Ecological Lessons From History: St Kilda, Abandoned

Island life is a fragile thing.

Deciding to live on a remote island is to enter into a complex balancing-act with the local environment. Your arrival puts an unusual drain on the carrying capacity of the land – something you need to offset if you want to survive. You gamble that the climate will help rather than hinder you. You trust that bouts of extreme weather will be fleeting. However hard you work to establish a toe-hold, you could be knocked off your feet by any number of factors – including sheer bad luck.

Such is the case with the remote Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda.

Head forty miles west of the Outer Hebrides, deep into the Atlantic Ocean, and you’ll find a cluster of fang-like islands forming the archipelago of St. Kilda, one of the most savage-weathered parts of Britain (waves up to 5 meters high; recorded windspeeds as high as 130 mph). Its forbidding cliffs, often inaccessible from the sea, include the sheerest drop to sea level in the whole of the UK. This is not a place you linger.

Tell that to its previous inhabitants. There have been people on St Kilda for 2,000 years. Or rather, there were, until 1930. Thanks to a tragic combination of crop failure, accidental contamination of the land and an unsustainably low population (70 people in 1920; 37 in 1928), the delicate ecological balance that had sustained a hundred generations of human inhabitants was broken. The St Kildans were a dying community – even with their dwindled numbers, the land couldn’t support them. They were too far from the mainland to rely on food deliveries until the soil recovered. They had no choice. On August 29th 1930, the remaining inhabitants were evacuated off the low-lying main island (Hirta) and back to mainland Scotland.

Since that day, the island has had no permanent population. It’s now a World Heritage Site and an important seabird breeding station, a place of scientific interest…and a poignant reminder of our relationship with the land we stand on.

Images: CaptainOates.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.