Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I stated a while ago that we Scots are now a far more urban society than you Norwegians. But of course this was not always the case, and our roots lie very deeply within our landscape. It’s exactly 80 years since the evacuation of one of the remotest places in Europe, the island of St Kilda. Situated 41 miles (66 K) west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, the St Kildan archipelago is about as remote as you could be, a veritable outpost, where only the hardiest of folk could survive.

And they did, for centuries. Archaeologists have discovered Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, and judging by the Norse brooches and vessels found there, and with place names like Oiseval and Ruaival, anyone could tell Vikings showed up too...most likely the Norwegian variety.

The St Kildans eeked out a living any way they could. Cattle and sheep were kept, barley and oats were cultivated, and fish were caught. The steep cliffs of St Kilda still provide a major breeding ground for fulmars, puffins and gannets, all of which the inhabitants caught for food, feathers and oil. They were undoubtedly resourceful, but they were not necessarily in charge of their own destiny. The records of 1697 show a population of 180, hardworking people who paid rent (in kind) to their distant landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye.

The people lived together at Village Bay. They were of Hebridean stock and spoke Gaelic, and there was very little contact with the mainland. By the 19th century a church, a manse and a school had been built. The factor arrived once a year to collect rent, accompanied by a minister who would conduct weddings and christenings. But as contact with the outside world increased, many young people started to leave the island for a better life.

Having lost most of their able-bodied inhabitants, the elderly population were becoming fearful for their future. Resources were few, medical emergencies were proving too hard to cope with, and the remaining 36 people asked to be resettled. So eighty years ago, they packed up their belongings and left the island for good.

You’ll be wondering why I don’t have a nice picture of St Kilda itself. Well, of course I haven’t been’s a World Heritage Site, owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland and visitors are few and far between. But as the eightieth anniversary of the evacuation is marked, I’ve had ‘remote populations’ on my mind for another reason. I find the old black and white pictures of these remarkable islanders extraordinarily moving...unassuming, diligent, dignified folk who sought to remain independent, but who ultimately found life on the edge intolerable.

The world is currently wising up to the true costs of oil, underlined as they are by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, recent discoveries have sparked off a new wave of interest in the North Sea. As I write, activists are making their views on deepwater drilling very clear as they demonstrate off the coast of Greenland. But it’s not just environmental activists that are worried about the hazards of this kind of extraction...we are all concerned about our environment , and that includes every oil man and woman I have ever met. I think we’ve had one of the most graphic demonstrations of WHY a safe, clean industry is vital to our future prosperity.

When one looks at what oil has done for Norway (Norway’s Oil Fund is currently estimated to be around £300 billion) and Scotland (although some would say we should have benefitted far more than we have....answers on a postcard please) the question of how we and our neighbouring nations approach the future is crucial. The leader of Greenland’s Inuit people has been in Scotland this week to discuss this very issue. Aqqaluk Lynge, who chairs the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, says he fears his people’s lack of experience in negotiating oil deals will allow the international community to take advantage (Denmark granted Greenland self-rule last year, but land remains the property of the Danish Crown, so any profits from oil in the surrounding seas could go to Denmark or other countries).

Here’s the thing. St Kilda lies along the Atlantic margin, a line of north-westerly trending troughs that run from Ireland to Northern marks a split between Europe and Greenland which started 80 - 110 million years ago. The intrusive rocks of St Kilda date to 55 million years – a similar Tertiary age to those of Skye, Rhum, Eigg, Mull and Staffa, where magma entered the cracks and fractures adjacent to the newly opening North Atlantic. The basins off the coasts of Norway, Greenland and the Faroes have allowed marine microplankton to form the potential source rock for the recovery of oil in the future. In other words, any population situated on either side of the Atlantic margin could potentially benefit from the natural resources beneath them. I wonder what those St Kildans would be thinking if they were still on their island now.

The harsh realities of making a living in small, remote communities is often misunderstood, whether by activists, multi-national companies, governments and the rest of us who prefer a more comfortable existence ....let’s hope that however we approach the future, we do it with the utmost care, fairness, safety and concern for both people and planet.


  1. What I admire in your posts - and this one is no exception - that they make me think, not only reading but long after. This time it will be about the hardship and dignity of people in old pictures (I have a few myself that immediately came to mind)- and about the hope you voice in the last lines.

  2. I did get to St Kilda many years ago whilst living in the Western Isles. It was wild and beautiful, but most surprising was the constant noise from the generator at the army base. Don't think it is there now but presumably the National Trust warden will also have a generator. Well worth a visit if you can get there.

  3. must be some kind of motivational coach or something...very good for the blogger's ego.

    Freda...I'm v jealous!