St. Kilda

May 17, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer

A trip out to St. Kilda cannot be guaranteed at any time of year. There is no ferry service to the farthest west of the Hebridean islands, and a wide stretch of open Atlantic makes both passage and landings on the island problematic. So, we were truly blessed with a cloudless sky, wonderful visibility, and calm seas for our visit to an amazing island that was continuously occupied for millennia, from the Bronze Age to the 20th century.

The last St. Kildans were evacuated, at their own request, in 1930, and today the island has a small population of Ministry of Defence personnel as well as seasonal staff and volunteers from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) who now own the island. Ownership and management by the NTS derive from the island’s unique heritage in cultural and natural history.

Natural history in the form of significant colonies of Atlantic seabirds on the high eastern cliffs and outlying stacks was apparent on arrival. Gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, and guillemots—once a vital source of food for the islanders— were in abundance. For an island population that never developed a money economy, rent was paid to the Macleods of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye in the form of fulmar feathers, collected by the landlord’s agent or factor from a substantial storehouse that we visited. The island is also home to the delightful St. Kilda wren, somewhat larger that its mainland cousins and happily nesting in the drystone walls that characterize the village settlement.

The weakening and eventual demise of such an ancient community is sad story. Tourists arriving on steamer trips from Glasgow paid islanders to have their photos taken from the 1880s onward, which brought money that could be exchanged for canned food. A strict Sabbatarianism that came with the introduction of compulsory schooling for the island’s children also had its effect, disrupting the flexible work practices necessary for agriculture in such an exposed location. The new housing that the Macleods of Dunvegan were shamed into providing for the islanders looked better to the visiting tourists but were less comfortable than the traditional black houses that were vacated. High infant mortality, influenza epidemics, and the hemorrhaging of young people led to the island becoming unviable.

In the evening, we headed back to the Isle of Lewis. By glorious evening sun, we went ashore to the small village of Callanish. A short walk up the hillside led us to a spectacular scene—the standing stones erected by Bronze Age settlers, thousands of years ago. With a huge, full moon hanging in the air, the quiet murmur of people and birds, the site had an almost ethereal quality.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales. Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally. He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world. In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals. In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City). He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

About the Photographer

Ella Potts


Ella’s passion has always been in marine conservation, with a childhood spent swimming, kayaking or boating in the chilly waters of the UK, or surveying the marine life of those waters from windswept headlands. She has numerous, distinct early memories of shivering adults, wrapped up in jumpers and cagoules, looking down at her with slight horror through sheets of rain and commenting on her short sleeves. A phenomena that persists to this day.  She graduated with a Masters degree in Marine Biology: Conservation and Resource Management from Swansea University, setting her up for a career protecting those marine ecosystems that she so loves. 

Ella has worked for several British whale conservancy charities, including ORCA and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) and is a British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) marine mammal medic. She has a real passion for lecturing, and during her time in these different organizations has presented to vastly ranging audiences; from groups of young children right up to filled auditoriums at the headquarters of HWDT partner, WWF. 

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