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21 Aug 2018

The collection at the edge of the world

Written by Deirdre Mitchell
The main settlement in Village Bay
The main settlement in Village Bay
St Kilda is the most remote place in UK, and it also happens to be home to the National Trust for Scotland’s most remote collection of artefacts.

Situated 41 miles west of the island of North Uist, the wild and inhospitable archipelago of St Kilda was once home to a small community. In this harsh environment, they made a living by hunting the seabirds that nest on the dramatic cliffs which dominate the landscape of the four islands which make up St Kilda: Hirta, Soay, Boreray and Dùn.

Life on St Kilda was hard, and in 1930 the remaining islanders requested to be evacuated. On 29 August 1930, the last 36 St Kildans departed for the mainland – bringing an end to thousands of years of human settlement on this unique outpost.

The St Kildans left behind an entire village including cottages, blackhouses and small stone-built stores called cleits. One of the small cottages on ‘The Street’ – the only row of houses in the village – has been restored and turned into a museum. 

The only row of cottages on the island was known as The Street
The only row of cottages on the island was known as The Street

Today, people come to St Kilda to see this fascinating abandoned settlement for themselves. But, incredibly, tourism to St Kilda is not a recent phenomenon – people began to visit the island on steamships as early as the 1870s.

Margaret Fay Shaw, probably better known for her association with Canna, visited St Kilda in 1930, just before the evacuation. Margaret was born in Pennsylvania in 1903 and first visited Scotland in 1921. She quickly became fascinated with the folk songs and folklore of the Western Isles and set about recording them. With this interest in the unique culture of the islands, it isn’t surprising that she was keen to go to St Kilda as well. 

Margaret took several photos during her visit to St Kilda, including this one of a family outside one of the cottages on The Street
Margaret took several photos during her visit to St Kilda, including this one of a family outside one of the cottages on The Street

The St Kildans took advantage of tourism from the start, by making and selling souvenirs to visitors. This included socks and gloves made from the wool of the island’s native Boreray and Soay sheep. When Margaret visited St Kilda, one of the things she purchased was a pair of brown-and-white checked woollen socks. Now, they are once again back on St Kilda and can be seen on display in the museum there. 

These socks were made on St Kilda from the wool of native sheep
These socks were made on St Kilda from the wool of native sheep

But not everything that caught Margaret’s eye on St Kilda was made there. Another item that she purchased was a headsquare, traditionally worn by St Kildan women.

Colourful headsquares such as this one were worn by the women of St Kilda
Colourful headsquares such as this one were worn by the women of St Kilda

Margaret recalled the encounter with the islander, Mrs Gillies, from whom she purchased it:

‘Mrs Gillies was wearing a most becoming tartan square on her head. I thought she must have woven it herself, but when I admired it she asked:

Do you know Cowcaddens? That's where it came from and I can give you a nice new one.

Her own had faded to such soft and pretty colours that I said I much preferred it. This made her laugh and she took it off and gave it to me, reluctantly taking half a crown. The scarf is still a prized possession.’

Both these items offer a glimpse into the lives of the islanders, helping to ensure that their story survives nearly 90 years after they departed. 

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the Trust material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 18 months from July 2017 until December 2018.

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