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Master Class: The Cleits of St. Kilda

Text by Nick Aitken. All Photos © Nick Aitken.

Small enclosures, for animals, including the island’s bull, and for arable use lie tight against the head dyke and towards the scree at the foot of the hill called Conachair. The landscape with houses and structures looks fairly typical of the view of many Higland communities in the 19th Century. the highest recorded population of Hirta was 180 persons in 1697.

The St Kilda island group lies about 40 miles west of the Hebridean island of North Uist. Village Bay, on the southeast corner of Hirta, the largest island, has a wealth of stonework. The head dyke quite clearly separates the arable ground from the hill pasture. The other main feature is the line of the village street. Drystone Blackhouses, built in the 1830’s sit between 16 stone and lime cottages built in the 1860’s. Behind the street lies the circular graveyard, planticrues and enclosures for livestock.

The cleit shown right is fairly typical, apart from the small cell on the left hand side, which is accessed through the main cleit. Re-turfing of damaged cleit roofs is an important task for seasonal work parties. Choosing the right turf is important, and making sure it is not blown off by the winds which can reach well in excess of 100mph. In the past turfs would be kept in place by wooden spikes or old fishing nets. Fulmars nest in the top of some cleits but cause no damage, unlike the Soay sheep, whose grazing can upset the stonework and strip away the grass.

The central structure shown left is called Calum Mor’s house. It has a corbelled roof, is partly underground and measures 15 feet by 9 feet. It is probably one of the original house types. Legend says it was built in one day by a local strongman.  Stone shelters with turf covered roofs are common on the western seaboard of Europe, reaching its highest sophistication on the Irish island of Skellig Michael

Cleits vary in size, the larger ones are 20 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet high. They were used to store fuel, nets and birds eggs and for drying and preserving seabirds, an important part of the remote islanders’ diet. One particularly long cleit was used for storing lengths of timber washed up on the beach.

Many of the 1200 cleits on Hirta are corbelled, many have stone slabs spanning the gap between the outer walls (right). With corbelling relatively small stones can cover a surprisingly wide span. Stone from older structures would have been recycled for new cleits. One roof slab in a cleit has an incised cross on it, a stone reused from an ancient religious building.

Part of Hirta is basalt, part is granite. The cleit left, straddles both stone types, hence its salt and pepper colouring. Cleits can look roughly built but keep out most of the wind. Inside is surprisingly dry, very important for storage. Note the use of an earthfast boulder in one corner, an efficient use of local material.

A north facing entrance, showing walls built with slight batter and turf covering. This roof is not corbelled but formed with flat slabs. Entry to this structure should be cautious; a person at the door could be met by two or three sheep making a quick exit.

This is one of the older cleits, one of a line of larger dry-stone structures which were probably inhabited before the 1830’s when the line of dry-stone Blackhouses were built along the line of the Village Street. The grass on the roof shows the effects of wind and sheep grazing. Wild iris adds to its charm.

First there were cleits, then larger structures developed. Stone lintols could be used for the doorways but timber, washed up on the beach, was necessary to span the larger gap between the stone walls. this structure is almost square in plan, quite different from the narrow cleits. This structure must have been a lot more comfortable to live in because of the space and a better chimney to let smoke out.

Our thanks to  Nick Aitken for given us permission to republish the article The Cleits of St.Kilda  which was first published in Issue No. 22  of Stonechat ( Autumn 2010 ).