St Kilda, Scotland

St Kilda
Gaelic nameHiort
Pronunciation[hirˠʃt̪] (About this soundlisten)
Norse namePossibly Skildir
Meaning of nameUnknown, possibly Gaelic for "westland"
Overview of Village Bay, St Kilda
Overview of Village Bay, St Kilda
St Kilda is located in Outer Hebrides
St Kilda
St Kilda
St Kilda shown within the Outer Hebrides
Coordinates57°49′N 8°35′W / 57°49′N 8°35′W / 57.817; -8.583
Physical geography
Island groupSt Kilda
Area3.3 square miles (8.5 km2)
Highest elevationConachair 430 metres (1,410 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaComhairle nan Eilean Siar
PopulationNo permanent population since 1930
Largest settlementAm Baile (the Village)
Inscription1986 (10th Session)
Extensions2004, 2005
Area24,201.4004 hectares (59,803 acres)

St Kilda (Scottish Gaelic: Hiort) is an isolated archipelago situated 40 miles (64 km) west-northwest of North Uist, in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.[note 1] The largest island is Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom. Three other islands (Dùn, Soay and Boreray) were also used for grazing and seabird hunting. The islands are administratively a part of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar local authority area.[6]

The origin of the name St Kilda is a matter of conjecture. The islands' human heritage includes numerous unique architectural features from the historic and prehistoric periods, although the earliest written records of island life date from the Late Middle Ages. The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island's evacuation in 1930.[7] The story of St Kilda has attracted artistic interpretations, including Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World and an opera.[8]

Permanent habitation on the islands possibly extends back at least two millennia, the population probably never exceeding 180 (and certainly no more than 100 after 1851). The entire remaining population was evacuated from Hirta, the only inhabited island, in 1930. The islands house a unique form of stone structure known as cleitean. A cleit is a stone storage hut or bothy; while many still exist, they are slowly falling into disrepair.[9] There are known to be 1,260 cleitean on Hirta and a further 170 on the other group islands.[10] Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel; a variety of conservation workers, volunteers and scientists spend time there in the summer months.[3][11]

The National Trust for Scotland owns the entire archipelago.[12] It became one of Scotland's six World Heritage Sites in 1986 and is one of the few in the world to hold mixed status for both its natural and cultural qualities.[13] Parties of volunteers work on the islands in the summer to restore the many ruined buildings that the native St Kildans left behind. They share the island with a small military base established in 1957.[14]

Two different early sheep types have survived on these remote islands, the Soay, a Neolithic type, and the Boreray, an Iron Age type. The islands are a breeding ground for many important seabird species, including northern gannets, Atlantic puffins, and northern fulmars. The St Kilda wren and St Kilda field mouse are endemic subspecies.[3]

Origin of names

The Street in 1886

Various theories have been proposed for the origin of the name Kilda, which dates from the late 16th century. No saint is known by the name.[15] Haswell-Smith (2004) notes that the full name St Kilda first appears on a Dutch map dated 1666. He proposes that it might have been derived from the Norse words sunt kelda (meaning "sweet wellwater"), or from a mistaken Dutch assumption that the spring Tobar Childa was dedicated to a saint. (Tobar Childa is a tautological place name, consisting of the Scottish Gaelic and Norse words for well, i.e., "well well").[3] Martin Martin, who visited in 1697, believed that the name "is taken from one Kilder, who lived here; and from him the large well Toubir-Kilda has also its name".[16][17]

1580 Carte of Scotlande showing Hyrth (i.e. Hirta) at left and Skaldar (Haskeir) to the north-east

Maclean (1972) similarly suggests it comes from a corruption of the Old Norse name for the spring on Hirta, Childa, and states that a 1588 map identifies the archipelago as Kilda. He also speculates that it could refer to the Culdees, anchorites who might have brought Christianity to the island. He also speculates that it could be a corruption of the Gaelic name for the main island of the group, since the islanders tended to pronounce r as l, and thus habitually referred to the island as Hilta.[18] Steel (1988) adds weight to the idea, noting that the islanders pronounced the H with a "somewhat guttural quality", making the sound they used for Hirta "almost" Kilta.[19] Similarly, St Kilda speakers interviewed by the School of Scottish Studies in the 1960s show individual speakers using t-initial forms, leniting to /h/, e.g. ann an Tirte ([ˈan̪ˠən̪ˠ ˈtʰʲirˠʃt̪ʲə]) and gu Hirte ([kə ˈhirˠʃt̪ʲə]).[20]

Maclean (1972) further suggests that the Dutch made a cartographical error, and confused Hirta with Skildar (the old name for Haskeir island much nearer the main Outer Hebrides archipelago).[18][21][note 2] Quine (2000) hypothesises that the name is derived from a series of cartographical errors, starting with the use of the Old Icelandic Skildir ("shields") and appearing as Skildar on a map by Nicholas de Nicolay (1583). This, so the hypothesis goes, was transcribed in error by Lucas J. Waghenaer in his 1592 charts without the trailing r and with a full stop after the S, creating S.Kilda. This was, in turn, assumed to stand for a saint by others, creating the form that has been used for several centuries, St Kilda.[22][23][note 3]

The Village Street showing restoration work

The origin of Hirta, which long pre-dates St Kilda, is similarly open to interpretation. Martin (1703) avers that "Hirta is taken from the Irish Ier, which in that language signifies west".[16] Maclean offers several options, including an (unspecified)[24] Celtic word meaning "gloom" or "death", or the Scots Gaelic h-Iar-Tìr ("westland"). Drawing on an Icelandic saga describing an early 13th-century voyage to Ireland that mentions a visit to the islands of "Hirtir", he speculates that the shape of Hirta resembles a stag, (Hirtir meaning "stags" in Norse).[18] Steel (1998) quotes the view of Reverend Neil Mackenzie, who lived there from 1829 to 1844, that the name is derived from the Gaelic Ì Àrd ("high island"), and a further possibility that it is from the Norse Hirt ("shepherd").[25] In a similar vein, Murray (1966) speculates that the Norse Hirðö, pronounced 'Hirtha' ("herd island"), could be the origin.[26] All the names of and on the islands are fully discussed by Coates (1990).[27]