Magic lantern slides can contain stark reminders of how hard life was for many of our Victorian ancestors. St. Kilda is a small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, forty miles west of the Outer Hebrides, more commonly known today as the Western Isles of Scotland.
It has been the subject of books and documentaries, as there is a certain romance associated with people surviving on a desolate rock for hundreds of years, scraping a living as best they could to pay their rent to a distant landlord, especially when the story ends the way this one does. The reality of life on St. Kilda was that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tourists brought disease and a loss of independence, the young men sought a living elsewhere and the supply ships that the inhabitants came to rely on, sometimes didn’t arrive because of the atrocious Atlantic weather. To add to their woes, during the First World War, St. Kilda was attacked by a German U-Boat but fortunately no-one was hurt. The islanders’ fate was inevitable and, in 1930, the remaining thirty six residents were permanently evacuated to the mainland of Scotland.
Today the island is a World Heritage Site owned by the National Trust for Scotland and home to a handful of military staff and wildlife conservationists.
Unlike paper based photographs of the time, magic lantern slides had to be ‘high resolution’ so that a photograph on a glass slide just over three inches wide could be projected onto a screen perhaps twenty feet square, without loss of definition. To achieve this, professional Victorian photographers used the best cameras available with the finest lenses.
This photograph was probably taken in the 1880s and shows the village on St. Kilda at a time when it was a thriving community. Being a high resolution image (the original, not this version of it), once digitised, you can zoom in and in and in and maintain a clear, sharp, strong image. It is this that makes magic lantern slides a remarkable source of documentary photographs.
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