Island on the edge of the world
September 1, 2009 2:37 PM   Subscribe

The evacuation of the abandoned island of St. Kilda has been commemorated after 79 years.

Its evacuation has been of interest to other isolated communities and the island has inspired writing, a book, and even opera. You can get there if you really want.

posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin (16 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Another interesting island complex is the Pitcairn Islands. Entirely different location, but still under the UK flag. Many feel they should be abandoned, but they somehow keep on.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2009

For some reason, reminded me of this too.
posted by Askiba at 3:06 PM on September 1, 2009

Article and audio slideshow from the Guardian last weekend.

On a grimmer note, St Kilda also had the highest rate of infant mortality recorded anywhere in the world. In the nineteenth century, 70% of newborn infants died of neonatal tetanus, thought to be caused by the gulls' fat which the midwives on the island used to grease their hands. (One theory is that 'the babies were infected as a result of a practice in which after the cutting of the umbilical cord the navel was anointed with oil .. Fulmar oil would have been used, probably kept in the stomach of a gannet. The container may have become infected with tetanus bacteria and never properly cleaned.') This appallingly high rate of infant mortality was a major reason why the island had to be abandoned; the population simply couldn't sustain itself. When trained nurses arrived on St Kilda and tried to introduce antiseptics, they were 'ostracised and rejected by the islanders'. I think of this whenever I read magazine articles extolling the wonders of traditional folk medicine.
posted by verstegan at 3:09 PM on September 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

Early (published 1698) record of a visit: A Late Voyage to St Kilda, Martin Martin
posted by Abiezer at 3:25 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some other islands that remain an "Overseas territory" of the United Kingdom would be the Falkland Islands.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 3:52 PM on September 1, 2009

The evacuation of an abandoned island is a paradox with a nice ring to it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:57 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

St Kilda has always been very much on the list of Scottish places I would like to visit one day - but it is not an easy pilgrimage.

Another interesting abandoned (until recently) Scottish Island is Gruinard. It was used for testing weaponised anthrax, intended for dropping on Germany, in WW2. Here is some original archive film of the wartime activities.
posted by rongorongo at 4:35 PM on September 1, 2009

I live in the St. Kilda area of Melbourne. Ive heard it was rightly named after the windiest place in british isles, but i had no idea it had such an interesting historty.
posted by Merik at 5:51 PM on September 1, 2009

How interesting, thanks for this.
posted by saladin at 6:56 PM on September 1, 2009

Another interesting island complex is the Pitcairn Islands. Entirely different location, but still under the UK flag. Many feel they should be abandoned, but they somehow keep on.

Some other islands that remain an "Overseas territory" of the United Kingdom would be the Falkland Islands.

I'm guessing that it was much closer to the mentioned-below-on-the-frontpage (síosluaite?) Blasket Islands in culture than to either of the above.
posted by kersplunk at 7:22 PM on September 1, 2009

Great post and great additions!
posted by LarryC at 8:24 PM on September 1, 2009

Kersplunk. I never said they were that similar, just that they were other interesting UK related islands. That kind of lateral thinking seems to be allowed around here.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 9:02 PM on September 1, 2009

"In those days a young St. Kildan who wished to make one of the fair maids of the island his own was required to accomplish a most dangerous feat in order to prove possibly the sincerity of his love, but, more probably, his ability to support a wife. The aspirant to the hand of a fair St. Kildan had to climb this giddy, dangerous height, and, planting his left heel on the outer edge, with the sole of his foot entirely unsupported, he extended his right leg forward beyond the other and grasped the foot with both hands, holding it long enough to satisfy the lady and her friends gathered below"

A legend recounted for its insight into island attitudes, but likely direct inspiration for Michael Powell's The Edge of the World.

A trio wanders the cliffs of a Shetland island and encounters a gravestone at the edge of a precipice; it reads, "Peter Manson ... gone over." One man in the trio knows the story of the gravestone and tells it to the others... It is ten years earlier, and the way of life on the island is dying; steam trawlers from the mainland threaten its survival as a fishing port. Peter Manson, one of the community's leaders, resists evacuating to the mainland, though his son Robbie is about to leave the island himself. Meanwhile, Robbie's twin sister plans to marry his best friend, Andrew Gray. Andrew and Robbie argue over evacuation and decide to settle the matter by racing to the top of a cliff. Ruth is terrified: she may lose them both. The race ends in tragedy, which tears apart the families of Manson and Gray. Times passes and Ruth reveals she is pregnant with an illegitimate child. This promises to bring the two families back together, but not before desperation hits the islanders. Evacuation is inevitable. And so is one last tragedy....

What happens when the people of a lonely, windswept island can no longer survive as a community ? This Drama/Documentary examines the hardships of such a life and the decisions they must make, whether to stay where their families have worked & died to establish this hard-working community or to leave and give the next generation a better chance. Partly based on a true story (The evacuation of "Hirta" or "St. Kilda")

posted by dhartung at 9:31 PM on September 1, 2009

One more abandoned Scottish island just for luck: Belnahua was famous for its slate mines. A large proportion of the old buildings in Scotland got their roofs from there. Furthermore, because slate was used for ballast on old sailing ships, roofs as far away as New York also use Belnahua slate. The island once supported nearly 200 families but the quarry (which formed a huge proportion of the interior of the island) flooded and the island has been abandoned since WW1. In his book "Waterlog" Roger Deakin describes the unwordly experience of swimming across the flooded quarry.
posted by rongorongo at 6:53 AM on September 2, 2009

One more post - sorry: St Kilda is one of Great Britain's Unesco World Heritage sites. Many of these - such as Edinburgh, Stonhenge or Bath are well known tourist attractions. However there are a couple of other obscure islands on the list - ones which British people are very unlikely to know about let alone visit:

Gough and Inaccessible Islands - part of the Tristan da Cunha island group.
Henderson Island - in the Pitcairn group.
posted by rongorongo at 7:04 AM on September 2, 2009

Thanks for an interesting post.

I am privileged to have have spent a lot of time on St. Kilda, working as a biologist. It's a truly magical place - enormous cliffs, abandoned historical buildings (and other structures), abundant bird life, seal colonies, whales, and Soay sheep. However, I can certainly attest to the foul weather it's famous for! That said, it's actually pretty easy to go there now, with at least 3 operations I know of offering (long) day trips in the summer on fast boats from the Western Isles (you can MeMail me if you can't find them with Google).

Besides Mclean's book, Tom Steel's The Life and Death of St Kilda is also a great read if you're interested in the more modern history of the place.

Also, some photos showing the place, and work there, in different seasons (mine, I hope that's OK) are here and here.
posted by jonesor at 7:50 AM on September 2, 2009 [5 favorites]

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