It’s one thing to pop over to a small British island for a spot of bird-watching or an adventure holiday – or, indeed, to gather material for an island-hopping book – but quite another to be fated to live there year-round. The inescapable truth, conceded here by Patrick Barkham and many before him, is that once they have the choice, most islanders become mainlanders.
The people of the Scottish island of St Kilda, some way out in the North Atlantic, lived off sea birds and their eggs for centuries. They slept in stone hovels on a warming layer of dung and decomposed bird beaks and claws, clearing out the muck each summer to spread on the ground, which they used to grow oats. The end of this way of life came with the arrival of the Royal Navy during the First World War, bringing delicacies in tins and tales of life beyond the sea. In 1930 the thirty-six remaining inhabitants drowned all their dogs and left for good; Barkham agrees with those historians who say that they jumped rather than were pushed.
These days St Kilda hosts a few thousand day-trippers each year, a mysterious radar station and a handful of National Trust for Scotland employees, who paint the window frames of the empty cottages and check up on the colonies of gannets, fulmars and other assorted birds on the cliffs. Barkham