National Geographic : 2010 Jan
evacuate them from their homes. On August 29, the St. Kildans and most of their livestock took ship for the Scottish mainland. Declared a World Heritage site in 1986, the is- lands now belong to the birds that sweep and soar along their plunging cli s, and people are the migratory visitors. As a young man, Michael Robson crossed the 40-odd miles of open North Atlantic from Lewis to the lone island of Rona, another abandoned outpost. Lying in the open in the bright summer nights, he listened to the cries of seabirds that nest by the thousands on Rona each year. He came on signs of long-vanished human occupants, from ruined stone huts that had sheltered eighth-century Christian hermits to worn stones that later occupants had used to grind grain. None of Rona's settle- ments lasted: e harsh conditions overcame each isolated group in turn. Robson nally settled on Lewis 16 years ago and has opened his collection of Scottish history and lore---books, manuscripts, and maps---to the public. He retains the lean frame of the self-su cient outdoorsman, his blue- eyed gaze direct and his prodigious memory sharp. But he is no longer young. His hands tremble sometimes as he gestures, telling a Hebridean tale. His journeys are less rigorous now, but he has not stopped seeking places, bleak to some, that for him are steeped in meaning. " e essence of the islands is some- thing you only discover over a long period," he says at last. "I won't have time to learn it all." j of barley, oats, and potatoes were grown in raised beds, where thin soil was carefully aug- mented with applications of mineral-rich sea- weed. Winter storms, rolling unchecked across thousands of miles of open ocean, struck the islands with almost unimaginable ferocity. In 1852, 36 islanders---roughly a third of the population at that time---chose a long and arduous journey to Australia over remaining on St. Kilda. Many perished at sea. By 1930, the 36 remaining residents had had enough. ey petitioned the government to ere are some places so wild, it seems, that even the sturdiest humans cannot always endure their challenges.