Cultural Landscape

The cultural landscape of St Kilda has been shaped by the response of a remote island community to the challenge of survival with access to a very limited range of resources, particularly the reliance on birds.

Cleitan on Mullach Bi

Draped over the dramatic natural landscape is the relict cultural landscape: layered remains of human occupation by a population of less than 200 souls. The density of the visible structures in the landscape is remarkable, as is the time-depth, from the remains of the Gleann Mor settlement dating back perhaps two or three thousand years, up to the late 19th-century cottages of the Village Bay settlement. Largely using the natural materials available, primarily stone, turf and driftwood, the St Kildans built their dwellings, cleitean (stone storage huts) and field systems. Some structures, such as the ancient scree structures or the later cleitean, may be unique to St Kilda, probably answering a particular island need; others are of more recognisable vernacular building types. Taken together the structures constitute an extremely well-preserved group, and archaeological survey and excavation over the past 20 years continues to demonstrate the significance and potential of the pre-19th-century archaeology. There are very few places in the world where there is such a density and time-depth of remains of what was a simple rural agricultural system, and St Kilda is exceptional in boasting this level of survival in combination with an astonishing wealth of literature about the lives of the inhabitants, their stories and their folklore.

The heart of the cultural landscape of St Kilda sits within the stunning natural amphitheatre of Village Bay, Hirta. This relict cultural landscape of 1830s blackhouses and their field systems, and 1860s improved whitehouses marks the last main phase of settlement. Dwarfed within the enveloping crescent of near-vertical hills, the string of houses along the Street and the segmented field divisions are a uniquely intact and readily legible example of a mid- 19th-century planned crofting settlement.

"In 1697 the archipelago was visited by Martin Martin, and his detailed account of the lifeways of the inhabitants, then ‘numbering some 180-200, may well represent the most complete “anthropological” account of any 17th-century European rural community."

Andrew Fleming, 2000, ‘St Kilda: Family, Community, and the Wider World’,
J. Anthropol. Archaeol. 19, 351-2

The village is an outstanding example of a type of building ensemble or landscape that illustrates a significant stage in the human history of Scotland: the establishment of crofting townships and land allotment, and the restructuring of communities by remote higher authorities. This led in many cases directly and indirectly to the mass emigration of Scots and the creation of the Highland Diaspora that remains so strong throughout the world.

Similarly, the village remains are the heart of an almost complete system of a traditional human settlement and land-use that is representative of 19th-century rural Highland Scottish culture. In 1930 this way of life became the victim of irreversible change.

For many who visit, it is a life-changing experience – the start of a lifelong fascination for the place and its people. The physical remains become even more moving to those who know something of the evocative and often poignant stories that so enhance the spirit of the place, and which have important lessons for everyone about the sustainable use of our resources. The constant international interest in St Kilda shows that it strikes a chord in the lives of people from all over the world.