Although the botany, birds, and beasties are more the preserve of my colleagues Paul and Gina, understanding the ecology of St Kilda is crucial to understanding it’s archaeology. It’s well known that the hunting of seabirds and the collection of their products (a practice known as fowling) was an important part of the St Kildan economy. It is less well known that fowling was a widespread and common practice in Britain and Northwest Europe; until around the First World War, many communities in Scotland, Ireland, England, the Faeroes, and Scandinavia relied heavily on seabirds. In this wider context, the St Kildan way of life was not particularly unique or unusual – but the use of one bird in particular was.
Until the 1870’s, St Kilda was the only breeding station in Britain for the Northern Fulmar, known as Tulmar in St Kilda Gaelic. The Tulmar provided a number of lucrative and valuable products, including feathers, flesh, large edible eggs, and most importantly oil, which was exported for medicinal use on the mainland.
As a result, the valuable (but sensitive) Tulmar population was very carefully managed by the St Kildans:
“So exquisitely nice are his [the Tulmar’s] feelings, and so strong his resentment, that he conceives an unconquerable aversion for his nest if one breathes over it, and will never pay it any more visits: for this reason, to plunder his nest, or to offer any indignity to it, is on Hirta a high crime and misdemeanor.” (Kenneth MacAulay, 1764). The photograph below shows an abandoned egg within a collapsed wall.
Although the Tulmar is one of the less rare and glamorous birds on the archipelago, it will always be one of my favorites because of its unique and important role in the St Kildan way of life.
Àrsair Hiort/ St Kilda Archaeologist