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St Kilda: Fascinating Facts

  • St Kilda is one of only 24 global locations to be awarded 'mixed' World Heritage Status for its natural and cultural significance. World Heritage List
  • St Kilda is Europe's most important seabird colony, and one of the major seabird breeding stations in the North Atlantic
  • The world's largest colony of gannets nests on Boreray and the sea stacs
  • St Kilda has the largest colony of fulmars in the British Isles – nearly 65,000 in 1999
  • Stac an Armin (191 metres) and Stac Lee (165 metres) are the highest sea stacs in Britain
  • St Kilda is one of the best places in Britain for diving because of its clear water and its submerged caves, tunnels and arches
  • St Kilda has one of the most extensive groups of vernacular building remains in Britain. The layout of the 19th-century village remains to this day, and over 1,400 stone-built cleitean for storing food and fuel are scattered all over the islands, and even on the sea stacs

  • Seabirds formed a major part of the St Kildan diet, especially gannets, fulmars and puffins. At one time it was estimated that each person on St Kilda ate 115 fulmars every year. In 1876 it was said that the islanders took 89,600 puffins for food and feathers
  • The St Kildans used to eat puffins for a snack – just like a packet of crisps!
  • Soay sheep, from the island of Soay, are a unique survival of primitive breeds dating back to the Bronze Age
  • In recent years DNA (deoxyribo-nucleic acid) has been extracted from blood or tissue samples taken from over 1000 individual Soay sheep on St Kilda. This has enabled researchers to compare the genetic make-up of the sheep with the number of parasites the sheep carry and their survival rate. It also shows which rams fathered which lambs. Most Soay rams father only one or two lambs, but 'Old Green 23' had 27 lambs. A super ram!
  • Two kinds of mice (the St Kilda house mouse and St Kilda fieldmouse) used to be found on St Kilda. Both were larger varieties (sub-species) of the mainland house mouse and wood mouse respectively. They were probably brought to St Kilda by Norsemen. The house mouse became extinct after the islanders left in 1930

  • The St Kilda wren is a larger sub-species of the mainland wren found throughout the St Kilda archipelago. There are believed to be only about 113-117 pairs on Hirta.

  • In the 1850s, forty-two islanders emigrated to Australia. Many of the emigrants died en-route, but a few settled in Melbourne, and to this day a suburb of the city is called St Kilda - named after the schooner The Lady of St Kilda which was anchored off the shore at around this time. There is also a St Kilda in New Zealand.

  • At 1400ft, Conachair boasts the highest sea cliffs in Britain.

 

James Fisher, a naturalist, wrote in 1947

'Whatever he studies, the future observer of St Kilda will be haunted the rest of his life by the place, and tantalised by the impossibility of describing it, to those who have not seen it.'

It's true!

 

Stories

The 'St Kilda Mailboat'
Parliament
Lover's Stone
The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie
Smallpox Epidemic
Lady Grange
The Great Auk

The 'St Kilda Mailboat'

A St Kilda mailboat is a wooden 'boat', containing a letter, usually sealed in a cocoa tin. A sheep's bladder acts as a float. The first mailboat was sent out as a distress signal in time of famine by John Sands, a journalist, who was stranded on St Kilda during winter of 1876. It was later used by St Kildans as a tourist gimmick.

Mailboats are now sent by St Kilda work parties as part of the ritual of visiting St Kilda. They are carried by the Gulf Stream and usually reach land in Scotland or Scandinavia. Records of mailboats, and where they were washed up, are published in the St Kilda Mail.

A recent mailboat sent with greetings to the new Scottish Parliament arrived within a few weeks!


Posting the mailboat in 1897
Photograph: Cherry Kearton

Parliament

The St Kilda Parliament was first referred to by this name by George Clayton Atkinson in 1838. Island men gathered in The Street to discuss work they had to perform as a group, for example, catching birds on the stacs. It was not a real parliament.

On 1 July 1999 St Kilda Work Party 4 convened a 'St Kilda Parliament' and sent greetings in a mailboat to the new Scottish Parliament. They received a reply from the Presiding Officer, thanking them for their good wishes!


Lover's Stone

There is a story that young men of St Kilda, before they could marry, had to prove they were able to provide for a family by climbing the rocks to catch birds for food. They had to balance on their left foot over the edge of a protruding rock, place their right foot in front, bend down and make a fist over their feet. This balancing act was proof of their agility on the rocks.

At least two rock outcrops are associated with this legend – the Lover's Stone and the Mistress Stone.

Facing the ordeal of the Lover's Stone
Photograph: Norman Heathcote

The Mistress Stone
Photograph: Glasgow Museums

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie

After the Jacobite defeat in the Rising of 1745, government troops hunted for the fleeing prince all over the highlands and islands of Scotland. They even went to St Kilda to look for him! In 1746, three vessels, the Looe, the Furnace and the Terror arrived at St Kilda to enquire about the prince. The islanders fled from the Village in terror and hid in the hills. When the soldiers finally found them, it became clear that they had never heard of the prince, and that he was not hiding on the islands.

Smallpox Epidemic

In 1726 a St Kildan visited Harris, caught smallpox there, and died from it. His clothes were returned to St Kilda in 1727, and brought the disease with them. Most of the islanders died – only one adult and 18 children survived the outbreak on Hirta. However, three men and eight boys escaped the disease as they had been left on Stac an Armin to collect gannets. The disease spread while they were there and nobody could go to fetch them. They were eventually rescued by the Steward nine months later. The owner of St Kilda had to send people from Harris to repopulate St Kilda.

Lady Grange

Lady Grange was the wife of the Scottish Lord Advocate, but they separated in 1730. She spread rumours that he was a Jacobite sympathiser, and generally made a nuisance of herself.

She was imprisoned by him on North Uist, then moved to St Kilda in 1734. Eventually, she managed to alert friends to her circumstances, and they tried to rescue her. This was unsuccessful and she was removed to Skye where she died in 1742.

A large cleit in the Village meadows is traditionally said to be the house where she was held prisoner, but this is unlikely to be true.


The cleit said to be Lady Grange's house
Photograph: Andy Robinson

The Great Auk

Once a familiar sight to sailors in the North Atlantic, this flightless bird is now extinct. It occasionally visited St Kilda, and was described there by Martin Martin in A Late Voyage to St Kilda 1698.

In 1840, what is believed to have been the last Great Auk recorded in the British Isles, was killed by the islanders on Stac an Armin. It is said that they thought it had caused a violent storm, and they suspected it was a witch! The last Great Auks in the world were killed in Iceland in 1844.

 

 


Mounted Great Auk
Photograph: Glasgow Museums

© The National Trust for Scotland