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8 May 2020

90th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda

Three pages of a handwritten letter, photographed side by side.
Letter sent from St Kilda asking for help to leave the island
Sunday 10 May 2020 marks the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the end for the inhabitants of the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda.
Three pages of a handwritten letter, photographed side by side.
The village on Hirta

The isolated cluster of islands, situated 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, off Scotland’s north-west coast, had been inhabited for at least 4,000 years. In 1930, however, the simple existence of the inhabitants had become unsustainable and the St Kildans wrote a letter petitioning to leave.

Six months later, on 29 August, the last 36 people living on Hirta, St Kilda’s main island, were evacuated.

Julie Hunt, chair of the St Kilda Club, explains that the decision to leave was a difficult but necessary one.

‘They didn’t want to go but they knew it was the best thing to do’, she says. ‘They’d just come out of a particularly devastating winter and things had got harder and harder for them.

‘They weren’t self-supporting and able to “better themselves” as the letter says. They knew they couldn’t survive but they didn’t know what the other options were. It had got to the point where they were relying on ships coming in and those were becoming less frequent.

‘There’s a history of them sending letters out on the mailboats asking for food as they were starving, but in the 1930s that shouldn’t have been something that was happening.’

Black and white photograph of around 20 men standing either side of a cobbled 'street', with stone cottages on one side and hills in the background.
St Kilda ‘parliament’

There was a precedent too. Mingulay, at the southern tip of the Western Isles (also now cared for by the Trust), had been evacuated in 1912. St Kilda was even more remote.

While the decision to leave – and to write the letter asking for help – was a communal one, some were keener to find a new life on the mainland than others. Julie explains: ‘The younger islanders were more aware of the world outside and wanted to start afresh. For some of the older members of the community, the decision to leave was harder. They were more of the opinion that St Kilda was their life and all they’d ever known.’

Julie sees that the 10 May letter wasn’t just to ask for help to leave the island, but also to set up a whole new life on the mainland. ‘The islanders weren’t looking for a handout. Having lived nowhere else but this tiny storm-battered island, they didn’t know what work they could do or how they would go about getting it. Boats were so infrequent that communication with the mainland to set up a new life was even more difficult.

‘They were happy to work but they didn’t know what that could be’, she says. ‘The irony was they went to work for the Forestry Commission, when St Kilda has no trees.’

The letter, which is transcribed below, was passed to the skipper of the first passing trawler. Soon after, George Henderson, Inspector of Public Health, went out to St Kilda and reported back that ‘swift action’ was required to remove the St Kildans.

Plans were put in place over the summer to end life on this extraordinary place after four millennia of struggle against Mother Nature and, ultimately, the outside world.

Black and white photograph of a rowing boat full of people and sacks in a harbour, with people standing on the pier.
The evacuation

St Kilda
10 May 1930

The Right Hon. W. Adamson M.P., Secretary of State for Scotland, Westminster


We the undersigned the natives of St Kilda, hereby respectfully pray and petition H.M. Government to assist us all to leave the island this year and to find homes and occupation for us on the mainland.

For some years the man power has been decreasing, now the total population of the island is reduced to thirty six. Several men out of this number have definitely made up our minds to go away this year to such employment on the mainland. This will really cause a crisis as the present number are hardly sufficient to carry on the necessary work of the place.

These men are the mainstay of the island at present, as they tend the sheep, do the weaving and look after the general welfare of the widows. Should they leave the conditions of the rest of the community would be such that it would be impossible for us to remain on the island another winter.

The reason why assistance is necessary is, that for many years Saint Kilda has not been self supporting, and with facilities to better our position, we are therefore without the means to pay for the costs of removing ourselves and furniture elsewhere. We do not ask to be settled together as a separate community, but in the meantime we would collectively be very grateful of assistance, and transference elsewhere, where there would be a better opportunity of securing our livelihood.

We are Sir

Yours Respectfully,

Lachlan McDonald no16
Finlay Mackinnon no1
Donald E McKinnon no1
Norman McKinnon Sen no1
Norman McKinnon Jun no1
Finlay His mark Gillies no7
Finlay His mark MacQueen no2
Donald Gillies no13
Ewen McDonald no16
John R MacDonald no9
Neil Ferguson Jun no8
Neil Ferguson no5
Wid Christina McQueen no11
Wid Annie J. Gillies sen no18
Wid Annie D. Gillies no14
Mrs Rachel Ann Gillies no14
Mrs Rachel MacDonald 16
Mrs Wid N Gillies no7
Mrs Wid Ewen Gillies no12
Mary Ann Gillies no12

We the undersigned testify that the foregoing statement is correct.

Doug. Munro (Missionary)
Williamina M. Barclay (Queen’s Nurse)

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