Landscape archaeology of St Kilda
Geddes, George Frederick
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The archipelago of St Kilda has received more attention from writers than any other in Scotland. Its allure to the Scottish romantic ideal, coupled with its central importance in widely held notions of Scotland’s remote and noble past (and the unravelling impact of modernity) sets it apart as an archaeological landscape. Antiquarians and archaeologists have engaged with St Kilda since the 1850s but they have in general viewed the islands as the location of an isolated and unique culture, whose traditional way of life was reflected in a unique archaeology. The critical review presented here summarises a 10-year study of the islands, developed at first through fieldwork and desk-based research, and in particular through a suite of detailed case-studies produced between 2008 and 2016. This led to a realisation that much of the story of the islands was told through highly personal histories, while archaeology was, in general, failing to challenge historical narratives. That said, a small group of writers have in recent years began to dispute underlying assumptions about the islands, and rural settlement studies in general. The ideas of Chris Dalglish, Fraser Macdonald and Andrew Fleming in particular were of crucial importance to the development of a new critical approach supported and expanded here. Since joining the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in 2009 I was able to develop a deeper understanding of Scottish field archaeology, and of the Commission’s surveys of St Kilda, providing a complimentary strand to research. I was able to bring to bear a new, more detailed and more critical view of St Kilda’s field archaeology (more than 1,500 sites) set within its wider context. My portfolio includes two papers that explore specific topics in some detail: in 2013 Dr Alice Watterson and I looked at the archaeological and historical evidence that describe St Kilda’s numerous cleitean. In 2015, Dr Kevin Grant and I dissected the complexity of the post-medieval landscape of St Kilda using an early map, landscape and building archaeology, and family history. These papers compliment St Kilda: the Last and Outmost Isle, published by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) in 2015, of which I was the primary author. This book goes to some length to set St Kilda in a wider context, ensuring that the notion of its remoteness and isolation is undermined by the presentation of a wide range of evidence. From the outset the book was designed to provide an authoritative and reliable assessment of the evidence, but it goes further in offering a thorough reassessment of key elements of St Kilda’s archaeology. This critical review of the work will seek to place my research within the context of studies of St Kilda, and comparative landscapes.