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15 Apr 2022

From the edge of the world 2022 – part 2

Written by Clare Henderson, Archaeologist
A view of the sea as the sun sets over the horizon in glowing yellow and amber hues. To the left a bird in silhouette swoops by with wings outstretched, and to the right the dark mass of an island peak juts into view.
A sunset view of the sea from St Kilda
Our St Kilda archaeologist embarks on the winter damage assessment and makes some interesting new discoveries on the island.

They are embedded in the ground all around the manse. Sharp enough to cleave the soft soil, they have been hurled with enough force to travel sometimes 20 meters and bury themselves up to 15cm deep. When the winter winds catch them, they spiral from the church roof like clouds of autumn leaves. I gather this season’s crop of detached slates, happy in the knowledge that by late summer contractors will be on island re-roofing the church and schoolroom. Come next March, fallen slates should hopefully be a thing of the past. But for the time being, winter still lingers on St Kilda. As the island archaeologist, my first job is to assess what other damage – besides the fallen slates – the cruellest season has left in its wake.

The winter damage assessment is done in early March, and this year I will be staying on the island afterwards, right through spring and summer. We have electrical work to do at one of the buildings the Trust has in use: the Factor’s House. It was built in the late-19th century to accommodate the landlord’s representative during their annual visit. In the intervening years the building was damaged in the Great War by submarine shellfire, was repaired prior to the evacuation, fell into disrepair during the 1930s and ’40s, and was restored first by the military, then the National Trust for Scotland. It has been an island home to nurses, teachers, military personnel, Trust staff, researchers, fieldworkers and volunteers. Through all seasons these reassuringly solid white walls have kept the winter storms at bay, inside a welcome haven of warmth and light. A home, for those a long way from home. This winter it stands in cold darkness, the power supply turned off until the electric system can be fully replaced. Cable on St Kilda must be armoured to withstand the teeth of the mice. It arrives by helicopter in unfeasibly heavy rolls, along with two electricians, Calum and Colin from G&A Barnie, who will undertake the work.

It is a complicated business doing work on an old building. It’s even more complicated when the building is a scheduled monument. Legal consent from Historic Environment Scotland must be in place even to replace electrical wiring. Lifting wall and floor coverings carries the potential to cause damage to surviving historic fabric and must be done with care. When the floorboards are lifted we peer into the dark spaces below, the secret unseen parts of the house. Amongst the dust we find an unexpected artefact – an empty Tennent’s lager can! It features a picture of a woman identified as ‘Lee’. A quick bit of research in the office confirms she adorned the cans between 1972–77. The can belongs to a long-running promotion by the brewer known as their ‘Lager Lovelies’ campaign. Once the work is complete ‘Lee’ is returned to her quarters beneath the floor – only now she has company in the form of a modern Tennent’s can, this one sadly nameless.

As light and warmth are restored to the Factor’s House, the sun decides it is also time to return bright, sunny days to St Kilda. It makes walking about the village recording any new damage to the structures a much more pleasant experience. One afternoon, as I watch a tiny goldcrest hopping about behind the street, I realise I am also looking at the low earthworks of a collapsed, grassed-over wall inside the enclosure. It is sub-rectangular, the walls probably too narrow to have been a blackhouse, although the footprint is the right shape. I am in the area of the village where we believe the earlier settlement was located. I have with me maps that detail all the known earthworks surveyed in the village. To my surprise this enclosure is empty – seemingly these wall footings have not been noted previously. One advantage of fieldwork in late winter is the low vegetation can reveal things the lush grass of summer normally hides. I will need to investigate this possible ‘discovery’ further when I return to my desk. But for now, I take a few photos, and carry on with my work excited at the prospect of adding something positive to the tally of repair work generated by the assessment.

A dry stone wall surrounds the earthwork remains of a former structure, visible in the short stubby grass.
The earthwork remains of a former structure within an enclosure behind the street

I finish the winter damage assessment just as the sun is sinking towards the horizon. The hills cast a long dark shadow sharply across the bay. St Kilda stands poised between the changing seasons and the scene before me is appropriately half light and half shade. The gable of the Factor’s House reflects the last rays of the setting sun. It is a spark of bright white against the dark sea and rows of grey cleits – how lucky am I to call this island my home!

The last light of a March day brightens a hillside on St Kilda which is dotted with small dry stone buildings (cleits). Lower down are cottages and buildings, and beyond that is a view out to sea.
The last light of a March day catches the gable of the Factor’s House

As the night draws in I get out a small, outdoor brazier that was cleverly converted from a broken wood burning stove that used to live in cottage 1. Bulky items like this can be troublesome to remove from the island so re-purposing it was a useful exercise. Its absence also left us with a sizeable stockpile of scrap timber that was intended for fuel. As the full moon rises, I burn some of the old woodpile in the brazier. Showers of sparks are cast heavenwards to join the scatter of stars overhead. The first full moon in March is known as the Worm Moon, its name signifying the life that will soon return to the soil.

On St Kilda, an old wood burner converted into a brazier is lit and flaming. It's night-time, but just visible from moonlight are the sea waves and the island of Dùn in the background.
The old wood burner from cottage 1 converted into a brazier, with Dùn in the background

With the works complete at the Factor’s House, all the winter damage logged and a possible new feature to investigate, March has been busy and productive. By the time the clocks change at the end of the month, spring has arrived on St Kilda. Brown hillsides show signs of turning green, wrens sing in the drystone walls and the sheep will soon have lambs at heel. The hours of sunshine are long and warm, life really is bursting out all over... surely it’s time for the rest of the Trust ranger team, and all our visitors, to arrive?

From the edge of the world

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