History of Sustainability

Dividing the northern fulmar catchFor many, St Kilda is the epitome of an idyllic community, living in harmony with nature for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but ultimately seduced by the comforts of modern life. It is a story of long-term sustainability, relying on remarkably few natural resources, and leading to the unusual reliance on birds for food and comfort (oil for lamps, feathers for bedding, and even puffins for snacks). The islands are littered with evidence of this way of life, including several prehistoric and early historic remains of exceptional preservation in a Western European context. This perception of simple sustainability was a picture of St Kilda that was painted by visitors from early times, but is so vividly captured the photographs of the island way of life, caught for posterity from the early days of photography to the evacuation in 1930. Few other rural agricultural communities of this period can have had more written about them, and we are particularly fortunate that many traditions and superstitions of the St Kildans have been handed down to us in writing, poetry and song.

Soay sheep

Soay sheep are arguably the oldest and best preserved cultural artefact in Scotland. They are believed to be more or less unchanged since the earliest sheep were domesticated by Neolithic farmers – perhaps some 7,000 years ago. The wild ancestors of sheep (an entirely natural creation) were taken into captivity and subjected to selective breeding by the early farmers to form domestic breeds of sheep. In the same way as any other object fashioned by the human hand – a rock carving, a building, an item of clothing, a cultural landscape – they can be regarded as a cultural artefact. Any other artefact found in pristine condition, apparently exactly as used by Neolithic farmers, would be accorded the highest significance and subject to rigorous conservation measures. Soay sheep deserve this degree of recognition.

Fowling for common guillemot at foot of connachairThe story of successful use followed by decline and abandonment is not unusual in island communities on the western seaboard of Europe. Mingulay is another example of a Hebridean economy with a heavy reliance on birds, which ultimately failed in 1911, while the very remote island of North Rona was abandoned as early as 1844. Islands along Ireland’s west coast have had similar fates, and are also considered to be remote. The monastic community on the World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael went out of use in medieval times. Although perhaps not comparable to St Kilda in terms of economy or social organisation, it is, however, similarly rare in being a truly fossil landscape.