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Farming practices pollute St Kilda

Further research by the University of Aberdeen is about to take place into the high levels of soil pollution discovered in the soils of the St Kilda archipelago, following a grant of £168,000 from the Leverhulme Trust.

Researchers from the Plant and Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen have discovered that the arable farming practices on the remote islands of St Kilda, combined with the local custom of eating and composting seabird waste, has led to the build up significant levels of contaminants such as lead, zinc and arsenic in the soils of Hirta, the main island of the archipelago.

This latest award will allow Professor Andy Meharg of the University's Plant and Soil Science Department to lead a multidisciplinary project team to further investigate the particular nature and detail of the soils on St Kilda and other remote Scottish islands.

Professor Meharg said: "The island community on the remote St Kilda archipelago has often been viewed as a utopian society, given their closeness to the environment and local self government, polluted the farmland of St Kilda with a range of potentially toxic elements, such as lead, zinc, cadmium and arsenic. This contamination will change the perception of the St Kildan's living in harmony with their environment."

Robin Turner, Senior Archaeologist for the islands' owners The National Trust for Scotland, is amazed at the results of the survey: "Up to now we thought of St Kilda as an idyllic society living in blissful harmony with nature. The demise of the community is always blamed on external pressures, firstly from the landlord, then from visitors and latterly from the increased expectations of the population. Now we can see that the islanders were unwittingly poisoning the soil on which they relied, and perhaps themselves too. This makes the story even more interesting for us today. The message is: not only do we need to live in harmony with our environment, but we need to be very sure that any apparently sensible changes we make don't have unexpected side-effects."


Notes to Editors

The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Lord Leverhulme - the entrepreneur and philanthropist who established Lever brothers in the late 19th Century. The Trust provides some £25million each year to promote research or originality and significance principally in the university sector across a full span of disciplines.

The research team led by Professor Meharg, Plant and Soil Science includes representatives from the Departments of Chemistry and Geography at the University of Aberdeen, as well as Stirling University.

The St Kilda archipelago situated off the Western Isles of Scotland is the most isolated island group in the British Isles. The main island Hirta was occupied with a high population density from at least the Iron Age, resulting in a wealth of archaeological remains. The anthropology of Hirta has been reported with remarkable detail, up until its complete evacuation in 1930. The first known mention of the islands was in Martin Martin's book The Voyage to St Kilda in 1698 and the photographer George Washington Wilson recorded several images of life on the islands during the 19th century.

The George Washington Wilson Photographic Collection, including all his images of St Kilda, are in the care of the University of Aberdeen's Historic Collections.

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Ref: 1003stkilda
May 18, 2002