“St Kilda – you don’t exist. Your name is just a faint cry made by the birds that make their home on the high cliffs at the furthest edge of the United Kingdom, beyond the outermost of the Outer Hebrides.” So begins the memorable entry on St Kilda in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, subtitled “Fifty islands I have not visited and never will”. First published in German in 2009, replete with beautiful, retro-styled maps, the atlas was translated into English the following year and has been described as “gorgeous, lyrical and whimsical” by Time, and “utterly exquisite” by Robert MacFarlane. It even won Germany’s award for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year.
Yet, for all the praise it has received, the book’s entry on St Kilda is a little misleading. For a start, it describes the islands as “uninhabited.” Technically, perhaps, there may not be any permanent residents, but the MOD maintains a permanent presence there, as does the National Trust, which caters for the boatloads of tourists who land in Village Bay every summer. And then there’s that rather breathless introduction. Granted, there is something undeniably romantic about the place – its splendid isolation, its intriguing history, its dramatic, perpendicular geography – but is there a danger that, by over-romanticising St Kilda we fail to understand it properly?
That seems to be the thesis of an admirably clear-sighted series of pictures by photographer Alex Boyd, published on Monday in a book entitled St Kilda: The Silent Islands. Boyd is based in the Outer Hebrides, which has enabled him to make multiple trips to St Kilda over several years, and while he can’t claim to be a native St Kildan he can at least see the place through the eyes of an islander.
In his introduction, Boyd explains that he wanted to respond to the islands “in a way which did not obscure the true St Kilda” and that in order to do this he decided to “document the military presence as well as the natural beauty of the islands and the ruins of Village Bay, to show a more balanced view, something which in truth is still rarely seen.”
The portrait he paints of St Kilda then, in stark black and white photographs produced using a medium format camera previously owned by the English landscape photographer Fay Godwin, is very much “warts and all,” the warts being the decidedly un-romantic buildings constructed on the island during the 20th century by the Ministry of Defence.
When he first visited St Kilda, Boyd remembers that it was “not the empty streets of Hirta which fascinated me, but something more modern, something absent from the countless tourist images of the islands, and much less sympathetic to the surroundings; a Cold War military base.” And so, a good proportion of the pictures in the book are of military infrastructure – of radar towers looming out of the mist on Mullach Mor, of the pebble-dashed radar installation at Mullach Sgar, and of the brutalist 1970s power station in Village Bay.
There are also more familiar St Kilda scenes in the book – of ruined blackhouses, and of the towering sea cliffs of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin - but Boyd’s intention is clearly to give us the complete picture.
Boyd’s photographs are accompanied by an essay by Dr Kevin Grant, an archaeology officer with Historic Environment Scotland who was previously St Kilda Archaeologist for the National Trust for Scotland. Rather than seeing St Kilda as significant only because of what it can tell us about the past (as you might reasonably expect an archaeologist to do) Grant instead sees it as not all that different to the rest of the Hebridean archipelago, and of just as much contemporary relevance. Historically, he suggests, the island has been both connected to the nearby Outer Hebrides and also fairly typical of them. And today, he points out, the island’s economy “is almost exactly the same as the neighbouring Uists in that its two main pillars are tourism and the Ministry of Defence.”
He even goes as far as to say that “after three years living on the islands, I believe that the most precious part of St Kilda is its present-day community.” And he adds: “I hope that this collection of images... will encourage others to value the community of people who live and work there today at least as much as the long-lost one of 1930.” That may sound controversial but - really - why should it?
*St Kilda: The Silent Islands, by Alex Boyd, Luath, £20