Risking life To Live On St Kilda

Risking life To Live On St Kilda

Risking life To Live On St Kilda
A St Kilda landing on Stac Lee: a photograph from 1901

Usually, we can choose whether or Rnot we do something risky. The man who walks across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope chooses to do so, as does the boy who for a dare jumps from a clifftop into the water far below. But many people in the world are forced by circumstances to risk their lives to provide food for their families. The menfolk of St Kilda were such people. St Kilda is a small archipelago, a group of five remote islands, each one with a sea stack, or vertical rock column, over 150 meters high.

They lie in the North Atlantic Ocean 100 miles off the coast of Scotland to the east, and 4000 miles of empty Atlantic away from North America to the west. Human habitation was possible on only one of the islands, Hirta, where a small community lived from prehistoric times. No trees can grow there, stormy Atlantic seas make the islands unapproachable in winter, and even in summer, they are shrouded in mist and heavy cloud. The islanders lived on Hirta along with about 2000 sheep and a few heads of cattle which were tough enough to survive the extremely harsh conditions, but by 1930 crop failure and sickness had reduced the island community to 36. Finally forced to leave the island, they were evacuated to Scotland. 

Life was hard for the islanders, but they were able to provide for their families. The sea might have provided them with fish, but the gigantic ocean waves lashing the rocks made fishing from either boats or the rocks impossible. However, these were enterprising people who made what they could from scant resources. Sheep provided wool which the islanders wove into the tough fabric to protect themselves from the weather, the cattle provided milk and they were able to sow some crops such as oats and barley. This alone would not have been enough to sustain the islanders and human habitation was feasible only because St Kilda had one of the largest seabird colonies in Europe. The seabirds enabled the community to survive by providing eggs, fresh and dried meat, oil for lamps and medicinal purposes, and feathers for warm bedding. 

But to capture the birds and gather the eggs essential for their survival, the St Kilda men had to risk their lives. From a very early age, boys were taught to scale the precipitous vertical cliff faces. Over time they developed the ‘St Kilda toe’, an elongated big toe which they used as a claw which increased the traction of their bare or stockinged feet as they climbed. ‘Sky-fishers’-men with 10-foot poles with a net attached-could catch birds as they flew in the air; but to collect eggs, St Kildan men had to descend the precipitous cliffs on ropes held by other men on the clifftop. Above the thundering ocean, each man manipulated a long pole with a spoon tied to it to scoop the eggs from nests and burrows. The women and children waited at the cliff tops with their bags made from the stomachs of seabirds ready to fill with eggs as the men returned from their perilous task. These egg harvests were carried out according to the season twice or three times a year, but some ‘sky-fishing’ could be carried out all the year round without descending the cliffs. 

To reach the nests lower down the cliffs closer to the sea, the men had to make the brief but hazardous journey by boat and climb up the cliffs as the water thundered and crashed beneath them and angry birds whirled around. The most dangerous sea journey was the seven kilometers to the uninhabited Stac Lee, a gigantic perpendicular rock that rose over 150 meters, one of the highest sea stacks in Great Britain. It was home to the greatest concentration of sea gannets in the world and therefore the best source of eggs. Although climbing this stack was comparatively easy for a St Kildan, getting onto it was particularly dangerous. The men had to jump from their frail boat tossing in the waves onto the cliff face. To do this they lassoed a rope onto an iron peg which they had secured high up on the overhanging cliff for this purpose, and as the Atlantic swell rose, they jumped from the boat onto the rope and scaled the overhang slippery with seaweed. Clinging to the rock face as they climbed, they were surrounded by startled gannets which, with their six-foot wingspan, made formidable enemies. Frequently, the Atlantic Ocean waves would become too wild for them to return, and the men spent the night in a stone shelter they had built, just big enough for two men to crouch in. 

The eggs certainly came at a price. 

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