Archaeologists working on the St Kildan island of Boreray, previously thought to be home only to seabirds and feral sheep, have found the remains of a permanent settlement which could date back to prehistoric times.
Less than a square kilometre in size, Boreray is situated over 65km west of the Outer Hebrides.
It was previously thought that inhabitants of St Kilda’s largest island Hirta visited neighbouring Boreray only in the summer, to hunt birds and gather wool. This practice ended in the early part of the twentieth century, and in 1930 the last remaining inhabitants of St Kilda were evacuated from the islands – at their own request.
Now this latest discovery by archaeologists suggests that a farming community lived and worked on the steep slopes of Boreray before the 17th century, and perhaps as far back as the prehistoric era.
During eight days of research on the island, the team recorded an extensive agricultural field system and terraces for cultivating crops, and identified three possible settlement mounds. Remarkably, one of these contained the intact remains of a stone building with a corbelled roof, sealed up over centuries by soil. It is believed that some of these remains could date to the Iron Age.
Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said: “This extraordinary discovery is further evidence of the international importance of the St Kilda archipelago, reinforcing its value as one of Scotland’s five World Heritage Sites. It is also wonderful to see the collaboration between the National Trust for Scotland and Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments (RCAHMS) survey teams yielding such spectacular results.”
RCAHMS surveyor Ian Parker said, “This is an incredibly significant find, which could change our understanding of the history of St Kilda.
“Until now, we thought Boreray was just visited for seasonal hunting and gathering by the people of Hirta. But this new discovery shows that a farming community actually lived on the island, perhaps as long ago as the prehistoric period.
“These agricultural remains and settlement mounds give us a tantalising glimpse into the lives of those who lived for a time on Boreray. Farming what is probably one of the most remote – and inhospitable – islands in the North Atlantic would have been a hard and gruelling existence. And given the island’s unfeasibly steep slopes, it’s amazing that they even tried living there in the first place.”
The recent investigations on Boreray mark one of the few times archaeologists have set foot on the island. It comes as part of a five year partnership project between RCAHMS and the Trust – begun in 2007 – to map traces of human occupation on the islands from early prehistory right through to the present day. Inhabited for well over two millennia, but with a population which probably never exceeded 200 people, St Kilda’s main island Hirta was finally evacuated in 1930 at the request of its remaining 36 islanders.
Jill Harden, who is under contract to the National Trust for Scotland for her professional knowledge and experience of St Kilda, said: “Trust staff were an integral part of the overall mapping project, and having the opportunity to stay and work on Boreray was a highlight of my professional input to the Trust’s management of St Kilda. New discoveries and interpretations are fundamental to people’s understanding of ways of life associated with all the islands and stacs that make up the St Kilda archipelago. It is refreshing to know that there is still so much to learn about these islands.
The public will soon be able to access the results of the survey on the RCAHMS online database Canmore. The survey also represents an essential resource for the Trust for the long term management and conservation of the internationally important historic environment of St Kilda.