On 29 August 1930 the remaining residents of St Kilda were evacuated from the island on economic grounds at the islanders’ own request as the population had dwindled from 73 in 1920 to only 37 in 1928. There is, however, a much longer history of departures from the island, and one directly connected to the Scottish Diaspora.
When, in October 1852, 36 St. Kildans left the island to emigrate to Australia, the Glasgow Herald observed that it was the first emigration from that remote island to the distant shores of the Antipodes. ‘The cause of humanity would be served’, the paper went on, were that emigration to continue ‘until all inhabitants have been removed from the barren rock’. Whether this was a sentiment shared by the emigrants themselves is not clear, with only little direct testimony being available. Their story is nonetheless of interest, enriching our understanding of the history of St. Kilda and Australia, for it had, as historian Eric Richards has pointed out, ‘a special significance at both ends of the story’.
While mainland influences, including changes in agricultural methods and land tenure, had reached the island by the 1840s, St Kildans remained self-reliant. The island’s isolation and distinct demographic patterns, especially the high infant death rate, fundamentally shaped the island’s history, and the concentrated departure of so many of its inhabitants added momentum. For the emigrants, Australia seemed a land of opportunity. While the source region was faced with the effects of a succession of potato crop failures, there was a shortage of agricultural labourers in the Port Phillip area because many earlier settlers had relocated to the goldfields of south-east Australia.
The St. Kildans who left their native shores departed in family groups under the auspices of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. However, while such links by acquaintance or kinship are generally seen to be part of the most effective units of migration, the transition to life in Australia was neither straightforward nor easy. The St. Kildan emigrants’ lack of immunity to diseases, for instance, contributed to the many deaths that occurred on the voyage out: while St. Kildans’ constituted only 12 per cent of the passengers onboard the Priscilla, they made up 45 per cent of the fatalities. Their isolated island life, notes Richards, had made them especially vulnerable.
The arrival in Australia did not halt the migrants’ plight, the 98-day journey ending in quarantine. Furthermore, by the time the St. Kildans arrived in Port Phillip that port had grown to be the point of entry for well over 90,000 immigrants a year. There was congestion, the supply of food was a problem, and so was overcrowding in the temporary accommodation available. The arrival of ‘another shipload of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and Islanders, some of them penniless and sick’, was not well-received by the local authorities. One medical officer wrote about a ‘“wretched family”’ from St Kilda, similar sentiments being expressed in relation to all Highland and Island Emigration Society migrants. Stereotypes about the Highlanders’ background and attitude to work were consolidated, and the volatile economic state contributed further problem. In short, Richards concludes, the St. Kilda emigrants ‘had been desperately unlucky’ in starting their new lives, being ‘biologically, linguistically and culturally unsuited and unprepared for their migration’. News of the emigrants’ ill-fated venture eventually made its way home to the Outer Hebrides, and may have contributed to the little movement out of the island until the First World War.