Written By: LFG
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Scotland is home to beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see. Its lush green mountains alone make it comparable to a movie scene—everything about it is simply breathtaking. These lands are also rich in history, much like the mysterious island of Hirta–an island abandoned since the 1930s.
Hirta Island is located in the Saint Kilda archipelago and is considered the largest island with a land area of 2.5 square miles. It was born out of a volcanic eruption, so its terrain is both rugged and sloped. As such, the entire place is virtually inaccessible, aside from one point where a bay is situated. It usually takes about 18 hours by boat to reach this remote island from the mainland. However, the rough Atlantic seas make Hirta almost impossible to reach at any time of the year.
Despite the isolated location, it’s incredible how people used to inhabit the island as far back as prehistoric times. According to archaeological findings, a Viking colony was found along with artifacts and burial tombs. It turns out Saint Kilda used to belong to the Kingdom of His Excellency of the Islands during the fifteenth century, but the ownership was passed to one named MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle. Historians shared how MacLeod accepted rent from the islanders in puffin bird feathers, gathered from the island’s cliffs.
The Dawn of a New Era
Toward the eighteenth century, many families started to vacate the island due to a potato famine that devasted the village’s crops. The poor weather made up of harsh winds and winter was too much, and a total of 42 settlers fled to Melbourne, Australia, in 1850 through the help of the Scottish Highland and Island Emigration Society. Sadly, only half of the pioneers survived the long voyage, which was estimated to take several weeks.
By the early twentieth century, life began to change in Hirta as steamships began to arrive at their humble port. Visitors flocked the island, and people now had another source of income. For a few decades, tourism became an important way of life for Saint Kildans since the boats gave them a steady supply of essential goods.
Evacuation Request from the Saint Kildans
Unfortunately, the advent of tourism also brought diseases, which were nonexistent in Hirta previously. An influenza outbreak in 1914 is believed to be the cause behind the sudden increase in infant mortality rate and caused alarm in residences. Medical personnel from the mainland often visited Hirta and urged them to move somewhere with better access to healthcare.
Another event that influenced the Saint Kildans to relocate was during World War I. Because of the remote location, the British Navy decided to set up their base in Hirta. Initially, the people were glad of this as it brought some advantages like mail delivery and supplies. But they soon realized how different life is outside their small island. People began to express discontent as they had to work extra hard to survive daily. More people left for the mainland, and the population drastically went from 73 to 36 by 1928.
Finally in 1930, the remaining villagers filed a formal evacuation request to the government after a young woman died of pneumonia and appendicitis. The townsfolk had expressed challenges in keeping a sustainable life, and they realized the absence of medical help could be fatal if one of them gets seriously ill. Thankfully, their request was immediately obliged, and a ship called HMS Harebell became a beacon of hope for the islanders as it ferried them to a whole new life in Scotland on August 29, 1930.
The last known surviving Saint Kildan was a woman named Rachel Johnson, who left the island when she was about eight years old. She died in July 1922, thus ending the era of her people.
Hirta Island Today
Hirta Island remains to be a hauntingly beautiful place that can be visited through travel agencies in mainland Oban. It turned to a famous bird-watching site as rare bird colonies have now increased in the area after it became uninhabited. However, trips would greatly depend on the weather conditions. Aside from that, it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich cultural history and ecological contribution. One fun trivia to note is that it is now the home of the rarest breed of sheep in the United Kingdom—the Boreray sheep.
As of this day, the once quaint town of Hirta is left in rubble. Some roofs have been fixed to preserve it, but the houses’ main stone structure was destroyed by weather. It looks like a romantic scene, but one could imagine why the islanders eventually decided to leave their homes. It wasn’t a place for human habitation; rather, its beauty belonged to nature.
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