Soil Journal

Island of Scotland


Beatrice Alvestad Lopez

Visiting the remote and inhabitable island of St.Kilda has been one of the biggest adventures of my life. In 2019 I ventured on a sailboat residency with four other artists, along with the boat captain and his wife. Not knowing much about sailing, nor the island we were sailing to, each step of the journey was a surprise. The technological gadgets we carried with us included a gps for navigation, a hydrophone and a go-pro camera. The journey took us four days from the mainland of Hebrides to the island of St.Kilda and back again. While at sea, we participated in daily activities onboard the sailboat such as cooking, washing up, steering the boat and navigating it in the right direction.

Arriving to a site such as this island by means of a sailboat is a slow process that retraces previous forms of travel. And the physical weight of being on water for a prolonged period of time disoriented my sensation of stepping onto island ground, which had previously been my only form of physical, grounding support in the world. This experience was not only bodily, but also historical – retracing the steps of preceding St. Kilda-travelers.

Upon arrival to the island, we were met by a temporary resident and were told that we were not allowed to pick up anything residing on the island, for preservation of the land purposes. With these instructions in mind, my understanding of the vulnerability of this site and its rich context is still growing upon me to this day, sparking my continued interest in researching the ways the island has been lived, its ecologies and the idea of survival in such an exposed place. Survival became a relevant theme as I observed that what remains architecturally, the remains of the cleats.

Out of balance, feeling separated from our bodies from harmonizing with the rhythms of the sea, we arrived at the island with a few hours to explore. We hiked to reach the top of the mountainous island and having reached the peak, were in awe by the sight of the landscape; sitting on a hilltop that has a 360-degree view of the sea. As a human, the vastness of space presented itself.

From sitting firmly on soil and mountain to looking out on the moving sea was an incredible experience of diving deeply into elemental forces. With the heightening of senses by an environment such as this, one cannot help but reflect on human survival and on those individuals in history who once inhabited such a site as their home. How does the topography and geological forces of a remote island shape a person or community? Would the environment elevate one’s sense of purpose in life? There exist various people who, after visiting, recount that they were met with warmth and positivity. Perhaps there once was a golden era at St.Kilda, in which a community of people actually were content and happy living there; perhaps until a prolonged storm or pest would erase half of the population, reminding those remaining of the environment’s acute vulnerability to outside forces.

In the 1930´s, the remaining population of St.Kilda migrated towards Australia. The difficulty of keeping connection to civilization kept the island empty. Today, the island is only inhabited by the National Trust, scientists and archaeologists (there for fieldwork, research and study) for temporary stays. These temporary dwellers remain at the island in the sole company of the unique breed of Soay sheep that replaced the former human inhabitants. Further, the very first colonizers of the island included not even humans but the lichen, fungi and moss, who thrived on the site due to the great amount of humidity.