The World Ends on St Kilda

During university, I did a module on Children’s literature. One of the books we studied was that of Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends.

Image: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean
Photo credit: Lucy Glenny

McCaughrean’s story follows a group of men and boys from Hirta, on the isolated Scottish archipelago of St Kilda in 1727. They are put upon a sea stac to harvest birds and eggs during the summer, but nobody returns for them, abandoning them to face storms in a particularly hazardous area, as well as possible starvation.

The story itself is based on a true story of boys left on a stac, but the writer herself confirmed that the only evidence she found involved a written record kept by the minister of the time, involved only one and a half lines, with no names and no comment as to why they were left there and what their experience was, or how they survived or what became of them in later life.

Image: Hunting wildfowl on Boreray, St Kilda, in 1898. Similar to what the characters in ‘Where the World Ends’ are described as doing on the stac
Photo credit: Richard Kearton, Wikimedia Commons

McCaughrean uses this story to bring us a fictionalised tale of the experience those involved might have had, and the reason as to why they might have been left abandoned. The explanation the author gives is an outbreak of disease on their home of Hirta.

There are several things the book got me questioning, mainly St Kilda, and disease outbreaks.

In my previous post about the uninhabited Island of Inchkeith, I mentioned the quarantine of people with certain diseases, but the archipelago of St Kilda seemed has a different story – populations being lowered due to susceptibility to disease (as well as emigration due to other conditions). With the way in which McCaughrean describes the conditions on the stac in her book, I am not completely surprised! So I looked in to this a bit more…

Image: Map showing St Kilda’s location, in red about 45 miles west-northwest of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.
Photo credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

St Kilda is a particularly isolated area which has been uninhabited since 1930. The population began to decline in 1852 when several of the St Kilda inhabitants emigrated to Australia. St Kilda in Victoria, Australia is claimed to have been named after a schooner boat dubbed The Lady of St Kilda, which in turn was named after Lady Grange, who was incarcerated on the St Kildan island of Hirta in  the 18th century.

In 1930, the last 36 residents of St Kilda sent a collective letter to the Secretary of State for Scotland requesting to be evacuated from Hirta (its only inhabited island), due to the difficult remote and harsh conditions and the unsustainability, resettling on the mainland by the August.

Being so remote from other places, the small population would also not have been as exposed to different pathogens.

A Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh paper by P Stride shows that in fact, the story used in Where the World Ends is based on an epidemic of smallpox (or chickenpox?) breaking out on St Kilda in 1727. At this time, eight boys and three men were stranded on Stac of Armin through the winter, living off fresh water and birds and fish caught with a bent nail.

The outbreak killed more than 80% of the population of St Kilda, but those stranded on the sea stac survived. Slow repopulation then occurred.

Image: Stac an Armin, St Kilda, where the three men and eight boys were stranded through the winter of 1727
Photo credit: Bob Jones, Wikimedia Commons

An article in the British Medical Journal in 1886, entitled St Kilda: Its Inhabitants and the Diseases Peculiar to Them, also notes that the community on St Kilda believed themselves to be susceptible to what they called cnatan na gall – “strangers’ cold” or “lowlanders cold”. Every time a visitor came from the mainland, they immediately contracted some form of influenza or cough, but outsiders seemed to ridicule them for this.

In 2008, P Stride also wrote a paper on the cnatan na gall cough, which has also been named “boat cough”, suggesting the illness was in fact due to rhinovirus – the predominant cause of a common cold*.

A form of infant lockjaw, and neonatal tetanus was also a major problem in St Kilda, with around 50% of infants dying of this in the 19th century – the “eight-day sickness”.

Image: St. Kildans sitting on the village street, 1886
Photo credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Scottish medical journal also noted the St Kildans belief in exposure to disease due to outside visitors, and that the 1930 evacuation to the mainland of Scotland also revealed their predisposition to tuberculosis. Although many people back in the 19th century may have seen the St Kildans as exaggeratory, being so remote and unexposed, as well as having specific diets on the islands, will very likely have influenced the susceptibility of the residents.

Those isolated on the stac through the winter of 1727/28 must have had quite an experience, especially with most of the population being taken by an infectious disease while they were stranded. Although fictionalised, Where the World Ends may give us some idea of the experiecne on the stac, and it definitely intrigued me to look in to this more. Which I hope my blog posts do too!

Also very apt in current COVID-19 times.

Wear a mask.

*Stride has done more study on this if this is something anyone would like to look further at – Dioxin, diet and disease on St Kilda

Currently, St Kilda is a World Heritage Site managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Every summer around 30 people live on Hirta as part of conservation work on the island and surrounding archipelago.

I do not know about you, but I have always wanted to visit St Kilda. Here is a recent short video showing the Island:


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