Friday, August 04, 2006

St Kilda Revisited


The abandoned township on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. Cosy or what?


I was in the wild and feral wastes of west Scotland a couple of weeks ago. Actually, it wasn't so wild - it was gorgeously hot and historically sunny. More like Provence than the Hebrides.

Anyway. While I was there I walked through a beautiful forest on the isolated peninsula of Morvern. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the trees I was walking under were planted by the St Kildans - the very same refugees who were moved from the remote and treeless St Kildan archipelago in the 1930s - the very same people who represented the remnants of the last hunter-gatherer community in Europe.

For those that haven't a clue what I'm on about, here's a story I wrote about St Kilda a few months ago.



The Lost Islands of Britain


Hirta, Boreray, Soay, Dun. These names won't mean much to many people, but to one eighty year old man, Norman John Gillies, they represent a unique and extraordinary culture. A culture whose tragic fate has lessons for us today.

The names belong to four islands in the isolated archipelago of St Kilda, forty miles west of the Outer Hebrides. Seventy-five years ago this summer, the last inhabitants of pre-industrial St Kilda - including Norman Gillies - finally surrendered to the difficulties of their remote island life. They were evacuated from their homeland by the British government.

Norman Gillies, who now lives in Ipswich, still remembers aspects of life on St Kilda. The main island, Hirta, had just one street, a row of ancient, stone-built black-houses (which can be seen today). As he says: 'We lived at number 10. But I used to go and play anywhere on the island, it didn't matter, it was safe. Everyone knew everyone else. If my mother was shouting to me to come home for dinner, I was aware of it soon enough’.

Norman Gillies has another strong recollection of life on St Kilda. 'Sundays we went to church, twice, to hear sermons in Gaelic. There was no work at all.' But if the church was a dominant influence on St Kilda, it was also a baleful one. It was the arrival of 'organised religion' that led to the death of the islands.

Up to the 1800s, life had continued on St Kilda much the same way for centuries. The essential element of existence was sea-birds (which still nest on the islands in enormous numbers). Hunted on the cliffs by the intrepid menfolk, these birds provided everything.

Gannets, fulmars and puffins comprised the staple diet. The islanders also wore shoes made from the birds. The only medicine was derived from fermented seabirds' fat; this was also the only condiment. Even the beaks of the birds came in useful - to button the homespun clothes, or fasten the thatch on roofs.

Such a strange life produced other peculiarities. For centuries, the islanders governed themselves in a crime-free commonwealth - with few personal possessions. As the Gaelic-speaking islanders were entirely illiterate, all the poems and songs were handed down orally. The native religion was particularly eccentric: a mixture of medieval Christianity and Druidic nature-worship.

In 1822, reports of these semi-pagan ways reached Edinburgh. The scandalised Scottish kirk sent a minister to knock some proper faith into the St Kildans. At this point the slow decline began. This minister favoured day-long sermons, which ruinously interrupted the 'fowling' - the seabird-hunting; he also forbade the old songs and dances, which demoralised his flock.

The kirk was followed by the tourists, in the mid-19th century. They were equally calamitous. When the trippers weren't throwing sweets at the 'aborigines' and openly mocking them, they gave the St Kildans money. The cash influx meant that some islanders could now afford consumer goods. This compromised the egalitarian economy of St Kilda. Once so rooted in their awesome homeland, the Kildans began to emigrate.

Add in the problems of inbreeding, and imported disease, and the end was inevitable. By 1930 the population was down to 28, from an historic high of 200. And then Norman Gillies's mother Mary fell ill. She was pregnant, and had contracted appendicitis. 'First thing we did,' says Norman Gillies, 'was get a message to a fishing trawler. Then the lighthouse ship was sent, but couldn't get to us because the seas were up.'

Vital days were lost. Eventually Mary Gillies was ferried to Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow. But the delay was to prove fatal. Mary Gillies died, and so did her unborn child.

Norman's eyes mist over as he recalls his last glimpse of his mother. '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...'

Mary Gillies death was the final straw for St Kilda. The islanders admitted that the end had arrived for their thousand-year-old community. 'We asked the government to help us,' says Norman Gillies. 'We had no choice. Many people wanted to leave, anyway, because they had seen pictures of the outside world, places where you could earn good wages.' The government eventually offered the islanders work with the Forestry Commission in Morvern, Argyle (ironic - given that many St Kildans had never encountered a tree).

And so, on the morning of August 29, 1930, the Fishery Protection Vessel HMS Harebell stood ready to evacuate the islanders. It was a brutal process. The islanders' drowned their dogs, and scattered their cats. Then, leaving Bibles open in their blackhouses for the 'spirits to read', they walked down to the sunlit pier and boarded the boat. Reporters claimed that the refugees were 'cheerful'. Others say that, when the St Kildans turned and saw their ancestral land fading into the sea-mist, 'many of the people cried'.

But it's here that the story of St Kilda, strange as it, has a wider resonance. St Kilda is not alone. The depopulation of the Scottish islands began long before St Kilda's demise, and is continuing today.

Handa, an island off Sutherland, met its doom in the 1840s. Mingulay, in the Outer Hebrides, was deserted by 1912. Several others, like Ulva, Colonsay and Shuna, seem to be heading in the same direction: in the last census, the total population of the Scottish isles dipped below a critical 100,000.

Yet there is one Scottish island which shows that you can buck this trend. And the story of this island's survival is intimately linked with the tragedy of St Kilda.

The island is Foula. Tony Mainwood is a ranger on this beautiful but wind-whipped sandstone outlier, twenty miles west of the Shetlands. He lists the similarities between Foula and St Kilda. 'Like St Kilda, this is a very remote place, with massive cliffs. Like St Kilda, the people here used to survive on seabirds for food, climbing the cliffs to hunt them, especially in the winter. And growing crops here is very challenging - as it is on St Kilda - because of the constant winds.'

These winds also make communication with the outside world very difficult - as on St Kilda. 'Go down to the harbour, and you'll see the little ferryboat,' says Tony Mainwood. 'It's lifted out of the water on davits, a kind of crane. That's to prevent the boat being crushed in storms.'

These constant storms can mean that Foula is isolated for weeks at a time. This, in the past, meant 'dearths' - long periods when there was no way of importing food or other supplies. Isobel Holbourne, another Foulan resident, recalls these dearths. 'We suffered severe shortages of many things, usually tobacco, paraffin, sugar maybe, soap on one occasion, and other commodities too. I still have difficulty looking lentil soup in the face after the 77 day dearth in 1961.'

Even if the Foulans didn't have the 'Celtic fatalism' of the St Kildans (as Isobel Holbourne puts it), by the late 1960s the harshness of island life was taking its toll. The Foulans were deserting - bleeding life from the place. 'When two families left the island,' says Isobel, 'that left us with 27 inhabitants.' It was at this point that the uncanny comparison with St Kilda was noted. '27 is nearly the number that lived on Kilda at the end. We knew it was the crunch. But instead of giving up, we decided to fight.'

The struggle for Foula began by improving the island's links with civilisation. In 1969, the Foulans built their own airstrip. 'No mean feat for 27 men, women and bairns', as Isobel says. With an airstrip, the island was able to persuade Loganair to run a regular service to the Shetland mainland, inducing locals to stay - and outsiders to settle. This prevented St Kildan-style inbreeding.

Foula has learned from Kilda in other ways. The young people on Kilda had drifted away in the final years; in the last decades the Foulans have established a school. The Foulans have also kept a close watch on the tourist numbers - aware of the sightseers' impact on fragile St Kilda.

So far these efforts have worked. At the moment Foula's population has steadied at about thirty. Not ideal, but not desperate. Whether the island will survive in the long term is dependent, to a certain extent, on the goodwill of the Scottish and British governments. But mainly it depends on the tenacity and determination of the locals.

This tenaciousness is not doubted by the Foulans themselves. Edith Gray is a spry and cheery 86 year old resident of Foula: the oldest person on the island. She still tends her root-crops as she has done for seventy years, working out of her ancient croft below the island's bleak and awesome hills, Hamnafield and The Sneug. Edith hasn't been off the isle in 20 years. 'I didn't feel the need', she says. And she adds: 'I don't think Foula will ever die. We love this place too much.'

Across Britain another eighty-something is ruminating on island life. Norman Gillies remembers the strange transition, from the Stone Age existence of St Kilda to the trams and trains of the mainland. 'When we got to Argyle, they were expecting us to look like we were from outer space. So it could have been difficult. Yet everyone was very kind. And we adapted. You do, don't you?' Norman Gillies also has thoughts for the other Scottish isles, still fighting for life. 'These places have a unique spirit. Just like St Kilda. I think they are worth preserving.'

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