Lost Villages and Shipwrecks on Scotland’s Mysterious Islands

Main image by Des Colhoun.  Inset: St Kildans in 1886

Main image by Des Colhoun. Inset: St Kildans in 1886

For thousands of years, human beings have successfully adapted to their environments and coped with some of the toughest challenges that nature could throw their way.  But some places are just so wild that after several millennia, hardy settlers have little choice but to abandon their homes.  As such, the lonely islands off the north west coast of Scotland are a swirling mixture of windswept grasslands,  craggy sea stacks, shipwrecks and abandoned settlements.

St Kilda

The tiny archipelago known as St Kilda contains the westernmost islands in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and is one of the most isolated clusters in the North Atlantic.  With no barrier between the tiny islands and vast expanse of ocean, the winter storms that gather momentum over thousands of miles deliver a relentless battering to these shores.  It’s little wonder then, that after more than 4,000 years of occupation, the tiny population finally surrendered to the elements.

Isle of Soay, St Kilda (image by Olaf1950)

Isle of Soay, St Kilda (image by Olaf1950)

In 1852, not happy with simply making a trip to the Scottish mainland, 36 islanders – around a third of the population – decided to attempt the long and risky journey to Australia.  Many reportedly perished at sea, but the abundance of towns and suburbs named St Kilda in Australia – especially one small suburb in Adelaide – suggests that some who had witnessed the tiny archipelago did make it “Down Under”.  By 1930, the remaining islanders decided to make the shorter trip to the mainland.  They petitioned the government to evacuate them and on August 29, the St Kildans left the islands for the last time, taking most of their livestock with them.

Families outside their houses (left); St Kilda parliament (right)

Families outside their houses (left); St Kilda parliament (right)

(Images above via Friends of Scotland)

The tiny community lived on Hirta, St Kilda’s largest island.  Huddled on a hillside around Village Bay, the most sheltered area, St Kildans went about their daily business of farming crops, tending to sheep and raising their children.  The pictures above, from 1886, paint a picture of how life must have been on a typical day – with the men in the right hand picture wearing what look like nineteenth century versions of the “See you Jimmy” hat!

Images by gajtalbot

Images by gajtalbot

The isolated location and sturdy build of the cottages and other structures mean the village survives largely intact to this day.  The unforgiving weather has not surprisingly taken its toll on some of the buildings, but looking at the right hand picture above, you could be forgiven for thinking the street has not changed much in the last 80 years.  That said, the renovated roofs on several of the cottages denotes ongoing renovation since the islands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

Images by gajtalbot

Images by gajtalbot

The series of images above show a collection of scenes around Hirta.  The dry stone walls once sheltered crops of oats and barley from the salty wind and livestock that grazed the hillside behind the settlement.  The curious looking beehive-shaped structures are called cleitean.  These protected stores of food throughout the long winter, as well as dried peat used for fuel.  The top left image shows the haunting remains of the main settlement, with the end of the street to the right of the picture and a network of stone walls beyond.

St Kilda cemetery (image by Bob Jones)

St Kilda cemetery (image by Bob Jones)

Only the dead remain.  This dry stone wall protects the islanders’ tiny cemetery where generations of St Kildans rest, watched over by the chilly North Atlantic winds.  (Weburbanist does a great article about exposed settlements, including a nice section about St Kilda.)

North Rona

Image by David Hoult

Image by David Hoult

North Rona lies 44 miles north north east of the bizarrely-named Butt of Lewis, and is the most remote island in the British Isles to have once been inhabited longterm.  Even more isolated than St Kilda, it is the closest neighbour of the Faroe Islands.  Rona (Rònaidh, in Gaelic) is so isolated that it is often omitted from maps of Britain, lending its mysterious Celtic ruins an even more enigmatic air.  In the foreground (above) can be seen the remains of St Ronan’s Chapel, while the hut on the horizon provides temporary living accomodation for Durham University scientists studying the island’s native grey seal colony.

Images by Peter Strugnell

Images by Peter Strugnell

The image (right) shows the Celtic remains of St Ronan’s Chapel and graveyard.  It dates from the 8th century and is one of the three oldest Christian churches in Scotland.  The impressive cave (left) is the result of constant erosion from the ferocious waves.  One day, the entire northern peninsula could become a separate island as a result of continued erosion by Atlantic storms.

Images by JJM

Images by JJM

Images by john m macfarlane

Images by john m macfarlane

Shipwrecks are a brutal reminder of the ocean’s ferocity as it pounds and traps hapless vessels in the driving swell beneath the overhanging cliffs and craggy stacks.  Once boats run aground here, there is little chance of saving them before they are mercilessly battered against the rocks.  The lower wreck is the fishing boat Moray Adverturer.

South Rona

Stone pews in Church Cave, South Rona (image by Carolyn Mansfield)

Stone pews in Church Cave, South Rona (image by Carolyn Mansfield)

Less isolated than its northern counterpart, but still chilly and exposed nonetheless, is the island of South Rona.  Languishing slightly more comfortably (anyone who has visited Scotland will know this is relative!) within the Inner Hebrides, South Rona is home to this unique cave.  At first glance it looks nothing out of the ordinary, except that the horizontal stone arrangements on the floor are actually the remains of stone pews – and this cave was once a fully consecrated Christian church!  Known as Church Cave, it was the scene of regular Sunday services until a proper church was built in 1912.  Even then, it continued in sporadic use until the 1970s.  So while North Rona may have one of the oldest churches in Scotland, South Rona surely has the only consecrated cave in the land!

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