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17 Nov 2021

From the edge of the world 2021 – part 6

Written by Clare Henderson, Archaeologist
A view from a hillside, beside a stone structure, looking out to sea. The sky is dark and heavy, and rain can be seen falling out to sea, moving towards land.
An impending rain storm, St Kilda
Our St Kilda archaeologist reflects on the important relationship between archaeological monitoring and climate change, as well as sharing some of her memories of exploring the unique cleitean on the island.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of weather before I went out to St Kilda. It is influenced by the Gulf Stream and is considerably further north and west than Newcastle – the place I know as ‘home.’ I had read that the climate was milder than the mainland, but with less of a temperature difference between the seasons. Talking about the weather has long been considered a favourite pastime of the British but taking an interest in the way it is changing has never been more important.

For over two decades the St Kilda archaeologist has been responsible for carrying out monitoring programmes that inform seasonal repair and maintenance and capture invaluable data about how the archaeology of the islands is changing. Erosion along the coastline of Village Bay is recorded annually, including the rate at which land is being lost to the sea. The condition of the turf roofs are checked, along with the stonework of enclosure and boundary walls, blackhouses, cottages and, of course, the cleitean. Cleitean are structures that have parallels in other countries, but the St Kildan form – drystone with a turf roof – is entirely unique to the archipelago. They were built to withstand the violence and vagaries of the climate on the ragged edge of a continent. Where the land rises steeply from the sea, protection from the elements is minimal.

White foamy waves crash against the rocky sides of an island, where the jagged rocks fall straight into the sea. The water is a cold petrol blue; the sky is grey and heavy.
Waves crash against the island of Dùn

It is our aim to offer some protection from the changing climate, if we can. The data we gather helps us to identify trends in the rate of decline; it allows us to observe how hotter summers are drying the earth cores of blackhouse walls and increased winds are eroding the edges of turf roofs, making the walls more vulnerable to collapse. We hope this will allow us to better predict where the threats are escalating. We can then adapt and develop our methodologies so that we can continue to protect this most eminent and precious landscape. But we are all too aware that structures which have stood for centuries, and repair methods that have changed little in that time, may not be enough for the difficult years to come.

Two cleitean (stone structures with turf roofs) stand next to each other on a grassy hillside on a sunny day. The cleit in the foreground has a very dry turf roof; the one further back looks more grassy. The blue sea can be seen in the background.
The effects of parching on a cleit roof – with warmer temperatures, we expect this to increase.

Each season, contractors arrive to carry out work for the National Trust for Scotland. This year I helped Eland, a professional drystone dyker, repair an enclosure wall. The stones of St Kilda are volcanic, the oldest rocks forming the peaked skyline of Dun and the ridge of Mullach Bi and the Cambir. The conservation standard we use for drystone repairs requires structures to be put back ‘stone for stone’ as they appear in archive photographs (each structure has a ‘monitoring set’ of images against which they are compared for signs of movement or change). The hard granite rocks we attempted to place back in the enclosure wall are rough with small but sharp crystals. We picked them up and turned them in our hands, over and over, trying to match them to the photograph of the pre-collapse wall. At the end of the day, I was in the Manse and went to pick up a mug of hot tea, which scalded my fingers as they were somehow super-sensitive. I realised handling the rocks all day had stripped a fine layer of skin from each fingertip. How tough the St Kildans’ hands must have been. The next day, I wore my gloves.

A view of an incredible steep ridge on an island, plummeting straight down towards the sea. The sides are grassy, with rocky crags nearer the top. Light clouds hug the top of the crags.
St Kilda was formed by volcanic activity, and the oldest rocks are found along a ridge that includes the island of Dùn, Mullach Bi and the Cambir.

Helping with this work makes me consider the relationship between the original builders and what would become their defining construction. We tend to view the past through a prism of practicality, yet I wonder if they were sad when a favourite or preferred cleit collapsed, or just frustrated at the lost work it represented? Did they feel a greater pride in some than others? I imagine them standing back after a hard day working the unforgiving granite, admiring what they have built.

Despite considerable variations in size, amongst other things, the construction principle of all the cleitean is remarkably similar. They typically have two ‘skins’ of stone, which are not keyed into one another. The outer face is random, uneven and has no apparent coursing. Externally they look crude, seemingly crafted by unskilled hands without reference to aesthetics or basic structural integrity. But this assumption is a falsehood that is immediately apparent when you look inside. Here, an internal stone skeleton, coursed and regular, rises with an even outward lean that transfers the weight of the huge roof lintels down and out onto those rough, irregular external walls. The roof is piled with soil and smaller stones beneath a turf cap (alone it may weigh several tons). This provides both weatherproofing and further weight to the corbelled arch of the interior. The external wall can collapse repeatedly, but the internal skeleton will remain strong as long as the damage is repaired in good time.

It may be my job to take care of these structures, but in return they regularly offer protection and shelter to me. I ducked inside them often this year to escape the typically changeable weather. Their steadfast presence guided me home one day through a mist-shrouded Gleann Mòr. As I walked nearly blind in the suddenly unfamiliar white world, from the gloom would emerge the shadowy bulk of a cleit and with relief I would know exactly where I was. One night I slept in a collapsed cleit. Roofless, I could lie inside the narrow space on a mattress of springy turf between fallen walls standing just high enough to offer refuge from the wind.

A row of cleitean on a St Kilda hillside, shrouded in mist.
Cleitean give the landscape a familiar form, even when the mist lies heavy in Village Bay.

How many other people over the centuries must have sheltered in them from the elements, watching rain slant across the doorway or feeling the cool darkness on a hot day? Perhaps they escaped from a busy afternoon in Village Bay for a few moments’ peace, had a hot drink or ate some lunch? Or stopped to admire a patch of sea pink in a roof, or chatted with another person sitting on the earth floor? They must have run their eyes over the stones and turf as I do, searching for any changes, flaws or weaknesses. Maybe they too lifted a fallen stone back into place and shuffled it until it locked strongly against another, then stood back, satisfied.

“My work on the island affords plenty of time for the mind to drift, to put the warmth of people back into the cold stone.”
Clare Henderson
St Kilda archaeologist
A view from a hillside, beside a stone structure, looking out to sea. The sky is dark and heavy, and rain can be seen falling out to sea, moving towards land.

One of the cleits in the monitoring programme is called ‘the cleit at the end of the world’ as it lies on a narrow spur projecting from the back of Conachair. To one side, the highest sea cliffs in the UK loom hundreds of metres above; all around, the land falls precipitously towards the roaring sea below. Boreray sits on the near horizon but beyond is the Atlantic, seemingly without end. It is not a place for the faint-hearted!

I left this cleit until last, which seems appropriate. It was mid-October but it felt later, as dusk arrived at about 6pm. It was as if the world was stealing from us a little more light each day. Yet in exchange, we gained long nights that lay as heavy as a velvet blanket overhead, punctured with the gleam of stars and the dusky arc of the Milky Way, like a huge rip across the canvas of the sky.

A night time view from the beach of Village Bay, looking out to sea and towards the jagged island of Dun. The rocks are silhouetted against the night sky. A full moon hangs in the gap between peaks, its light perfectly reflected in the still sea water.
The full moon and stars illuminate calm seas and the silhouette of Dùn.

The St Kildans were known for being seemingly oblivious to the vertiginous danger of their world. Yet even these fabled cliffmen built walls of drystone across certain bits of the island to prevent their stock wandering onto the steepest areas of cliffs. One such wall crosses the neck of the spur I had to take to reach the end of the world. ‘Turn back now’ it seems to warn as I stepped across. I could see below me the cleit, which is perched on a flat area, accessed via a slope of grass and rock. I pressed on; the slope was exposed but do-able. When I arrived at the cleit, I checked the stonework against the monitoring set of photographs, noting with relief that nothing had changed since the last check.

“I rested a hand on the rough textured stone and felt the years between me and its builder fall away – they must have been proud of this one!”
Clare Henderson
St Kilda archaeologist

I offered a promise that I will continue to look after their structures as they look after me – we will face the future together. I wandered across the small plateau and marvelled at the dramatic beauty of its lofty situation, in the fading afternoon light at the end of the day, at the end of the season, at the end of the world.

A small cleit stands on the top of a hill on St Kilda, with the sea and the island of Boreray visible in the distance. From the outside, it rather resembles a pile of stones with turf on top.
The cleit at the end of the world, in an archive photo from 2004, with Boreray behind and miles of sea.

But what, I began to wonder, lies beyond the end of the world? Stepping forward, I took a breath and peered into the space below.

Then I turned round and walked away, re-tracing my steps across the ledge, past the cleit, up the slope and safely back over the ‘turn back now’ wall. I headed onwards across the tufty grass of Conachair, into the twilight towards the warm sanctuary of the Village. And what did I see over that edge? I’m not saying! Surely if you ever find yourself at the end of the world, you don’t want me to spoil the surprise.

From the edge of the world

St Kilda blog

Find out more about what it’s like to work on these incredible islands.

A group of people standing on the jetty on Hirta, St Kilda >