A house on the remote Scottish island of Hirta, which was once part of a thriving community before being evacuated in 1930, has been sold as a second home to a private buyer. The sale has sparked controversy among conservationists and locals, who fear that the island’s heritage and wildlife will be compromised.
The history of Hirta and its evacuation
Hirta is the largest and only inhabited island of the St Kilda archipelago, located 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. It was home to a small population of islanders who lived off the land and sea, mainly by hunting seabirds and their eggs. The islanders had a unique culture and language, which was influenced by Norse and Gaelic traditions.
However, life on Hirta was not easy, as the islanders faced harsh weather, isolation, and diseases. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many young people left the island for better opportunities elsewhere, and the population declined. The islanders also became more dependent on external supplies and visitors, who brought new ideas and influences.
In 1930, the remaining 36 islanders requested to be evacuated, as they could no longer sustain themselves on the island. They were relocated to the mainland, mainly to the west coast of Scotland. The evacuation was a sad and emotional event, as the islanders left behind their ancestral home and way of life. Some of them never returned to Hirta, while others visited occasionally.
The ownership and management of Hirta
After the evacuation, the island of Hirta was owned by the Marquess of Bute, who had bought it in 1931. He donated it to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1957, along with the rest of the St Kilda archipelago. The NTS is a conservation charity that aims to protect and promote Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage.
The NTS manages Hirta as a World Heritage Site, which was designated by UNESCO in 1986. The island is recognised for its exceptional natural beauty, biodiversity, and historical significance. It is home to the largest colony of northern gannets in the world, as well as other rare and endangered species of birds and plants. It also preserves the remains of the islanders’ settlements, which date back to the prehistoric times.
The NTS allows visitors to Hirta, but only under strict conditions and regulations. Visitors must obtain a permit from the NTS, and follow the rules and guidelines for accessing and exploring the island. Visitors are also expected to respect the island’s environment and heritage, and not to disturb or damage anything. The NTS also operates a small museum and a visitor centre on the island, which provide information and interpretation of the island’s history and wildlife.
The controversy over the sale of the house
One of the buildings on Hirta is a house that was built in 1860 by the factor, or the agent, of the island’s landlord. The house was later used by the islanders as a school, a church, and a store. After the evacuation, the house was occupied by various tenants, including the military, the coastguard, and the NTS staff.
The house was put up for sale by the NTS in 2022, as part of its plan to reduce its property portfolio and focus on its core conservation work. The house was advertised as a “unique opportunity” to own a piece of Scottish history, and as a potential second home or holiday let. The asking price was £250,000, which was considered low for such a rare and remote property.
However, the sale of the house sparked controversy among conservationists and locals, who feared that the house would be used for commercial purposes, and that the new owner would not respect the island’s heritage and wildlife. They also argued that the house should have been kept by the NTS, or transferred to the local community, or used for educational or research purposes.
The NTS defended its decision to sell the house, saying that it was in line with its conservation objectives, and that it had consulted with various stakeholders, including the St Kilda Club, the Ministry of Defence, and the Scottish Natural Heritage. The NTS also said that it had imposed a number of conditions and restrictions on the sale, such as limiting the occupancy to six months per year, prohibiting any alterations or extensions to the house, and requiring the new owner to cooperate with the NTS and other agencies in the management of the island.
The house was sold in November 2023 to a private buyer, whose identity and intentions have not been disclosed. The sale was completed despite a petition signed by over 10,000 people, who urged the NTS to reconsider its decision and to keep the house for the public benefit. The petition was organised by the Save Hirta campaign, which was supported by several environmental and heritage groups, as well as celebrities and politicians.
The Save Hirta campaign said that it was “deeply disappointed” by the sale, and that it would continue to monitor the situation and to campaign for the protection of Hirta and the St Kilda archipelago. The campaign also said that it hoped that the new owner would be a “responsible steward” of the house and the island, and that they would respect the island’s environment and heritage, and the wishes of the former islanders and their descendants.