Podcast Episode 280: Leaving St. Kilda

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1930 saw the quiet conclusion of a remarkable era. The tiny population of St. Kilda, an isolated Scottish archipelago, decided to end their thousand-year tenure as the most remote community in Britain and move to the mainland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable life they’d shared on the island and the reasons they chose to leave.

We’ll also track a stork to Sudan and puzzle over the uses of tea trays.


Reportedly the 3rd Earl of Darnley believed he was a teapot.

Henry Hudson’s journal records a 1610 encounter with a mermaid.

Sources for our feature on St. Kilda:

Charles MacLean, Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda, 1972.

Tom Steel, The Life and Death of St. Kilda: The Moving Story of a Vanished Island Community, 2011.

Andrew Fleming, St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island, 2005.

Alexander Buchan, A Description of St. Kilda, The Most Remote Western Isle of Scotland, 1741.

Martin Martin, A Voyage to St. Kilda, 1749.

George Seton, St Kilda Past and Present, 1878.

Alastair Gray, A History of Scotland, 1989.

John Macculloch, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1819.

Fraser MacDonald, “St Kilda and the Sublime,” Ecumene 8:2 (2001), 151-174.

L.F. Powell, “The History of St. Kilda,” Review of English Studies 16:61 (January 1940), 44-53.

“St. Kilda,” British Medical Journal 1:2683 (June 1, 1912), 1249-1251.

“St. Kilda,” British Medical Journal 2:3418 (July 10, 1926), 80-81.

Fergus McIntosh, “A Trip to St. Kilda, Scotland’s Lost Utopia in the Sea,” New Yorker, Dec. 3, 2017.

Alison Campsie, “New Images Throw Light on a St Kilda Fit for the 21st Century,” Scotsman, Oct. 8, 2018, 24.

Roger Cox, “Deserted Streets, Sea Cliffs and Stark Military Towers Show Real St Kilda in Black and White,” Scotsman, May 26, 2018, 58.

Neel Mukherjee, “A Veritable No Man’s Land, Off the Coast of Scotland,” New York Times, May 7, 2018.

Alison Campsie, “What It’s Like Living on St Kilda,” Scotsman, Feb. 21, 2018.

“‘End of an Era’: Last Native of Remote Island St Kilda Dies,” [London] Express, April 7, 2016.

Gabriella Swerlingwrites, “St Kilda: Islands That Were Not So Remote After All,” Times, Nov. 3, 2015, 5.

“Norman John Gillies: Obituaries,” Daily Telegraph, Oct. 3, 2013, 35.

Steven McKenzie, “The New Residents of St Kilda Archipelago,” BBC News, Aug. 29, 2010.

“Eighty Years Ago St Kilda Was Evacuated. Today One of Only Two Survivors Remembers Leaving the Islands,” Scotsman, Aug. 11, 2010.

Charlie English, “St Kilda: The Edge of the World,” Guardian, Aug. 28, 2009.

Nigel Johnson, “St. Kilda Tells of Lonely, Difficult Existence,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 10, 2006, E.6.

Nigel Richardson, “Revisiting the Margin of the World,” National Post, Aug. 21, 1999, B12.

Edmund Antrobus, “St. Kilda, the Enigma Out to Sea,” [Bergen County, N.J.] Record, Aug. 15, 1999.

“Return to St Kilda,” Glasgow Herald, March 18, 1987.

“Island to Be Abandoned,” New York Times, July 30, 1930.

“St. Kilda,” London Graphic, Nov. 14, 1885.

“St Kilda,” Caledonian Mercury, Sept. 1, 1834.

“Stories from St Kilda,” National Records of Scotland (accessed Dec. 29, 2019).

Listener mail:

“Polish Charity Gets Huge Phone Bill Thanks to Stork,” BBC News, June 28, 2018.

“Polish Stork Vanishes From GPS but Delivers Huge Phone Bill,” AP News, June 29, 2018.

Iain Thomson, “What a Flap: SIM Swiped From Slain Stork’s GPS Tracker Used to Rack Up $2,700 Phone Bill,” The Register, July 3, 2018.

Helena Horton, “Palmerston, the Foreign Office Cat, Returns to Work After Six Months Off for Stress,” Telegraph, Dec. 2, 2019.

Megan Baynes, “Foreign Office Cat Palmerston Returns to Work After Six Months Off With Stress,” London Press Association, Dec. 3, 2019.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Miriam Fewtrell, based on a fact she read in Leonard Mosley’s 1974 book The Reich Marshal: A Biography of Hermann Goering.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 279: The Champawat Tiger


At the turn of the 20th century, a rogue tiger terrorized the villages of Nepal and northern India. By the time British hunter Jim Corbett was called in, it had killed 434 people. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Corbett’s pursuit of the elusive cat, and his enlightened efforts to address the source of the problem.

We’ll also revisit a Confederate spy and puzzle over a bloody ship.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 277: The Mad Trapper of Rat River


In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”

We’ll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father’s age.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 276: An Unlikely Confederate Spy


As the Civil War fractured Washington D.C., socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow coordinated a vital spy ring to funnel information to the Confederates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the war’s most unlikely spies, and her determination to aid the South.

We’ll also fragment the queen’s birthday and puzzle over a paid game of pinball.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 275: A Kidnapped Painting


In 1961, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington went missing from London’s National Gallery. The case went unsolved for four years before someone unexpectedly came forward to confess to the heist. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe one of the greatest art thefts in British history and the surprising twists that followed.

We’ll also discover Seward’s real folly and puzzle over a man’s motherhood.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 274: Death in a Nutshell

Image: Flickr

In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee brought new rigor to crime scene analysis with a curiously quaint tool: She designed 20 miniature scenes of puzzling deaths and challenged her students to investigate them analytically. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and their importance to modern investigations.

We’ll also appreciate an overlooked sled dog and puzzle over a shrunken state.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 273: Alice Ramsey’s Historic Drive


In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out to become the first woman to drive across the United States. In an era of imperfect cars and atrocious roads, she would have to find her own way and undertake her own repairs across 3,800 miles of rugged, poorly mapped terrain. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ramsey on her historic journey.

We’ll also ponder the limits of free speech and puzzle over some banned candy.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 272: The Cannibal Convict


In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.

We’ll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle’s itinerary.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 271: The Fraudulent Life of Cassie Chadwick


In 1902, scam artist Cassie Chadwick convinced an Ohio lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She parlayed this reputation into a life of unthinkable extravagance — until her debts came due. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Chadwick’s efforts to maintain the ruse — and how she hoped to get away with it.

We’ll also encounter a haunted tomb and puzzle over an exonerated merchant.

See full show notes …