Past Lives: 10 Tales of Abandoned Crofting Communities in the Scottish Highlands

scottish-highlands-abandoned-croft-2 (Image: Iain Harris)

The Scottish Highlands are among the most beautiful places on Earth. Dotted with clear blue lakes, broken by breathtaking mountains, with green meadows that seem to meet the horizon, it’s one of those places where it’s easy to look around and see what the Vikings saw when they first landed there, or to see what Stone Age families woke to every morning. But also scattered around the countryside are abandoned homes and villages…. and many of those tell sad, tragic stories.

10. Leaving St. Kilda

The tiny archipelago of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides had been occupied for thousands of years when it was finally, permanently abandoned in 1930. At one time, people survived largely on the puffins that lived on the island, harvesting the birds for food, feathers and oil. But on August 29, 1930, the last residents sailed away from their ancestral home, and one remembers the moment as if it were looking back at “an open grave”.

st-kilda-the-village-hirta-scotland-highlands-islands (Image: National Trust for Scotland, public domain)

There was no one thing that lead to the abandonment of the peaceful, rural lifestyle on St. Kilda. As the 19th century progressed, people found themselves more and more reliant on imports – from food to building materials, there was only so much on the islands. The younger generation started to move away, and disease took its toll on the population as well.

And then, war came to St. Kilda. Soldiers that were stationed there in the years around the First World War started to tell stories of life on the mainland, of other places, and of other people. Suddenly, idyllic Highland life seemed more oppressive than peaceful. And when illness continued and people began to die before they could get to the mainland for care… it was decided among the remaining villagers that they would all leave – together.

st-kilda-the-village-hirta-scotland-highlands-islands-2 (Images: Richard Kearton, public domain; Des Colhoun, cc-sa-4.0)

Thirty-six people left; some of the livestock was taken off the island as well, and residents moved to Inverness, Fife, Oban and Lochaline. In retrospect, those that still remember leaving the island know that it was hard at the time, but it was necessary and a blessing for those that were left in the community to make something of themselves and to do something with their lives.

For many residents – and there were a lot that stayed together – moving to the new, remote Scottish towns offered an amazing wealth of amenities that islanders weren’t used to. From two stores, a telephone system and steady employment where men were making in a week what they were making in a year on St. Kilda, the adjustment was massive. But because life goes on, they did adjust.

9. St. Kilda Today

st-kilda-the-village-hirta-scotland-highlands-islands-3 (Image: Hugh Miller, cc-sa-3.0)

For 2,000 years, the inhabitants of one of the most remote locations in Scotland lived day to day, surviving on what they shared the landscape with. Today, now that the people have gone, there’s still traces that they were once there. There are still clusters of stone houses that were home to generations of islanders. In the main settlement on Hirta, known as ‘the Village’, there’s still a main street. But now, different souls walk ‘the Street’.

st-kilda-the-village-hirta-scotland-highlands-islands-4 (Image: Hugh Miller, cc-sa-3.0)

St. Kilda has an incredible ecosystem, in no small part due to the isolation of the area. Several of the native species – the wren and the field mouse – have diverged into unique species. There’s also the Soay sheep; once forming the backbone of the farming that kept countless families alive through the generations, the feral sheep now roam free throughout the fields once worked by farmers and their dogs. The sheep aren’t just unique to the area, but they’re also descendants of the most primitive breed of sheep in Europe, as close to unchanged over the centuries as it’s possible to find.

st-kilda-the-village-hirta-scotland-highlands-islands-5 (Image: Hugh Miller, cc-sa-3.0)

St. Kilda is also home to countless colonies of sea birds, now moving in to the untouched land that was previously shared with human occupants for centuries.



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