St Kilda – An Epidemic

An Epidemic and a Remarkable Story of Survival.

Words and pictures by Elaine Hutchinson and James McCormick.

While most of us live cheek by jowl in today’s modern society, we should, however, not be surprised by the Government request for a Coronavirus lockdown.

Part of my family live on what could be considered the remote island of Tiree (the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides) and yet they are still being infected, along with many other remote areas of the country.

As much as we are aware of social distancing and transmission in this day and age, it does still make you wonder how in times past, such a remote island as Hirta (the principle island of the St Kilda archipelago) could have been so susceptible and so decimated by a smallpox outbreak. Or was it ?

Looking down on Village Bay on Hirta.

In 1727, there were no daily boatloads of tourists arriving, no aeroplanes of course, in fact virtually no outside visitors at all. This was long before the era of steamships and visiting vessels. Just about all who intended to visit were put off by the frequent bouts of rough Atlantic weather. This lack of outsiders and the incredibly small and rocky harbour of Village Bay made St Kilda and its people truly isolated.

Hirta and its community in Village Bay was, and still to this day is, the only settled island of the archipelago. The others: Soay, Boreray and the Stacs, were only ever seasonally visited by the villagers to harvest eggs and birds.

Stac Lee, Stac an Armin and Boreray from Hirta.

It was August 1727 when a collecting team from the village, consisting of three adults and eight boys, were rowed across from Hirta to Stac Armin in search of Solan Geese and to harvest other birds and their eggs. As ever, they were expecting to be collected with their bounty a week or two later.
But in a huge and unexpected quirk of fate, they were not retrieved for nine months, and this is usually where the story stops.

Depictions of the deprivations suffered by the abandoned party on the Stac have been embellished, mulled over and romanticised over the years, but not much more thought is often given to the wider story. The stranding is only one side of this story though.

The Epidemic

We know that a lot of health issues were caused by the conditions the residents lived in and the general lack of facilities, health or otherwise. This was was also why the infant mortality rate was so high. “Boat cough” was common, brought and introduced by the few visitors that ventured so far out to sea, and this is all well documented.

The smallpox story actually starts in the latter months of 1726, when a resident of St Kilda visited Harris. This at the time was a semi regular occurrence. However, whilst there he contracted what was deemed to be smallpox and died as a result.

It was in the following year of 1727, just after the work party of men and boys had been rowed out to Stac Armin, that the deceased man’s clothes and effects were returned from Harris to his family on Hirta. Sadly, within just 10 to 14 days, the population of the island was completely and utterly decimated, leaving hardly enough residents to bury the 94 dead.
Only a single adult and eighteen children remained.

Was the returning of this residents clothing and effects the cause of the outbreak?

I had never consciously questioned the information about smallpox on Hirta, as most of the books and articles I have read simply focussed on this disease as an acceptable fact. However, I am intrigued by what I have learnt in the published papers of some other researchers, and cannot help but be struck with the similarities this outbreak of 1727 has with our present situation in 2020. Although not Covid 19, it still makes one think.

Sporadic outbreaks of smallpox were commonly reported on Scottish islands and indeed further afield during this era. They were accepted as a reasonably regular occurrence, but the death rates were never as dramatic as those recorded on St Kilda. Smallpox had never darkened St Kilda before nor has it been recorded there since.

Interestingly, when looking at smallpox clinically, there is a greater vulnerability in children, a relatively slow rate of infection to household members and fortunately most survive the disease. The infectivity of the deceased residents clothing that was returned from Harris some months after his death would have been minimal, so it is therefore possible, maybe even probable, that this was not actually the cause of the outbreak.

However, when looking at chickenpox clinically, the infection rate spreads rapidly and causes a much higher death rates in adults than in children. The disease is highly contagious even before a rash develops, plus it spreads rapidly when there is no herd immunity. It affects approximately 90% of all household members and is spread by coughing and sneezing. If chicken pox was indeed to blame, it would explain how, within only a few days, there were not any men healthy enough left out of the 30-50 male villagers, to form the four man boat crew that was required to row back out to sea and retrieve the collecting party marooned on Stac Armin.

Generally the residents of Hirta were well aware of the need to isolate people with diseases such as tuberculosis, ensuring only a few relatives looked after the sick for example. But as chickenpox is a more contagious disease than smallpox, it may well not have had the desired result, as the spread may have already occurred before the pox themselves starting showing.

Whatever the cause, be it either smallpox or chickenpox, it had to have been introduced to St Kilda somehow. On an island so far from the mainland, 40 miles from Harris, stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, I suppose disease could have been air dropped by a passing puffin or a swooping seagull! But much more likely, is that it was brought to Village Bay by a visitor. There is a rumour that this visitor was actually a missionary, but no one can be sure.

To this day islands and islanders still have similar problems, whether it be 1727 or 2020, although now, they are not so stark or dramatic. Let us hope and pray this continues during these turbulent times. But regardless of severity, islands and their communities still only have limited resources, health care and constrained supplies. We should all keep the this mind.

A Remarkable Story of Survival

But what of the collecting party, the men and boys left stranded and isolated on Stac Armin?

The decimation of the community in Hirta was rapid and almost total.
The party had been rowed across to collect the annual harvest. They had been left to work. The boat had returned as per normal to the safe harbour of Village Bay. This was simply because there is no landing area and no spot for a boat to be safely moored at the stac, in actual fact the only way to gain access is to jump from boat to rock.

Stac an Armin

The collecting party only had with them their treasured horsehair ropes, various collecting bags and other basic equipment. The plan was always the same. To be picked up with their haul of eggs and fowl, a couple of weeks later. It was, as it always was, to be a long couple of weeks. Treacherous climbing and physical hardships were expected. However even before the anticipated pick up time of a week or two later, the majority of the village population back on Hirta would have been dead. Little did the party know there was to be no returning boat.

They were destined to spend the next nine months on Stac Armin.

The autumn, winter and spring months are not the best time to be marooned in such a place. A tidal range of 35 feet is topped by regular ocean swells, upwards of 20 feet. This alongside winds that frequently gust to 65mph and on occasion can reach 125mph. These conditions make the words hardship and inhospitable seem frankly ridiculous. This is truly extreme Atlantic weather.

The stranded men and boys of the collecting party survived by eating eggs and seabirds and by catching fish with a few old bent rusty nails and by drinking rainwater. Luckily there was some basic shelter, although limited and very rudimentary. It took the form of a small bothy – this was used annually whilst the harvesting took place each summer.

It also must have been extremely frustrating for them to see not only their home of Hirta, lying just 5 miles to the west, but also to see the isle Boreray with its greater resources a tantalising 100 yards or so away, only 100 yards, yet totally inaccessible because of it’s vertical rock faces which prevented any ascent from the sea. It is also widely accepted that the people of St Kilda could not swim.

Left to right – Stac Lee, Stac an Armin and Boreray.

Interestingly it’s also debatable whether the stranded party actually had any shoes to wear during their isolation, as the folks of St Kilda were famous for climbing in either socks or bare feet to allow for greater purchase on rock faces. Legend says that in order to assist with climbing, they also had oversized big toes, but there is absolutely no evidence of this.

Worse than the completely unimaginable physical hardships the stranded men and boys had to endure through the months must have been the unknown, the lack of information. Why no returning boat and what on earth had happened back home on Hirta?

How they survived in the face of all this adversity is a testament to the strength and determination of the St Kildan’s – they literally lived on the edge, both physically and geographically. However, the people of St Kilda themselves never believed their archipelago was remote. Why would they? It was their home, the centre of their world, until that is, the world came to look at them and introduce itself!

Finally, nine whole months later, the party were spotted and rescued by the Factor’s boat as he sailed past on his way to Hirta to collect the spring rent on behalf of Landlord MacLeod.

Tragically, after all that time marooned, and after all the brutal hardship and uncertainty, they arrived back home to their village and all they found remaining was one old man and a few children.

St Kilda’s Main Street

Disease clearly had a catastrophic effect on St Kilda and its people, devastating its community, so rapidly, and so comprehensively. But the stranded men and boys of Stac Armin and their story of determination and sheer resilience and ultimately their survival, is remarkable, astonishing and truly inspiring.

In all 80-90% of all St Kilda’s residents perished during this time, leaving only 4 adults and 26 orphans. The Island required re-population and re-populated it was, principally by people from Harris and Skye. The census of 1764 reported 90 residents, 38 males and 52 females this included 19 families and 9 individuals.

The last residents of St Kilda were evacuated between the wars in 1930.
Today St Kilda has a few tourists through the summer months and is managed by the National Trust for Scotland. It has a permanent Ministry of Defence base and few working parties of scientists from time to time.
It also has a visit from me and the team from Mc2 annually. It is a real privilege to spend time in such a historic and wondrous place.

The military base on St Kilda in 2019 – mid-renovation -with the Feather Store on the far right.

Many thanks to all at the National Trust for Scotland for their always warm welcomes, plus their ongoing dedication and hard work in protecting and preserving this truly unique place.