Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
St. Kilda is haunting. Everywhere you look there are patterns of a lost life. I came here for frame number 4,167 of the "Edge of the World" story.
This tiny group of islands 40 miles [64 kilometers] beyond the last of the Outer Hebrides is more than remote. It is almost alien. In spite of that, people lived there, subsisting mostly on seabirds and nearly wild sheep. When famine threatened, the cluster of St. Kildans summoned help in the only way they could—with a message in a bottle set adrift in the wild seas.
Finally, battered by disease and crop failures, St. Kilda's population dwindled to 36 in 1930. That's when the islanders asked the British government to take them off the island. That was August 29, 1930—the day when two millennia of occupation came to an end. There are stories that some of the islanders went into their houses for the last time, opened the family bible to Exodus, left it on the kitchen table, and walked away.
In so many ways I was lucky to see St. Kilda. Angus Campbell had brought me out with his load of day-trippers and promised to pick me up later in the week. It was a beautiful day but Angus warned me: "Take advantage of this good weather. It's not going to last." And it didn't. By that evening it was raining hard. It rained for four days as I tried to eke out images in the murky light. I stood for hours in driving rain, waiting for glimpses of the sweeping bay.
The generous staff of the National Trust who were stationed on the island took care of me, keeping track of my expeditions into the gloom so that they might come looking if I didn't come back. I had plenty of time to imagine the life of an islander living on a stormy outpost. The thought lost its romantic appeal very quickly.
By the end of the week, it was doubtful that Angus could make it back to St. Kilda to pick me up as scheduled, and I was resigning myself to being there for a while. But slowly the plain slate skies curdled into patches of light and dark. With this promise of light came another message from Angus. He was coming but he couldn't delay the trip back; I'd have to be ready to get off the island.
Given the timing and relative break in the weather, I sprinted with my cameras up to the Gap, the high ridge above the village. On one side of the Gap I could look down over the sweep of the bay. On the other, another step would have sent me tumbling over some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. From my perch I could see Boreray four miles [six kilometers] away, trailing a cloud more than a mile long.
And then my time was up. I clambered down. Along the way I shot this picture, frame 4,167. It was almost an afterthought.
Months later I was in Washington editing the story when I came across this frame. I passed it by—again, almost an afterthought.
Thank God for good picture editors like Sarah Leen. She resurrected the frame and gently and persistently lobbied to get it into the story. She insisted that it spoke of the harsh landscape the islanders of St. Kilda had made their home for centuries. The stonework circling their fields was the sign of enduring hardships. In the dots of wee stone huts and dashes of abandoned houses Sarah perceived the message of a lost world. She was right. What obscured the image in my eyes was the ease and haste with which it had been taken. Coming after a week of soaking rain and wet cameras it had seemed a rather facile picture. But it spoke of the lives of St. Kildans—a great visual aspect and haunting story of human endurance on these most rugged of islands.