Case Study: Private ownership and the cash economy on St Kilda

The remote archipelago of St Kilda (or Hirta) was finally abandoned in 1930, but has an extensive historiography and indeed ethnography, thanks to visitors' accounts between the late seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Fleming (2000) characterises the historiography as predominantly evoking St Kildan society as one characterised by communitarian styles of living, traditional knowledge and a high degree of isolation from the rest of the world allowed the islanders to survive inhospitable extremes of climate and environment. A communal style of work and very limited participation in the money economy were of key importance.

Fleming's critical examination of this way of characterising the St Kilda way of life, which might be described as a 'micro-archaeology', centred on the large number of locks found on the houses and 'cleitean' (store houses) on St Kilda. The locks are traditional wooden tumbler locks as well as more modern sprung locks and were imported or locally made. In either case they require careful maintenance and represented an investment of money, time and energy to acquire install and maintain. Reviewing historical sources, Fleming suggests that the islanders were locking their doors because they had caches of valuables and/or money which they wished to keep secret even from other islanders. He suggests that their participation in cash exchange was far more extensive than their historians suggest and that islanders deliberately pretended to a naivety about money in order to perpetuate a stereotype of St Kildans as exotic and unsophisticated, which actually worked to their advantage in economic exchanges. The locks of St Kilda thus signify not only knowledge of and manipulation of capitalist exchange but also potentially undermine the myth of egalitarian and communal existence.

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