The water remained relatively calm for the first hour. Departing from the small fishing village of Stein on the Isle of Skye, we headed through the strait known as the Little Minch towards the main band of the Outer Hebrides, the thick curl of rocky skerry that runs along the north-west coast. But like an apostate hovers over mainland Scotland.
But as we went further, traveling further west through North Ust and the islands of Lewis and Harris, the water suddenly rose. Here, completely exposed in the North Atlantic Ocean, we had no refuge from the swell: every few seconds, for more than two hours, the rudder of our tour boat rattled with enough force to rattle my teeth. Slammed against the oncoming waves.
I looked to my right, across the narrow aisle of the boat, and saw my brothers and sisters sitting uncomfortably in their seats. None of our fellow passengers—there were about 12 of us, all told, aboard a surprisingly small boat—looked happy. But my siblings, clutching their disposable vomit bags, seemed sick.
(“Ill have an understatement,” laughed my sister, Amelia. “I’d say we looked doomed.”)
For centuries, the archipelago of St Kilda, one of the most remote regions of the British Isles, has electrified the imaginations of writers, historians, artists, scientists and adventurers.
About 40 miles west of the main islands of the Outer Hebrides, St. Kilda has a rich history, filled with disease, famine and exile along with a rich cultural heritage, fiercely independent people, distinctive architecture and haunting isolation. Is.
Recent archaeological research suggests that the main island, Hirata, which is about 2.5 square miles, was inhabited as far back as 2,000 years ago. Its last full-time residents, 36 in total, were moved to the mainland on August 29, 1930, their community and their way of life becoming untenable.
Designated as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural and cultural significance, St Kilda is now owned, managed and protected by the National Trust for Scotland, whose staff – sometimes along with other volunteers and researchers – spend several months of the year. For captures the deer. British Defense Ministry contractors also spend time on the island, where they operate a radar station.
For most of its inhabited history, reaching St. Kilda required several days of travel across the open sea. The threat of violent storms – especially common between the months of September and March – made travel difficult at best and unimaginable at worst.
Even today, boat events are subject to the whims of forecasts, and cancellations by tour companies are not uncommon. When my siblings and I visited at the end of August 2018, we had to advance our trip by a day to avoid the impending spell of inauspicious weather that was to come that weekend.
St Kilda’s natural features are almost comical in their splendor. The piles of the jagged sea rise like a knife bound to the opaque water; Wandering seabirds swim recklessly over precipitous rocks; The swooping fields blanket an otherworldly landscape completely devoid of trees.
And yet it was the architectural remains of St Kilda that quietly hinted at the most dramatic elements of its history.
With a population of about 180 at the end of the 17th century, St Kilda never built a convenient home. Its inhabitants raised sheep and some cattle and were often able to grow simple crops such as barley and potatoes. But the mainstay of their diet was seabirds: the eggs of birds, as well as the birds themselves, which were eaten both fresh and cured. (Fishing was often impractical due to the treachery of the surrounding waters; islanders also expressed a distinct preference for gannets, fulmars, and puffins over fish.)
Villagers caught the birds and collected their eggs – using long poles and their bare hands – by lowering themselves onto ropes from the islands’ cliffs, or by climbing rocks from the waters below.
Watching the archipelago’s sea stack from a boat in the cold sea, I tried to imagine the conditions in which such extremes would be necessary to enjoy a bland meal. It tested the limits of my imagination.
Life on St Kilda was a painful experiment in uncertainty. Stormy weather damaged crops, jeopardized food stores, halted poultry farming and delayed essential work. Landing a boat in Hirata’s Village Bay, the site of the archipelago’s old settlement, can be difficult even in ideal weather. Diseases including smallpox, cholera, leprosy and influenza spread rapidly and with devastating effect. For decades, St. Kilden’s sometimes blindly launched its mail into the sea in small waterproof containers; The hope was that their “mailboats”, as they were called, might accidentally arrive at a populated place or be picked up and dispatched by a passing ship.
The extreme isolation of the islanders also gave rise to a special kind of cultural disconnection. In his 1965 book “The Life and Death of St Kilda”, author Tom Steele describes a scene in which a St Kilden washed ashore on the nearby Flanan Islands:
He entered a house in what he thought was a house and began to climb the stairs – stone objects that he had never seen before in his life, but which he had taken as Jacob’s ladder. He reached upstairs and entered the brightly lit room. “Are you God Almighty?” he asked the lighthouse keeper. “Yes,” came the stern answer, “and who are you the devil?”
And yet St. Kilden was often described in contemporary accounts as distinctly cheerful. Crime was virtually non-existent. Supplies and donations brought in from the outside world – with most of the food collected on the islands – were divided equally among the islanders. Items such as boats and ropes, on which the islanders relied, were owned and maintained communally.
When the Scottish writer Martin Martin visited the archipelago in 1697, he noticed the joyful character of the people. “The inhabitants of St Kilda are much happier than the enormity of mankind,” he wrote, “are almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true freedom.”
In the end, however, life on St Kilda proved untenable. The market for the islanders’ exports – feathers, tweed, sheep, seabirds – gradually dwindled. The infant mortality rate was surprisingly high. Failing to keep pace with the comforts and technologies of the mainland, the islands became increasingly chronological, and people increasingly isolated.
A particularly harsh winter in 1929 and 1930 sealed St Kilden’s fate. Fearing starvation, he pleaded with the government to evacuate him.
However, that was not enough to break the spell for Alexander Ferguson, one of the evacuations, who, years later, wrote in a letter describing St. Kilda that “there is no heaven on earth like this.”
“For me it was peace in St Kilda,” Malcolm MacDonald, another longtime resident, once said. “And for me it was happiness, dear happiness.”
Four hours after arriving, wandering the rolling terrain of Hirata and strolling quietly along the hollow of a village, we stood by the side of the island’s pier and boarded a dinghy to return to our boat. Returning to Skye, our journey east was smooth, quiet, calm. For a long stretch, a pod of dolphins swam alongside us, as if carrying us back out of the water.
When we finally got to Stein, I felt a loss. I took my first step, as I came to see it, toward a partial understanding of what forced many of the 36 islanders who had left in 1930 to return and temporarily live on Hirata in the summer of 1931. Was: a growing certainty that the pleasure of freely roaming among islands surrounded by boundless ocean was worth the trouble of being there – and being there.