Rare photographs of life on the islands of St Kilda have been discovered at Glasgow University Archive Services. They were included in the Papers of Thomas Stewart Patterson (1872-1949) , which had been acquired by Archive Services in 1993. Born in Greenock, Thomas Patterson became a Lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1904, and was later the first Gardiner Professor of Organic Chemistry from 1919 until 1942.
Sitting over 40 miles to the west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, and known as the ‘Edge of the World’, the extremely remote archipelago of St Kilda was home to a small community of between 80 and 120 people for more than two millennia. The islanders spoke a unique dialect of Gaelic and maintained their own communal political system. However, while the teeming bird life of the islands provided subsistence for the islanders, it wasn’t a paradise. Life was hard on such barren and isolated islands, and there was a high rate of infant mortality.
At the turn of the 20th Century, tourist trips to the main island of Hirta were advertised with the tagline: ‘Come and See Britain’s Modern Primitives’. It is in this historical context that we may view Patterson’s series of photographs. They chart a grand day-out on a steamer to Hirta. Tourists mingle with the local people and visit the few buildings, including the ‘St Kilda Post Office’. Locals would turn a profit by selling tweeds and bird eggs to visitors. It would seem that the trip combined Professor Patterson’s interest in sailing and anthropology – he was a keen yachtsman and his collection included an ‘antique Chinese tool’.
Patterson’s holiday snaps can be roughly dated to the late 1920s. Due to its diminishing population, the island was evacuated in 1930, and it is this reason that the photographs are quite rare and valuable. They offer a fascinating glimpse into a vanished way of life. St Kilda is now a World Heritage Site and National Nature Reserve. It has a permanent population of defense contractors on the MOD establishment which has been in place since 1957. During the summer is also home to ecologists, biologists, conservationists, archaeologists, and NTS staff; and sees around 4000 visitors per year.
You can view more of Thomas Patterson’s photographs here
Categories: Archive Services