Page last updated at 23:15 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 00:15 UK

St Kilda abandonment remembered

St Kilda. Pic  Crown Copyright: RCAHMS
The harsh winter of 1929 prompted the last St Kildans to leave the following year

A day has been dedicated to St Kilda - 79 years after its final inhabitants abandoned the remote group of islands.

St Kilda Day - Latha Hiort - has been organised by the Gaelic Arts Agency, with funding from Homecoming Scotland.

The project has been launched as a follow-up to the 2007 St Kilda Opera, which was staged across Europe.

Organisers hope the day will become an annual celebration. The last St Kildans left on 29 August 1930 because life on the islands had become too difficult.

The island group could now be affected by Ministry of Defence plans to withdraw its missile range on Benbecula.

Culture Minister Mike Russell said the day would act as a "timely reminder" of the economic threat St Kilda is facing.

'Close interest'

He went on: "Defence contractor Qinetiq may pull out of the MoD's missile range on Benbecula - a decision on which is awaited from the MoD following the current consultation.

"If such a withdrawal did happen, it would certainly affect the economics of looking after St Kilda and - for a site of such natural and cultural significance - this would present new and difficult challenges for its owners the National Trust for Scotland."

The minister also gave his "full support" to plans to establish a new centre that could tell the story of St Kilda without visitors necessarily having to travel to the remote islands.

He spoke to people in the Western Isles about such a project this summer and said: "I shall keep a close interest on how it develops between now and the next St Kilda Day, which will mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation."

People had lived on St Kilda, the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides, since prehistoric times.

In the 19th Century, tourists began to visit the archipelago and the St Kildans - known as the Hiortaich - became more dependent on the outside world.

In the 1850s, 42 of the islanders emigrated to Australia, half of them dying on the way.

Dwindling population

Until that decade ended, their houses had been built from materials that were easily available on the largest island, Hirta, with stone walls and roofs of thatch or turf.

Contact with the mainland led to the building of 16 new houses on Hirta in the 1860s.

These new homes were cold, and it was necessary to import coal from the mainland as the supplies of peat on St Kilda were not sufficient to heat them.

The development of tourism meant the world learned of the St Kilda Parliament, in which the men met each morning to discuss the day's tasks.

Visitors reported that the islanders' ankles were unusually thick and strong from climbing cliffs to hunt seabirds, which were the basis of their economy.

The contact with non-islanders has been blamed for increasing disease and high rates of infant mortality.

The winter of 1929 was particularly hard on the island and some of the remaining inhabitants died, many having already left.

The remaining 36 islanders wrote to the government asking to be taken off so they could lead new lives on the mainland. The island was abandoned the following year.

St Kilda, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, has dual Unesco World Heritage status.

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