St. Kilda

Also known as:

  • Hirta
  • Eilean Ceile-de Naomh

The etymology of St. Kilda has a lengthy history of its own. Thought by some as the Holy Isle of the Culdees (from Eilean Ceile-de Naomh) or Island of Holy God’s Servant. Another has it as the Isles of the Dead, from the old Irish ‘hirt’, meaning death. One writer suggested as “likely that the ancient Celts fancied this sunset isle to be the gate to their earthly paradise, the Land-under-the-waves, over the brink of the western sea.” Other suggestions derive from the holy wells on the island – the main one being (variously) Tobhair Kilda, Tobar Childa, or the Well of St. Kilda.

In a pragmatic sense, W.J. Watson reckons that the name was “given with reference to the manifold hardships and dangers connected with landing and living on this remote spot, which in the Hebrides is regarded as a penitentiary rather than a gate to paradise”! This links it with the Gaelic ‘hirteach,’ the deadly one. Another idea links it with a dood called Hirt; whilst a typically old english idea was that it derived from the Latin ‘terra.’ Perhaps as a result of all these thoughts, A.D. Mills and Adrian Room (Oxford Dictionary of British Place-names) avoid the lot and head for the easy option saying, “Obscure origin.”

Folklore has it that these islands were first peopled by the Fir Bolg – one of the old mythic tribes of Ireland. It has also been deemed as the isle of the Culdees and the abode of druids. The fairy folk were supposed to inhabit the land: a belief probably due to the extensive hypogea here. On this matter, F.W.L. Thomas (1897) wrote that

“Miss Euphemia MacCrimmon, the oldest inhabitant of that far-off island, tells that a certain Donald MacDonald and John MacQueen, on passing a hillock, heard churning going on within it. And about thirty years ago, when digging into the hillock to make the foundations of a new house, they discovered what seemed to be the fairies’ residence, built of stones inside and holes in the wall, or croops as they call them.”

This was near one of the most famous antiquities on the island called the Amazon House, where a great female pagan warrior was said to live.  Reverend Kenneth Macaulay thought this old Amazon lady to be a druid, with her male consort living on the isle of Boreray, four miles northeast.  History books also tell us of numerous legendary stones, hillocks and wells on the main island, most of which seem lost.

Amazon’s House, Hirta – Settlement

Tigh Stallar, Boreray – ‘Stone Circle’

Tobar nam Buadh, Hirta – Healing Well