St Kilda

Dr Jeff Stone FRSGS

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Church and manse, St Kilda

The archipelago of St Kilda lies more than 60 kilometres west of North Uist. Despite the remote location, there is archaeological evidence of human occupation since at least Iron Age times. Significant documentary sources go back some three centuries, increasing from the 19th century, when ethnographically-curious Victorian society became aware of and began to visit one of the most remote communities in the British Isles. Since then, the biography of St Kilda has grown exponentially to become, perhaps, the most substantial of any of the Scottish islands.

Following the final evacuation in August 1930, ownership of St Kilda passed to The National Trust for Scotland in 1957. In 1986, St Kilda was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its superlative natural features and as a natural habitat of international importance. In 2005, the UNESCO inscription was extended to include the cultural landscape left by thousands of years of human occupation. St Kilda thus became the UK’s first dual World Heritage Site and only the 24th such designation by UNESCO. For further information, see the NTS St Kilda website.

Recent historiography of St Kilda challenges what is seen as history written by outsiders, who viewed St Kildans as exotic because of their presumed isolation and their food gathering practices. They have been inappropriately portrayed, it is suggested, as simple folk who knew little of the world beyond their islands, vulnerable in a situation of occasional but increasing contact with the outside world.

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The belongings of St Kildans stacked on Oban pier

The collection of 30 pre-evacuation images in the form of lantern slides in the RSGS’s archives were selected and taken by visitors and, to that extent, are additions to the historical record of St Kilda filtered through the eyes of visitors. What they show inevitably has the potential to be interpreted with the same attitudes as supposedly underlie the populist histories which are currently being challenged. They certainly add, nevertheless, to the history of tourism to St Kilda and of the impact of tourists on St Kilda. However much they were selected by photographers with contemporary mind-sets and prejudices, they do record events which happened, as well as structures and landscapes which existed but have changed. They are not unique. There are similar collections which are either in archives or have been published in recent years, but they are valuable additions to the records of St Kilda as it once was and ceased to be.

The images in this collection are probably not all from one source. Three of them have been published as part of a collection which has been dated to c1911. It was a passenger aboard the Hebrides, a vessel which made scheduled calls on St Kilda latterly, who took the photographs in that album, and the ship shown at anchor in Village Bay in the RSGS collection is the Hebrides, so other images are also likely to date from that same occasion. However, five of the slides are indexed and appear to show St Kildan possessions on the pier at Oban on 30th August 1930, immediately after evacuation, almost 20 years later. Another of the photographs was published many years ago as a postcard of Boreray and the Stacs. There is also a hand-drawn cross-sectional diagram of the archipelago, and a copy of Mathieson’s map of St Kilda (1928) in slide form, which suggests that the collection has been assembled, or at least used, as the basis of educational presentations.

Few of the lantern slides show the visitors themselves. Several views have the effect of recording details of village structures and the land adjacent, with the photographer either on the street or further away, and sometimes including inhabitants, also dogs. Individual identification of subjects may be possible in some cases. There are detailed images of the souterrain and the burial ground, both resembling those in the published album of c1911. A ship’s tender from the Hebrides is seen close-up transporting passengers, whilst another appears to be landing passengers, surprisingly not at the jetty, short as it then was, but on the slabs further east. The quality of most, but not all, of the images is good enough to allow considerable enlargement for research purposes.