of the group are uninhabited; but serve as grazing ground for the St Kildans' sheep, and a breeding place for myriads of seafowl. They are the following. The Dune, a precipitous and jagged peaked islet forming the southern horn of the village bay, and only separated from St Kilda by a narrow passage of sea; Soa, or the Sheep Island (1031 feet), divided from the NW extremity of St Kilda by a strait 400 yards across, in which rise 3 lofty needle rocks, or ` stacks; ' Borrera (1072 feet) between Stackan-Armin and Stack Lü, 3½ miles towards the N; and Levenish (200 feet), a small rocky islet, 1½ mile SE of the Dune. The prevailing feature of all these islands is the precipitous nature of the cliffs of which they are composed; but apart from their picturesque aspect, they are entirely subsidiary to the inhabited island in interest. Between the bays at either end of St Kilda rises a high rocky ridge, forming the main body of the island, and rising into the 4 principal summits or ' tops ' of Conagher (1220 feet), Mullach-sceal, Mullachgeal, and Mullach osterveal or oshival. The sides of these descend sheer into deep water; and the precipice of Conagher is said to be the deepest perpendicular precipice in Great Britain. There are several small streamlets flowing from the high lands; and among the wells and springs are St Kilda's Well and the Well of Virtues.

The climate is on the whole mild, as might be inferred from its situation, though sometimes damp mists, severe frosts, heavy snowstorms, and tempestuous winds fall upon the little community. No trees or shrubs grow on the island; but the grass is plentiful and nutritious as pasture. The only wild animal is the mouse; but the islets swarm with myriads of sea-fowl-fulmar, puffins, guillemots, razor-bills, and solan geese, -which annually supply the islanders with great part of their wealth. The last-named birds do not breed on St Kilda but only on the smaller islets, and chiefly on the detached ` stacks ' near Borrera. The geologic formation of St Kilda has not been scientifically determined, but Mr Sands says that the hills for several hundred feet are formed of sandstone, above which cliffs of igneous rock, trap, granite, etc., are found. The cultivated soil, though black, yields now a somewhat poor return to the labour spent upon it by the industrious natives; but visitors are generally impressed with the brilliant verdure of the pastures and hills The husbandry was long of the most primitive description, the caschrom or spade-plough being used up till 1830; but more modern implements have now been introduced into the island, and the people show much industry in fencing their fields and preparing the soil. In 1758 about 80 acres were estimated to be under tillage, and barley was the chief crop. Now only about half that area is in cultivation; and the chief crops are potatoes, oats, and bere. A few turnips and cabbages are also grown. A curious agricultural feature on the islands is formed by the cleits or claetyan, little pyramidal huts of dry-stone, 8 to 10 feet in diameter, and 4 to 5 high, used formerly to dry the sea-birds before salt was introduced, but now to protect the crops when cut. These are very numerous; though the estimate of 5000 supplied to one visitor is certainly exaggerated. The pasturage is sufficient and good in summer; but the sheep receive little attention from their owners. At the end of the 17th century there were about 2000 sheep on the group, in 1841 about the same, in 1861 about 1500, and in 1877 between 1000 and 1200, though the islanders are averse to revealing the true number, as they pay a rent to the proprietor of the island proportioned to the size of their flocks. The sheep were for a long time a peculiar breed, but have been improved by crossing. The mutton is good; and the wool, which is plucked from the sheep, not shorn, is generally of a light dun colour. There are about 50 cows of the West Highland breed on the island. The young cattle are annually purchased by the landlord, who removes them from the island. There are now no horses on St Kilda, though in 1697 there were 18, and in 1841, 3 or 4. They are said to have been shipped away by a former lessee of the island, on the ground that they injured the grass. There is an imported breed of mongrel collie dogs, used in catching puffins; every house possesses a cat; but a recent visitor to the island affirms that there were only 2 hens upon it. In 1877, 16 families, as crofters, paid each £2 per annum for their holdings, while the rest of the inhabitants ranked as cottars. In 1815 the rental of the island was worth about £40; in 1841, £60; and from £90 to £100 is the present estimated return. The rents are paid in kind; feathers, oil, cloth, cheese, cattle, tallow, and ling being the chief articles exported. Although the surrounding seas abound with fish, fishing is rather neglected by the St Kildans. They are shy of fish-diet, asserting that it produces an eruption on the skin. The capture of sea-fowl is the chief occupation of the islanders. The men are bold and expert cragsmen; suspended only by slender ropes, they fearlessly explore the perpendicular cliffs of their island. The fulmars are captured for the sake of the oil the young birds have in their stomachs; and the other gulls are taken for their feathers. The women employ themselves in catching puffins on the adjacent islands in the season; and immense numbers of birds are annually killed, without causing any appreciable lessening of the numbers that hover about the islands. The only manufacture is that of coarse tweed and blanketing from the wool of the sheep. The women spin the thread and dye it; while the men weave it into cloth; and, moreover, make all the garments required of it, both for themselves and for the women. Mr Sands gives the following as the exports from St Kilda for 1875, and the price paid to the inhabitants, showing a total Value of £250.

    £ s. d.
Cloth,. . . 227 yards of 47 inches and thumb, 25 10 0
Blankets, . . 403 yards of 47 inches and thumb, 27 0 0
Fulmar Oil,. . 566 gallons, . . . . . 45 6 0
Tallow, . . 414 lbs.,. . . . . . 6 12 0
Black Feathers,. 1494 lbs., . . . . . 26 5 0
Grey Feathers, . 1179 lbs., . . . . . 17 10 0
Cheese, . . 646 lbs.,. . . . . . 11 9 0
Fish, . . . 1080 marketable,. . . . 31 10 0
1 Year Old Cattle, 20 head,. . . . . . 60 0 0

There is but one village on St Kilda, situated at the head of the E bay, on comparatively level ground at-the foot of steep and lofty hills. It contains a church, a manse, a factor's house, a store, 14 zinc-roofed and 2 thatched cottages arranged in a crescent, and standing from 15 to 20 yards apart from each other. The zincroofed cottages were built in 1861.62 by the late proprietor after a severe storm had unroofed the former primitive hovels, many of which still stand, and are used as byres or cellars. The church, a plain and substantial building with four windows, a slated roof, but an earthen floor, cost £600. The manse, the factor's house (used only for about 3 days in the year), and the storehouse are all slated houses. The little burial-place behind the village is walled, and the gate is kept closed; but the interior is as neglected as most Highland cemeteries. The St Kildans are exceedingly primitive in their habits; but they are more intelligent than their isolation seems to promise. They are for the most part fair-complexioned, but some are swarthy; and though inclined to be stout, they are active and hardy. The women are comely; some are said to be beautiful. The average height of the male inhabitants is 5 feet 6 inches. They are a very prolific race, but the new-born infants are peculiarly liable to be fatally seized with tetanus infantum, from a cause never satisfactorily explained. It is said that 8, and even 9 out of 10, infants born on the island die from this disease. When once past the dangerous age the children are healthy and strong. Both the juvenile and adult inhabitants are liable to a feverish cold, which they call ` the boat-cold,, because they believe it attacks the island whenever a boat from the outer world touches on their shores. Imbecility is almost unknown. Though nearly all can read the Gaelic Testament, only a few can write in the vernacular; and none can speak English, except of course the minister. The St Kilda music was formerly famous among the Hebrides; but the inhabitants are not now specially musical. Their morality is good; crime is unknown; and they adhere to the somewhat rigid piety of two generations ago. The entire population belongs to the Free Church, whose minister on the island receives a stipend of £80; and acts as the substitute for the schoolmaster. The dress of the inhabitants is made of the native cloth; and resembles the ordinary lowland costume in Scotland; the kilt is not worn even by children. The food is chiefly seafowl, mutton, milk, and eggs. Besides the name of the minister there are only five surnames now known on the island, viz., Gillies, Macdonald, Ferguson, Mackinnon, and Macqueen. The population in 1697 was said to be 180; in 1758, 88; in 1795, 85; in 1815, 103; and in 1841, 105. The first government census took place only in 1851, and returned the population at 110; in 1861 it was 78; in 1871, 71; and in 1881, 77, of whom 44 were females. In 1856, 36 inhabitants emigrated to Australia; and in 1864, 8 were drowned by a boating accident.

St Kilda is the property of MacLeod of MacLeod, who purchased it for £3000 about 1872. It has, however, been for centuries in the MacLeod family. Lord Dunmore, proprietor of South Harris, is the feudal superior of the island, and is entitled to receive an annual feu-duty of one shilling. The intercourse of St Kilda with the outer world is maintained by means of the factor's boat, which visits it once a year, and the chance visits of yachts in summer.

The old name of the island appears in the forms Hirt, Hirth, Hirta, and Hyrtha, and is referred to the Gaelic h-Iar-tir, ` the west country.' The inhabitants have a proverb, ` Hirst to Perst ' (Perth), indicating their distance from the centre of the kingdom. The name St Kilda is probably connected with the Culdees, as the shadowy chronicler Gildas does not usually figure as a saint, and no more authentic representative of the name is found in history. Hirt appears in a charter of the 14th century by which the island and other lands are granted by John, Lord of the Isles, to his son Reginald. It is confirmed by Robert II. The island next passed to Macdonald of Sleat, and later to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, who have held it for three centuries. James Boswell at one time thought of buying St Kilda. In 1615 it was invaded and ravaged by ` Colkitto; ' in 1724 it was depopulated by smallpox, only 4 adults being left alive to support 26 children; from 1734 to 1742 Lady Grange was confined to the island by her cruel and powerful husband Lord Grange; and tales of her sojourn still linger among the people.

In 1697 three chapels are said to have existed on the island, and were dedicated to Christ, Columba, and St Brendan. The only relic of these is a stone, marked with a cross, built into one of the houses. In the Glen Mhor or Amazon's Valley, at the head of the N bay, there stood a pyramidal stone hut called the Female Warrior's house-a lady who is said to have hunted from St Kilda to Harris, at a time when the sea did not flow between them. On Borrera is a dome-roofed hut called the Stallir House, and related to have been the abode of a hermit; and on the Dune are the remains of an ancient fort. Subterranean dwellings, stone implements, and pottery have also been found.

The unique and romantic situation of St Kilda have, from comparatively early times, attracted a good deal of interest to the lonely little island. Sir Walter Scott notices it in his Lord of the Isles (Canto i., st. 8); and David Mallet makes it the scene of his poem Amyntor and Theodora; or, The Hermit. Lord Brougham visited the island in 1799.

Notices of the island occur in Fordun, Boethius, Buchanan, Camden, Sir Robert Murray, and others. Books on the subject are Martin's Late Voyage to St Kilda, 1698, and his Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1703; Buchan's Description of St Kilda, 1741 and 1773; Rev. Kenneth Macaulay's Voyage to and History of St Kilda, 1764; Rev. John Lane Buchanan's Travels in the Western Hebrides, 1793; Dr John Macculloch's Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1819, and his Highlands and Western Islands, 4 vols., 1824; L. MacLean's Sketches of the Island of St Kilda, 1838; J. Sands' Out of the World; or, Life in St Kilda, 1876 and 1877; MacDiarmid's ` St Kilda and its Inhabitants, in Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc., 1878; and finally Geo. Seton's St Kilda, Past and Present, 1878, to which we are indebted for much of the preceding article. Besides these a large number of magazine articles, etc., on the subject are detailed in Poole's Index to Periodical Literature.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

If you have found this information useful please consider making
a donation to help maintain and improve this resource. More info...

By using our site you agree to accept cookies, which help us serve you better