Of late there has been one subject that has crossed the bedside table on more than one occasion, and that is the archipelago some distance off our shores that is St Kilda.
Brought up on the island was Donald John Gillies, and his memories were set down in The Truth About St Kilda. Visitors have included Martin Martin and Kathleen Jamie, albeit more than 300 years apart, and they tell us their views in A Voyage to St Kilda and Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda, (from Sightlines), respectively.
Gillies knew full well of the hardships. He was born in 1901 and left the island in 1924, after hearing tales of what lay elsewhere from the navy personnel stationed on the islands during WWI when U-boats roamed the Atlantic. His wider family remained and were part of the evacuation in 1930, settling in Lochaline from where the best ferry to Mull now sails, and where your hunger is sated with one of Jean’s Barge Specials whilst awaiting embarkation. The islanders settled far and wide, from shipbuilding on the Clyde to Melbourne and beyond. Gillies went to Canada and a life of preaching, schooled in the work of the Precentor and Hebridean Chant. He returned to the island of his birth on several occasions, including the re-dedication of the church in 1980.
After Gillies and others of his age left in the 1920s it quickly became evident that the remaining population could not survive. By the time of the evacutaion there were only 36 remaining and of those 6 were of pensionable age and 10 under 21. Medical help was too far distant. Bear in mind that food stores had to be gathered from the island’s own resources, typically scaling the cliffs and capturing the solan goose and other seabirds. Food was stored in the dry-stane cleits that peppered the slopes. All the work was done by hand.
Donald John Gillies’ mother locked her door and carried her spinning wheel aboard HMS Harebell. Her ancestors had arrived on the island as part of a re-population from Skye in 1727, following a smallpox outbreak. I can’t imagine that such a move was even considered two centuries later.
Before then Martin Martin had visited, in 1697. His journal is a fascinating account of a lifestyle that may even have been alien to Donald John Gillies. Back then the population stood at around 180, but in addition there were a couple of thousand head of sheep, 90 cows and, crucially, 18 horses, all red and low slung – I imagine something between a Shetland or an Eriskay pony. So they could till the soil easier in the 17th century than in the 20th. There had been a leprosy outbreak and two families still suffered.
Martin saved them all a tax bill, for he introduced them to the firelighter. At the time there was one Steel & Tinderbox on the archipelago. If any household let their fire out, (I am thinking here of the reindeer herders in the Finnish and Russian tundra, of the Inuit and the Sami and hosts of others who never let there fire die even today,), then the bearer of said Tinderbox had to be called to renew the flames. The price of his service was the Fire-Penny Tax, usually paid in the form of three eggs, or one small fowl. They had no knowledge of what could be done with knife and granite, of which they had plentiful supply. Martin showed them how to raise a spark and The Fire-Penny Tax was no more.
But he also gave the islanders their first experience of the written word. “They cannot believe how it is possible for any Mortal to express the Conceptions of his mind in such Black Characters on White Paper.” I’ll spare you the script of yore, with all those letters f and s in strange places, so beloved by those who pore over archives and ancient records, you know the genealogists and suchlike. Imagine a society with no written word or record, all lore passed on by mouth. It’s not that long ago.
More recently came the turn of that sorceress Kathleen Jamie. It was her third attempt over a decade or so that eventually saw her land and live, and work where those had gone before. Initially she sought an escape and remoteness, but later in life her needs changed though her desire diminished none. She got the chance to help in a survey, to use GPS technology and satellites above to pinpoint the position of each and every one of the 1,400 or so cleits on Hirta, essential as a World Heritage Site. These were the same cleits that Martin Martin witnessed, the food stores that were essential to survival.
Her first attempts were thwarted by weather and wind, making landings and anchorage impossible, and by the time she got there it was not remote, for there was a community, albeit a small one, with army personnel, surveyors and regular NTS work parties. Blackhouses in Village Bay had been restored to provide accommodation, male and female dorms, and there was a routine to fit into. The church and the schoolhouse were as they had been in Gillies’ day. Yes the gannet and the puffin still did as they had always done, without being harvested to feed the locals, but she was able to view what lay around her in a different light to that she would have seen if she had been able to stay at the time she sought sanctuary. She writes of her visit as she writes of everything else, with precision and clarity.
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to bring a first hand account, though I’m not sure I could cope with the sea crossing, even if it were Favourite Uncle at the helm. But really I think I’d like to time-travel and see it as it was when Martin Martin paid his call.