Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The many curiosities of St Kilda

The archipelago of St Kilda is the most remote of the British Isles and constitutes of the Islands of Hirta, Dùn, Soay and Boreray. It is visible from the Scottish Island of Skye a mere 129km away. The rocky islands are composed of Tertiary gabbro and granite and are characterized by spectacular sea cliffs and sea stacks. The sea stacks (vertical columns of rock formed by erosion at a coastal location) of Stac an Armin (191m) and Stac Lee (165m) close to the island of Boreray are the highest of the UK.

Snow seldom falls on the islands because of its oceanic location. However temperatures are mostly cool with an average of 5°C in winter and 11°C in summer. The islands of Soay and Hirta were once joined by an natural arch. Actually, the natural arches, submerged caves, tunnels and clear waters make St Kilda one of the best places in the UK for diving. It was generally believed that only Hilta, the largest island was inhabited permanently.

Extensive archaeological survey of the St Kilda archipelago started in 2007 using digital and satellite technology to reveal human occupation. Hilta was inhabited from prehistoric time until 1930 when the last 36 people asked to be evacuated from the island. Stone tools from the Bronzer Age indicate the earliest habitation as well as possible burial structures. The discovery of steatite vessels and brooches reveal that the Norsemen also visited the islands. Mice were probably brought to the island by the Norsemen and became extinct after the islands were abandoned in 1930.

In 2011 the discovery of several Bronze Age settlement mounds including a stone building and an Iron Age agricultural system revealed that the island of Boreray was also permanently inhabited in earlier times. This is quite remarkable since the island is surrounded by steep cliffs (as the picture shows). In 1724 a smallpox outbreak occurred as a group of men and boys were collecting gannets at the stacks of Boreray (the world’s largest colony of gannets). They had to stay there until they were rescued nine months later. After the outbreak only 3 adults and 28 children were left on the island of Hirta.

Before 1891 eight out of ten babies born on Hirta died of the eight day sickness’ also known as infant tetanus until it was eradicated. Visitors of the island also brought many diseases to the island as cholera, but also common flu to which the islanders had no immunity. After the 1st world war the small group of remaining islanders requested evacuation of the island. This was most likely due to the isolation of the island, the extreme weather, food shortage and health problems of the inhabitants. In August 1930 the last 36 St Kildians left Hilta by boat. In general, the total population of the St Kilda archipelago probably never exceeded 200 people.

The island of Soay is especially known for its rare breed of sheep, Soays. The sheep are a unique survivor of the earliest kept domesticated sheep of Northern Europe. St Kilda is the first mixed World Heritage Site (both cultural and natural heritage) of the UK and one of 27 mixed locations in the world. Nowadays you can visit the archipelago in summer by cruise ship, charter boats or if you like it the fancy way by yacht. Accommodation is solely confined to a 6 person camp site on Hilta. More information about planning a visit can be found here: http://www.culturehebrides.com/.

Image: copyright JC Richardson. The island of Boreray with garrets in the foreground and one of the seastacks in the background.





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