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Evidence of Ancient Settlement Found on Boreray

16 June 2011

RCAHMS surveyors working on a Scottish island previously thought to be home only to seabirds and feral sheep, have found the remains of a permanent settlement which could date back to prehistoric times.

Less than a square kilometre in size, the remote St Kildan island of Boreray is situated over 65km west of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean. Cared for by the National Trust for Scotland (the Trust), it is best known for its giant cliffs and sea stacks – home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including over 45,000 gannets. It was previously thought that inhabitants of St Kilda’s largest island Hirta visited neighbouring Boreray only in the summer, to hunt birds and gather wool. Now this latest discovery by a survey team from RCAHMS and the Trust suggests that a farming community lived and worked on the steep slopes of Boreray before the 17th century, and perhaps as far back as the prehistoric era.

During eight days of research on the island, the team recorded an extensive agricultural field system and terraces for cultivating crops, and identified three possible settlement mounds. Remarkably, one of these contained the intact remains of a stone building with a corbelled roof, sealed up over centuries by soil. It is believed that some of these remains could date to the Iron Age.

RCAHMS surveyor Ian Parker said, “This is an incredibly significant find, which could change our understanding of the history of St Kilda. This new discovery shows that a farming community actually lived on Boreray, perhaps as long ago as the prehistoric period. The agricultural remains and settlement mounds give us a tantalising glimpse into the lives of those early inhabitants. Farming what is probably one of the most remote – and inhospitable – islands in the North Atlantic would have been a hard and gruelling existence. And given the island’s unfeasibly steep slopes, it’s amazing that they even tried living there in the first place.”

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop said, "This extraordinary discovery is further evidence of the international importance of the St Kildan archipelago, reinforcing its value as one of Scotland's five World Heritage Sites. It is also wonderful to see the collaboration between the National Trust for Scotland and RCAHMS survey teams yielding spectacular results."

The recent investigation on Boreray marks one of the few times archaeologists have set foot on the island. It comes as part of a five year partnership project between RCAHMS and the Trust to map traces of human occupation on the islands from early prehistory right through to the present day. St Kilda is one of only 27 locations in the world to have been awarded dual World Heritage Status by UNESCO in recognition of both its natural and cultural heritage. Inhabited for well over two millennia, but with a population which probably never exceeded 200 people, St Kilda’s main island Hirta was finally evacuated in 1930 at the request of its remaining 36 islanders.

The full results of the survey will soon be available to access on the RCAHMS online database Canmore. The survey also represents an essential resource for the Trust for the long term management and conservation of the internationally important historic environment of St Kilda.