The Outer Hebrides sit far out from the Scottish mainland like a crust of land left by a receding tide. Stand on the Western edge of Lewis or Harris or Barra, looking to sea, and you already feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Standing there, you don’t need to imagine what it felt like to be a Viking explorer heading off into the unknown. You can taste it in the air.
St. Kilda, a full 50 miles further out and a full 110 miles from mainland, must have once felt unimaginably far, truly the last bit of land and near-civilization before the darkness of unexplored lands. With deceptively gentle inner hills rising from Village Bay, and ending abruptly in sheer cliffs that sometimes fall more that 1000 feet straight to the Atlantic, both the location and the geography of St. Kilda lend it to wild tales and mysterious history.
That’s without the already documented narratives and first-hand chronicles that Charles Maclean drew on to write the story of stoic survival, woeful ignorance, and tragic humanity that made up the fabric of St. Kilda’s long history and abrupt abandonment.
I recently finished Island on the Edge of the World, a petite gem of a book (under 200 pages) that has never been out of print in the UK since its publication in 1972.
It’s a beautiful tale, and a sad one. The people of St. Kilda survived, mostly self-sufficiently, on the bird population, sheep, and a little agriculture. Their contact with the outside world was limited to a yearly visit from the steward of the island’s owner, whichever MacLeod ruled the clan at that moment.
Without romanticizing or over-dramatizing their way of life, Maclean nevertheless manages to paint a picture of a culture and a people who lived in what we would now consider an idyllic setting and, for the most part, managed fairly well.
But in the 1800s greater contact and dependence on the outside world — both through tourism (which began to create expectations of easy money from the mainland) and the disastrous influence of evangelist preachers on an easily swayed and fatalist population — destroyed St. Kildans’ independence in a startlingly short amount of time.
Surviving in near complete isolation for over 1000 years, the St. Kildan population lost the ability to feed and support itself in less than 100. In 1932 the remaining few people asked to evacuated to mainland Scotland, and the island has been a wildlife refuge and nature preserve ever since.
Maclean addresses issues of acculturation, culture, and utopian dreams with a sensitive, practical, and fearless pen. In telling the story of this beautiful, deserted island, he manages to also question the values of modern Western society without allowing starry-eyed blindness to enter into the debate. Island on the Edge of the World is a lovely, superbly written book, whose issues remain current, and perhaps even more vital, in a world where humans’ ability to sustain life at all has been brought into question.
St. Kilda is now maintained by a partnership of The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish National Heritage, and the Ministry of Defence. Visiting St. Kilda is, in this day and age, not so difficult as it once was, but it isn’t easy. You can find yachts, cruise ships, and charter boats. The trip takes 8 hours from the Hebrides or 14 from Oban, and will often turn back due to bad weather.
If you’re truly interested in going, and feel like you need a summer doing something different, The National Trust for Scotland runs work parties every summer, peopled by volunteers who spend their 2-week working holiday repairing the abandoned village buildings, rebuilding walls, and generally maintaining the history and fascinating story of St. Kilda.
While carpenters, builders, and archaeologists, among others, are always especially welcome, all that’s truly required, the Trust maintains, is for you to be physically fit and have a sense of humor. I would say, also, a sense of adventure and curiosity to boot, but with our readers that goes without saying.