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29 Apr 2021

The National Trust for Scotland’s St Kilda archives

Written by Ian Riches, Archivist
Black and white archival image of the village on Hirta, St Kilda. The large mountain of Conachair is in the background.
A view of the main street in the Village on Hirta with Conachair in the background. (© National Trust for Scotland image library)
In 1957, St Kilda was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute. Since then, the Trust has acquired a significant collection of archival material relating to the islands.

St Kilda is an isolated archipelago situated around 40 miles west of North Uist and forms part of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It’s the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site, having gained this prestigious status for both its natural and cultural heritage. It’s also home to nearly one million seabirds, including the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins.

In August 2020, we commemorated the 90th anniversary of the evacuation of the last remaining islanders. The 36 inhabitants of Hirta, St Kilda’s main island, were taken to the Scottish mainland to begin new lives in the late summer of 1930.

Looking over Village Bay, Hirta St Kilda under a blue sky.
Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda, 2008 (© National Trust for Scotland Image Database; NTSSTKp01765)

In the years after 1930, St Kilda was used as a nature reserve, having been bought by the Earl of Dumfries (later the 5th Marquess of Bute) from MacLeod of MacLeod, the long-time owner of the islands. The Earl was an expert ornithologist and bought St Kilda specifically to use the islands as a bird sanctuary.

When the islands came to the Trust in 1957, along with them came a collection of letters, books and other items. Since that time this collection, known as the ‘Bute Box’, has been augmented with many donations and gifts from members of the public. Together they form the Trust’s St Kilda archive, currently held at our Head Office in Edinburgh.

Here we look at some selections from the various series of archives in the collection.

Diaries and journals

Alice MacLachlan diaries

On our website we have previously published the early 20th-century diaries written by Alice MacLachlan, wife of the then Minister of St Kilda, Peter MacLachlan. These three volumes cover the seven-month period prior to the MacLachlans going to St Kilda, and then describes their time on the islands between August 1906 and May 1909.

Alice MacLachlan (née Scroggie) was born in 1872, the fourth child of six to John Mackie Scroggie and his wife Mary. Initially they lived in Haddington, East Lothian, although Alice was later educated in Lincolnshire before going into teaching in York. She married the Reverend Peter MacLachlan in June 1899. Their first joint position was in the village of Garve, north of Inverness.

In January 1906 the MacLachlans received a letter saying they were being transferred to St Kilda. Initially, the couple had their misgivings about this new posting but Alice’s diaries reveal they soon settled into St Kilda. Her diaries offer an extraordinary insight into day-to-day St Kildan life, mentioning several of the then residents of the island.

Two pages from a handwritten diary.
Alice MacLachlan St Kilda diary extract, Volume 1, Aug 1906 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/29)

This extract from volume one of Alice’s diaries describes the period when she and Peter arrived on St Kilda in August 1906. She describes the few weeks prior to their voyage, relating their journey throughout Scotland visiting friends and family before finally being taken to St Kilda by the SS Hebrides.

Read more extracts from Alice MacLachlan’s diaries:

The St Kilda Diaries: 1 to 14 March 1909

The St Kilda Diaries: 15 to 31 March 1909

The St Kilda Diaries: 1 to 14 April 1909

The St Kilda Diaries: 15 to 30 April 1909

The St Kilda Diaries: 1 to 10 May 1909

Other journals

After the evacuation, people continued to visit St Kilda. Some of the islanders went back to stay in their former homes during the summer and there were also annual boat trips aboard vessels such as the SS Hebrides and the Dunara Castle.

One of those visitors was Elizabeth Ferguson, who made a journey to the Western Isles, including St Kilda, aboard the Hebrides in July 1931. She kept a travel journal documenting her voyage, complete with photographs. This was donated to our St Kilda archive in 2010 by her niece. In one extract, Elizabeth mentions how disappointed she was not to have made the trip to St Kilda prior to the evacuation (ie the year before), but then says she was glad because it would have been a ‘pitiful sight’.

John Ross journal

John Ross was a schoolteacher who went to St Kilda in the summer of 1889, and while there he observed all that was happening on the islands. He later recorded his reflections in this beautifully handwritten journal, which came as part of the Bute Box of archives.

This extract describes ‘Steamer Day, that time when visiting ships carrying tourists would land at Hirta’. Ross noted how the islanders, who had previously spent time producing goods to sell to the tourists would ‘… crowd to the shore carrying eggs and others cloth stockings to be offered for sale to visitors …’

Two pages from an elegantly handwritten diary, with some notes in the margins.
Extract from journal by John Ross, schoolteacher on St Kilda in 1899 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/3/22)

In another part of this extract Ross describes the houses the islanders inhabited; how they were all the same type and how the interiors of the houses are anything but salubrious! The end of the volume contains copies of letters written to a Mr Campbell, who was greatly interested in St Kilda and its inhabitants.

Correspondence

In the Bute Box of archives is a set of correspondence to the Earl of Dumfries from various people covering different topics. These range from letters requesting permission for visits to St Kilda; information regarding Soay sheep; correspondence pertaining to ornithology and lists of birds, and various other subjects.

A typewritten letter from 1931 about Soay sheep.
A letter dated 1933 from an Edinburgh solicitors’ firm to the Earl of Dumfries, requesting Soay sheep from St Kilda (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda Archives, STK/4/1)

Another collection of correspondence was kindly donated to the Trust in 1999 by a member of the public and contains a series of letters, photos and newspaper clippings. The material all dates from the mid-1960s and predominantly comprises correspondence between the donor’s father and Donald Gillies, a former inhabitant of St Kilda.

The St Kilda archives of the RHASS

A significant series of archives is held by the Trust on long-term loan from the Royal Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS) relating to the Kelsall Bequest. In 1857, Mr Charles Kelsall left in his will a large sum of money to: ‘the purchase of such articles and things as may in the judgement of such Treasurer [of the Highland Agricultural Society] but the most fitting for the Inhabitants of the Island of St Kilda ... and distributed amongst the Inhabitants of that Island at the discretion of the said Treasurer.’ (RHASS St Kilda archives, 10/03)

The society were to be the administrators of this bequest and over the next 40 or so years they accumulated a significant collection of archives – letters mainly – relating to the islands and islanders and how the money was spent. This collection was deposited with the Trust on long-term loan in 1996.

A scale plan of the village on Hirta, St Kilda hand drawn on brown paper. The illustration is very faint.
Scale plan of Village Bay, St Kilda, 1860 from RHASS St Kilda archives on loan to NTS, 16/01 (© National Records of Scotland, RHP49452; with thanks to the RHASS for their permission to use this)

Within this collection (shown above) is the original scale plan of Village Bay in 1860, showing the position of each islander’s house and the extent of land held. Many of the houses were destroyed by a storm of October 1860. It’s thought these houses were the kind of Hebridean ‘blackhouses’ prevalent in the islands at that time, as depicted in this lovely illustration.

 Black and white drawing of three Hebridean blackhouses
Print of a drawing of a Hebridean blackhouse (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/15)

After the storm of 1860, new dwellings were built. Captain Otter from the ship Porcupine, a regular visitor to St Kilda and mentioned in the document below, saw the effects of the storm and helped to facilitate supplies to the islands to assist the inhabitants.

Captain Otter’s frequent visits to the islands led to him being highly regarded by the islanders, who saw him as a great friend to them. Certainly, the many letters in the collection written by him to Mr Maxwell, the RHASS secretary administering the Kelsall fund, indicate his great fondness for the island and islanders.

The document below is an agreement dated May 1861, about the building of the new houses to specifications set down by MacLeod and the Secretary of the RHASS. On the reverse of this document are the signatures, or rather the marks, of the St Kildans.

Photos and photo albums

We’re fortunate to have a significant number of photos, photo albums, prints and slides relating to St Kilda. I’d like to focus on just a couple of items.

Milne album

One of the more valuable items in the St Kilda archives is a photograph album containing images taken by Robert Milne. Milne visited the Outer Hebrides including St Kilda in 1907 with a friend, Mr Clarence. What is noteworthy about this is the co-relation between Milne’s photo album and the MacLachlan diaries – although they came to the Trust separately, they have a connection and reference each other.

In Alice MacLachlan’s diary for 1 August 1907 she writes: ‘Mr. McKenzie (Factor) introduced me to two young gentlemen (Messrs. Milne and Clarence) who were coming to St. Kilda & who have taken up their abode with us.’

Milne took some remarkable images during his stay, including those of Alice and her husband Peter, whom Alice referred to as ‘Dunie’.

Black and white image of a woman sitting at a spinning wheel. There is a drystone wall behind her.
Alice at her spinning wheel; Milne album, 1907 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/56)

St Kilda is a major seabird breeding ground, and for the St Kildans this was a rich source of sustenance and provision. The islanders took the gannets, fulmars and puffins for food, feathers and oil, some of which they consumed themselves; the rest went to pay the MacLeod’s factor as their rent. The birds were taken during the breeding season, which lasted from about March to September, and were caught by hand or with a fowling rod or a snare.

Black and white image of a man precariously perched on the side of a high sea cliff.
A St Kildan perched precariously on rocks while catching birds; Milne album, 1907 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/56)

Milne and Clarence were only on St Kilda for a short time, but they certainly left their mark and the legacy of a wonderful collection of photos. As she records in her diary for August 1907, even Alice was sorry to be ‘parting with the two Sassenachs’!

Two handwritten pages of a diary.
Alice MacLachlan St Kilda Diary extract, Volume 2, August 1907 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/29)

Other albums

In 2015, the Trust was kindly gifted an album relating to St Kilda from the late 19th/early 20th century by a private donor. This item belonged to the great-cousin of the donor, whose father was a medical practitioner practising in the late 19th century. It’s thought that he was a locum on St Kilda for a short time just before 1900 and many of the images in the album are of St Kilda at that time.

Black and white image of two women on the jetty on Hirta, St Kilda.
Image of two women by the jetty on Hirta; from the Christie album (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/109)

Timothy Bagenal, a marine biologist, went to St Kilda in 1952 to study the birds, flora and fauna of the islands along with several others with similar interests. The Trust holds copies of articles written by Mr Bagenal relating to his studies, and some years later he also kindly donated a photograph album with images depicting his visit to St Kilda.

Two pages from a photo album depicting the interior of the kirk, the pier and an aerial shot of Hirta, St Kilda.
A couple of pages from the Bagenal album depicting the interior of the kirk, the pier and an aerial shot of Hirta; 1952 (© National Trust for Scotland; St Kilda archives, STK/11/48)

National Trust for Scotland corporate archives

As well as the collections of historical archives for St Kilda, there are also numerous correspondence, administration, management and project files which form part of the Trust’s institutional archive.

Shortly after the islands came into the Trust’s care, we began our ‘work parties’, where small groups of people went out to St Kilda to undertake various required tasks. Over the years many people who took part in such work parties have been kind enough to deposit their journals, notes and photos into the St Kilda archive.

1958 was a busy year for St Kilda-related events as it saw the formation of the St Kilda Club and, alongside the early work parties, the Trust facilitated a joint schools expedition to St Kilda. This involved pupils from schools in England and Scotland visiting the islands and helping with the clearing of the village houses, the post office and the burial ground.

It’s clear that the islands of St Kilda have fascinated and intrigued many people over the centuries and doubtless will continue to do so for years to come. It’s incredible to think that these remote isles and their population – varying in numbers over the years and enduring the privations that came with living there – have stimulated so much interest and provoked much literature.

The Trust archives are but a portion of the information on St Kilda that’s available. National institutions and private individuals have their own collections relating to the islands, some of which are available for consultation. But the Trust’s own assembly of letters, diaries, photos, postcards and other items are a valuable collection in their own right, and the samples presented here hopefully reflect in some small way the history of the islands and the lives of the islanders.

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