Angela Gannon & George Geddes: St Kilda – The Last and Outermost Isle

Cover of St Kilda: The Last and Outermost IsleAngela Gannon and George Geddes were  archaeologists with the (now-defunct) Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Both have worked on the islands of St Kilda (Geddes lived there for six months), so they’re well qualified to write this book.

St Kilda is that island group you can never quite see on the weather map during the Scottish weather forecast, because it’s out in the Atlantic behind the presenter’s head.

St Kilda map by Eric Gaba
Map by Eric Gaba (GNU Free Documentation Licence 1.2)

It consists of one big island, Hirta, which hosted the only permanent settlement until it was evacuated in 1930. There are three smaller islands, Soay, Boreray and Dùn, which were used for pasture and agriculture. The islanders also regularly harvested eggs and seabirds from several sea stacks in the surrounding ocean.It’s a World Heritage Site and a National Nature Reserve. Incongruously, it also hosts a Ministry of Defence missile tracking station, on a few hectares of land leased from the National Trust for Scotland, with two radar installations perched on Mullach Mòr and Mullach Sgar. These two locations are served by a narrow ribbon of tarmac. The construction team must have been at a bit of a loose end, because when the Boon Companion and I were there in 1995, we found a zebra crossing laid out in the windswept col between the two radar towers.

For some reason people think I sometimes just make stuff like this up, so I tracked down a photo of it for you, from 2002 (original context here):

Zebra crossing, St Kilda
© Russel Wills, Creative Commons 2.0

Since it was evidently getting a little scadded by that time (presumably by the large number of people re-enacting the cover of the Abbey Road album), I was cheered to discover that it had later been repainted:

QinetiQ staff ensured that the St Kilda Archaeologist was consulted over issues which may be of concern, including the emplacing of a new crash barrier on Mullach Sgar; the construction of a concrete plinth at the POL ramp and the repainting of the zebra crossing.

St Kilda Archaeologist’s Report (2002)

Gannon and Geddes’s book sadly doesn’t contain a picture of the zebra crossing, but it is otherwise chock-full of images of St Kilda. The latter half of the book is a pictorial section, in themed subdivisions each with a little introductory commentary: Landscape, St Kildans, Seasons, Tourism, Evacuation, Military, Expeditions. For me, that half alone is worth the price of admission. There’s some glorious landscape photography in there, along with early photographs of the St Kildan community.

The first half of the book is a history of St Kilda, largely based on archaeological evidence. It’s heavy on archaeological detail, and tends to assume that the reader will already know what a cleit, a naust, or a consumption dyke are. Sometimes explanations turn up later in the text; sometimes not. It’s a little light on the detail of the St Kildan way of life from the historical era, but there are plenty of other books that fill that gap. What it does do very well is put St Kilda back into a wider context—this was never the utterly isolated island that popular accounts make it out to have been, but always part of a wider Hebridean seafaring community. A killer fact for me was to find out that Dunvegan Castle, in Skye, didn’t even have a landward entrance until the eighteenth century—sea travel was how people got from place to place, and when you understand that, St Kilda stops seeming so cut off from the world.

Cover of St Kilda and Other Hebridean OutliersThe book also puts to rest the old story that the main settlement on St Kilda had at one time been in Gleann Mòr, on the north side of the island, rather than the current, more sheltered, location at Village Bay on the south side. The archaeology shows that the ruins in Gleann Mòr are actually of bothies and sheep-folds, used by the islanders when grazing their flocks in that area.

If you want a book that tells more about the St Kildan way of life (including the story of the last Great Auk, and instructions on how to make socks out of gannets), I can recommend Francis Thompson’s St Kilda and Other Hebridean Outliers (1988). It’s of course not up to date with the recent archaeology, but otherwise very satisfying. As a bonus, you get chapters on such out-of-the-way places as North Rona, Sulasgeir, the Flannans, the Monachs and Heisgeir Rocks.

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