People and nature on St Kilda
Robin Turner is an
archaeologist with the
National Trust for
St Kilda was inscribed as a natural World Heritage Site in 1986 for its outstanding natural landscapes and wildlife, writes Robin Turner. There has been a longstanding belief by some that the site’s greatest significance lies in the spectacular interaction between people and their environment, culminating in the breathtaking cultural landscape of Village Bay. The islands have an engrossing story to tell us about long- term sustainability, faltering through the influence of outsiders who failed to appreciate the balance that existed between the people and their natural resources.
The World Heritage Convention recognises sites either for their natural or cultural significance; a select handful of sites are nominated for both. Acknowledging the importance of St Kilda’s cultural heritage, the Scottish Executive is currently supporting a nomination to extend the World Heritage status to include the historic landscape, and also to extend the designation to include the awesome marine environment. If this move is successful, St Kilda would become the only combined cultural and natural World Heritage Site in the UK, joining sites such as Machu Picchu and Ayres Rock on the world stage.
For over 40 years, volunteer work parties from the National Trust for Scotland have been conserving, maintaining and restoring parts of the old village, not always without conflict with the natural inhabitants of
the islands. St Kilda mice, for instance, have an infamous appetite for Mars Bars, or indeed just about anything people leave in their reach. These rodents are a special St Kilda sub-species of the field mouse. The St Kildan house mouse became extinct after the evacuation in 1930, when their crucial relationship with people ended and they could no longer survive.
As a national nature reserve, the wildlife of St Kilda must be respected above all. This means choosing carefully when to restore drystone walls so that rare nesting petrels or shearwaters are not disturbed, and not evicting a fulmar while it is nesting in a cleit (drystone storage building). Even bracken, the scourge of archaeologists, may have to remain unchecked, providing, as it does, early cover and sources of invertebrate food for breeding or nesting birds. Importing thatching material is even not possible, bringing with it the risk of establishing highlycompetitive, non-native grasses and exotic bugs, which could wreak havoc with the balance of nature which has been there for centuries.
St Kilda is a place where the works of nature and those of man are both of international status. With careful planning and a proper understanding of and respect for different values, people and nature continue to co-exist in harmony.
St Kilda seen from Boreray. The fate of the island’s original population was sealed by outsiders who failed to understand the balance between the people and their natural resources. Photo by the National Trust for ScodancL