St. Kilda, Now For The Birds

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A northern fulmar in flight near Boreray, an uninhabited island in the archipelago of St. Kilda. Photograph by Philip Mugridge / Alamy

A beautiful several minutes of historical reading, thanks to Fergus McIntosh:

A Trip to St. Kilda, Scotland’s Lost Utopia in the Sea

In 1877, George Seton, a visitor to the tiny Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, observed that the men living there had an unusual physiological characteristic. “The great toes of the cragsmen are widely separated from the others, from the circumstance of their frequently resting their entire weight on that part of the foot in climbing,” Seton wrote. These men with prehensile feet were residents of the most remote settlement in the British Isles, forty miles out in the North Atlantic, where seabirds, garnered from the towering cliffs, formed the major part of their diet. A hundred years after Seton, another visitor wrote that “even today a boat setting out for St. Kilda is by no means assured of reaching its destination.”

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A St. Kildan hunts seabirds on the cliffs of Hirta, May 26, 1923. Photograph by Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

These were unnerving words to recall as I stood, clad in oilskins and a lifejacket, on the pier at Uig, on the Isle of Skye, at seven o’clock one morning in August. Though the air was cold and still, the sky a smooth overcast, the captain of our small boat assured us that the ocean swell would make the journey to the islands uncomfortable, and that the weather could worsen at any moment.

We day-trippers were fortunate. The weather did change, but for the better, and the sea was glassy flat. What was once an arduous, daylong voyage in an open rowboat was now an exhilarating rush toward Britain’s highest sea cliffs and biggest seabird colony, and to a unesco World Heritage Site where we could happily examine the ruins of a village that had been home to as many as two hundred people. A bright sun made the green hills, speckled with violets and tormentil, shine, and turned the sea pewter gray. Only the cliffs, falling improbably from hilltops and cols and making it impossible to land anywhere but the village bay, reminded us that the islands are often cut off by storms for weeks, or even months, at a time.

Hirta—the “big” island, at two and a half square miles—was inhabited for thousands of years, with Soay and Boreray (the latter four miles distant) reserved for sheep. The islanders farmed little and fished less, preferring to subsist on seabirds. They developed extraordinary climbing skills, scaling thousand-foot precipices with cowhide ropes to harvest fulmar from the cliffs of Hirta, puffins from the Dun—a dinosaur spine of an islet, broken off from Hirta a few centuries ago—and gannets from two great sea stacks. At their population’s peak, the islanders took an annual harvest of tens of thousands of birds and eggs, which one sixteenth-century traveller, Martin Martin, found to be of “an astringent and windy quality.” (The St. Kildans reportedly thought that they tasted best after they had been covered in peat ash and aged for several months inside turf-topped stone huts, called cleits.) To match their strange diet, the St. Kildans, who spoke only Gaelic and had minimal contact with their feudal overlord, on Skye, had an unusual economic and political system. A parliament of all adult men met each morning, and the most important possessions—the arable land, the few climbing ropes, the single boat—were held in common, with each family benefitting from and responsible for its share in proportion to its needs. Martin considered them “the happiest people in this habitable globe . . . far above the avarice and slavery of the rest of mankind.”…

Read the whole post here.

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