The population of St Kilda began to decline in 1852. Over the previous century the population had hovered around one hundred. Back in 1727 there had been a devastating epidemic of smallpox in which the population had fallen from about 124 to about 30. The loss of life would have been even greater but for the fact that three men and eight boys were stranded on Stac an Armin at the time of the epidemic and somehow survived until they were rescued on 13 May 1728. On that occasion the landowner arranged for new migrants to join the Hirte community and within a few years there were again about twenty families.
In 1852 36 people decided to emigrate to Australia. They joined large numbers of others from the Hebrides and the mainland of Scotland who were heading in the same direction. For the group from St Kilda it turned out to be a poor decision as 20 of them died of disease on the voyage. The remaining sixteen, however, settled successfully in Melbourne, giving the name St Kilda to a suburb of that city. This time the landowner made no attempt to replace the inhabitants who had left, and it became increasingly difficult to maintain an economically viable community on Hirte.
Individual islanders continued to move away from time to time.
The names and dates of emigration of each one of them is given by Mary Harman, op. cit. p133. In addition the population was badly affected by disease. There was an extremely high rate of infant mortality, and descriptions of the symptoms make it clear that many of the new born babies died of tetanus. A plausible theory, propounded by George Gibson in 1926, suggests that the babies were infected as a result of a practice in which after the cutting of the umbilical cord the navel was anointed with oil. If this practice was followed on Hirte fulmar oil would have been used, probably kept in the stomach of a gannet. The container may have become infected with tetanus bacteria and never properly cleaned.
George Gibson, The Tragedy of St Kilda, Caledonian Medical Journal, April 1926. Another factor adding to the level of hardship on St Kilda was a decline in the fertility of the agricultural land within Village Bay. Each croft in the village comprised a narrow strip of land as well as the family's house. Research at the University of Aberdeen has revealed a high level of toxic chemicals in the soil, including lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic.
See the media release at this address. By the 1870s the possibility of evacuation was beginning to be mentioned. From time to time the islanders had to rely on assistance from elsewhere to enable them to cope with emergencies. The winter of 1911-12 was especially difficult as bad weather prevented ships from calling in from the end of December to the middle of May. The Daily Mirror started a national campaign to raise funds for a wireless station, and it was installed in July 1913.
World War One brought some relief as Hirte was designated a War Signal Station and a small group of naval staff was based there. Several St Kilda men were employed on building work or to assist with lookout duties. However, while the war years brought a temporary increase in prosperity the contact between the islanders and the naval staff made the local people more aware of the potential benefits of living elsewhere. When life again became more difficult after the war the momentum towards leaving began to grow.
In April 1930, after another harsh winter, Williamina Barclay invited the people of Hirte to have tea with her. She had been working on the island as a nurse for the past three years. At that time thirty six adults and children were living on Hirte, and it seems that almost all of them turned up for the tea party. During the course of the event Williamina Barclay raised the prospect of seeking evacuation, and offered to provide guidance and help. In particular she would do what she could to ensure that if a move to the mainland took place there would be adequate accommodation and paid employment.
For the evacuation to go ahead it was important that the decision should be unanimous. It appears that the small number of elderly people were reluctant to move, especially as they would have to rely on charity and public assistance. Another person not keen to go was Neil Ferguson, who had an additional income as the sub-postmaster for the island. Younger adults generally wished to make the move, indeed some of them were intent on moving individually if the communal evacuation did not occur. But they too were anxious about the future, unclear about their job prospects on the mainland at a time of economic recession and high unemployment.