Written by Kenny Maclean FRSGS, Collections Team Volunteer and RSGS Tivy Education Medallist

Ninety years ago, on August 29, 1930, the last 36 residents of St Kilda were evacuated from the archipelago. Huddled together near the stern of HMS Harebell they were conveyed from Village Bay on Hirta, the largest of the St Kildan islands, on a 17-hour voyage to mainland Scotland. Most of the islanders disembarked at Lochaline in the Morvern peninsula, a Gaelic-speaking area, and, as planned, many worked for the Forestry Commission. The remainder alighted at Oban and dispersed more widely to Inverness, Portree, Culross and Stromeferry.

Whilst the authorities hoped the evacuation would receive minimal attention, it was inevitable that an exodus from such an iconic island attracted the exuberant media attention as it did. As expressed by Tom Steel: “The shy people from Village Bay did not expect the throng that surrounded them” at Lochaline pier. One of the islanders, Lachlan Macdonald, recalled: “There was an awful lot of reporters and journalists there... As far as I can make out, they were thinking when they were coming from St Kilda that they were odd folk who didn’t know anything, they were more like wild beasts ... a curiosity, just as if you were going to the zoo to see some wild beast or something like that.”

Not for the first time in the historiography of St Kilda, the drama of evacuation further enhanced the island group’s iconic status popularly rooted in its environmental and cultural distinctiveness.

Some of the islanders’ belongings later stacked on Oban pier: wooden kists, spinning wheels, bales of tweed and pieces of furniture

An archipelago of superlatives

Situated some 60 kilometres west of North Uist, St Kilda has long fascinated writers. For its size this remote archipelago has stimulated a greater body of literature – from Dean Martin’s first-hand A Late Voyage to St Kilda to Tom Steel’s The Life and Death of St Kilda – than other comparable islands. Understandably, such writings emphasised St Kildan particularity, emphasising its perceived isolation; the raw beauty of its vertiginous sea cliffs, including the 1,397 foot high Conachair and stacks such as Stac Lee; its role as a natural habitat for a globally significant wealth of seabird colonies, feral Soay sheep and unique species of wrens and mice; and a long human history dating from Mesolithic sojourners, Iron Age settlement and later Viking and Irish intrusions, leaving a rich detritus of cultural artefacts, not least the numerous cleitean (round-shaped stone and turf built structures used for storage, and for the drying of birds and mutton).

Traditionally, St Kilda’s history has highlighted the islanders’ adaptation within a context of challenging and capricious cool moist climate, especially the full exposure to forceful North Atlantic waves that circumscribed accessibility, and the islanders’ fishing and fowling possibilities. Furthermore, Malthusian checks, especially in the form of small pox, as in the 1727 outbreak, severely reduced the population to 42, rarely to reach 100 or more in spite of later replacements with immigrants from Harris and Skye. But by the mid-19th century, emigration would decant almost a third of the island populace to an embryonic Melbourne, a voluntary trend that would continue spasmodically until the 1930 evacuation of Hirta.

In many respects, St Kilda’s historiography has emphasised its inhabitants’ almost exotic struggle for subsistence on the edge of the Atlantic. It is a picture which continued even with the increased impact of Victorian tourism, the island group’s ownership by the National Trust for Scotland, its function as a military base, and thanks to UNESCO, its well-deserved status as the United Kingdom’s first dual World Heritage Site – designated for its natural features in 1986 and cultural landscape in 2005.

Stac Lee

Revisionist thoughts on St Kilda

As ever, history and the past are not necessarily equivalent, and recent work has suggested alternative perspectives on the St Kildan archipelago. Revisionists challenge depictions of the islanders as an exotic, introspective species with their unique food-gathering practices, gawped at by inquisitive Victorian tourists. Something of the ‘normality’ of the St Kildans within their regional context is now stressed to a greater extent – while not failing to credit abilities such as their rock-climbing prowess. Put simply, they were not so different from other Hebrideans, such as the inhabitants of Pabbay and Mingulay who suffered depopulation and evacuation.

The common depiction of a repressive Presbyterian ministry is countered by revisionists offering a more empathetic awareness of the full humanity and positive work of an evangelically-rooted Christianity. Similarly, the concept of isolated islanders unaware of the outside world is questioned through instances, for example, of the relationship of islanders from the 1890s with trawler-men from Fleetwood stopping over and bringing meal, medicines and mail en route to northern fishing grounds.

Above all else, recent work highlights the agency of St Kildans in dealing with the impact of globalisation on their own terms. As landscape archaeologist Andrew Fleming put it: “they were good at haggling and striking bargains with the tacksman, concealing the true numbers of their sheep, or shaming tourists into paying more than they intended.”

Unfortunately, inhabitants of St Kilda were forced to leave because of circumstances beyond their own control in 1930. For a start, the community of only twelve men and eight women was now no longer able to function effectively because there were barely enough men left to crew boats, effectively tend sheep and weave tweed; the once–profitable tweed market had declined after 1914; and as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnson, reported to the House of Commons, all St Kildans were “suffering great poverty and hardship,” and he “was assured that it was their earnest desire not to spend another winter on the island.”

Consequently, an appeal, written by the missionary Dugald Munro, was made to the Secretary of State for Scotland, William Adamson. Dated 10th May 1930, it stated: “We the undersigned, the natives of St Kilda, hereby respectfully pray and petition HM Government to assist us all to leave the island this year and find homes and occupations for us on the mainland.” For the first time in its long history, the archipelago was considered uninhabitable, but the ultimate decision was one the community, not the Government, had made themselves.

Was evacuation inevitable? The opinion of John Mathieson FRSGS

One person who proffered some practical suggestions to sustain life on St Kilda was John Mathieson [1855-1945], onetime Ordnance Survey Divisional Superintendent, former RSGS Librarian and Vice-President; and responsible for the mapping of the island in 1927. Thanks to the research work by RSGS Collections Team member, the late Tony Simpson, it was possible to describe the challenging work that faced 73 year-old Mathieson and his friend, geologist and ornithologist Alexander Cockburn, in mapping the island during their frequently storm-bound five week sojourn: a task that would not have been possible without the skilled help of the islanders. In a letter to Secretary of State for Scotland, Mathieson outlined a scheme which was reproduced in The Scotsman and is shown below. You might like to assess the feasibility of his suggestions as to their practicality:


Hearing that you proposed to visit the St Kilda group of islands I take the liberty of presenting you with the first large-scale map that was ever made of this group of islands. The work of making a topographic map, ascertaining the geological formation and studying the meteorology was undertaken by Dr A.M. Cockburn and myself in the interests of science and at our own expense.

The group consists of four islands, covering an area of 2,117 acres, and supporting 1,400 sheep and two score of cattle. Two hundred years ago they supported a population of 180 who cultivated 50 acres of land; and now the total inhabitants only number 36, and they cultivate no land. The only industry is making a good strong tweed, of which they export 1,000 to 1,200 yards annually, for which they receive 3s. 6d. to 5s. per yard. This is the only commodity they have to give in exchange for the various goods which they want. I attribute their present helpless condition to the fact that no Government up to the present has attempted to establish means of communication.

Fifty years ago they were visited once a year - to collect rents and bring them supplies. At present they are only visited by tourist boats during the months of June, July, and August. For the remaining nine months they are entirely dependent on friendly trawlers, who bring them mails and other requirements.


Before deciding to bring this small colony to the mainland, which is already much too congested, I take the liberty of making the following suggestions:

(1) That the Government arrange means of communication at least once every two months. The lighthouse boat calls within 32 miles of St Kilda, and might surely be subsidised for this purpose, or the Board of Agriculture vessel doing service in Harris might be used, or the fishery cruiser doing service on the West Coast.

(2) That the tweed industry could be developed and improved if a suitable house was erected where the weavers would bring their looms and work all year round, instead of only during the winter months, as at present. The erection of a suitable house, preferably of timber, would not be expensive, and how much more interesting it would be for tourists to visit the place and see the primitive looms at work, compared with the present deplorable system of the men and women standing at their doors and looking for largesse.

(3) The group of islands are mainly basalt (whinstone), but there is a mountain of granite forming part of the harbour bay, and both the stones are excellent for roadmaking, and the granite would be very suitable for building harbours or stone sets for street making. Thousands of tons of a similar stone are being shipped from the island of Jersey to the mainland of the South of England, and I think before abandoning the islands the possibility of this industry might also be investigated.

(4) The position, being well out in the Atlantic, would be most useful as a meteorological station, and there are at least two places where an aeroplane could land or take off.

As I spent over five months on the islands, I am very familiar with the nature of the land, and will be only too pleased to furnish you with any further information which may help you.

Faithfully yours,

John Mathieson FRSE FRSGS

John Mathieson’s suggestions, although they were publicised by The Scotsman, were regarded by the Scottish Office as unpractical. Such an appeal for retention of the population was "wholly a sentimental one". Understandably, for the last native St Kildans adjustment to mainland was not easy, even disappointing for some. Perhaps some degree of comfort came from a seasonal return migration by the St Kildans. During the 1930s and after the war until 1975, many returned with their families during the summer months to re-occupy Main Street, look after sheep and even weave some tweed on looms that they left behind.

References and Reading

Tom Steel, The Life and Death of St Kilda; Andrew Fleming, St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island; Russell Galbraith, Without Quarter: A Biography of Tom Russell; Roger Hutchinson, St Kilda: A people’s history. Images taken from the RSGS ‘Images for All’ project.