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The Evacuation

Gradually the St Kildans lost their self- sufficiency, relying on imports of food, fuel and building materials and furnishing for their homes. In 1852, 36 people emigrated to Australia, and population decline began (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). The islanders felt increasingly isolated from the outside world and disliked particularly the lack of regular communications.

In 1876, during a period of food shortage, the first St Kilda mailboat was sent out as a distress signal. A letter was sealed in a wooden container with a sheep's bladder acting as a float. Subsequently, many of these mailboats were consigned to the sea, and most reached shore in Scotland or Scandinavia carried by the prevailing currents.

Posting the mailboat in 1897
Photograph: Cherry Kearton

In 1912 there were acute food shortages and in 1913 an outbreak of influenza. The war of 1914-18 brought a naval detachment to Hirta and regular deliveries of mail and food from naval supply vessels. When these services were withdrawn at end of war feelings of isolation increased. There was more emigration of able-bodied young islanders and a breakdown of the island economy. In 1930 the remaining 36 islanders requested evacuation to the mainland.

Islanders carrying their belongings to the jetty at the evacuation
Photograph: Glasgow Herald, 30 August 1930

In 1931 St Kilda was sold to the Marquess of Bute, a keen ornithologist. He bequeathed them to The National Trust for Scotland in 1957.


St Kilda Diaries — The diary of Alice MacLachlan 1906 – 1909

© The National Trust for Scotland