History of St Kilda Prior to NTS Acquisition

In 1703 Martin Martin wrote how ‘descriptions of countries without the natural history of them, are now justly reckoned to be defective’. He was the first of many visitors to describe in detail the island and its inhabitants. It was only by the beginning of the 20th century that the first scientific studies began. The first geological survey of St Kilda took place in 1927-28 (forming the basis for all subsequent geological work) and, soon afterwards, the Oxford/Cambridge expedition provided an early description of the vegetation; they were the last to record the habits of the house mouse just prior to its demise. Soay sheep were then introduced to Hirta in 1932 to become a significant factor in the subsequent development of plant communities there, as studied by later botanists.

Since the lives of the islanders were so dependent upon the seabirds most early visitors, since Martin Martin’s time, had something to offer on the avifauna. So it is not surprising that the seabirds have been so well documented and then censussed on a regular basis. A detailed checklist of the all birds was updated in the year 2000. The presence of a nature reserve warden for six months every year since 1957 has helped collate the natural history records, while the staff at the MoD Base and scientists involved in the long-term study of the sheep have provided many valuable, additional observations. Annual reports are lodged with Scottish Natural Heritage and The National Trust for Scotland, while many papers have been generated by the scientific studies, to add to the prodigious published accounts and books written by visiting naturalists over the last century or two.

A Landscape of Tradition and Legend

The landscape of St Kilda is littered with features and places linked with folklore and legend. These stories are all closely tied to those of the rest of the Outer Hebrides and Atlantic seaboard, but some have been adapted to suit the special circumstances of St Kilda. Without the plethora of documents associated with this landscape, these place names and traditions would have been lost, and the meanings of the landscape to the inhabitants would, as in many other places, have been forgotten forever.

The Mistress Stone

The Mistress Stone was a place where young men would establish their climbing prowess before their wedding.

The Mistress Stone‘In the Face of the Rock, South of the Town, is the famous Stone, known by the Name of the Mistress-Stone; it resembles a Door exactly, and is in the very Front of this Rock, which is twenty or thirty Fathom perpendicular in height, the Figure of it being discernible about the Distance of a Mile: Upon the Lintel of this Door, every Bachelor-Wooer is, by an ancient Custom, obliged in Honour to give a Specimen of his Affection for the Love of his Mistress, and it is thus: He is to stand on his left Foot, having the one Half of it over the Rock, he then draws the right Foot towards the left, and in this Posture bowing, puts both his Fists further out to the right Foot; after he has performed this, he has acquired no small Reputation, being ever after accounted worthy of the finest Woman in the World…’

Martin Martin, 1753, A voyage to St Kilda: The remotest of all the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland (4th ed.; London) p. 61.

Calum Mor’s House

Probably the last surviving dwelling from the medieval village, the house is said to have been built in a day by the strong-man Calum Mor in order for him to prove his manliness.

The Amazon’s House

The ‘House of the Female Warrior’ who once lived in Gleann Mor. The ‘Amazon’ is said to have hunted with her hounds at a time when there was a land bridge between St Kilda and the Western Isles. The structure may be hundreds or even thousands of years old.

St Kilda Parliament

St Kilda parliamentThe Parliament was convened almost every morning, when the menfolk would decide what, if anything, should be done that day. The Parliament was part of a communal system of sharing tasks and resources – one of the few aspects of life in which St Kilda appears to have differed significantly from other parts of the Western Isles.

Amazon's HouseSt Kilda has a very special genius loci – or ‘spirit of place’ – which casts a spell on all those who visit it. It is a place of natural superlatives – of high cliffs, moody weather and teeming bird life. All of these add to the qualities of St Kilda, but so much of what is special about the islands is rooted in its human history. Its built heritage is a testament to a society that existed in relative isolation for centuries, and yet was unable to survive in the 20th century. This human history of St Kilda has been so important in giving the islands the qualities, both tangible and intangible, which they possess today.

The following account is necessarily brief: more detailed accounts of the history of St Kilda can be found in the many publications about the islands (see Bibliography).

The origins of the name St Kilda are uncertain as there has never been a saint called Kilda. Skildar is the Old Icelandic word for ‘shield’ that would describe the shape of the islands as they appear to rest on the surface of the water. The form S. Kildar appeared in a book of charts in 1592 and probably led to the later adoption of the name St Kilda. An alternative suggestion was related by Martin Martin, a visitor to the islands in 1697, who thought that the islands may have been named after a well (Tobar Childa) near the village on Hirta. Another and possibly the most likely explanation comes from a knowledge of the way the St Kildans themselves pronounced Hirta in their native tongue.