At the Edge of the World

Part of the iconic status of St Kilda relates to its profound feeling of remoteness. In European terms it is certainly unusually far from the nearest landfall with a significant population, to the extent that the medieval writer John of Fordun (c.1380) thought it was ‘… on the margine of the world …’. King James IV (1473-1513) thought St Kilda too remote to include within his kingdom. However, in world terms there are many more remote places, including Easter Island (Rapa Nui) – which is not only arguably the most remote inhabited place in the world, but had its own story of unsustainability. The remoteness of St Kilda is therefore relative, but no less real in terms of difficulty of access, even today. Before the 1860s, St Kilda was certainly remote in terms of keeping abreast of fashions and of changes in agricultural practices and ways of life. To outsiders it was much more egalitarian than elsewhere, where decisions were made at community level rather than individually, or by being imposed by a landlord. The truth is much more complicated than that, especially towards the end of the islanders’ story. The St Kildans were happy to perpetuate the impression of simple people living simple lives far from the rest of civilisation. They knew that this fascinated the tourists who, from as early as the 1840s, brought welcome new income to the islanders. Even today, in common with most places that take a good deal of effort to get to, St Kilda feels remote and wild to most visitors, and remoteness is an essential ingredient in the island’s story.

Easter Island’s diminishing resources

The story we currently understand about Easter Island has some parallels with St Kilda. Easter Islanders had a similarly meagre existence to the St Kildans. They too relied for food on a very restricted diet – mainly on sweet potatoes and chicken. However, the much more extreme remoteness of Easter Island led to such a divergence of cultural traditions from the rest of humanity, that the sustainability of natural resources became secondary to the pursuit of increasingly unsustainable religious practices –ultimately leading to the demise of the community.

 

Tristan da Cunha

There are several similarities between St Kilda and this remote island group far out in the southern Atlantic. Populations on both relied heavily on the seabird harvest, and used adjacent islands for some of their grazing animals. Both island groups suffered from a lack of communications, and have similar histories of emigration and boating disasters. Both lack safe anchorage and their economies suffered in the 20th century through a reduced demand for produce. But Tristan da Cunha lacks the cultural time-depth of St Kilda, and the preservation of the cultural landscape of St Kilda is in no way mirrored on its south Atlantic counterpart.