Stories From Remote Places: Survival On St Kilda


St Kilda, the remotest island in the British Isles, is home to one of the most remarkable stories of perseverance and human survival that have ever been told.

Until 1930 St Kilda was the remotest inhabited island in the British Isles. Situated 50 miles off the Outer Hebrides it is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic ocean. It is as cut off from the mainland as is possible. Due to it’s remote, inhospitable location the inhabitants called St Kildan’s developed a unique survival strategy that they lived by right up until their departure in 1930.

St Kildans on street

St Kildans outside their homes on Hirta

Way Of Life

The St Kildans food supply revolved around harvesting the sea birds that nested on the sheer cliffs. The birds could be found all over Hirta, the main island with a small settlement, and the neighbouring uninhabited sea stacks . Towering high above the raging ocean, the St Kildans would climb down the cliffs on ropes to access the nesting birds. It’s hard to comprehend this without the aid of modern climbing equipment bearing in mind these are the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles.

st kildan inhabitants
climber on st kilda

St Kildans hunting the sea birds

Puffin hunting on St Kilda

Survival was in the St Kildans blood. They had survived for several millennia cut off from the mainland with incredibly limited resources. The St Kildans only had open rowing boats. To reach the Outer Hebrides would have been a gruelling two day row across the open ocean that was frequently battered by Atlantic storms. Throughout the winter months they would have been completely cut off.

Boating on St Kilda

‘Boating in St Kilda’ by J Norman Heathcote, 1900

Survival Against the Odds

On August 15th 1727 three men and eight boys were rowed 3 nautical miles from the settlement on Hirta and dropped on Stac an Armin, a monolith of almost sheer rock that juts out of the ocean. Climbing the imposing sea stack, which at 643 feet is the highest in the British Isles, was a difficult and precarious task.

Usually the landing party would spend a couple of days hunting seabirds on the stack using a small bothy for shelter. On this occasion tragedy would strike. A small pox epidemic broke out on Hirta. The St Kildan’s became too ill to man the boats. With nobody from Hirta able enough to row back and get them they were now marooned on this barren piece of rock. 

Landing on St Kilda

‘A St Kildan landing on Stac Lee’ by J Norman Heathcote, 1900

Staring up at the stack it’s incomprehensible to imagine how anyone could survive there for a period of time with no supplies, but this is where the St Kildan’s incredible survival skills really came into play.

The group of eleven survived on Stac an Armin for an incredible nine months right through the brutal Scottish winter living off nothing but the sea birds they caught. Story has it that they would light fires on the stack to let their wives on Hirta know they were still alive. It wasn’t until May 1728 that they were finally rescued. Incredibly all of them survived.  

stac lee

The neighbouring Stac Lee with Hirta in the background

A Unique Way of Life No More

The St Kildan’s had survived for two millennia on this barren archipelago of islands. In 1930 their way of life had become unsustainable as the younger islanders left and the ageing population struggled to undertake the gruelling work hunting seabirds. With a lack of support from the Government the islanders asked to be evacuated. On the 29th August 1930 the last boat left the island taking the remaining St Kildan’s to the mainland and sadly their unique way of life was no more.

st kildans

Today St Kilda is managed by the National Trust and it is well worth a visit. If you would like to know how to get there please read my destination guide here or read about my experience of a day trip here.

I recommend joining the National Trust here to  support the fantastic conservation work they do on St Kilda. You will also get free entry to properties all over the UK so it is well worth it. 

You can watch my experience of visiting St Kilda on this episode of my Remote Travel Vlog

After careful research it is believed all the images on this page are in the public domain. If you believe this to be incorrect or have any other information please contact me.  

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