It’s been all about cleits and sheep on Hirta this week, two of the most recognisable symbols of St Kilda, which have rubbed along here together for hundreds of years.
Cleits were ingeniously designed to improve human life in this wet and windy environment. The flat stone roofs with their thick capping of turf kept the rain out, while the open stone walls allowed the passing breeze to dry the contents inside (anything from essential foodstuffs such as seabirds or fish and grain, to turf and peat for cooking it on). Originally most cleits were provided with stone doors to keep the sheep out. Today they lie open and empty, and now often provide shelter for a shivering sheep, or sometimes a home for a growing fulmar chick.
We’ve just been out, from the heart of Village Bay to the far tip of the Cambir, giving hundreds of cleits their annual check-up for condition and stability, and earmarking those in need of future conservation. Meanwhile, the wild Soay sheep also got their annual visit from a team of academic researchers, who study their fluctuating fortunes and their impact on the ecosystem. Village Bay has been quite livened up this week with their efforts at catching and processing the reluctant objects of their scientific enquiries.
We visitors may come and go, but it’s good to think that, long afterwards, the Soays will still graze in peace, and the cleits, with a little t.l.c., will still stand.
Carol Knott, archaeologist