As the British empire surged into every corner of the globe, there was one place, right on its doorstep, that it barely reached: the tiny archipelago of St Kilda. Just 40 miles across the Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides, the islands’ inhabitants lived a utopian feudal existence well into the 19th century.
Tom Steel’s book is a minutely detailed account of their history, character, astonishing daily life and eventual evacuation. But it is not a dry record – the author’s admiration for the islanders’ tenacity and anger at their plight tinge his words with regret.
Survival on St Kilda depended on the men climbing seemingly impossible crags to harvest thousands of seabirds annually for food. Meanwhile, violent storms could render the entire population deaf for a week, even in summer.
But Steel doesn’t blame such hardships for the islanders’ demise – instead it was the church and misplaced charity that eroded their joy, lifestyle and, finally, freedom.
Evacuated “for their own good” in 1930, the islanders were then dispersed through Scotland and their culture vanished. Today, it’s the seabirds that rule St Kilda once more.
Fergus Collins is the editor of Countryfile Magazine