It is hard to settle into somewhere quite as staggering as Hirte. Everyday tasks just don’t seem to take on that everyday feeling; I’m not sure if the mundane will ever materialise. I thought I’d have lots of time to read, write, even wood carve – how naive. Every time you care to take a look out the door, you can’t help just stare at it all for quite some time. I’m still making involuntary oohs and aahhs and wooo’s like a toddler (If there were Hirteach’s still here, I’d imagine they’d be pretty amused at my gawping innocence – but it reminds me of stories about them when they occasioned upon the big city). The thing is though, the more you look at things here, the more you see. Hirte has been inhabited, or visited, for at least 4,000 years - and if you had to travel across that piece of ocean in a flimsy skin boat or small canoe, as the pioneers and voyagers for the first 2,000 plus years did, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to do it very often. All of those years of activity are concentrated into a very small area. I’ve lost count of the number of stone tools- potentially thousands of years old, and all quarried from the Dolerite crags of Mullach Sgar – found when wandering around, built into the walls and cleits. The work party found Iron Age pottery whilst cleaning out drains, and there was more in a cleit roof we fixed up. There hasn’t been a task yet where we haven’t found something ancient. It is a landscape akin to a Russian doll, a palimpsest, the metaphor being more exact if you can imagine that the Russian Dolls are mostly made from the remains of the many earlier Russian dolls...
To me it speaks of the success of the Hirteach’s, of their thriving existence over aeons of time, all upon a few rocks in the middle of the ocean. People get all caught up with the iconic melancholy of the evacuation, the empty street, the roofless cottages, the painful lack of life, bustle and banter, but this does no justice to the skills and tenacity of the people in their prime. I would argue that they lived both sustainably and self sufficiently in a difficult environment, for most of those thousands of years: there must have been contact, some incomers or foreign goods from time to time – but how could they rely upon anyone making that journey?
It could be questioned how well they lived in these circumstances – were they perhaps desperately clinging on to existence rather than living happily? When early ‘outsiders’ like Martin Martin described them in 1697, Kildans (or Kildians, as they called themselves) were mostly healthy, well fed and had some of the best grain in the Hebrides, as well as healthy cattle and sheep and of course the seabirds - It seems that they got on just fine! The abundance of archaeological evidence would support this.
The reasons leading to the evacuation could and probably will remain an endless debate, which I do not wish to join. But the fact that people lived here, in this place, for thousands and thousands of years - albeit with occasional help – is incontrovertible, and good enough for me to be mightily impressed. I can’t help feel this should be remembered as much, if not more, than the evacuation.
Ian Mchardy, St. Kilda Archaeologist