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15 Feb 2022

From the edge of the world 2022 – part 1

Written by Clare Henderson, Archaeologist
A panoramic view of Village Bay in St Kilda on a sunny day with deep blue sky. In the foreground are a row of ruined stone cottages, with a large cleit standing in the field before the shore.
A panoramic view of Village Bay, St Kilda
Our St Kilda archaeologist looks ahead to an exciting 2022 for the World Heritage Site and also shares some sad news about one of the most interesting island structures.

It is a sunny January day, and I am at my computer working on plans for the summer season on St Kilda. Recent developments have brought both good and bad news. Of the latter, one of our buildings needs re-wiring before spring; but of the former, funds have been approved for major work to the church and jetty – fantastic! The long list of drystone repairs has been thoroughly audited, and we are in discussions with contractors about coming out over the summer. I am liaising with the property manager on logistics, consents and timings. It promises to be a busy, full-on season, but after two years of intermittent inertia and uncertainty due to COVID-19, there is a nice energising vibe already about 2022. And then an email from the island lands in my inbox that casts an immediate long shadow over the bright summer that lay ahead.

Lady Grange’s House, also known by the slightly more prosaic cleit 85, has suffered a large collapse. Sitting at my desk looking at the sad, ruinous state of most of the doorway, the east and north elevation and half the roof was a dark moment indeed. This untidy heap of slumped turf, soil and stones was once one of the archaeological jewels in St Kilda’s glittering crown. The collapse itself is not unique – the cleit is one of several with serious falls that now await repair. But for a variety of reasons cleit 85 is a particularly bad one to go, as it has a very special history.

A view of a tall, drystone domed structure with a turf roof. The structure has suffered a significant collapse, with half of the roof crumbled on top of a pile of stones. The narrow doorway, with a painted 85, can just be made out. In the background are fields and rising hills.
Cleit 85 or ‘Lady Grange’s House’, after it partially collapsed in January 2022

There is a huge resource of written accounts about St Kilda, and an equally huge collection of surviving structures. However, establishing links between the two, especially in the period before 1830, is beset with difficulties. The village was not accurately mapped until 1861, by which time it had been re-built and laid out several times. Only sketches exist of those previous townships, and they cannot easily be matched to sites on the ground. But in cleit 85 we may be able to link the written and physical evidence.

Cleit 85 as we know it today is a mid-19th-century structure, one of over a hundred in the village and neither old nor rare. However, it is believed to occupy the site of an earlier, 18th-century building that was once also the home (or prison) of Rachel Chiesley, better known as Lady Grange. Hers is a story of betrayal and incarceration that has long fascinated visitors. She was married to James Erskine, Lord Grange, a prominent and active Jacobite. When they separated, he feared that she would betray him to the Crown as revenge. And so, upon his instruction in 1732, she was kidnapped and eventually taken to St Kilda for imprisonment in 1734. She remained there until 1740, when she was removed to Skye, where she died in 1745.

Because of the unique circumstances of her stay on the island, there are several detailed accounts of her ‘house’. These provide information on its layout, the dimensions and when it was reportedly demolished. Cleit 85 has a similar footprint and is unusual in its shape and proportions – all good indicators that it does indeed occupy the site of that earlier building and perhaps even includes elements of it within the lower courses of the walls.

The identification of this cleit as the former home of Lady Grange dates to at least 1927, when it is marked as such on the first Ordnance Survey map of Hirta. Information about events that had happened nearly 200 years earlier was undoubtedly provided to the surveyor by the St Kildans. This structure, on the site of ‘Lady Grange’s House’, is an excellent example of knowledge about the past being handed down to us via the great Hebridean oral tradition of storytelling.

Quote
“You can almost picture the St Kildans busy at their wool-working tasks on a dark winter evening, trading tales of days gone by as the peat fire smokes and the rotation of the spinning wheel keeps a metronomic rhythm.”
Clare Henderson
Archaeologist

On St Kilda, the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts. The contribution of every cleit, cottage, blackhouse and enclosure adds immeasurable value. Yet within that deeply layered landscape, some individual elements do carry a greater weight of significance than others. For some, it is because of their age, like the Iron Age souterrain. For others, it is due to the rarity of their survival, like Calum Mor’s House. Some have the potential of holding information within the structure about developments over time, like the gathering folds in Gleann Mor or cleit 122 with its surviving cell – a remnant of an earlier form.

Many structures have a deep and complex intangible significance that is a legacy of their association with certain people, stories or events. The jetty, for example, has been the scene of all the island’s comings and goings for over 100 years, including that most famous day in August 1930, when 36 islanders boarded HMS Harebell and set sail. They left behind their empty homes and a story so powerful that it has captured the imagination ever since.

A black and white photo of a group of 12 people sitting or standing by a stone pier. A wooden crate and a pile of sacks lie beside them. A dog is in the foreground on the stone steps.
St Kildans sit on the jetty – this image is believed to show the evacuation of 1930. [1]

Cleit 85 is highly significant due to the information it may hold about an earlier settlement. It offers us the chance to combine written records, oral tradition and archaeological evidence through its association with Lady Grange. Even taken as ‘only’ a cleit, 85 is a wonderful example of the architecture of this type of structure. Furthermore, National Trust for Scotland records suggest it has never been repaired and that all the fabric is likely to be authentically St Kildan.

A black and white photo of the row of small stone cottages in Village Bay on St Kilda. It also clearly shows the many stone cleits dotted across the landscape. There is white text printed in the bottom right corner that says: Village, St Kilda, from E.
St Kilda, 1917 with cleit 85 left of the street in the centre of the image

So, how do we begin to fix this? In that moment when I first received the email, I felt a sense of loss – the sadness not because here was another big, complicated repair to be tackled, but because no repair could bring back its authenticity and restore it to what it was. 2022 will forever be a break in the linear history of that structure. Here was the raw reality of the unpredictable nature of structural change on St Kilda. Questions will be asked about the weather that week or any other external factors, but these powerful forces respect neither heritage significance nor decades of devoted care.

Quote
“When we find ourselves in the shadow of that dark cloud, what else can we do but look for the silver lining?”
Clare Henderson
Archaeologist

Because here, also, is an opportunity for new investigation. Microscopic analysis of the soils from the roof may yield information about both the re-use of land and 19th-century cleit roofing techniques. While clearing the debris from those ragged broken faces, we could learn more about how the structure was put together. Any evidence of phasing that could confirm a link between cleit 85 and its predecessor would be hugely important in establishing the presence of the 1730s settlement. Lady Grange arrived at a strange and fractured time on Hirta. The community in 1734 was largely made up of immigrants re-settled from Skye and Harris – they had come here to swell the numbers after the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1727, which reduced the population from around 120 to only 4 adults and 26 orphans.

What a bewildering world lay in wait for Lady Grange, far from the comforts of polite Edinburgh society. She lived among a population that was trying to rebuild their community in the shattered wasteland left by disease and immeasurable loss. It has not unreasonably been assumed that the empty houses of those who died from smallpox may not have been immediately re-occupied, if ever; perhaps the village expanded or re-located slightly as a consequence. Might we find traces of one of those post-smallpox houses buried somewhere in the walls of cleit 85?

A black and white line drawing, reproduced on sepia-tinged paper, showing a row of small, single-storey domed cottages with wooden beams (rather like an upturned boat) on the roofs. Each has a single narrow door opening.
A lithograph entitled ‘St Kilda Cottages’, which is believed to show the 18th-century houses.

Whether or not we learn anything, we will rebuild – just as the St Kildans did. We will adhere as authentically to their methods as we always do. In a sense, 1930 is the point when the cultural landscape of St Kilda was fossilised, for it was then that the millennia-old cycle of building, repairing, dismantling and modifying, all for the purpose of surviving on these remote islands, was broken. Yet in another sense, the act of building and repairing has continued to the present day, only now it is about the survival of a cultural tradition.

In good times or bad, it is an honour to be the custodians of a place like St Kilda. To contribute even a tiny part to that rich history. To walk their streets, hear their stories and repair their structures. By the end of this season, we hope that Lady Grange’s House will be whole once more, its presence in the meadows below the street as ever it was – a fitting worldly home for its ethereal former inhabitant. And perhaps, through this rather unfortunate event, we will have learned more of its secrets than we ever thought we could.

As a dual World Heritage Site on the edge of the Atlantic, St Kilda is both a critically important and challenging place for us to care for. In addition to annual maintenance, archaeological survey, conservation, bird monitoring, tours and general care, we also have to respond to urgent conservation works.

In the coming year this will include significant work on the pier and the church – but after recent storm damage, it will also now include emergency exploration and conservation of Lady Grange’s House, a unique cleit in many ways.

As a charity, we can only undertake work such as this with your support. Please, if you can, donate today and help us continue to carry out conservation work like this across St Kilda.


[1] The image of the St Kildans on the jetty in 1930 is a scan of a glass plate held in the National Trust for Scotland archives. No photographer is named. Every effort to trace the copyright holder has been made.

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