Archaeological Investigations

Archaeological observations on St Kilda began as early as the 1830s. During his agricultural and housing improvements, Rev. Neil MacKenzie noted the presence of:

‘very numerous .... green mounds called ‘gnocan sithichean’, which were looked upon as abodes of fairies. These were all removed in the course of agricultural improvements. They were composed of stones mixed with a little earth to a depth of two or three feet. At some distance below this layer were stone coffins formed in two different ways…. In a few of them bones were found, and in nearly all of them pieces of earthen vessels.’

The very first NTS Work Party, in August 1958, decided to investigate the remains at Gleann Mor and elsewhere on the islands:

‘Set off with sandwiches up the road to the Col and down into Gleann Mor with Prof. O’Dell to examine the bee-hive dwellings. We took spades and crow-bar with us. Started work on digging out the floors of the buildings. The Amazon House is the best-preserved of the buildings-described in detail in the Scottish Field, by Ken Williamson. We dug down carefully in several houses but came on nothing of interest.’

This and other early Work Parties occasionally felt the urge to undertake small-scale excavations, but detailed records of these events, if they ever existed, are now lost. Work over the past 30 years, has, however, been undertaken within the modern rigours of scientific archaeology.

The results of several years of intensive field survey coupled with documentary research were published in 1988 by Geoffrey Stell and Mary Harman in Buildings of St Kilda, and this survey information continues to provide the base-line information from which all new work stems.

Partly for logistical reasons, very few archaeological excavations have so far taken place on St Kilda. Early efforts related to the souterrain, where unfortunately the contemporary techniques of excavation succeeded in destroying some extremely important information. Houses 15 and 16 were investigated in the 1970s. More recently, the excavation of the floor deposits of House 6 in advance of reconstruction has produced useful results, as has the examination of House 8, Blackhouse W, and a rubbish pit behind House 7 and Blackhouse G. The results of these excavations of 1986-90 were published in 1996 as the first in a series of monographs on the archaeology and ethnography of St Kilda.

In 1993 and 1994 Glasgow University undertook research excavations at Ruaival, on two circular areas and at An Lag where the ‘boat-shaped’ settings were investigated following an earlier excavation in 1973. Several areas identified as being at risk from cliff erosion have been investigated, especially a ‘boat-shaped’ setting at The Gap (excavated in 1995) and some field boundaries at Ruaival.

Since 1995, small-scale excavations have focused on the screes below Mullach Sgar, in the southwest part of Village Bay. Numerous scree structures have been rediscovered and recorded, while, on the terrace below, a ‘horned structure’, similar to those found across in Gleann Mor, has been examined and may have prehistoric origins, as well as activity into the 1st millennium AD. Nearby, investigations are in progress (2002) of part of a small but surprisingly complete Iron Age building, surviving in places almost to roof height.

For the years 1996-2001, the St Kilda Archaeological Management and Research Plan was implemented. As part of the work contained in this plan, an archaeologist has been employed on the islands during the summer months to carry out condition surveys and extensive monitoring of the built structures on the islands. This information is being used to direct building maintenance work by helping to determine priorities for repair or maintenance.

The condition of the grave markers in the graveyard has slowly been deteriorating and the area has been the subject of a detailed drawn and photographic record, to add to the already extensive records of the islands which have been maintained by the Trust since its acquisition of St Kilda.

Palaeoenvironmental research by Durham University has examined pollen and other remains from a transect through Village Bay, as well as looking at the evidence for plants grown in the planticrues, where the use of medicinal plants has been revealed. Work on the soils at An Lag has shown that large volumes of soil were imported into the enclosures to enhance fertility and provide a good growing medium.

The Universities of Lampeter and Sheffield have a long-term programme of research into the stone tool industry which flourished on St Kilda, probably from the early prehistoric period and through to at least the Iron Age, or perhaps even to relatively recent times. Excavations of quarry material have shown that the landscape above and to the south of the village has been substantially modified by human activity.