The story of St Kilda is one that has been told many times over the decades. Tom Steel first wrote his account, a much shorter version of this book, in 1965. He was a student at Cambridge at the time and the book was published by the National Trust for Scotland, by then the owners and custodians of the archipelago. He had the great advantage of writing his account at a time when there were many more people around who had actually lived through at least some of the events described than there are today. An expanded version of The Life and Death of St. Kilda was published in 1975, and a new and updated edition was published in 1988.
The current edition brings the story up to date, though this is a book Tom Steel did not live to see published. He was working on material for the update when he died suddenly on 21 July 2007 at the age of 63, and the updated edition was completed by his wife Peta. It therefore stands as a memorial to its author as well as a remarkable and moving testament to the members of a lost civilisation. Because "lost civilisation" is not an overstatement of what happened to St Kilda. People lived here continuously for at least a thousand years, and probably as far back as the Bronze Age, and they evolved a way of life that was unique, and uniquely suited to the remarkable environment in which they found themselves. And then, in August 1930, the islanders were evacuated at their own request.
Tom Steel's outstanding book achieves three aims. Firstly it provides a vivid insight into the way of life that was lost, and brings home how unique it was. Secondly, it explores the reasons for the decline of the society on St Kilda, to the point where evacuation seemed the only viable option to many of the last 36 inhabitants, all that remained of a population which had probably never exceeded 200. And thirdly it looks in detail at developments on St Kilda since the evacuation, a period during which, at times, there have been significant numbers of temporary residents: and how life changed for the islanders after evacuation. This is a book that leaves the reader with a sense of loss. The demise of the St Kildans' way of life impoverishes us all: yet it was already well on the way to being lost long before the actual evacuation, and would in any case have been unlikely to survive subsequent developments on St Kilda.