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Ghost Town: Hirta Island Population was Devastated by a Smallpox Epidemic in 1727

  • St Kilda is a small North Atlantic archipelago consisting of four islands.
  • In August 1930, residents abandoned it following the death of a young woman.
  • In addition to an unsustainable lifestyle, deadly diseases and a lack of proper medical care forced the inhabitants out of the archipelago.
  • Currently owned by National Trust for Scotland, the site is open for tourists to explore.

Scotland is still a wild land filled with superstition and legendary folk heroes. Sir William Wallace jumps into mind, a well known Scottish legend. Wallace became one of the prominent leaders in their fight for Scottish independence.

He and his men defeated the English in 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And of course, the adventures of Rob Roy MacGregor, a wanted man and outlaw of the Jacobite Rising.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

Scotland is also unmistakable for its rugged coastline. It has 790 islands off its shores. One such island is St Kilda, an isolated archipelago that is situated in the North Atlantic Ocean. The place had been inhabited for more than 2000 years until it was eventually abandoned in 1930. The residents decided to evacuate the islands following the death of a young woman in August of that year.

The group of islands lies 40 miles west of Na h-Eileanan Siar (the Outer Hebrides) in Scotland. Geographically, the next closest land westward is Labrador, Canada. Since its abandonment, the archipelago has gained a reputation as a Ghost Island.

St Kilda Village
Taken in 1886. The Street, Village Bay, St Kilda Village. A timeless scene.

At the turn of the 20th century Hirta was a tiny military camp for the residents of St Kilda. However, the upheaval of World War One was a massive blow for the encampment and the surrounding population.

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Though no human lives permanently on the island it isn’t completely devoid of life. Its rocky shores provide breeding grounds for one of the largest colonies of puffin seabirds and is home to some of the rarest sheep in the United Kingdom.

The History of St Kilda

Archaeologists have found stone tools and a Bronze age quarry on a mountain in Hirta called Mullach Sgar. The discovery suggests that people have lived on this land for at least two millennia, if not more.

In 1861, settlers built sixteen single-story cottages with chimneys and slate roofs. The residents called it the ‘main street.’ The islanders made use of small boats to move around St Kilda for both social and business purposes. Luckily, food was never a problem either.

Read More: Rising from the Ashes: Britain After the Black Death

Puffin seabirds, found in abundance, was the favourite snack for the inhabitants. The traditional way of life included sheep farming, weaving, and fishing. However, it all started fading in the early 20th century.

When steamships of tweed-buying tourists reached the islands, they introduced the Gaelic-speaking population to the culture of the United Kingdom. However, that was not all that they brought with them. The tourists brought several diseases that had not existed before: diseases that proved deadly for the islanders.

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As a result and like many Europeans, a large numbers of islanders took the opportunity to immigrate to Melbourne, Australia, and they founded the suburbs of St Kilda. interestingly, in 1840, St Kilda was chosen to be Melbourne’s first quarantine station for all Scottish immigrants coming into the area to settle.

Early lithograph (1864) of St Kilda main beach, looking toward west beach and Port Melbourne
Early lithograph (1864) of St Kilda main beach, looking toward west beach and Port Melbourne

Moreover, the island was severely affected by World War One in several ways. A generation of young men left the islands after a German Submarine destroyed many of the buildings and soldiers arriving on the island brought more disease. After the war, the now contaminated farmland also saw an influenza outbreak, which cut the population from 73 in 1920 to only 36 by 1928.

The Final Nail

In 1930, a young woman died from appendicitis and pneumonia in Hirta. The seemingly curable diseases brought by the tourists proved incurable on Hirta. Following the tragic death, the people of Hirta heavy-heartedly requested to move to the mainland permanently.

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The residents believed their lives had become unsustainable due to a lack of modernity and low population. On 29th August 1930, the evacuation began. A ship called Harebell transported the remaining residents to mainland Scotland.

Before boarding the boat, the villagers left a plate of oats and an open bible in each cottage.  Sadly, the last former resident of St Kilda, aged eight at the time of the evacuation, passed away in April 2016.

St Kilda island
St. Kilda International Sea & Air Port Lounge – Author: Bob Jones – CC BY-SA 2.0

Today in 2022

Today St Kilda is known for its thrilling geography, with high slopes, rugged terrain, and turbulent seas that make it hard to access. The land has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural, historical, and ecological attributes.

St Kilda is the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to nearly 1 million seabirds, including the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins. After 4,000 years of human presence on the island, St Kilda was evacuated on 29 August 1930 when the remaining 36 islanders decided to leave as their way of life was no longer sustainable.

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As well as more than 1,200 stone cleits, there are also cottages, a church and a manse, which are all designated Scheduled Monuments ~ National Trust for Scotland

Currently, the islands are also home to Soay and Boreray sheep, which are some of the rarest species across the UK. Moreover, St Kilda provides breeding grounds for gannets, puffins, and fulmars. According to some estimates, a staggering one million seabirds use the islands every year for nesting.

St Hirta
Abandoned homesteads on St Hirta, built in the 1860s

The National Trust for Scotland, a charitable organization, now owns the archipelago.

The place has only one landing place, and visitors are encouraged to explore the island from it. Many boats run trips from the Oban to St Kilda, depending on the weather.

Conditions in the Atlantic are unpredictable but mostly cooler and windier than on the shore. Tourists are recommended to wear warm clothes even in summer and are advised to wear a hat to protect themselves from any potential attacks from the nesting birds!