July 15, 2024

Who Was Saint Kilda?

Just south of the city, St Kilda is one of Melbourne's most popular suburbs. But the origin of its name is something of a mystery. Exactly who was 'Saint' Kilda?

Sign for the city of St Kilda

The cab driver was fairly chatty, which is not unusual. We talked about this and that as he drove me home; him doing most of the talking, running rapid fire through a bunch of topics.

At one point, he mentioned that he lived in St Kilda, and that he thought it was a pretty cool place.

And then:

'But I've always wondered... who was Saint Kilda? I mean, what were they patron saint of?'

His question twinged my interest. I had lived in Melbourne for years by this stage, and the question had occurred to me before. Everyone knows Saint Francis, or Saint Christopher. But what about Saint Kilda?

A quick google search revealed the answer. There is no Saint Kilda, and there never was one. The suburb isn't named after a religious figure at all.

So... what then?

The indigenous Yalukit-William tribe from the Kulin Nation are the traditional owners of the land that became St Kilda. Their name for the area was Euroe Yroke.

European settlers began to arrive in the latter part of the 1830's, shortly after the founding of Melbourne. The first leaseholds were taken in the St Kilda area in 1839, when it was referred to simply as 'Green Knoll.'

In 1842, as the city expanded, 22 allotments of land were officially surveyed and offered for sale by the local authorities, this new formalised settlement to be called 'The Village of Fareham' (after a village in Hampshire where some of the new residents hailed from).

The boat, 'The Lady of St Kilda'.
The Lady of St Kilda.

But the previous year, a large trading ship had arrived in Melbourne and had anchored south of the city, directly adjacent to the proposed new village. The name of this vessel; 'The Lady of St Kilda.'

The ship anchored in Melbourne for some months and dominated the largely undeveloped shoreline. It was there for so long, in fact, that locals began referring to the area as 'The St Kilda foreshore.'

Governor Charles La Trobe.
Governor Charles La Trobe.

The story goes that Governor La Trobe, attending a picnic in the area in 1842, and having consumed some champagne, decided spur-of-the-moment that the new village would be called St Kilda, after the ship. This was soon officially proclaimed, and the land sale went ahead towards the end of 1842.

The first purchaser was James Ross Lawrence, who had been the master mate on the Lady of St Kilda. Allowed to name the street that fronted his block of land, Lawrence chose Acland Street, after Sir Thomas Acland, the ship's original owner.

So if the suburb is named after a boat, where then did this craft take it's name from?

Map showing the location of St Kilda island
Map showing the location of St Kilda island

The Lady of St Kilda was a schooner, built in Devon in 1834 for Acland, and used as part of his trading business (initially bringing fruit from the Mediterranean to England).

The ship was named after the St Kilda archipelago, part of the Outer Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland. Acland's wife, Lydia, had visited St Kilda islands on holiday in 1810, and had spoken rapturously about its beauty afterwards.

Although, it is worth noting, that the 'Lady' of the ship's name is not Lydia herself but Lady Grange, a famous political prisoner from English history.

Portrait of Lady Grange
Lady Grange

Lady Grange was the wife of James Erskine, a wealthy 18th century Scottish Lord and barrister.

In 1732, the good lady discovered papers that showed her husband was involved in a plot to overthrow the British monarchy. The plot was part of an ultimately failed coup to install Scottish heir Bonnie Prince Charlie on the British throne. Outraged by this treasonous behaviour, Lady Grange immediately determined to reveal her husband's activities.

But Erskine was alerted to his wife's manoeuvre and struck first.

Hirta Island in the Hebrides
Windswept and remote; Hirta Island.

Lady Grange was abducted at her husband's order and taken initially to an isolated castle that he owned in northern Scotland. She was then interred in a private mental hospital before being moved to the St Kilda islands around 1735.

Now imprisoned in one of the most isolated spots on Earth, the noblewoman endured years of degrading treatment. Living alone in a stone dwelling with an earthen floor, among a small local population who spoke no English, and suffering poor health due to the island's harsh climate and lifestyle.

She would remain on Hirta until about 1740, when she was finally able to smuggle a message to her supporters on the mainland begging for rescue. An armed rescue party was raised, but by the time it reached Hirta, Lady Grange had been removed and taken elsewhere.

She died, still in her husbands captivity, in 1745.

Acland had his attention brought to this story by his wife's visit to the islands, and named his ship as tribute to this long suffering British patriot.

Which still leaves us with our original question; what is the original root of the name 'St Kilda'?

A 17th century map of the Outer Hebrides.
A 17th century map of the Outer Hebrides.

While opinions differ, the most widely accepted theory has this as a simple translation error.

The first settlers of the islands were Norse, and some histories show the name of the islands recorded as Skildir, an old Norse word meaning 'shield.' This has been mis-recorded on a Dutch map from 1583, which has the name as Skildar. These same charts were revised and updated by the Dutch Government in 1592, Skildar now being misrecorded as S.Kilda.

As the Dutch were among the foremost seafarers of this time period, many other countries would base their own official charts on those of the Dutch. British chart makers who used this 1592 map as the basis for their own work, simply assumed that S.Kilda was an abbreviation of St Kilda, and recorded it as such themselves.

St Kilda island, present day
St Kilda island, present day

And so a previously unrecorded Saint was summoned into existence.

250 years later, 'Saint Kilda' would find it's way from remote area sea charts, into the name of a suburb in one of the world's most comfortable cities. The St Kilda islands are today uninhabited, the last of the permanent residents having left in 1930.


8 thoughts on “Who Was Saint Kilda?

  1. Excellent work. I used to live in St Kilda and wondered about it. Cannot wait to regale my St Kilda dwelling friends about it.

  2. Thank you! I was about to head to breakfast in my favorite café to visit when I’m in town, St.Kilda’s, and for once, I was not running late, so I stopped to look up this mystery saint. You are where I landed after pages and pages about Scotland.

    This café by the way, happens to be in Des Moines, Iowa.

  3. I just read the St Kilda article, how very, very, interesting 🤔 I will be checking in regularly for interesting information.

  4. This is the Internet giving me back exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for going further than Wikipedia. Great article.
    I’ll check other posts for sure!

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