© 2016 Mark Maio "Cleit - St. Kilda, Scotland"
A little over a year ago I completed a once in a lifetime photography trip when I spent five days on a group of islands called St. Kilda. Approximately five hours via boat ride and due west from the Isle of Skye, St. Kilda are the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Beyond them the next stop is North America.
St. Kilda has been inhabited, at a minimum, for last two thousands years with a population that likely never exceeded 200. In 1930, with a steadily declining population and unable to provide adequate food and shelter for their needs, the last inhabitants asked to be evacuated.
It remained uninhabited until 1957 when a small military missile tracking station was installed, bringing electricity to the island. The islands are now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and hold dual status as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural qualities.
Lacking trees on the island, the entire village and out buildings were constructed using stone. The homes were built in a long arc facing the Village Bay. The expanse of land extending from the houses to the bay was used for farming, while the remainder of the island behind them was for grazing a unique breed of sheep called Soay.
The inhabitants primarily survived off a range of seabirds that used St. Kilda for their breeding grounds during the summer. Their feathers and oil were harvested and traded with the mainland for supplies, while the meat was salted and stored for consumption during the long eight months of the year when the island was inaccessible due to extreme weather. Throughout the year the waters around the islands are also quite treacherous to navigate.
Supplies were housed in stone storage huts called cleits, a type of building only found on St. Kilda. There are 1,260 cleits on the main island alone, and as you approach from the sea, they appear to be large stones dotting the landscape. Their rounded stone architecture almost blending into the landscape, gave me the feeling of being in the Middle East as I hiked amongst them. When caught in a fast moving storm coming in off the ocean, they also provided a great place of shelter.
A few of the homes on the island have been restored. They are now used primarily to house scientific research teams or volunteers working on the island during the summer. In addition to two bunkhouses, there's also a fully equipped kitchen with a dining/meeting area, and a requirement to bring along and take out all supplies, food, bedding, etc.
Since access to the island is limited mainly to day visitors, the opportunity to spend five days on the island is extremely rare. Day trips to St. Kilda consists of a five-hour boat trip out, three to four hours on the island followed by another five-hour trip back.
Boats are required to anchor offshore and use a small zodiac boat to shuttle visitors and supplies/gear back and forth as a way to assure that no foreign or predatory species or other threats are introduced to the ecosystem.
While the other photographers in my group were there to photograph the unique landscape and wildlife, my goal was to photographically explore the remains of the village. Weather in the North Atlantic, even in July, can be extremely unpredictable and my trip was no exception. In total, I probably had about one day of good light in which to photograph. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, I made a series of images that I feel only begin to reveal the island. Using this trip as an introduction to my research, I plan future one-day trips to continue this project.