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The Statement of Significance is an evaluation of the significance or value of St Kilda, both in terms of its heritage values (e.g. natural, cultural heritage or landscape value) and in terms of the visitor experience and the social and economic context.

The Vision Statement sets out a long-term vision for St Kilda and the guiding principles that will inform its future management

If you have any comments on these documents, please email them to Lorraine Bell at lbell@nts.org.uk.

 

Statement of Significance

Summary

St Kilda is a challenging place to visit because of its remoteness and its exposure to the ferocity of Atlantic wind and waves. The island archipelago, formed from the rim of an ancient volcano, is an intensely dramatic landscape of sheer cliffs and sea stacs of outstanding natural beauty. This continues underwater with spectacular cliffs, reefs and caves supporting marine life of almost unparalleled richness and colour. The sea provides feeding grounds and the cliffs nest sites for the largest seabird colony in the north-east Atlantic; the birds themselves formerly providing the main harvest for the island's small human population. Abandoned by its community in the evacuation of 1930, St Kilda presents an outstandingly complete cultural landscape further elucidated by a remarkable quantity of documentary evidence. St Kilda has long been viewed as a place apart, a place in thrall to nature, with an isolated people adrift on "the islands at the edge of the world". We value it today equally for its natural riches which are dynamic and changing, and for its cultural heritage, a poignant and powerful reminder of a past way of life.


The following paragraphs set out in more detail our evaluation of the significance of the place:

Natural Heritage

St Kilda is designated as a World Heritage Site (WHS) for its natural heritage - particularly for its superlative natural features, its habitats for rare and endangered species and its impressive populations of seabirds. This designation judges St Kilda to be of outstanding importance on a global scale and it is the only such Scottish designation. Other designations confirming the international and national importance of the natural heritage are National Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation. The breeding seabird colonies are of such great importance because they host a very significant proportion of the world population of some species, including a quarter of all northern gannets. In European terms it represents certainly the largest colony of many species including puffins and Leach's petrel.

St Kilda holds a uniquely favoured position in terms of the north Atlantic marine heritage because of its remoteness from adverse terrestrial influences and its proximity to the currents off the continental shelf. In the surrounding sea, high nutrient input and exceptionally high wave energy combine to allow deep sunlight penetration and marine life of exceptional richness. The remarkable clarity of the waters also has a significant bearing on the extent and distribution of animals and plants, which include a number of nationally rare species. St Kilda also has unusually deep kelp forests, sometimes three times the depth found in other parts of the west coast of Scotland.

The terrestrial natural heritage of the islands is of outstanding national significance because of its particular vegetation, primarily mosses and lichens, which show the influence of an extreme maritime climate and because of the presence of two unique sub-species - the St Kilda wren and St Kilda field mouse. The Soay sheep (on Hirta and Soay) are a rare survival of the most primitive breed in Europe closely resembling the domesticated sheep of Neolithic times and are especially important for the genetic purity ensured by their isolation.

St Kilda is an internationally important scientific resource for both seabird studies and the Soay sheep. The sheep have been the subject of research ongoing since 1952 into herbivore ecology and genetics, the islands providing a unique European opportunity to observe a sizable population of effectively wild, large mammals.

Landscape

The landscape and setting of St Kilda is the defining characteristic of the place and the point where natural and cultural heritage interests converge. The archipelago is of outstanding scenic importance and designated as such (WHS and National Scenic Area) for its natural qualities of ruggedness, drama, isolation and remoteness heightened by the constantly changing effects of climate.

Underwater the topography is just as dramatic, the power of natural forces just as evident in the caves, gullies and in the wave-induced megaripples on the sea bed, the deepest so far discovered. Views to the many sea stacs are breathtaking, emphasised by the seasonal appearance of thousands of seabirds. Landward there is the contrast of grassy rounded hilltops, open glens, and on Hirta the great natural amphitheatre of Village Bay.

Overlying this and giving scale to it all are the remains of millennia of habitation by the islanders, in particular the hundreds of cleits scattered across the islands. The cultural landscape of St Kilda is unique - shaped by the islanders' relationship with their surroundings and their sustainable use of the natural resources on offer.

Modern structures such as buildings, roads, cables and masts can impinge on the feeling of isolation and landscape quality. But the scale of these installations is such that they are dwarfed by the scale of the topography and in aesthetic terms, the significance of the village is emphasised by its juxtaposition against the base.

Cultural heritage

The key aspects of the tangible cultural heritage of St Kilda are the structures and field systems that provide immediate, visible evidence of aspects of the past 3 - 4, 000 years of human habitation. Hirta in particular has a tangible sense of time-depth to its historic landscape. Though some of the structures are unique to St Kilda (e.g. scree structures and cleits) it is the totality of the remains, together with their density in the landscape, which is enhanced by the spectacular natural setting, that is the key to their significance. Large areas of this historic environment are designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments indicating their high national importance. They are particularly remarkable for their good state of preservation, their associated undisturbed buried deposits and, in some instances, their apparent continuity through time.

The 19th century was the period of greatest change for the island. An improving landlord and religious influences combined to reshape Village Bay to the ordered fan of field boundaries and the associated neatness of Village Street, which is today the emblematic image of Hirta. In terms of planned crofting settlements in Scotland, St Kilda ranks as one of the most spectacular and ambitious, and is one of the best surviving examples. It is unique in the Western Isles as a planned development of whitehouses.

Because of its remoteness, St Kilda has always been a source of curiosity. Many travellers' accounts survive, as well as diaries and other documents written by figures in authority (the landlord or factor, the missionary or the nurse) rather than the native St Kildans. Such a quantity of documentation is rare and perhaps unique for a simple rural society, certainly in a Scottish and perhaps a European context. Place names on the island reflect both Norse and Gaelic influence and improve our understanding of the habitation of the islands.

In spiritual terms the Village Bay settlement holds the soul of St Kilda. There are many abandoned settlements in the Highlands, but what gives St Kilda its unique emotional power is the drama and finality of the evacuation, the impressiveness of what was left behind and the widely known story of living "on the edge".

[Cultural significance of base - as military history - assessment currently being sourced.]

Access and Benefit

Few visitors to the archipelago remain untouched by the experience of St Kilda, for most it evokes a powerful, even spiritual, response. Many come because of a particular interest in the place, others for the recreational opportunities it affords - it is for example the premier dive location in Britain. However it is neither cheap nor easy to visit St Kilda and the logistics are such that only a comparatively small number will ever have the opportunity to do so at firsthand. For many it is a lifetime's dream.

Non-archaeologists can find it difficult to interpret or relate to slight traces of the past - the active conservation of original structures on Hirta ensures that the messages from the past are clear and vibrant and give visitors a real sense of walking into the past. And the ongoing use of the islands as a natural and cultural laboratory offers equal potential for formal and informal education opportunities based on the current research agendas.

Even from a remote distance the attraction of the place is still powerful and the potential areas of interest multifarious - desire to access an experience of the place and information about it is therefore strong. Intellectual access to St Kilda and its story is provided in various media, from books and film to the Internet. The growing number of books still written about the islands is testament to the degree of interest in the site, providing an audience for these works. The St Kilda website offers the chance to reach a worldwide audience and there is huge potential to interpret the islands in increasingly imaginative ways to the large numbers of people who access the site.

Social and Economic Context

Since the evacuation, St Kilda has had no permanent community, though since 1957 Hirta has had a temporary and/or seasonal population of first army personnel and then staff at the military base, Trust and SNH staff and scientific researchers. On the Western Isles, of which St Kilda is a part, many feel a special bond with St Kilda and there are many other communities of interest all around the world who feel strongly about the place, evidenced by the growing membership of the St Kilda Club.

The archipelago is a great asset to Scotland, its image potentially drawing people to visit other parts of the country, and its WHS status makes it certainly the single most important heritage asset in the care of the Trust. This high heritage profile is not fully realised by the Trust currently, and the potential is there to spread many messages about conservation and the Trust through the medium of St Kilda.

More tangibly, it is significant as a moderate economic resource for the western seaports because of its role as a tourist draw, a destination for charter boats and cruise ships - many of whom make the majority of their income from St Kilda - and as a market for the locally-sourced goods and services required for its upkeep.

 


Vision Statement


St Kilda is the most highly designated place in National Trust for Scotland ownership and is Scotland's only natural World Heritage Site. If granted, double World Heritage Site status (marine and terrestrial natural heritage and cultural landscape) will place the islands in the top league of internationally important conservation sites. With the Trust taking over direct management of the Natural Nature Reserve, it has an opportunity to work with partner organisations to achieve sympathetic integrated management of all interests of the island archipelago.

The vision is therefore to establish St Kilda as an internationally renowned site for conservation and for sensitive public access and interpretation. It should benefit from the fullest protection, with agreed mapped buffer zones around the islands adding to the existing designations in order to safeguard its features from potential threats arising from tanker and shipping traffic, oil spill, overfishing, offshore development and unfettered access. The experience for both the virtual and actual visitor should be unrivalled with St Kilda established as a model for environmental education and informed interpretation. St Kilda will develop a global reputation for responsible and sustainable management of public interest in a fragile environment, allowing informed and inspiring access, restricted where necessary on site to avoid damage to significant features. This vision should be underpinned by a management structure for the islands that supports on-site staffing needs, the delivery of integrated conservation advice, liaison with visitors and the local community and a partnership approach between the Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland and the MoD and its agents.


Guiding Principles

The management of St Kilda will be defined by the following principles. They provide the long-term framework for management and a basis for assessing and selecting objectives.

- St Kilda will be managed as a model of integrated conservation management, where natural and historic interests are balanced together.
Where the needs of nature conservation and cultural heritage are in opposition, decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis with reference to the Trust's Conservation Principles, using the significance of the features in question to make a judgement and aiming to cause minimum loss of significance.

- St Kilda's NNR designation requires that the principal land-use of the islands will be conservation.
The islands and the surrounding seas will be managed for the conservation of their heritage assets, so as to maintain and enhance the key features of their major conservation designations - particularly the NNR, SSSI, SAC, SPA, SAMs and WHS - providing a best practice example for others to follow.

- For natural heritage interests, natural processes will normally be allowed to continue without intervention.
Intervention will only be undertaken where it is necessary to protect features of greater significance from deterioration and any actions taken should be reversible and give minimum disturbance to significant features, species and habitats.

- The sheep of Soay, Hirta and Boreray will continue to be treated as wild and unmanaged animals.

- For the marine natural heritage, the same level of protection as that on land will be sought.

- For cultural heritage interests, conservation action will proceed on the basis of minimum intervention required to retain the significance of the site.
This will allow for a variety of conservation approaches from recording to consolidation and even repair. This principle takes account of the need to retain intangibles such as atmosphere and spiritual significance by arresting decay, as well as respect for original/authentic fabric. Without the policy of consolidation and active conservation work to the Village Bay structures much of the impact and immediacy of these remains would be diluted.

- Any new development on the islands will only proceed if its effect upon all aspects of heritage significance are evaluated and judged to have no or only minimal detrimental effect upon the heritage features and landscape of the place and if the developments are essential, temporary and reversible.
It is recognised that some element of development on the island is inevitable, whether to run conservation operations, to facilitate access or in regard to the lease to MoD. The aim will be to leave the significance of the place untouched. All facilities will be designed and managed to have no negative impact on their environment.

- Scientific research that improves the understanding of the property in order to guide its management will be encouraged.
Research will be permitted if it can be justified as requiring the unique opportunities that St Kilda offers, providing that it is in keeping with NNR and SAM status, does not damage key features and causes minimum disruption to visitor experience. There will be a presumption that natural heritage research (including research on the Soay sheep) will be by observation only. Any other research will be considered on a case by case basis. Cultural heritage research by intervention will only be permitted if it is part of the St Kilda Archaeological Research Plan.

- Education and interpretation programmes will instill a long-lasting appreciation for both the qualities of this unique site and the importance of sustainable conservation management at St Kilda and across the globe.

- Access for visitors, whether in person or through interpretive materials will continue to be provided. Visitor interests will be positively yet responsibly managed to ensure no negative impact on the islands' significant features, whilst providing an unrivalled experience for those who visit.

 

© The National Trust for Scotland