Cultural Heritage

The World Heritage Site inscription of St Kilda for its cultural heritage qualities was included in the original Nomination Document, submitted in 1985. ICOMOS recommended the inscription under cultural criterion v of the Guidelines. However, the World Heritage Committee in December 1986 approved only the natural heritage qualities for inscription, and deferred the case for inscription for cultural heritage qualities. It was to be another six years before the Committee adopted the 'cultural landscape' criteria.

A unique combination of special qualities work together to give St Kilda its universal cultural value. Most important of these qualities are:

  • the completeness of fossilised 19th-century settlement and agricultural remains
  • the spectacular landscape setting adapted by people through the millenia
  • the perceived remoteness of the islands
  • the vivid story of human endeavour – evidence of millennia of sustainable use, largely based on the use of bird resources, followed by declining viability, principally due to external influences –on small islands in an extreme climate
  • and the wealth of documentary evidence from the 16th century to the time of abandonment, which provides the means to appreciate and understand the other main qualities.

To have one or two of these qualities is special, but to have all is truly unique, resulting in the iconic status of St Kilda in the international consciousness.

The almost tangible spirit of the place comes from the imprint left after the eventual demise, largely the result of outside influences, of this way of life after several thousand years. The twin aspects of people’s resilience in inhospitable surroundings, and the contrasting precarious traditional ways of life in the face of inexorable social and economic development give the place its emotive power. St Kilda is unique, not only in that so much of the physical evidence of its past culture has survived, embraced by the spectacular natural landscape, but that this is complemented by detailed documentary accounts stretching back four hundred years and more.

In their April 1986 report, ICOMOS set out the following justification for inclusion under cultural criterion v:

‘The tiny St Kilda archipelago in the Hebrides Island is not only one of the biggest sanctuaries of wildlife and marine life in the North Atlantic, but also bears testimony to a coherent ecosystem which has remained virtually unchanged over 2,000 years of human occupation.

From the Bronze Age to the evacuation of the archipelago’s last inhabitants in 1930, the islands of Soay, Hirta, and Boreray, and the islets bordering their coasts have undergone several periods of human occupation. At several sites there is evidence of a Christian influence prior to the Viking invasion, as illustrated by numerous artefacts from the 10th century. Difficult to date, the conserved structures – cairns, circular stone formations, groups of monastic cells and even post-medieval villages – illustrate a remarkable persistence of forms of primitive architecture in a country whose traditional modes of construction have survived to the contemporary period.

In the opinion of ICOMOS, the St Kilda archipelago corresponds perfectly to the definition of a cultural and natural property whose value should be taken into consideration in an evaluation complementary to that of IUCN.'

St Kilda is at once stunningly dramatic and acutely isolated. Its remoteness is accentuated because it is and always has been difficult to access. There is a romantic perception of its position as the islands ‘at the edge of the world’, where the people lived in harmony with nature. The steep cliffs and pounding seas around the archipelago give a sense of the overwhelming power of nature, against which the very visible remains of human activity fills visitors with awe and respect for past inhabitants. But perceptions of St Kilda remain clouded by those of 19th-century travellers who were seeking experiences of the sublime, and whose writing tended to ignore those things that contradicted their expectations.