Seventy-five years ago, five-year-old Norman John Gillies left his native island for the last time after the death of his mother. The entire community of St Kilda left with him.

Generations had struggled to scrape a living from the unforgiving land far out in the Atlantic, but the 20th century had finally caught up with the harsh reality of existence there.

Now Gillies has returned to visit the ruins of his native village. Torcuil Crichton set sail with him on a voyage of remembrance

THE sea cliffs of Hoirt don't reveal their intimidating flanks until you are bobbing, 1000 feet below, in what suddenly feels like a very small boat. Fifty miles out across the heaving, dark green Atlantic, St Kilda is an awesome find.

It's as if a giant had dropped Glencoe out at sea or sculpted New York skyscrapers in dark gabbro and hauled the unwilling structures across half an ocean. Way above our craning necks, the upper storeys of windowless towers are just visible through skimming cloud and teeming, wheeling layer upon criss-crossed layer of seabirds.

The shrouded tops, the eerie rebound of the screeching gannets against the cliffs, sharpen an atmosphere already laden with trepidation. St Kilda is so far off the map of modern imagination that the actual sight of it sparks a primal fear. It's like Skull Island in the old King Kong movie. Those rock cathedrals could be sheltering anything. It might just be possible that here be monsters.

What's truly amazing about this group of islands, breaking the ocean surface more than 40 miles west of the nearest Hebridean landfall, is that anyone ever lived here at all.

It took the intrusion of the 20th century for the St Kildan population to loosen their grip on the cliffs from which they'd once scraped an existence, and abandon a way of life that had been almost unchanged for two millennia.

St Kilda was evacuated on August 29, 1930, the last families - 36 people - carrying furniture on their backs to the pier and drowning their dogs in the harbour before leaving their homes forever. Other Hebridean islands have been evacuated since. On Scarp, the cool leaves of the church bible were left open in the pulpit as the population departed. But it is St Kilda that still enthralls.

St Kilda - the collective name for the four islands of Hoirt, Dun, Soay and Boreray - endures as a symbol of an ancient, lost society folding in the face of advancing civilisation. Its distinctive sea and landscapes, suffused with natural history bearing a unique human footprint, have each been bestowed with World Heritage status.

At the beginning of the 21st century, this archipelago remains one of the strangest, most historically redolent and least accessible places: a Machu Picchu in the Atlantic.

As the boat pulls into Village Bay - the only reasonably safe anchorage point on Hoirt - a row of empty stone houses hoves into view. Against the concave slopes of Conachair, which rises steeply behind, they are tiny. Yet their iconographic significance is immense. These houses - built in the 1860s - are the last remnants of a scattered community. St Kilda's sole street is the most melancholy in the world.

The fragile scale of human inhabitation, the dizzy cliff tops, the sense of isolation, and the sheer, extraordinary beauty of it all, are overwhelming. When the naturalist James Fisher left St Kilda in 1947, he knew he and every future visitor would be haunted and forever "tantalised by the impossibility of describing it to those who have not seen it". He was right. St Kilda, the island on the edge of the world, stays with you for the rest of your days.

From the deck, 80-year-old Norman John Gillies gazes into the far horizon. He has been straining like a pointer on a leash since the boat left Harris. One of the last St Kildans, he is heading home. Gillies left St Kilda as a five-year-old. He's been back twice but today is special because he is accompanied by his son, John, and that midwife of modern history, a television crew. It's early morning and he's the most smartly dressed and energetic of the dozen passengers aboard the Orca, a purposebuilt boat that can race from Harris to St Kilda and back in a day.

Being St Kildan, Gillies ought to have a Gaelic burr, but the language has died on his lips. He pronounces the word "Gaylic" in the anglicised accent of his adopted home, Ipswich, an object lesson in how displacement shattered the St Kildan culture. He is, though, 100-per cent, genuine islander, one of only three remaining evacuees. (Two older women live in the Black Isle and Greenock. ) History flows through him to his son, who shares his father's passion. Even the Gillies house in Ipswich, where Norman John has lived with his wife for 57 years, is called St Kilda.

You cannot expect a five-year-old to shoulder an entire heritage and Gillies has only fragmented memories of what life was like on St Kilda before he left, with the others, for Lochaline on the Morvern peninsula. Most of all, he remembers his mother, and they are beautiful memories that provide an umbilical link to the past. To step ashore on St Kilda with him is to walk across the bridge. If you touch the hand of this old man, and he touches the wall of the house he was born in, you are back there.

"I've got memories, " he says, standing outside the doorway of his old home. "We lived at number 10; there was a dyke in front of it. This dyke. If I was playing at one end of the mainland or the other end of the village street, my mother would stand on the wall and call out: 'Tormod Iain, time to come home for dinner'.

"It was all Gaelic. I didn't learn English until I went to school in Lochaline in Argyll. The other memory is of going to church. We went to church twice on a Sunday and there was no work. It was a day of rest." Playing, the Sabbath, his name being called out across time: these are general impressions, but Norman John has an enduring memory of the last time he saw his mother. It's an event that defined who he is and one which pinpoints the moment St Kilda died.

"My mother was pregnant and took ill with appendicitis. First of all they had to get a message out with a fishing trawler that there was somebody ill. The first time the lighthouse ship came the weather was so rough they couldn't get a boat out from shore. By the time the next ship came, and she was taken to Stobhill hospital in Glasgow . . . she died and so did my little sister. She died a few days after she was born." The tears well up in his eyes now: "My most precious memory is of her being rowed out to the lighthouse ship, with her shawl over her head, and waving to me on the shore. That is a real treasure that I will remember all my life." The death of Mary Gillies in January 1930 was what we now call a tipping point, the one small but tragic incident that brought the whole of the island society crashing down. When news of her death came back to St Kilda, it was more than the inhabitants

could bear. After years of internal debate and being urged to go by others who had already left, the St Kildans were overwhelmed by hopelessness. A letter was written to the Secretary of State for Scotland and in August, amid much publicity, they were evacuated at their own request.

In truth, St Kilda had begun to die years before the last fires were dampened. Organised religion, a dependency culture based on charity and tourism, emigration and economic change all eroded the symbiotic relationship the islanders had with each other and with nature. Life and death on St Kilda, described in several books, was excruciatingly barren. Existence revolved around the male population climbing those impossible cliffs to cull thousands of seabirds each year for oil, feathers and flesh.

The harvest was traded with the island proprietor, MacLeod of Skye, in exchange for worldly goods and his guardianship.

The lives of the women, as in all primitive societies, entailed load-bearing, childrearing and feeding. Every inhabitant was shackled into this cruel economy because in that environment your very survival depended on everyone else. The summers were spent in the dangerous pursuit of the cliff birds. In winter, the inhabitants were cut off from all other communities, with the wind whistling through the roofs and the rain running down the inside walls.

There is a palpable sense of loss here, amid the ruined houses and the hundreds of stone cleats - small stores for the harvested birds that litter the island. Not that there are many moments for quiet contemplation. St Kilda, during the summer months, is a busy hive of activity.

In the 1950s, the military set up an ugly base by the shore, and radars atop of the summits of Hoirt. Although the soldiers have left, civilian contractors work a month on, month off rotation tracking missile firing practice from the Benbecula range. Then there are National Trust for Scotland work parties, helping the island rangers restore the row of houses. There are scientists working for Scottish Natural Heritage, yachts at anchor, day trippers like ourselves and regular shoresiders from ocean cruise ships.

Nobody lives permanently here, but there are rarely fewer than 30 new St Kildans on the island each day of summer.

Today, the village street is as alive as when the SS Dunara Castle disgorged Victorian tourists ashore to ogle the natives, to pay them to have their pictures taken and to gift them baubles for knitted socks. For that new breed, the tourist, St Kilda was extraordinarily popular. It's generally held that early tourism corrupted the islanders, but it was a two-way process. By the end of the 19th century, St Kildans had developed a horrendous dependency on charity. Once, they burnt a new boat given to them as a gift, because it was not deemed good enough, doing so in full expectation of another one being sent shortly.

There are myths aplenty among the facts.

The visitors did not wipe out the population with imported diseases, although by the 20th century the whole population had developed a weakened immune system, capable of being laid low with fever or influenza in one stroke, and they had a chemist shop junkie's addiction to medicines.

Missionaries turned the islanders into God-fearing Christians, surrendering themselves to the surety of the hereafter in exchange for fatalism towards the present.

In this way, with a depleting and ageing population, St Kilda slowly unravelled.

News of Mary Gillies's death arrived as a paperweight on scales of judgement already leaning heavily towards departure.

Lunch, outside the first cottage on the street (now a canteen), has the semblance of the famous St Kildan parliament, captured for posterity in a Victorian photograph, which saw the men of the island meeting each day on this spot to allocate work and discuss their world's events.

At this parliament, Gillies is guest of honour and we hang on his anecdotes and his gentle corrections of the photo captions in the museum. He's very much the professional, like a campaign politician who puts up the same rousing stump speech at each stop but to whom you never tire of listening. But this natural charmer is upstaged by a mouse. It's not just any mouse; this is a native St Kildan mouse: larger than your average mouse, smaller than a rat, and in some way unique. St Kilda is so remote that, rather like Australia, it has evolved its own versions of certain species.

The arrival of the mouse creates a stir and provokes much snapping of cameras.

FOR five months of the year there are NTS wardens on the island. Susan Bain doesn't just count the sheep; that's someone else's job. As an archaeologist she looks after the buildings, which are tricky to maintain. Later in the year she'll go to Iceland to study traditional turf roofing.

Right now her biggest problem is how to repair a cottage roof around a nest of fulmars which, like the mouse, are a protected species. Visitor pressure, she recognises, will become an increasing problem as St Kilda finds itself on the welleroded path of world tourism.

The Peruvian government is spending dollars-70 million and proposing a 2500 visitors-aday limit for the Machu Picchu site, in an effort to protect its World Heritage status.

St Kilda has only 1500 visitors a year but already the effects are being felt. The further the images are broadcast and the more postcards are sold, the more they will come.

Cameraman Ged Yates has been gamely filming all day while fighting off seasickness. A St Kilda veteran, he once led a passenger mutiny on a boat here and has been aboard for dramatic helicopter rescues in the treacherous waters around the islands. He's our talisman for the voyage and boy, he doesn't look good on it.

With no tradition of swimming on the islands, drownings were a fairly regular occurrence among St Kildan men who rowed the four miles to Boreray, a gigantic shark tooth rock that is the largest gannetry in the world. On the overhanging stack, they harvested the annual bounty, able to take fewer birds than could be replenished by nature. Fatalities on the cliffs were common. "No St Kildan dies in his bed, " remarked one early visitor to the islands.

Norman John is named after two relatives who were victims of the last big drowning tragedy.

Near the pier, in the muddle of military buildings, our skipper and mate are sheltering from the afternoon heat in the Puff Inn. The bar, the westernmost drinking hole in the UK, resembles a mid-ocean rest stop in the Azores. The ceiling is decked with graffiti and pennants from a thousand passing ships. We order a thirst-quencher and share a surreal moment of television as former Runrig singer, Donnie Munro, serenades Hampden before the ScotlandMoldova match kicks off.

For the 15 or so civilian personnel who keep St Kilda functioning, the bar is the social hub. One of the Uist boys, posted out when he lost his driving licence at home - "best thing that ever happened to me" - drives Gillies, his son and me, to the Mullach Mor, the island's highest point, up a zigzag military road that leads to the radar stations. The original army plan to use the stones from the houses as bedrock for the road was, fortunately, stopped.

From this level, the village and hundreds of cleats lie scattered below like a broken string of stone pearls. We look on to Soay, where second world war bombers crashed in the mist, and Dun. We sign the visitors' book at the radar station - another surreal moment - and feel small and frail against the primordial power of the ocean.

Norman John Gillies points out the landmarks to his son, who already knows them by heart. In 1987, Gillies junior gave up a job as a printer and spent seven weeks tracking down the remaining St Kildans. It wasn't what he intended to do. "I had fanciful ideas about carrying on to Shetland and Iceland, but once I started visiting the people I didn't want to go any further, " he says. Across Scotland, the St Kildan diaspora took him in as one of their own.

"You can't generalise, but they were a lovely bunch of people, so kind and welcoming." We drive slowly back down to our waiting boat. None of us wants to leave.

Susan Bain has spent four summers here, letting the place get under her skin. She likes the muted browns and greens and the contrasting sea pink on the slopes of Dun when the flowers blossom at the end of May.

When she returns to Edinburgh at the end of each season she finds herself staring for long periods at the tree outside her house.

When the St Kildans moved to Argyll they were given jobs with the Forestry Commission planting trees, things they'd never seen in their lives. Gillies tells me all the trees have matured now, and been felled.

"In Lochaline we were treated very well. They didn't look on us any differently from anyone else, although when we came off HMS Harebell from St Kilda I suppose they were expecting people from outer space." In fact, St Kildans did have some physiological differences: broad, straight feet and thicker ankles, but Norman John's are no different from yours or mine.

But there is something about the St Kildans, something about life on this far archipelago, that continues to inspire us.

There are ambitious plans for an international opera based on and performed on St Kilda. A book conference is scheduled later this year, and the First Minister wants to visit. Three-quarters of a century after the islands were evacuated, we remain fascinated by St Kilda, and a tiny community that was washed away in the tidal rush of the 20th century. Why is that?

Bain knows why she feels sad walking around the village in the evenings among the empty houses. The former inhabitants' histories have been documented on an unprecedented scale. "You can walk up to any roofless house, " she says, "and know who lived there, how they lived, what happened to them. You don't get that in any other abandoned landscape." It's true. We know more about them than the origins of our own families. St Kilda and its people have been forensically dissected as noble savages and lost utopians, and they were none of these. Ultimately, each one of us fades to nothing, yet the St Kildans are immortalised. They are more famous than the kings of Scotland.

There are lots of reasons why the islands hold such a powerful sway on the imagination, but listening to Bain's explanation as we walk down St Kilda's only street, it seems to me that hers resonates best.

"People don't live in closed communities any more, or depend on each other to the same degree, and that's what's so alluring, " she suggests. Bain thinks part of what we're grasping for, that keen loss we feel when we come to the edge of the world, is an understanding of what it's like to belong to a long-established community.

She could be right. Like the 80-year-old man wandering among St Kilda's ruins, listening for the sound of his mother calling him home, perhaps we're all straining for an echo of what we have lost.

Countryfile, BBC1, Sunday, August 28, follows Norman John Gillies back to St Kilda