Scotland is a land filled with legendary heroes. Think William Wallace, also known as Braveheart, and Rob Roy MacGregor, an outlaw of the Jacobite Rising. Scotland is also defined by its wildlands of rugged terrain and the drystane dykes that dot the countryside with ancient memories. Of course, there are some parts of the country that are surrounded with less charming lore, places like Hirta, an island in the St Kilda archipelago -- the westernmost group of islands of the Outer Hebrides. About 41 miles from its nearest neighbor, this haunted island lies empty today.
Welcome To The Island On The Edge Of The World
Hirta has 9.3 miles of coastline and is less than 2.5 square miles in land size but is the largest of the St Kilda islands. Because of the island’s distant location, it’s known as the island on the edge of the world.
And while you might not think of Scotland as a land of extremes, the Outer Hebrides will prove you wrong. The islands are far off the mainland and have harsh winters defined by wild winds. During the 1800s, when the Scottish Potato Famine devastated many families on the islands of Scotland, several Hirta families left their homeland for Australia.
What Happened On Hirta?
Between 1850 and 1930, the island’s population continued shrinking due to events that left the remaining islanders petitioning the Scottish government for help leaving the beautiful but unforgiving land. In 1914, an outbreak of influenza came from more contact with outsiders bringing in the disease. Infant mortality rates soared. In the 1920s, visiting medical staff -- specifically a nurse named Williamina Barclay -- tried to convince residents to leave for locations where medical care was more available.
During World War I, the British Navy set up a base on the island, which brought with it some conveniences, such as mail delivery, but also more awareness of how the rest of the world lived. Discontent rose among the population, and by 1930 the people still on Hirta wanted freedom from the constant challenges they faced simply to survive. That summer, the remaining 36 residents were evacuated on the HMS Harebell.
How To Visit, And Who Lives On The Island Today
Today, there are still no permanent residents on this intriguing ghost island, though a military defense base is manned there year-round. Hirta has been named a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site -- for both cultural and ecological reasons -- thanks to the history of human life there and the globally significant colonies of more than 100,000 seabirds, including gannets and puffins.
The island is also still home to a hardy breed of primitive sheep. The Soay sheep are mainly used for meat and wool production in other locations around the world, but the wild sheep on Hirta are considered to be an at-risk breed. The Soay Sheep Project has been in place since the mid-1950s and monitors the sheep population on Hirta and the surrounding islands.
If you want to brave the wilds of the sea and the unique climate and terrain of this strange and beautiful island, you can take a boat from Oban on the mainland, Uig on the Isle of Skye, or Leverburgh and Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Or book a tour.
The availability of these boats will depend heavily on the weather. Be sure to take warmer clothing -- even in the summer -- as the winds and air temperature tend to be chilly, especially on the water. And you’ll also want to wear a hat to protect against any nesting birds that might feel threatened by your presence.
Want more on the St Kilda islands? Island of Wings is a haunting historical novel that follows “two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty.”
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