St Kilda is an isolated archipelago owned by the National Trust for Scotland lying 40 miles west-northwest of North Uist.
Located in the North Atlantic, they are the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides. The four main islands are Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom, Dùn, Soay and Boreray, several other smaller islands and Stacs make up the archipelago which is the vestige of an extinct volcano.
Hirta has the highest point, Conachair, ‘the beacon’, and stands 1,410 feet, falling sheer into the sea.
St Kilda was permanently inhabited for at least two millennia with a population probably never exceeding 180 with no more than 100 after 1851. In modern times, St Kilda’s only settlement was at Village Bay on Hirta. However on Hirta and Boreray the remains of earlier habitations have been found.
Although 40 miles from the nearest land, St Kilda is visible from the summit ridges of the Cuillins on Skye, some 80 miles away. Wind speeds of 130 mph have occasionally been recorded near sea level and ocean swells of 16 feet frequently occur, making landings difficult or impossible at any time of year. The oceanic location protects the islands from snow, which lies for only about a dozen days per year. North-west of Village Bay there are 20 horned structures, now ruined buildings with a main court measuring about 10 by 10 feet, with two or more smaller cells and a forecourt formed by two curved or horn-shaped walls. They are unique to St Kilda and their original use is unknown.
Early in World War One the Royal Navy erected a signal station on Hirta. On May 15, 1918, a German submarine arrived in Village Bay and, after issuing a warning, started shelling the island. Seventy-two shells were fired, and the wireless station was destroyed but no loss of life occurred. As a result of this attack, a 4-inch Mark III QF gun was erected on a promontory overlooking Village Bay, but it never saw military use.
Numerous factors led to the evacuation of the Island. After World War One most of the young men left and the population fell from 73 in 1920 to 37 in 1928. Crop contamination, ill health with the death of young Mary Gillies who was thought to have died from appendicitis in 1930 was the last straw. At their own request, on August 29, 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were removed to Morvern on the Scottish mainland.
St Kilda is now a breeding ground for many important seabird species. One of the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets, totalling 30,000 pairs, 49,000 breeding pairs of Leach’s Petrels, 136,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins and 67,000 Northern Fulmar pairs. Dùn is home to the largest colony of Fulmars in Britain.