Cultural Heritage

The importance of the cultural heritage of St Kilda centres on the extraordinary post-medieval remains coupled with exceptional supportive documentary evidence. For the most part the archaeological record relies on the remains still visible on the ground. A few relatively small-scale excavations have also taken place, shedding light on the nature of the sometimes-rich buried deposits.

Documentary Evidence

The way of life on St Kilda has been remarkably well documented in the writings of early visitors to St Kilda, such as Monro in 1549 and Martin Martin in 1697. Other key works include Macaulay’s History of St Kilda (1764) and the writings of the Rev. Neil Mackenzie from 1829-1843. Illustrative material by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1812) and Sharbau’s plans of 1860 are immensely useful in clarifying the texts, and Captain Thomas’s sketch of Blackhouse K in the 1860s is also revealing. To these records must be added the remarkable photographic archive for St Kilda, which documents the life and times of the inhabitants from about 1860 to the evacuation and beyond. These documents and illustrations have allowed the flesh to be put on the bones of the archaeological evidence, and have been drawn upon extensively to support the interpretations in the following descriptions. These accounts do, however, have to be read with caution: they were almost all written by outsiders, most of whom had their own hidden agendas which are reflected in their writings.

An island paradise?

Virtually all the historical accounts have been written by visitors to St Kilda, and recent research has begun to question the accuracy of the information that they have passed down to us. The published reports of Martin Martin, the first major chronicler of the islands, are very positive about the islanders, but associated papers and correspondence hint that he was generally reporting what his sponsors wanted to hear. Their honesty and cheery disposition might not have been the whole story.

Similarly, convincing arguments are emerging to suggest that 19th-century visitors had a very clear impression of what they wanted to see and experience during their St Kildan visit. These expectations arose out of the Sublime movement, with roots in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. Their accounts therefore focus on the remoteness, the noble savagery, the spectacle of the landscape, etc. Even today, the available travel literature perpetuates the qualities of the Sublime, influencing modern visitors’ perceptions of the past and present of the islands.


Recent research has asked the simple question why, in such an apparently egalitarian utopia, there was a widespread need for the famous wooden tumbler locks, of which several examples still survive. What were the islanders trying to keep under lock and key? And was it outsiders they feared, or the attentions of their fellow islanders?

'Rather than relying on these tales as ethnographic accounts, we must recognise that they say a good deal more about the moral, economic and aesthetic judgements of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie than about the everyday life of the St Kildans.'

Fraser MacDonald, 2001, ‘St Kilda and the sublime’, Ecumene 8 (2), 151-174


Careful scrutiny of the archaeological, ethnographic and historical records is revealing more and more evidence that contradicts the received wisdom about life on St Kilda. But although life may turn out not to have been all that different from that on similar Hebridean islands, even this knowledge is unlikely to unduly diminish the powerful experience of the place that most visitors still take away with them.

Early Prehistoric

In 1764 Macaulay reported the existence of a stone circle at Tigh Stalar, Boreray, describing a typical Late Neolithic example, but in 1876 Sands could find no trace of this structure. If it did indeed exist this would represent the earliest known human occupation on St Kilda; recently discovered Neolithic pottery certainly confirms activity at this time. The Rev. MacKenzie wrote of grassy mounds, the ‘abode of fairies’, which overlay stone cists sometimes containing bones and mostly containing coarse pots. These burial mounds, which were cleared away in the 19th century, might be of Bronze Age date; one survivor may be the underground cell in the lower meadow of Village Bay. ‘Cairns’ on Mullach Sgar are now regarded as more likely being later features. Even after three excavations there is still insufficient evidence to know whether the ‘boat-shaped’ settings at An Lag above Village Bay might represent burial or ritual structures of prehistoric date.

Iron Age

The Iron Age in the Hebrides could be argued to extend into the 18th century, but here will be considered to stop in the wake of Viking influence. Some of the structures at Gleann Mor, including the Amazon’s House (seen by Martin Martin in 1697), could represent the earliest surviving domestic buildings on St Kilda. If they are of Iron Age date, then they are of very considerable significance because of the extent of their survival. The horn-shaped protuberances on some of the Gleann Mor structures have been termed ‘gathering folds’ and may date from more recent shieling activities.

The presence of a souterrain – an underground structure – is also suggestive of Iron Age activity. The structure known as Tigh an t-Sithiche (House of the Fairies) at Village Bay has been excavated no less than four times, with some success in terms of producing dating evidence. Over 30cm of peat ash and soot covered a paved floor with a drain beneath, and finds included: coarse pottery, some of Iron Age type; hammer stones; stone loom weights or net sinkers; stone ard tips; querns; stone lamps; shells; animal bones; and a Viking iron spearhead. Pottery excavated in the late 1980s has been dated (by thermoluminescence) to AD 190±360, confirming activity on the islands at this time.

From 1998 onwards, excavations on the screes below Mullach Sgar have located the remains of structures containing Iron Age pottery; one such structure, previously entirely hidden in the scree, survives to almost 1.5m high in places.

Stone tools are found in abundance on Hirta. They would have been used in agriculture as digging points, and are often very skilfully worked. The distribution of their findspots is focused around the areas that once were fields. The tools were often discarded in Village Bay and subsequently reused as pinning stones in cleitean and other structures. Such tools were found when excavating the souterrain, and are similar to those from the Northern Isles where they are dated to the Late Neolithic/Bronze Age period. Excavations in 2000 in a structure dated to the Iron Age revealed probable debitage from working such tools, which would give the earliest evidence to date for their manufacture on St Kilda. Work in the late 1990s showed that several areas above the screes of Mullach Sgar were used for quarrying surprising amount of quarrying had taken place on the high ground between Mullach Sgar and the slopes of Conachair. Indeed, some of the apparently ‘glacial moraine’ deposits in this area may turn out to have been substantially altered by human action – spoil heaps from centuries of stone quarrying.

Iron Age/Viking/Early Medieval

Early Christian carved crossesSeveral finds of Viking date and Norse influence have been found on Hirta. These include two Viking brooches of the 9th or 10th century, the Viking spearhead found in a souterrain, and a Viking sword. Recently excavated finds of steatite were probably brought from Norse Shetland, while pottery has been dated to AD1135±170. Early Christian grooved crosses built into House 16 and Cleit 74 are thought to show some Norse influence, but the presence of various Scandinavian-type place-names is an even better measure of this strong influence on the islands, which probably extended to the end of the 13th century.

 

The ‘boat shaped’ appearance of the twenty or so settings at An Lag might have been expected to be of Norse origin, but the form of these stone settings is often not convincingly boat-shaped overall, and their dating remains unknown.

Medieval

The medieval (taken here to mean pre-1830s) core of settlement seems to have centred on a now barren area at and just above the present head dyke, and is featured on a sketch of 1812 by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland.A recently-discovered sketch of the Village in 1831 shows that blackhouses actually stretched down towards the shore, and platforms thought to be associated with these structures have now been noted beneath and around the Consumption Dykes.

 

Martin Martin records that the well named Tobar Childa was in Village Bay, and Macaulay describes the layout of the settlement in his time. The ‘tolerable causeway’ between the houses is no longer visible within the grassy terraces, but the patchwork of small, irregular enclosures in this area may have been contemporary with the medieval settlement.

Calum Mor's houseAll but one of the pre-improvement houses are said to have been removed when the village was replanned in the 1830s, but a few other traces may also survive within cleitean. Calum Mor’s House – a ‘beehive’ type structure but with external turf insulation giving a mound-like appearance – may well be the sole intact survivor. Further reasons for the poor survival of medieval structures could be the re-use of stones for dyke and cleit building, but also, as MacKenzie (in the mid-19th century) records, when new houses were built, old ones were usually removed. Outlying areas of cultivation and enclosure of this period can be found at Ruaival and An Lag, while some structures at Gleann Mor may have been reused and new ones built as shielings.

 

Village and bay from the south (Sir Thomas Dyke Ackland,1812)Three chapels are said by Martin Martin to have existed on Hirta in 1697: Christ’s Church, probably where the current burial ground stands; St Brianan’s at Ruaival; and St Columba’s at the western fringe of the village area. A further chapel or ‘teampull’ is said once to have stood on Boreray but by 1862 was represented only by a single inscribed stone. The oval graveyard, which was used until the 20th century, is likely to be of medieval origin, associated with Christ’s Church, but the scatter of small headstones leaves few clues as to who was buried there and when. Martin Martin describes seasonal shelters or bothies used during the seafowl harvesting on Stac Lee. However, the most common type of small structure is the cleit, of which about 1,260 examples have been recorded on Hirta, and more than 170 others on the outlying islands and stacks: even in Martin’s time he guessed that there were around 500 of these unusual structures. Cleitean are small drystone structures of round-ended rectilinear form, with drystone walls and a roof of slabs covered with earth and turf. Within this basic plan are numerous variations of door position, and some examples (which may have been converted from earlier dwellings) even include integral adjoining cells. Although perhaps influenced by the Norse tradition of storehouse building, the cleitean may equally have been derived from the basic design of earlier St Kildan buildings such as the Amazon’s House and Calum Mor’s House.

Cleitean were usually used as stores, and their generally loose wall construction was designed to allow a through-flow of air. They were used to store and dry birds, eggs and feathers, harvested crops, and peat and turf that were both used as fuel.

Blackhouses and Early 19th-century Buildings

Monastic cells?

Although undated, and constructed differently from other known Early Christian structures, the two cellular structures investigated near the site of St Brianan’s chapel could conceivably represent the remains of a monastic foundation – perhaps the ‘monkish cells’ referred to in a historical document. The presence of three chapels on so small an island as Hirta in the late 17th century begs explanation, and the islands are certainly remote enough to satisfy the requirements of Early Christian hermits. The dedication of one chapel to St Columba might support this hypothesis.


The first main deviations from the relatively primitive St Kildan structures were the building of the Store (or ‘Featherstore’) before 1818, and the Church and Manse to plans of 1826. The Store is a two-storey gabled structure that was used to store commodities gathered as payment in kind for rent. The Church is a relatively plain two-bay oblong structure built to plans of 1826, a schoolroom being added on the north-west side in 1898. The Manse was built at the same time as the Church.

In an effort to provide more up-to-date accommodation, the Rev. Neil MacKenzie instigated a move from the old village core to a laid out string of blackhouses, mostly end-on to what is now known as The Street. These structures, 24 of which survive fairly intact, were mainly built in the 1830s, but one example (Blackhouse E) possibly dates from as late as the 1870s. The blackhouses were of the usual Hebridean plan, being rectangular, with thick double-skinned walls and with rounded external corners. The roofs were thatched with barley straw, some later gabled, and the windows were glazed. There was a single entrance, used by both animals and humans, and the lower end was normally used as a byre. A plan published by Thomas in 1870 showed how the living quarters were laid out. Some examples include a crub or wall-bed, a feature carried on from the medieval building tradition. Several variations on the general plan can be seen, including the recently excavated kiln-barn (Blackhouse W), and the conjoined Blackhouses M and N.

Hidey Holes

Always hidden, and often forgotten, traces of at least 16 structures have been found in the screes below Mullach Sgar. Stories tell of their use as hiding places in times of strife, when pirates or other unfriendly visitors made an appearance. The islanders are said to have hidden in the screes in 1746, when soldiers came in search of Bonnie Prince Charlie who they thought might have taken refuge on St Kilda.


The fertile plain of Village Bay was divided into numerous radial plots, most of which are still evident through dykes, cultivation lynchets or lines of stones. The plots were now related to individual blackhouses whereas previously plots of land were allocated to families on a rotational system based on run-rig. The head dyke, into which preexisting cleitean and other structures were integrated, was probably built in the 1830s, as was the high seaward wall. To the rear of the blackhouses are enclosures which may define small gardens, and MacKenzie refers to adjacent manure pits which are no longer obvious. Small circular gateless enclosures within the head dyke form ‘planticrues’, used to shelter growing crops of kail or cabbages. The An Lag enclosures, the date of which is unknown, might also have been exclosures where vegetables would have grown in this relatively sheltered location without being eaten by the livestock.

Later 19th-century Houses

After a damaging hurricane in October 1860, the opportunity was taken to further improve the living accommodation in the village. Construction of the row of 16 new whitehouses strung along The Street started in 1861.

The 16 houses erected were lime-mortared, gabled and chimneyed. Of a standard Scottish Highland three-roomed design, these buildings are quite different from their predecessors; they face seaward, not end-on to the Bay, and have a hard rectangular outline of mortared stone with cement-rendered walls, and chimneyed gables. Their roofs were covered with zinc plates nailed down to sarking boards as a security against the wind, but some plates were too short to cover the whole roof and all were apparently prone to condensation. The zinc was subsequently replaced by tarred felt held down by spikes and stays. In 1898 the houses were provided with new floors which were partly of concrete, and partly timber. Set into the slope, most of these houses have a revetted drainage ditch at the rear, a common mainland technique.

The construction of these houses caused modifications to the building pattern on the street frontage, but most new structures appear to have been fitted into the gaps between the blackhouses. While most of the blackhouses were reused as byres or stores, one or two, such as Blackhouse X, were still used as dwellings after the construction of the new houses. A good deal is known, from documentary and photographic evidence, about the layout and functions within the houses, and this has been supplemented by the excavation of Houses 6 and 8 in the late 1980s.

The present Factor’s House was probably also built in the 1860s. This building was used by the Factor during his annual visits to collect the rent. It stands towards the lower end of the street, close to the Church and Manse. Built on common ground, it is of a conventional mainland type with one-and-a-half storeys and a projecting front porch. Marked on Sharbau’s plan is a structure described as a ‘mill erected in 1861’ although it is not known whether this was a grain mill which ever had a working existence.

Early 20th Century to the Evacuation

The addition of the schoolroom to the Church occurred between 1897 and 1900, and fragments of writing slates found in recent excavations may date from around that time. The concrete slipway and jetty were built in 1901, and the naval gun (brought from a First World War naval gunboat) and ammunition store were added in 1918 in response to a German U-boat attack which left the Store in ruins and other buildings severely damaged. Excavated finds show that the islanders’ tastes became more developed as tourism brought in a little extra income and contact with the outside world; for a while their life remained comfortable but basic.

Post-evacuation

Following the evacuation in 1930, the buildings of St Kilda began to deteriorate fairly rapidly, and within 10 years most were roofless. In 1957 the Air Ministry re-occupied the Manse and Factor’s House, repaired the Church, and built a block of Nissen huts. At about this time the road to the top of Mullach Mor was built, using material quarried from the side of the hill. The present MoD buildings were occupied in 1969, and the radar facilities on Mullach Mor and Mullach Sgar have gradually developed over the last 35 years.

The remains of several aircraft are to be found on St Kilda. A Sunderland flying boat and her crew –six New Zealanders, an Australian and three Britons – crashed in Gleann Mor in June 1944 while on a night operational flight from Oban. All crew members died in the crash and the wreckage was later dismantled and buried by the RAF in the summer of 1944. A Beaufighter, based at Port Ellen on Islay, crashed on Conachair on 3 June 1943, also during a night flight. Most of the wrecked fuselage plunged over the cliffs and no bodies were ever found. A Wellington Bomber crashed on Soay at some point during the Second World War, almost certainly LA995 flying out of Stornoway on 23 February 1943, carrying six of a crew.

All of these aircraft are treated as archaeological remains in the same way as the various wrecks around the islands, ranging from a supposed galleon site in Geo Chaimbir, to a trawler in Geo Chruadalain. Most recently, the Golden Chance was lost in Village Bay in 1981.

Scheduled Ancient Monuments

Extensive areas of Hirta have been scheduled as nationally important ancient monuments. The largest is a tract of the Village Bay medieval and later settlement, but excluding the structures associated with the MoD Base. It stretches from the enclosures at An Lag to the activity area and the supposed site of St Brianan’s Church at Ruaival. The cluster of structures and dykes at Geo Chrubaidh, and the cleitean and possible structure at Claigeann an Tigh Faire, between Mullach Bi and Claigeann Mor are also scheduled. In addition, a large swathe of Gleann Mor has been scheduled, including the Amazon’s House and associated ‘horned’ structures.