THE CLEITEAN OF THE ST.  KILDA ARCHIPELAGO IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND

by Christian Lassure

french version


The wind beats down upon the walls, lifting
The thatch, prefiguring a storm. Crabs, fieldmice,
Horniegolachs, creeping and crawling things
Seek shelter in the cleits, abandoned cottages
And kirk.

Norman Bissett, Leaving St Kilda, 1999

The St. Kilda archipelago lies 180 km off the North-Western coast of Scotland and 64 km West of the Outer Hebrides. It is comprised of four volcanic islands: Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray. The largest - Hirta - is renowned for its myriad small dry stone buildings - called cleitean (plural of cleit) in Scottish Gaelic and cleits in English - that were used as all-purpose storage huts until 1930 when the last remaining islanders left for the mainland.
 

Hirta and the neighbouring island of Soay. Dun is separated from Hirta only by a channel. Boreray lies 7.5 km to the North-East. Stacs are tiny rocky islets (© Clyde Cruising Club).

The people of Hirta were crofters and sheep rearers but they lived mainly by fowling, i.e. catching seabirds and harvesting their eggs in the surrounding islands. Numbering 1300 on Hirta and 170 on the other islands, cleitean played a major role in the exploitation of the islands' various resources.
 

Layout of the 19th-century linear settlement overlooking Village Bay. Fields were protected from grazing sheep by a semi-circular dry stone wall, the Head Dyke  (© Chris Smith, www.kilda.org.uk).

Today, the island is a national nature reserve and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. It is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is more or less an open air museum dedicated to the enlightenment of tourists.

Architectural features

It is no easy task for one to try to form a precise, let alone accurate, idea of the architecture of Hirta's cleitean based simply on photographs found on the Internet. At the utmost, a number of traits shared by the majority of cleitean can be made out.

The shape of a cleit is roughly reminiscent of a ship's upturned hull with, as its bows, the round end of the hut, as its stern,  the upright rear end, and its bottom the flat roof.

This particular morphology, along with the cleitean's high number and density, give the slopes overlooking Village Bay a strange, beguiling appearance.

 

Built longitudinally on the hill's slope, with its front end facing uphill, this cleit has its right-hand side wall collapsing inwards, resulting in the lintel  being tilted to one side (detail from a photo in www.kilda.org.uk).

Siting

Since they are sited in hilly ground - there being not many flat expanses on the island - cleitean are generally laid out in the direction of the slope with their rectilinear front end looking uphill and their rounded rear end looking downhill. In some cases however, the entrance may be placed in one of the side walls.

Also found are cleitean built perpendicularly to the direction of the slope, with their entrance in one of the narrow ends.

In order to withstand any downward thrust, the end facing downhill is in the shape of an apse with a strong batter. The entrance is very rarely placed in the apsidal end, obviously so that the latter's strength should not be diminished.

 

On the slope of Oiseval, the apse of a cleit as seen from downhill (from a photo in
www.scotland-photo-library.co.uk).

In one particular instance though - a hut with its apse uphill instead of downhill and not very high as a result - a small window opens in the longitudinal axis of the building.

 

Cleit with its apsidal end looking uphill and exhibiting a small window (detail from a photo in  www.imagesfromtheedge.com).

Entrance

Whether it opens in a cleit's uphill end or long wall, the entrance is a low opening with sloping jambs that converge towards one another. These are made of large slabs or elongated blocks or more rarely two large blocks set vertically (as is the case with a cleit in Gleann Mor) and are topped by a big slab by way of lintel.

In a few rare instances, the lintel is relieved by a rectangular opening that acts as a kind of skylight above the entrance.

 

A cleit whose lintel is topped by a small window (© Steve Goldthorp).

According to naturalist Richard Kearton writing in 1898, the entrance of nearly all cleitean was temporarily barred by a half dozen big stones  piled one upon another; only the largest and best built huts had a wooden door to them.

(*) Richard Kearton, With nature and a camera. Being the adventures and observations of a field naturalist and an animal photographer, 1898, Cassell, London. (See p. 45)

Construction

From a constructional point of view, cleitean consist basically of two corbelled rectilinear or convex long walls that face each other symmetrically and are separated by an interval of 0.90 m to 1.50 m at the base. These converging walls support a ceiling of large, adjoining slabs at a height of 1.20 m to 1.50 m. At one end, the two walls are joined so as to form an apse, while at the other end, their heads are joined to form the entrance's jambs.

 

Interior of a cleit as viewed from the entrance (© Steve Goldthorp).


The stones In the corbelled walls have a bevelled facing that is either natural or man-made. The covering slabs show traces of rough hewing.

The corbelling of the inside wall face is matched by the pronounced batter of the outside wall face.

The granite blocks used in building these huts are placed and arranged carefully but their irregular shape excludes any regular coursing.

As can be expected, the biggest blocks are found in the lower part of the walls, while the smallest ones are found in the upper part.

The edifices have been made watertight thanks to an age-old technique: a thick layer of earth deposited on top of the ceiling and covered with sods so as to form a rounded mound.

 

Taken from Richard Kearton's book, this photo shows a storage hut surmounted by a small mound of earth bristling with white spikes. The wooden door is propped up by the jawbone of a whale. It looks as if the spikes were meant to deter seabirds from alighting on, and nesting in, the turf roof.

The lack of mortar, together with the irregular shape of the stones, allows the air and wind to pass through the walls. But far from being a drawback, this characteristic has determined the basic function of the cleit as an all-purpose wind-drying store.

A myriad functions

According to existing literature, cleitean were used to store a variety of produce:
- peat (according to Reverend Mackenzie (*), some families had as many as twenty cleitean filled with peat, and in the 1830s there were 400 cleitean reserved for that sole purpose),
- fishing gear,
- climbing ropes,
- wheat, barley and oats,
- salted carcasses of seabirds,
- salted lamb meat,
- cured fish,
- eggs buried in peat ash,
- bird feathers,
- manure (at least in the storage huts within the village's cultivated area),
- hay,
- potatoes (in the 19th century).

(*) J. B. Mackenzie, Antiquities and old customs in St. Kilda, compiled from notes by the Rev. Neil Mackenzie, Minister of St. Kilda, 1829-43, dans Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 39, 1904, pp. 397-402

It would be interesting to find out if there is a relationship between the type of produce stored and the cleitean's siting and overall morphology. The only way to be sure of that would be to take soil samples from the huts.

One also wonders whether some cleitean encountered in areas far removed from the village might not have been meant to serve as shelters for freely grazing sheep, in particular in winter and in the lambing period.

Whatever the answer, one must realize that, as a rule, sheep were not supposed to enter cleitean, hence the occasional wooden door or stone blocks piled up across the entrance.

Although cleitean were by no means used as permanent dwellings, some of them may have provided temporary shelter to a few islanders under exceptional circumstances. It is a well-known fact that in their summer forays into the neighbouring island of Soay to collect the wool of the local sheep, St. Kildans used to take shelter in small cleitean specially built for that purpose while their expedition lasted (a week or more). It is also an established fact that the villagers had seasonal dwellings (called shielings) in Gleann Bay in the northern part of the island.

As a matter of fact, the St. Kildan cleit belongs to a type of dry stone structure for air drying salted fish and meat - the skeo or skio - which was widespread in other Scottish archipelagoes like the Orkneys and Shetlands until the late 19th century. While there remain only a few rare skeos, the cleitean of St. Kilda have survived until today in considerable numbers.

The Grande Dame with the wind-drying hut

Legend has it that a large cleit standing amidst the village pastures was used as a lodging in the 1730s by one Lady Grange, who had been relegated to Hirta by her former husband, the Scottish Lord Advocate, who wanted her out of the way. Whoever is inclined to put faith in this fable should try to spend one night inside one of those stores in which a man cannot stand up and through which the wind whistles like the devil, as Richard Kearton found out during his visit to the island.

If Dame Grange had had to elect Hirta as her abode then, in all likelihood it must have been one of the houses of the time rather than a cleit that was never meant for such a purpose. That the exiled wife was granted the use of a cleit for storing various resources is a fair guess, though. But it is surely mischievous to imagine such a "grande dame" as having to live under so low a roof, is it not?

How old are the cleitean?

One should be careful not to endow the cleitean currently visible with great antiquity: Their lifespan, in Hirta's harsh environment, cannot possibly have exceeded a few centuries at most, provided of course they were properly maintained (which, by the way, is no longer the case for most of them today since the departure of the last St.Kildans).

Archaeological evidence has revealed several periods of occupation:
- the Bronze Age;
- the Iron Age;
- a period extending from the 6th-8th centuries until the 15th century in Gleann Mor in the northern part of the island;
- the 10th century (brooches of the Viking era),
but no proof of any continuity has been forthcoming.

Two incised crosses were found in reused stone blocks, the first one in a village house (could it not have been a foundation stone?), the second one in a cleit, but it really takes an act of faith to see vestiges of early christianity in them.

(*) Alex Morrison, An Introduction to the Later Settlement History of St. Kilda, dans A Rock and a Hard Place; Perspectives on the Archaeology of St. Kilda, Scotland, World Archaelogical Congress 4, University of Cape Town, 10th-14th January 1999.

By the 17th century the island was owned by the MacLeods of Dunvegan. One is indebted to their steward, Martin Martin, for the first detailed description of the place and the inhabitants' way of life, already centred on the catching of seabirds and the use of cleitean. He refers to three chapels built of stone and covered with thatch, but these were more likely to have been farmhouses as is suggested by the excavations being conducted at the presumed site of the chapel dedicated to Saint Brianan (Saint Brendan), at Ruaival, to the south-west of the village.

(*) Martin Martin, A Late Voyage to St Kilda, London, 1698.
 

This watercolour, painted by George Clayton Atkinson in 1831, shows a cluster of thatched stone houses  - of the blackhouse type - down toward the shore (© The National Trust for Scotland).

Hirta's golden age was the 19th century, during which the villagers' landholdings were reorganised and rationalised under the supervision of the non-resident Lord and the local clergyman while the village itself was twice reconstructed, first in 1830 with the building of blackhouses - single-roomed houses accommodating both humans and animals and having a rounded gable facing the sea), then in 1861 with the addition of 16 whitehouses - three-roomed mason-built cottages with rectilinear gables and a long-wall façade facing the bay. Any remains of the former settlement are no longer visible.
 

Early 19th-century postcard (*) showing Saint-Kilda's main street with its row of intermingled whitehouses and blackhouses to the left and the dry stone wall bordering it to the right. The 1860 whitehouse in the foreground is deserted, roofless.

(*) Circa 1905

Whither the Cleitean?

The archaeologists who have been entrusted by the National Trust for Scotland with the survey of the stone remains of Hirta, report in their yearly account on the damage they have seen: loosening of stones at the base of cleit 1000, crumbling wall sections in cleitean 105 and 168, collapsed angles in cleitean 120, 479 and 513, fallen lintel in cleit 799, loss of the earth covering on various cleitean, etc.). Could it be that cleitean are fragile constructions after all (incidentally just like any other dry stone building )?
 

A frail cleit stands out against a hillside dotted with cleitean on either side of the dry stone wall (Head Dyke) separating the former arable land from the slopes reserved for grazing stock (©  Steve Goldthorp).

One may surmise that the island's present status will warrant the safekeeping of a type of building without which the St. Kildans of old would not have been able to survive the harsh climate, isolation, scarce resources, lack of comfort, the hold the 19th clergy had over them and the yearly seigniorial levies which was their lot from the late 17th century up till the early 20th century.
 

This descriptive account of St. Kilda's cleitean was made easier by the outstanding photos of the built structures of the archipelago that were taken by photographer Steve Goldthorp and posted on the photo hosting and sharing site PBase.com

We heartily thank Steve Goldthorp for allowing us to publish three of his photographs in this page.

Other sites or pages on the St Kilda Archipelago

- www.kilda.org.uk : everything you should know about St. Kilda

- www.nts.org.uk/web/site : the site of the National Trust for Scotland, in charge of the archipelago

- www.flickr.com : photos of the village, houses and cleitean (in misty weather) by J. C. Campbell


To print, use landscape mode

© Christian Lassure - CERAV

Posted on May 26th, 2006 - Augmented September 27th, 2007 - 0ctober 14th, 2009

To be referenced as:
Christian Lassure
The cleitean of the St. Kilda Archipelago in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
http://www.pierreseche.com/cleitean_of_saint-kilda.htm
May 26th, 2006

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