The Life and Death of St. Kilda: The moving story of a vanished island community
The Life and Death of St. Kilda: The moving story of a vanished island community
The Life and Death of St Kilda The Moving Story of a Vanished Island Community Tom Steel
Updated by Peta Steel
This book is dedicated, as Tom Steel would have wished,
to the memories of the St Kildans. It is also dedicated to
the memory of his father, Tom Steel Snr, who worked on
the first edition of this book with his son and was
responsible for introducing him to St Kilda.
Map of St Kilda
1 Exodus from St Kilda
2 A World Apart
3 The Paternal Society
4 Bird People
5 Life on the Croft
6 God and the Devil
7 The Far-Flung Dominie
8 A Chance to Turn a Penny
9 A Cause of Death
10 A Need to Make Contact
11 The Beginning of the End
12 The Changeless and the Changed
13 God Will Help Us
14 Morvern and Beyond
15 Military Occupation
16 St Kilda in Trust
17 Of Mice, Men and Other Life
18 A Far Better Place
Tom Steel’s Acknowledgements for the 1988 Edition
About the Author
About the Publisher
Map of St Kilda
‘I have a St Kilda in my mind, an island haven reminding me,
“You are a Scot. Do not forget that fact”.’
Tom Steel, ‘Notes on St Kilda’
Tom Steel died on 21 July 2007; he was sixty-three years old. Tom first wrote ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda’ when he was a student at Cambridge. It was published by the National Trust for Scotland in 1965, and subsequently by Fontana in 1975, with a new edition in 1988. When he died, Tom had been working on material for an update to the 1988 edition. The Postscript to this book is based on those notes, and goes on to include what has happened to St Kilda since 2007.
The destiny of St Kilda has been defined largely by two events. The first was on 29 August 1930 when its inhabitants were evacuated. The other was in 2005 when St Kilda received a second UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, making it the only Dual World Heritage site in the United Kingdom.
Although official recognition from the UN of St Kilda’s natural, marine and cultural significance should give it protection from oil exploitation, vandalism, fishing hazards and damage to its wildlife and terrain, there is little legally that the responsible authorities, which include UNESCO, the European Union, the Scottish Parliament and the UK government, can do to safeguard the islands. Tom believed the future safety of St Kilda would lie in its at-times-inaccessible position. The seas and the weather of St Kilda remain as much a threat to visitors as they have always been. Shipwrecks still happen and access is often cut off.
There is a moral obligation to ensure that the National Trust for Scotland, which owns and manages the islands on behalf of the Scots and the rest of the world, receives the financial and public support to enable it to protect St Kilda. Therein lies a dilemma. The Scottish Parliament has a ‘right to roam’ policy, one which is endorsed by the NTS, whose own open access strategy encourages people to visit its properties. The NTS needs to raise the islands’ profile to attract visitors and funds to enable it to maintain a presence. At the same time, it has to guard against too many visitors causing damage to the environment, which has happened at other World Heritage Sites such as Macchu Pichu, the Galapagos Islands, and the Cairngorms in Scotland.
In 1930 the departing St Kildans left their doors open believing that no one would ever live on Hirta again. In August 2010 there were thirty-six people on St Kilda, exactly the same number as had been present eighty years earlier. These were the new ‘St Kildans’ – wardens, members of conservation and archaeological work parties and MOD personnel. In 1988 Tom Steel wrote: ‘Many from the mainland have now experienced what it is like to live on Hirta and it is interesting to compare and contrast our modern reactions to the problems posed by nature. Men now live on St Kilda for different reasons and in a totally different way: but their experiences, nevertheless, and the draw that the archipelago has on our minds and hearts, are worthy of investigation.’
Lessons are still being learnt from what happened to St Kilda and to its inhabitants. The islands have been subjected to intensive scientific, historical and archaeological surveys, which may help answer many questions. The constant search for information will, one day, however, draw to an end, leaving the archipelago to return to the wild.
St Kilda continues to affect those who visit it, read or see films about it. The contribution of the stories of the St Kildans and their music is now seen as integral to Gaelic culture. But to Tom, the story of St Kilda was essentially that of its people; a civilization that came to an end because it was more expedient for the authorities to move them rather than give support and enable them to stay. As people examine their lives and relationship with nature, far more is being done to ensure that other such populations faced by extinction remain on their islands. The evacuees always referred to their love and desire to return to St Kilda. ‘It was a far better place,’ as Malcolm Macdonald once explained to Tom.
Tom Steel first visited St Kilda when he was seventeen, his interest being stimulated as a boy by his father who made several trips to St Kilda on National Trust cruises. The spell that the islands and its people cast on him was to last for the rest of his life.
St Kilda is the most spectacular of all Britain’s offshore islands. The main island of the group, Hirta, boasts the highest cliffs and the largest colony of fulmars in Britain. The neighbouring island of Boreray and her two rocks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin are the breeding grounds of the world’s largest colony of gannets. The little archipelago, in fact, is a land of superlatives and as such has always fascinated the minds of men.
But the greatest fascination is that for over two thousand years man lived upon St Kilda. On the island of Hirta people once led a unique and unchanging way of life. They were crofters, like most of their neighbours in the Hebrides, but crofters with a difference. Cut off from the mainland for most of their history, the islanders of Hirta had a distinct way of living their lives. Isolated from the majority of the Scottish people the St Kildans were forced to feed upon the flesh of the tens of thousands of sea birds that returned year after year to breed on the rocky islands. Moreover, their very self-sufficiency meant that throughout their history they possessed a sense of community that was to show itself increasingly out of place.
It is not easy to imagine the lonely life led by the St Kildans. It is difficult for us to accept that they had more in common with the people of Tristan da Cunha than they ever had with the city dwellers of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Any similarity between the St Kildan way of life and that led upon the mainland was superficial. Isolation had a determined effect upon their attitudes and ideas. The St Kildans can only be described as St Kildans and their island home little else than a republic. The people, like those of most isolated communities, sacrificed themselves year in and year out securing, often precariously, a livelihood for themselves and their children. In the practical business of living, St Kilda bore little relation to the mainland where people were becoming more concerned with evading secondary rather than primary poverty. When the island was finally evacuated in 1930, not only had Nature defeated man but, in a real sense, man had defeated his fellow men.
Now, over fifty years after the evacuation, the whole story can be told, and in particular what happened to the St Kildans after they decided to abandon Hirta and settle on the mainland of Scotland. It was not until 1968 that the records of the Scottish Office pertaining to the 1930s were made available to public examination. In the Public Records Office in Edinburgh lie more than two dozen files that once were the property of the Department of Agriculture. From the collection of letters, minutes, and memoranda can be gleaned the true tragedy of the evacuation – not only the human distress involved, but the parsimony and bureaucratic behaviour of the civil servants concerned in the event – behaviour which makes one question whether they can ever be capable of true compassion.
The evacuation of St Kilda was to illustrate the basic insecurity of the society that had developed on the mainland of Scotland. It was an insecurity that showed itself when faced with a seemingly small and insignificant community such as was found on Hirta. It was thought that if the St Kildans could not adapt and accept the values of the dominant society, the only solution was to bring about a state of affairs which would result in evacuation. In this sense, the British government’s obsession with the costs involved in providing the St Kildans with a nurse and a postal service mirrored the feelings of a society that not only demanded money should not be wasted in such a way but, more importantly, would not accept that anomalies may, let alone should, exist.
Throughout most of the last century, St Kilda was subject to pressures. Education, organized religion and tourism all attempted to throw into doubt the St Kildans’ way of life. For centuries the world outside stood aloof from the people of Hirta. They were content on the mainland to allow such a remote community to go its own way. As long as the people of St Kilda were so isolated, they were insulated from the forces that wished them to conform. The strength of the community, however, became weakened as contact with the mainland increased. When disease decimated their number and wind and sea made the acquisition of adequate supplies of food difficult, the St Kildans were forced to turn eastward for help.
The majority of books written about St Kilda appeared during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The authors for the most part were products of the buoyant and vital society of Victorian and later Edwardian Britain – a society in which it was generally thought that man could do little without doing good. The writers felt it was their duty to help others less advanced (and therefore less fortunate) to attain the civilized level of their own society. Help, as interpreted by the articulate spokesmen of a richer and more advanced society, was best given by persuading the islanders to give up the struggle.
In 1930 the people of Hirta unwittingly threw themselves into the twentieth century. As adults, they had to accept those values that most of us on the mainland are taught to believe in from birth. For instance, the islanders found it difficult to base their existence upon money. They had never lived in a world in which they bought goods and services of each other. They had of course accepted gladly the opportunity of making a little money for themselves at the expense of tourists, but that intrusion had never altered the basic relationship one St Kildan had had with another.
The islanders showed themselves indifferent to the jobs they were given on the mainland. The labours asked of them were menial contrasted with the spectacular feats they had once performed in order to kill sea birds. Moreover, the slaughter of fulmars and gannets directly determined whether the community on Hirta had enough food to survive. When they worked on the mainland, the St Kildans realized that the tasks they performed did not supply them immediately with what was needed to keep them fed and warm. On the mainland, the islanders worked for money. Money was necessary in order to purchase from others the things necessary to life. Between the employment of their skills and survival came a state of affairs that we all take for granted.
The history of the St Kildans after the evacuation, of their inability and lack of resolution to fit into our urban society, makes sad reading. If St Kilda had been an isolated home, the islanders were to discover that the remote district of Argyll in which most were settled was even more alien. On Hirta at least they had formed a tightly-knit community with a common purpose. When they were resettled on the mainland, the St Kildans were forced to live in homes miles apart from each other, in a society whose values were unacceptable if not incomprehensible to the majority of them.
The history of the St Kildans shows the folly of thinking of the islanders as similar to ourselves, and their community but a distant cousin of our vast urbanized society. The death of St Kilda was to prove the most important in the history of island depopulation in Scotland. The publicity the evacuation received brought home to government and public alike the hazards involved in seeking to solve the problems of isolated communities by simply evacuating them.
When, in 1936, a government committee examined the economic conditions of the Highlands and Islands, the members concluded ‘that in view of the present trend towards concentration of population in the larger cities and industrial centres, the full development of an area such as the Highlands for the building up of a strong, healthy, virile race must be regarded as being of vital importance to the nation, and for this reason, if no other, we feel justified in making recommendations involving expenditure’. During the last world war, in fact, the county of Inverness provided more soldiers than any other county in Britain. It was not unemployment alone that forced men into service: the battle honours of both world wars read like the roll-call of the Battle of Culloden.
To this day, however, a large and often influential section of our society demands that communities which cannot support themselves should be similarly dealt with. The history of mankind, it seems, must of necessity be a continual process of the inhabitation and evacuation of areas that for a time suffice man’s needs. In terms of Britain, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have been sacrificed in order to advance civilization.
The story of the life and death of St Kilda is perhaps more pertinent today than it has ever been. Our industrial society has forced people to contract relationships with each other on the basis of money. Money is what binds individuals together and fixes the relationships they have with each other. Opulence in the modern Western world has become the yardstick of human happiness and it has been widely accepted that men should always strive in search of economic wealth unless ignorance, poverty, or sheer habit prevent them from doing so.
We are presently faced with the pressures and problems that the money motive has helped create. The poverty of urban industrialized life and the human stress that is now showing itself in practically every Western industrialized society call into question the basis upon which our society is founded. More recently, the energy crisis, problems of pollution and monetarism have altered the rate at and method by which society seeks to advance itself. Given our present crises, however temporary they may prove to be, it is natural that we doubt the goal of our endeavours. The story of St Kilda may be a small human tragedy, but the study of the islanders’ former ways and the reasons why the people were forced to evacuate their island might provoke some to question our future.
1 Exodus from St Kilda
Wednesday 27 August 1930 was overcast for most of the day on St Kilda. Shortly after dawn a raw mist slowly rolled over the Atlantic from the nearby island of Boreray and spilled over the cliffs on Conachair like a waterfall. By the afternoon a thick, grey blanket hung low over the village. It was cold and damp – so unlike the summer days of the previous week. Few on the island, however, had time to notice that the weather had changed. The St Kildans had much to do if in two days’ time they were to leave the island forever.
In House no 5, Main Street, St Kilda, Annie Ferguson was busy at her spinning wheel. She was preparing yarn for a length of cloth that a tourist from the mainland had asked her to make. She would not finish the work, that she knew; but she would take the yarn to the mainland with her and in the coming winter months her husband would weave the tweed on the old loom they were taking with them.
In the other room of the house a young newspaperman was finding it difficult to pen his copy. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, then thirty-one, had been sent all the way from London by The Times to report on the evacuation. As he sat close to the small window to catch the falling light, the paper he was writing on became wet in the heavy atmosphere. He struggled on, knowing he would have to wire his story as soon as he boarded the SS Dunara Castle.
On the advice of Nurse Williamina Barclay, the St Kildans had decided to take with them only those few possessions that could be of use to them in their new life. All through the day, heavy bundles were carried from the houses to the jetty. The women were busy packing kists with the few clothes and heirlooms each family possessed. They were also packing the wool taken that summer from the island sheep. It would be a waste to leave it behind; it could prove to be a useful source of income. Even in their new homes the St Kildans could knit and weave as they had done for generations to help supplement the new reward for their labour called wages.
Down by the old storehouse, used for over a century by the St Kildans to lay aside the produce they had bartered with those on the mainland, a few of the men were busy sawing up bits of wood. They were concerned to protect the few pieces of furniture being taken away from becoming damaged in transit. With battens and rope they made safe the tables and chairs that were to be transported to Lochaline in Argyll. Others were occupied at the back of the manse, sifting through the driftwood that had been cast ashore over the years. Much of the wood was the cargo of a freighter torpedoed off St Kilda in 1917. The big planks of timber, the men agreed, might be of use; they too would be loaded onto the Dunara Castle, due to arrive at St Kilda that day.
To the right of the schoolhouse, about a hundred yards from the jetty, the remainder of the St Kildans’ sheep were bleating in the calm air. Six hundred and sixty-seven sheep had already been transported by the SS Hebrides to the marts of Oban on 6 August. In July the Scottish Department of Agriculture had sent out an official and two shepherds from Uist along with their dogs to help the islanders round up their sheep. The task had not been an easy one. Many sheep had gone over the steep cliffs rather than be captured; many like those on Boreray had to be left undisturbed because taking them off proved impossible, given the time and manpower resources available.
To begin with, the St Kildans had stubbornly refused to help gather their scattered flocks. It had been suggested that the money obtained from their sale should go towards paying for the evacuation of the community. The islanders felt that if the government wanted to remove the sheep, they could do the work. One islander, old Finlay Gillies, had gone as far as to take to his bed the day before the rounding-up was due to begin, claiming that he was too sick to get up. The missionary Dugald Munro suggested to Macaulay, the Department’s representative, that the situation might be eased if the government offered the St Kildans money in exchange for their help. When the islanders heard that they would be paid a pound a day, even Finlay Gillies was seen catching sheep along with the rest of the men among the cliffs. Removing the sheep from St Kilda proved a costly business. It cost the government over £240 to transport twelve hundred sheep to the mainland, plus £143 in wages and expenses for the shepherds. By the time the sheep had been dipped and penned at Oban until their sale on 3 September, the total cost was £506 os 4½d.
At five o’clock in the afternoon the island dogs announced the arrival of the SS Dunara Castle. As she steamed like a ghost ship through the heavy mist into the bay, the islanders dragged their boats down the slipway into the water to go out and meet her. There was the hope of a last letter from friends on the mainland, eager to wish them well, and the chance to sell to the thirty or so visitors on board the few remaining socks and scarves the women had knitted. The last tourists to visit the island inhabited hoped to buy a spinning wheel or some other relic of life on St Kilda from a people only too eager to be rid of them. They were to be unlucky. The island had been stripped of most souvenirs in the few weeks since the world had got to know that St Kilda was to be abandoned. When the visitors had been rowed ashore, the St Kildans returned to the most pressing business of the day – the transfer of the sheep.
They had arranged the sheep in groups so that they could be loaded more easily into the boats that would take them out to the Dunara Castle. There were over five hundred sheep to put on board. It was a slow, tiring business; to and from the steamer, the islanders plied boats that could hold no more than a dozen sheep at a time. It was not until after nine o’clock in the evening that the majority of the sheep were safely on board. By then it was getting dark and dangerous to do much more; the few lanterns cast little light on the operation and the jetty was crowded with tea chests and bits of furniture. But work continued, and it was not until one o’clock in the morning that the nine fit men on the island struggled for over an hour to pull the boats up the slipway clear of the high-water mark.
At approximately three o’clock in the morning ‘The Books’ were brought out, and in the house of the Fergusons, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor joined in the day’s last act of reverence to the Almighty. After a few verses of a psalm to the tune ‘Wiltshire’, ‘The household’, wrote the man from The Times, ‘was so tired that we contented ourselves with a short reading and a shorter prayer. In the small hours we dragged ourselves to bed knowing that at daybreak we had to resume the shipping of the sheep.’
At first light the St Kildans were awakened by the siren of the SS Dunara Castle. The crew were anxious to complete the work and return to the mainland. After breakfast and family prayers, the St Kildans once again pushed their little boats into the water and took the last of the sheep on board. Then came the turn of the cattle, which had to be enticed down to the jetty with handfuls of soda scone. The four young calves were rowed over to the waiting ship in one boat, whilst the cows, tethered to the tail of the small craft in case they drowned, had to swim. The last ten cows of St Kilda were taken over to the Dunara Castle and hoisted aboard.
At approximately seven o’clock in the morning of 28 August, HMS Harebell, under the command of Captain Barrow, steamed into the bay. She had been sent by His Majesty’s Government to carry out the evacuation of the islanders. The Harebell, the senior ship of the Fishery Protection Squadron, had spent the summer months touring the fishing ports of the British Isles. The ship had left Oban and crossed to St Kilda during the night. ‘We knew we were due for this,’ recalls Commander Pomfret, then medical officer on board, ‘so we had fitted it in.’
In the corrugated iron shack that served as a post office, Neil Ferguson was busy getting ready the last mailbags to leave St Kilda. It was the largest mail ever to leave the island. Many on the mainland whose interest had recently been aroused by the publicity given to the evacuation in the newspapers were eager to obtain a St Kilda postmark by way of the passengers on board the steamer. As the tourists crowded the small office they complained bitterly when Neil ran out of penny stamps and demanded that he supply them with two halfpenny stamps instead. When there were no more halfpenny stamps Neil could only offer them three-halfpenny ones. Tempers became frayed.
The mailbags taken aboard the Dunara Castle that day were not the only mail sent from St Kilda. Three days earlier. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor and Neil Ferguson had despatched the last traditional St Kildan mailboat. Within its wooden hold was placed a solitary postcard addressed to the island’s owner at Dunvegan, in the Isle of Skye. The wooden vessel, attached to an inflated stomach of a sheep, had been cast into the sea. ‘This’, read the postcard, ‘is the last mail from St Kilda.’
Meanwhile, the Master of Reay was being persuaded at great length by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor not to try to remain on the island. The Master, heir to the Chief of Clan Mackay, had come ashore from the Dunara Castle with the intention of remaining on St Kilda for a few weeks to do some exploring. He had even gone as far as to bring a load of provisions with him to last him throughout his period of isolation. The Dunara Castle’s sister ship Hebrides, he thought, was to make yet another trip that summer and he was relying on that to take him off before the winter. But Dr Shearer, sent by the Department of Health to carry out the evacuation, put an end to the young Robinson Crusoe’s plans by saying no.
The Scottish Office and the proprietor of the island had already turned down hundreds of requests from people wanting to live on St Kilda. The government received more than four hundred enquiries and pleadings from those eager to accept that which the St Kildans were abandoning.
Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod, the proprietor of the island, had told the Glasgow Herald in an interview, ‘I am sorry to lose a population that has down its generations been tenants of my family for a thousand years. But they themselves have elected to go, and I cannot blame them. The life is one of hardship and inconvenience.’ Sir Reginald played a minor role in the decisions that had to be made at the evacuation but was determined, as was the government, that no one should live on St Kilda after 29 August 1930. ‘At all events,’ he told the Herald’s correspondent, ‘I am strongly opposed to the idea of new settlers. The present population have signed and sent a petition for removal which, at great trouble and expense, is now being carried out. In these circumstances it would be folly to remove one lot of people who know the island, and replace them with a group of strangers.’
The last thirty-six St Kildans on the island were sad but not sorry they were leaving. They had been convinced by the nurse and the missionary that they were leaving for a better land. The experience of living on St Kilda in the last few years had shown them they could not be leaving for a more inhospitable world.
The Dunara Castle had brought not only tourists and journalists, but also various officials who had work to do on St Kilda. The Examiner of Registration Records came ashore to check the island’s entries of births, deaths and marriages with the missionary, Dugald Munro, who had been responsible for keeping them. Nurse Williamina Barclay told the Examiner that she had not had to assist with the birth of a single child since she came to St Kilda over two years before. No one had been born on St Kilda since 1927, when the youngest of the Mackinnons, Neil, was born. The books duly checked and signed by the Examiner were transferred to the vaults of Register House in Edinburgh. No further entries would be made.
At noon the Dunara Castle sailed for Oban. The journey would take seventeen hours and the skipper was anxious to be safely through the dangerous Sound of Harris in daylight. Together with the beasts and belongings went the last outsiders – the journalists, photographers, and visitors. No one but a few government officials was to be allowed to remain on the island until the end. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor had gone as far as to petition the Prime Minister to allow him to stay and witness the evacuation, but the reply from the Scottish Office had been definite: ‘The Admiralty are naturally hostile to the idea of publicity and Mr Johnston himself is strongly of the opinion that the utmost effort should be made to avoid the miseries of the poor people being turned into a show…The Scottish Office are endeavouring to carry out the evacuation with as little publicity as possible out of consideration for the feelings of the St Kildans themselves.’ Tom Johnston, then Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, had decided there would be no cinema newsreel cameras present, no press photographers to capture for publication the first tears of sadness, no witness of any description to the emotions that were felt by the St Kildans between noon on 28 August and eight o’clock on the morning of the 29th. The officials even rejected a request from a former islander, Donald MacQueen, who wished to see for himself the removal, as he put it, ‘of the last remnants of my race’. He had asked if the Department could help him get to St Kilda because, he wrote, ‘owing to having to exist on seventeen shillings a week, I could not manage home to my people’.
One of the first tasks that had to be carried out once the sheep had been taken off was to deal with the island’s numerous dogs. They were no longer of use to the St Kildans, and despite the pleadings of the National Canine Defence League and numerous offers from people on the mainland to adopt them, the dogs were put to death. Dr Shearer, assisted by Commander Pomfret of the Harebell, was able to destroy only two dogs with hydrocyanic acid in a room in one of the empty houses. The St Kildans stubbornly demanded that they drown the rest. A stone was tied round the neck of each dog and they were thrown off the end of the jetty. Weeks later, when the Hebrides paid a visit to the island, the bay was still full of dead dogs.
It seemed to the St Kildans that everyone had been interested in their island during the past few weeks. But it was their home and they would not be badgered, bribed, or bullied into doing things they did not want to do. Offers of help were made, but few were taken up. The afternoon of the 28th was spent ferrying out the islanders’ belongings to the Harebell, and the work went on well into the night. As the women carried the last few bundles down to the pier, the men of the British Navy looked on. They were prepared to help, but the St Kildans did not want to be assisted in these last hours by representatives of a society that had ignored them for centuries. The sailors could only stand and watch, and the islanders were heard to murmur to one another that they would not be rushed should the entire Navy come out for them.
By seven o’clock next morning, there was little left for the St Kildans to do save board the Harebell. The islanders put on their best clothes. If they did not feel a desire to impress their new neighbours on the mainland upon arrival, they were certainly determined that they would not be the subject of ridicule. The family prayers were said for the last time and, as was the custom among Gaelic people, a Bible was left open in each house, along with a small heap of oats. In one house the exposed text was Exodus.
In each of the eleven inhabited cottages, the fire was built up with fresh coal and turf. When they were burnt out some hours later, it was probably the first time there had not been a fire on St Kilda for a thousand years. Lachlan Macdonald, then a young man just turned twenty-four, recalls: ‘I mind of everyone closing the door of his house and some of them read a chapter of the Bible before they left, and put up a prayer.’
Neil Ferguson, son of the postmaster, and the last male islander to marry and set up a home of his own on St Kilda, remembers those last hours well. ‘You had a bed and chairs and them old-fashioned chests and all that stuff. All that stuff was left on the island when we left. Most of the furniture was left in the houses – dressers, and even pots and pans and stuff like that – all left. And all them pots they used to have in the old days with three legs, they were all left. And all the fishing gear was left, lines and boats. Oh, we never took much away, we were just running away and leaving everything.’
His father took a last walk round the village. In many respects he had been the most important man on the island. Not only had he been sub-postmaster for many years but he had also been the factor’s representative. If the St Kildans had ever allowed one of their number authority over the rest, Neil Ferguson Senior was that man. He was the one who had called the men together when important decisions had had to be made. He had taken the Church services when the missionary was absent from the island. He was the only islander to have planted as much as a plot of potatoes that year, and was leaving the island with a heavy heart.
The corrugated iron shack bearing the crudely lettered notice ‘St Kilda Post Office’ was Ferguson’s first port of call. The target of visitors to the island eager to prove to their friends they had been to St Kilda would no longer sell the famous St Kilda postcards. Inside, papers and postcards lay strewn over the floor. On one wall was pinned a notice headed ‘What the disabled soldier wants to know’ and dated ‘War Office, August 1915’. Ferguson had often wondered why he had been sent the notice. The men of St Kilda had never in recorded history taken up arms against anyone. On 10 September 1930 the Post Office Circular announced: ‘The St Kilda Post Office was closed on 29 August, the date of the evacuation of the island. Official Records should be amended where necessary. Any letters or parcels which may come to hand for St Kilda should circulate as for Oban, where arrangements have been made for their redirection to the addressees.’
In the little schoolroom where Ferguson had received an education forty years before, a piece of linoleum still served as a blackboard. The walls were of unvarnished matchboarding. There were two school pews that could seat fifteen scholars. In each pew were mountings for inkpots. On the wall was a map of Great Britain – a map which included England at the expense of Scotland. It did not even show where St Kilda was. On the same wall was a notice that proclaimed: ‘Any scholars between the ages of three and fifteen will be exempted from payment of school fees, Harris, 14 October 1904.’ The school calendar for the year 1930 had been torn off to September. The ten schoolchildren of Hirta had had their last lessons in this small, damp room. The St Kilda School Log Book’s last entry, filled in by the missionary, was for June, and read: ‘Attendance perfect for last week (Eight). School closed today with a small treat which the children seemed thoroughly to enjoy. Today probably ends the school in St Kilda as all the inhabitants intend leaving the island this summer. I hope to be away soon.’
A door from the schoolroom opened directly on to the Church, a high-ceilinged room with windows pointed at the top in the Gothic manner. Outside the Church, from a rough wooden scaffold, hung the Church bell, salvaged from the wreck of the Janet Cowan which had come to grief on the rocks round St Kilda on 7 April 1864, while on a voyage to Dundee from Calcutta with a cargo of jute. The interior of the Church was filled by two rows of varnished deal benches with an aisle down the middle. The missionary’s pulpit was the largest to be found in the Western Isles. The previous day, when the visitors had gone, the islanders under Dugald Munro had had their last service. The St Kildans left their Bibles at their places in the pews, and the missionary left on the lectern an English and Gaelic Bible. In the shadow of the pulpit, Norman Mackinnon, the precentor and head of the largest family on the island, had led community worship for the last time.
Like all the male islanders Neil Ferguson Senior had been offered a job with the Forestry Commission. He had never seen a tree growing in his life, there being none on St Kilda; but he had agreed to go to the Tulliallan Estate and was still wondering whereabouts in Scotland that was. Some days earlier he had asked some of his fellow islanders if they knew. Someone had thought it was near Fife. As he looked at the deserted village, he remarked ‘it is like a tomb’. He closed the door of his own home. Like the other St Kildans he could not lock it. In a community in which everyone knew everyone else it had been sufficient just to shut the door against wind and rain.
The crossing to the mainland was a calm one. For as long as St Kilda could be seen on the horizon, the islanders stood silently at the stern of the boat. As the Harebell drew away from Village Bay, they showed the first signs of emotion. ‘It was really quite sad’, says Flora Gillies, then a ten-year-old schoolgirl, ‘to see the chimneys and knowing we would never be back again.’
On board the islanders were fed on salmon, beef, bread, and butter. It cost the Navy £22s 6d to provide them with a meal – a sum which they insisted on recovering as soon as possible from the Scottish Office. While the islanders ate heartily, George Henderson of the Department of Health went below to send a telegram to Tom Johnston, who was spending the weekend at his country home, Monteviot, in Kirkintilloch. ‘Evacuation successfully carried out this morning,’ wrote Henderson. ‘Left St Kilda 8 a.m.’
There was one further matter for Henderson to sort out. At the time it had not been resolved who was going to foot the bill for the evacuation. The head of every family, therefore, was obliged to sign a declaration over a sixpenny stamp, witnessed by Dr Alexander Shearer of the Home and Health Department and a representative of the Inverness County Council. By signing, the St Kildans agreed to repay the Department of Health such sums as ‘may be incurred by them regarding the removal of family, goods and effects (other than sheep), temporary accommodation in the course of removal, the purchase of furniture and furnishings for the new houses and execution of minor repairs required; also sum paid by way of maintenance until wages due to the islanders had been paid’. The sole qualification was that the total sum repayable should not exceed the money owed to the islanders by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland regarding the sheep. The authorities had thus, on the advice of the Treasury, covered themselves should questions be asked regarding the spending of British taxpayers’ money.
The feelings of the little party of civilians on board the Harebell were mixed. Some left the island gladly. Norman Mackinnon, head of a family of nine, was among those eager to leave. The previous winter the Mackinnons had almost starved, and he had told the nurse he would remove his family to the mainland that summer regardless of what other St Kildans wished to do. In so deciding, he had forced the others into petitioning the government to evacuate the whole population. Support for the evacuation had come from the other young men on the island who, like Mackinnon, were weary of the hard life on Hirta.
For Nurse Williamina Barclay, 29 August represented a small personal victory. She had been instrumental in getting the St Kildans to agree to the evacuation, and had put in three months’ hard work as the Department of Health’s official on the island. As the ship steamed towards Lochaline, her greatest reward was to feel that at long last the little children of Village Bay would have a future in life. For her work she was to be later awarded the CBE.
The elderly of St Kilda left with the saddest hearts. Many of them had never left the island before and could speak no English. As Commander Pomfret remembers, they were the only ones to show outward signs of emotion as they left behind the one way of life that they were ever to understand. ‘Nothing at all happened until they left Harebell, and then finality was reached – they had to go. Then one or two of them were weeping.’ One of the most tightly-knit communities in Britain found itself split up when the fishery cruiser arrived at Lochaline. The government had been unable to find sufficient accommodation for the thirty-six islanders in Argyll, so some had chosen to make their homes elsewhere in Scotland. At a time when few words were said, Finlay Gillies was heard to mutter to himself in Gaelic, ‘God will help us.’ Finlay MacQueen, then in his late sixties, turned to the young Neil Gillies bound for Glasgow and beyond, and said, ‘May God forgive those that have taken us away from St Kilda.’
The next day the nation’s newspapers told their version of the day’s events. In bold, black type one newspaper announced ‘EXODUS FROM ST KILDA! ISLANDERS LEAVE THEIR HOMES WITHOUT TEARS’. For many who wrote and read the morning papers on Saturday 30 August, the evacuation of St Kilda represented a victory for their society. The social anomaly in the Atlantic that had been an embarrassment to progress made elsewhere in Scotland had at long last been eradicated.
2 A world apart
Until the evacuation St Kilda was the most remote inhabited part of the United Kingdom. It had been so for at least a thousand years, and as such the place fascinated those on the mainland. ‘It seems almost beyond credence’, wrote an astounded correspondent to The Globe newspaper in the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘that such an interesting little colony, such an exclusive commonwealth exists as part of this busy kingdom. Beyond the whirl of commercial life, untroubled by politics, completely isolated from the rest of the world, the St Kildan lives his simple life. When death comes to him he is quietly buried in the little paddock which does duty for “God’s acre”, among the familiar crags and hills; the wild sea birds sing his requiem and the Atlantic surges toll his funeral knell.’
St Kilda is the name not of one island but of an archipelago which lies in the Atlantic Ocean about 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland. The nearest island is Uist in the Outer Hebrides which is about 45 miles east of St Kilda. The nearest port from which boats are able to sail is Lochmaddy, some 65 miles from the group. Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye is 80 miles away and Castlebay on the island of Barra lies some 90 miles from St Kilda. The origin of the name ‘St Kilda’ is the subject of controversy. A Dutch map of 1666 is the first to refer to the little archipelago west of the Sound of Harris as ‘S. Kilda’. There is no reason to believe a saint called Kilda ever lived, and the islanders rarely referred to their home by that name. To the St Kildans the island of their birth was Hirta, and there is a map, issued in Italy in 1563, that plots an island called ‘Hirtha’ to the west of the Scottish mainland. But even this old Gaelic name is subject to scholarly debate. Many say it is derived from the old Irish word ‘Hiort’, meaning ‘death’ or ‘gloom’, a reminder of the old idea that the land of spirits lay beyond the sea. According to the Reverend Neil Mackenzie who was minister on St Kilda for fourteen years, the name was derived from the Gaelic ‘I’ (island) and ard (high). Perhaps, however, the origin of the name Hirta comes from the old Norse for shepherd – Hirt, a reference to the fact that the island almost rises perpendicular from the sea and overlooks the Western Isles.
The origin of the name St Kilda might also be found in the way in which the islanders pronounced Hirta. The natives pronounced an ‘r’ like an ‘I’, so that Hirta sounds like ‘Hilta’, or almost ‘Kilta’, as the ‘h’ had a somewhat guttural quality.
Hirta is the largest island of the group. The coastline measures some eight and three-quarter miles and the total land area is 1,575 acres. It has two bays: Glen Bay lies to the north-east of the island and Village Bay, where the people of documented history lived, lies to the south-west. The two cut deep into the land and shape it into a rough letter ‘H’.
Hirta can only be thought of as stupendous. In parts only one and a half miles long, and at no point more than one and three quarter miles across, the island has five peaks over nine hundred feet high. Of these, three – Mullach Mor, Mullach Bi, and Conachair – are over a thousand feet above sea level. Conachair rises to 1,397 feet, and its awe-inspiring cliffs are the highest in the British Isles.
Of the three other islands in the group, the island of Dun lies nearest to Hirta, to the western side of Village Bay. It is separated from the main island by a narrow channel, only fifty yards wide. Dun is a long, narrow finger of land which rises to over 570 feet above sea level as it stretches out into the Atlantic. The island is rocky and precipitous on its western side, grassy on its eastern flank, and in winter it was not unknown for the spray from waves to crash over the top of the island into Village Bay below.
Soay, the second largest island of the archipelago, lies to the north-west of Hirta. Abrupt on all sides of its two and a quarter mile coastline, Soay has a land area of 244 acres. Rising to 1,200 feet Soay, like Dun, is separated from Hirta by a narrow passage of ocean. Three needles of rock, Stac Donna (87 feet), Stac Biorach (240 feet), and Soay Stac (200 feet), stand in the sound.
Boreray, the remaining island, lies four miles to the north of Hirta. It has an area of 189 acres and is surrounded by a wall of rock which climbs from 300 to 1,245 feet above sea level. Lush grass grows on the steep south-westerly slope of Boreray facing Hirta.
The archipelago includes other giant rocks, called stacs, that rise out of the Atlantic like the tips of icebergs. Stac Levenish (203 feet) lies outside Village Bay; Mina Stac (208 feet) and Bradastac (221 feet) lie at the foot of the cliffs of Conachair. Stac an Armin, which rises to 627 feet and is the highest stac in the British Isles, and Stac Lee, eighty-three feet shorter, rise from the waters round Boreray. Stac Lee is the more impressive of the two, rising like a great tooth of solid rock out of the ocean. Together with Boreray, from which in ages past they broke free, the two stacs have frequently aroused comments similar to that made by R. A. Smith when he sailed to St Kilda in the yacht Nyanza in 1879. ‘Had it been a land of demons,’ he wrote, ‘it could not have appeared more dreadful, and had we not heard of it before, we should have said that, if inhabited, it must be by monsters.’
Until the coming of steamships in the nineteenth century, the journey to St Kilda even from the Hebridean ports was slow and perilous. In 1697, when the island’s historian Martin Martin visited the people of Village Bay, the voyage took several days and nights. There was only one type of vessel available – an open longboat rowed by stout men of Skye. It took sixteen hours of sailing and rowing before the crew caught their first glimpse of Boreray. ‘This was a joyful Sight,’ wrote Martin Martin, ‘and begot new Vigor in our men, who being refreshed with Victuals, low’ring Mast and Sail, rowed to a Miracle. While they were tugging at the Oars, we plied them with plenty of Aqua Vitae to support them, whose borrowed Spirits did so far waste their own, that upon our arrival at Boreray, there was scarce one of our Crew able to manage Cable or Anchor.’ It was left to the following day to row the few miles to Hirta.
The prevailing winds helped further to cut off the people of Village Bay from would-be visitors. On the northern, uninhabited side of Hirta, Glen Bay is exposed to northerly gales, while on the other side of the island Village Bay is open to winds that blow from the south-east and the south-west. Because of steep rock faces, Glen Bay was rarely used as a landing-place, except by a few stray trawlermen running before a storm. The majority of landings throughout the island’s history were confined to Village Bay.
Wind and tide frequently prevented a landing. A sudden storm could lash the sea into waves forty feet high and make disembarkation impossible. To add to the difficulty, any vessel larger than a longboat could not come close enough to enable people to be put ashore on the slippery rocks that were the only possible landing-place.
Around 1877 a simple jetty was built on Hirta to assist the landing of people and stores. Two winters later it was swept away in a storm. In 1901–2 a small concrete jetty was built by the Congested District Board at a cost of £600. It proved less than adequate. Its size was governed less by the needs of the St Kildans, and more by the money available at the time. Although well constructed it was little improvement on the previous state of affairs. It made for a more graceful landing but did not significantly increase the number of landings possible. Even to this day, only the four months of summer – May, June, July, and August – hold out hope of a landing for visitors. To set foot on Hirta depends to this day upon small boats and calm waters.
For at least eight months of the year St Kilda, whose annual rainfall is about fifty inches, is subjected to frequent and severe gales and storms. Sudden and vicious, these storms are most common from September to March. Mary Cameron, daughter of one of the island’s last missionaries, remembers a storm that literally deafened the people of the village. ‘One particularly severe storm’, she writes, left us deaf for a week – incredible but true. The noise of the wind, the pounding of the heavy sea, were indescribable. This storm was accompanied by thunder and lightning, but we could not hear the thunder for other sounds. Our windows were often white with salt spray, and it was awe-inspiring to watch the billows and flying spindrift.’ On one occasion the entire village was destroyed in a gale, and sheep were frequently blown over the cliffs into the sea below. After a single night of rain, the island is literally running with water, and because of the steepness of the hillsides and the shallowness of the soil, the run-off is extremely destructive to crops.
Stormy weather inevitably meant privation to the St Kildans. ‘Their slight supply of oats and barley’, wrote Wilson in 1841, ‘would scarcely suffice for the sustenance of life; and such is the injurious effect of the spray in winter, even on their hardiest vegetation, that savoys and german greens, which with us are improved by the winter’s cold, almost invariably perish.’ Somehow the St Kildans survived that year as they had done in the past and were to do in the future. They placed little reliance on the scant crops the weather would allow them to grow. Their main source of food and income remained the sea birds that were gathered in the few summer months.
Winter on Hirta was less cold than might be expected. The archipelago lies in the path of the Gulf Stream and the sea helps keep the temperature higher. According to Wilson in 1841, the winter was mild and when ice formed it was little thicker than a penny. The St Kildans, however, claim that snow lay thick on the ground and there were often drifts deep enough to bury their sheep.
What was of greater concern to the people of Hirta was the rapidity with which the weather can change. The islands make their own weather as well as receiving the brunt of what rolls over the Atlantic, and within a period of twenty-four hours sunshine can make way for rain and rain for a storm. The St Kildans became weather forecasters par excellence; what to the outsider seemed a perfect day was frequently not a time to risk work either at sea or on the cliffs. ‘The islanders in general’, wrote the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay in 1765, ‘possess the art of predicting the changes of the weather perhaps in much greater perfection than many of those who are beyond doubt superior to them in some other branches of knowledge…The St Kildans owe much of their knowledge to the observations they and their predecessors have made on the screamings, flight, and other motions of birds, and more especially on their migrations from one place to another.’
To an outdoor race like the St Kildans, weather was all-important. The summer months on Hirta frequently made up for the misery of autumn, winter, and spring. June, July, and August were months of much sunshine. When John Mathieson, the geographer, was on St Kilda in 1927, he kept a complete meteorological record of the months April to October. During that time there were 627 hours of sunshine and eleven and a half inches of rain. In Edinburgh during the same period there were 644 hours of sunshine and fourteen inches of rain. The average day temperature was 63 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with 67 degrees Fahrenheit in the capital city. On many days, however, the weather was too hot for comfort, and because the island offers little shelter the St Kildans worked stripped to the waist. In the spring and summer months it was occasionally very humid. George Murray, the schoolmaster, claimed that the atmosphere was often so heavy on the island that it was difficult to keep awake, and Mathieson and Cockburn also found summer days far from invigorating.
But the St Kildans rarely left their sea-girt home and had little idea what it was like to live elsewhere. Only the occasional visitor gave them an insight into the affairs of the outside world. Not only did the islanders know nothing of what the weather was like in other parts of the United Kingdom, throughout most of their history they were blissfully unaware of the troubles of the people who lived there. Only on a few occasions did the affairs of the nation beyond involve them.
St Kilda’s reputation as the most isolated spot in the United Kingdom was quick to become widespread. As such it was suggested many times that the owner of the island, MacLeod of MacLeod, should offer the place up as a prison. For one woman the proposal became a reality. In the early eighteenth century Rachel Erskine Grange was virtually held captive on Hirta.
Lady Grange, as she came to be styled, was a bad-tempered woman totally opposed to the politics of her husband James Erskine of Grange, the Lord Justice Clerk, who was the brother of the Earl of Mar, leader of the 1715 Jacobite Rising. One night in 1731, when Jacobite sympathizers met at Lord Grange’s house in Edinburgh, Rachel listened in to their conspiratorial talk from beneath a sofa. After a time she could take no more, revealed herself and threatened to denounce her husband and his friends.
The assembled nobles realized that they would have to get rid of her. MacLeod of Dunvegan and MacDonald of Sleat agreed to secrete her in the remote parts of their island possessions, and that night she was quietly removed from the city, bound for the Isle of Skye. News of her death was spread in Edinburgh and a mock funeral at Greyfriars Church was arranged. Her relatives attended, wept, and tried to accept that she was no more.
MacDonald looked after Lady Grange for two years on the lonely island of Heisker, off North Uist. MacLeod of Dunvegan then took responsibility for her and had her deported to St Kilda. There she remained a virtual prisoner for eight years, from 1734 until 1742. On the island it is said that she ‘devoted her whole time to weeping and wrapping up letters round pieces of cork, bound with yarn, to try if any favourable wave would waft them to some Christian, to inform some humane person where she resided, in expectation of carrying tidings to her friends at Edinburgh’. The St Kildans were very hospitable, and put one of their houses at her disposal. She habitually slept during the day and got up at night throughout her period of exile, such was her dislike of the natives. The St Kildans, however, bore no malice and waited upon her royally. She was given the best turf on the island for her fire, and although food was scarce she never went without.
When it was thought that the danger had lessened, she was brought back to Uist, then to Assynt, and then to Skye where she was taught how to spin. She worked alongside the local women who regularly sent their yarn to Inverness, and on one occasion she managed to hide a letter in the yarn sent to market.
Months later the letter reached her cousin, the Lord Advocate. He was appalled by her harrowing account of her adventures and persuaded the government to send a warship to search the coast of Skye for her. But the men of the British Navy could find no trace of her, and MacDonald had her swiftly sent to Uist and then on to the Vaternish peninsula, where she died in 1745.
To this day, Lady Grange is the only woman in Scotland to have had three funerals. The conspirators were still afraid that their evil deed would be discovered, so they filled a coffin with turf and staged a second funeral in the little churchyard of Duirinish, while her body was secretly buried at Trumpan, above Ardmore Bay, on the Isle of Skye. Lady Grange stayed longer on Hirta than any outsider before or since, save the occasional minister sent by the Free Church of Scotland.
After the defeat of his army at Culloden, Charles Stuart and a number of prominent rebels were thought to have escaped to St Kilda. On 10 June 1746, General Campbell of Mamore’s intelligence services reported the rumour to him, and a grand expedition was swiftly mounted to go to St Kilda.
In the afternoon of 19 June soldiers and levies were ferried ashore at Hirta. The islanders had noticed the ships approaching several hours before and had taken to hiding-places in the hills. Forever in dread of being robbed and attacked by pirates, they had centuries before carved out small caves in the scree slope to the west of the village. Totally invisible to the naked eye from village level, the caves provided perfect cover. After searching the village the soldiers finally came across a group of men. The St Kildans had no idea what the soldiers were talking about. The islanders did not know of the existence of a Young Pretender, let alone of King George himself.
The people were to remain totally ignorant of the defeats and victories of a country fighting for an empire until the First World War broke out. In 1799 they had not heard of General Howe’s illustrious crushing of the army of George Washington, and in 1815 knew nothing of Napoleon’s Hundred Days that ended at Waterloo. When George Atkinson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne visited the island in 1831, the first question he was asked was ‘Is there any war?’ It was traditionally the first question asked of any stranger, not that the St Kildans had any idea of what fighting was like. They took part in no war and never lost any of their number in battle. In a description of the islands for the period 1577 to 1595 in which each parish of MacLeod of MacLeod’s empire was allocated the number of men it was expected to put into the field of battle, St Kilda was said not to supply any men because it was inhabited by poor folk who lived too far away. The same attitude of mind found expression in more modern times. St Kilda remains one of the few communities in the British Isles that has no war memorial. ‘Safe in its own whirlwinds and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe,’ wrote Dr MacCulloch in 1819, ‘and acknowledging the dominion of MacLeod and King George, is satisfied without enquiring whether George is the First or the Fourth of his name.’
In 1836 when the island was cut off from the mainland for nearly two years, the minister found, when a passing ship dropped anchor in the bay, that he and his congregation had been praying for King William months after his death. The minister changed his prayers to ‘His Majesty’. It was not until the spring of 1838, by which time Queen Victoria had been on the throne for nearly a year, that to his embarrassment he finally got wind of the sex of his new monarch.
Few on the mainland were prepared to take on any responsibility towards the people of so isolated an outpost. When James IV of Scotland passed an Act stating that islands were in future to be under his rule, he excluded St Kilda because it was so remote that he could not guarantee the people living there his protection. In more modern times, the existence of a community on the island was completely unknown to the Poor Law Commissioners. It was not until 1851 that the first official census was taken on St Kilda – fifty years after the first had been carried out on the mainland. The St Kildans never paid income tax because the Inland Revenue did not bother to send them forms to fill in, and they never paid rates. They never cast a vote in either a local or a general election. No aspiring politician ever sought to solicit their support, although a few Members of Parliament used St Kilda as an example when they wished to complain about the treatment of impoverished areas of Scotland by the government. The islanders never needed to call a policeman. No crime has been recorded in four hundred years of their history. ‘If this island’, wrote MacCulloch, ‘is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, law, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda…Neither Times nor Courier disturbs its judgments…No tax-gatherer’s bill threatens on a church-door, the game laws reach not gannets…Well may the pampered native of the happy Hirta refuse to change his situation.’
A few departments of state showed an occasional interest in the people of St Kilda. The Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages periodically checked the books, and the Receiver of Wrecks at Stornoway on the isle of Lewis claimed half the flotsam and jetsam that drifted ashore on St Kilda, if ever the islanders saw fit to tell him about it. Reports on the physical and economic situation of the islanders were made to the Scottish Home and Health Department in Edinburgh, particularly in the latter years, and a police constable from Harris was sent to make notes.
Nor were the people deprived of official proclamations. On 2 April 1901, the Westminster Gazette announced: ‘His Majesty’s ship Bellona left Greenock yesterday for St Kilda. The captain will land with a party of marines and bluejackets and announce the death of Queen Victoria and read the proclamation of King Edward’s accession. Under the British Standard, the party will present arms, and the band will play “God Save the King”.’ The British monarchs have visited practically every corner of the globe, but it was not until August 1971 that Queen Elizabeth II became the first to set foot on what is the most westerly point of her kingdom.
Isolation makes for limited knowledge. In 1697, the St Kildans were intrigued by the samples of writing shown to them by Martin Martin and were amazed that people could express themselves and communicate with others in such a way.
When a St Kildan was taken to Glasgow in the early part of the eighteenth century, he was worried by the patches worn by the ladies of fashion because he thought they were blisters. He was astounded and frightened that there could be so many people in the world as were to be found in the city, and when some big loaves of bread were placed before him he could not make up his mind whether they were stones, pieces of wood, or made of the flour and water the local inhabitants told him they were. Another islander was shown St Mungo’s Cathedral in Glasgow at about the same time. He remarked that the pillars and arches of the church were the most beautiful caves he had ever seen. He was taken aback by the size of Glasgow and was surprised that people could move about from place to place in carriages pulled by horses.
Even knowledge of things natural, like animals and plants, was limited on Hirta. The islanders were never to know what a pig, a bee, a rabbit, or a rat looked like. They never saw an apple until 1875 when John Sands took three with him to the island. They had no idea what a tree looked like, for no trees grow on St Kilda. It was not until a few of them began to venture forth to the mainland before the evacuation – some for a holiday, others in search of work – that they first saw and then came to know the hundreds of objects that are part of everyday life on the mainland. For centuries the St Kildans measured time by the motion of the sun from one hill or rock to another and by the ebb and flow of tides. Even in 1909, the Old Style Calendar still operated on Hirta. Unlike Scots anywhere else in the world, the St Kildans celebrated New Year on 12 January.
The fear of the incomprehensible and unknown made for a deep attachment to their island home. Even as late as 1875, John Sands discovered, ‘All beyond their little rock home is darkness, doubt and dread – incomprehensible to us.’ The physical size of their world and the small number of persons involved in it made for the existence of strong relationships within the community. St Kildan was inextricably bound to St Kildan. All of them were tied emotionally as well as physically to their desolate rock in the Atlantic. Even if it had been possible, few islanders ever wished to leave St Kilda. Ewen Gillies was one of the few who ventured forth into the big world that lay beyond Hirta.
Born in 1825, Ewen spent all his childhood on the island, and when the time came to settle down he married the daughter of one of the elders. At the age of twenty-six he decided to leave the island and seek his fortune in Australia. He sold up his croft, furniture, and unwanted effects for £17, and with his young bride decided to go to Australia, where he was first employed as a brickmaker.
After six months he became bored, left his job and took to travelling. For two years he explored the virgin lands of Victoria digging for gold. He had luck and bought himself a farm. Owing to a lack of capital the farm proved an unwise investment, and within two years he was off to New Zealand to dig again for gold, leaving his wife and children at Melbourne. In less than two years he was back again in Australia to find that his wife, thinking she had seen the last of him, had married someone else. Disillusioned but not dismayed, Ewen packed his bags and sailed for North America.
Like many penniless immigrants, Ewen Gillies joined the Union Army. After getting some money together he deserted the ranks when word got round that gold was to be found in California. For six years he worked in the gold mines with considerable success. With his fortune, he decided to return to Australia and claim his children. Reluctantly, his wife finally agreed to surrender them, and not wishing to stay in Australia any longer than was necessary, Ewen packed up his belongings and set sail in 1871 via London and Glasgow for St Kilda. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the islanders, but to a man who had been round the world St Kilda offered little, and after only four weeks Ewen and his children set sail for America.
Eleven years later, after he had settled his family in the New World, Ewen again found the call of St Kilda too strong to resist. Yet again, he set out for the isle of his birth. This time he proved too much for the St Kildans, and after a short stay he found himself no longer welcome on the island and set sail once again for Melbourne. He had, however, stayed long enough on St Kilda to fall in love with a local girl. His second bride found the Australian climate little to her liking and was homesick. Eight months later the couple were again on St Kilda.
The St Kildans, distrustful of his wisdom and overpowering self-assurance, finally forced him and his wife to leave. Ewen boarded the first boat to reach St Kilda in the summer of 1889, and made his way to Canada where he spent the remainder of his life.
The hospitality of the people of Hirta, however, was normally something that visitors could not easily forget. ‘The people’, wrote a former schoolmaster, ‘were exceedingly kind to me, quite a different character they had to what was presented to me on landing. One has to stay some time amongst them to know them thoroughly.’ Nor was their concern confined to those who chose to live amongst them.
The St Kildans frequently had to play hosts to unfortunates who found themselves stranded on the island. On 17 January 1876, some of the crew of the 880-ton Austrian ship Peti Dubrovacki were shipwrecked. Three of the crew, including the captain, stayed with the minister while they were on the island. The remaining six were quartered with the islanders, each home taking in a man or two by turns for a few days at a time. The St Kildans showed themselves to be generous to those in distress. ‘I myself’, wrote Sands, ‘saw a man take a new jacket out of the box into which it had been carefully folded, and with a look of genuine pity, gave it to the mate to wear during his stay, as the young man sat shivering in an oilskin.’ The St Kildans had not only studied the parable of the Good Samaritan, but throughout history followed it. A people used to deprivation, they could feel for those forced to accept the same condition. But nine sailors were additions the people could scarce afford to feed. It was mid-winter and the owner’s boat was not expected until the spring. John Sands realized that contact with the mainland must somehow be made before the St Kildans as well as their uninvited guests starved.
Sands first got an idea when he observed that the St Kildans used reeds in their looms. He was told that they were salvaged from the beach, and deduced that the currents of the Atlantic, namely the Gulf Stream, must have brought them to Hirta. He decided that the same currents could be used to send a letter from St Kilda to the mainland. In January 1877 he set about constructing a vessel to convey a message that would inform the mainland of the existence of the band of shipwrecked Austrians.
‘On the 29th, the captain and sailors called on me and felt interested in seeing a canoe I had hewn out of a log,’ wrote Sands. ‘I had written a letter and put it into her hold, enclosed in a pickle bottle. The sailors, glad of anything in the shape of work, helped me to rig her and put the iron ballast right, and to caulk the deck. We delayed launching her until the wind should blow from the North-West, which we hoped would carry her to Uist or some other place where there was a post. A small sail was put on her, and with a hot iron I printed on her deck, “Open this”.
‘The captain brought me a lifebuoy belonging to the lost ship, and said he intended to send it off. I suggested that another bottle be tied to it with a note enclosed to the Austrian Consul, and that a small sail should be erected. This was done and the lifebuoy was thrown into the sea and went away slowly before the wind. None of us had much hope that this circular vessel would be of service. She was despatched on the 30th and strange to say, reached Birsay in Orkney, and was forwarded to Lloyd’s agent in Stromness on 8 February, having performed the passage in nine days.
‘On 5 February we sent off the canoe, the wind being in the North-West and continuing so for some days. She went to Poolewe in Ross-shire where she was found lying on a sandbank on the 27th by a Mr John Mackenzie who posted the letter.’
In fact, it was the first mailboat that was to bring help. On 22 February HMS Jackal arrived at St Kilda and took the nine Austrians and John Sands back to the mainland. By that time, the St Kildans had already given up eating porridge and bread. This continued for three months, until the factor’s smack visited the island and took grain, sugar, tea, salt, and other foodstuffs to them. The foodstuffs were paid for out of a donation of £100, made by the Austrian Government to the people of Hirta in recognition of their kindness.
The St Kildans were greatly amazed by such a crude method of communication as the mailboat of John Sands. It was thenceforth thought a useful way in which contact could be made with the mainland. The earlier mailboats were usually of a common construction; each consisted of a piece of driftwood, the centre of which was hewn out sufficiently to hold a letter and some money for postage, and then sealed with pitch. In later models, an inflated sheep’s bladder was attached to the block of wood, together with a rude flag to make the mailboat more conspicuous at sea.
Around 1900, cocoa became popular on Hirta. Instead of wood, an eight-ounce tin that once contained Van Houten’s chocolate was thought to be an admirable carrier of a message. The mailboats, with a penny enclosed for postage, were normally put out to sea from the rocks of Oiseval and, depending upon the North Atlantic Drift, occasionally turned up as far away as Norway. They were used by the St Kildans as a last resort in times of emergency, but more often than not as tourist attractions.
To the end, mailboats were a romanticism introduced to St Kilda by people from the mainland. The islanders preferred their age-old method of attracting attention if faced with a problem. Bonfires were lit on the hilltops, which in clear weather could be seen on the horizon by the inhabitants of Lewis or Harris.
For the greater part of St Kilda’s history, however, communication with the mainland was as sporadic as it was unnecessary. The community was self-sufficient, relying only upon the visit once or twice a year from a representative of the island’s owner to collect rent and deliver a few essential supplies, such as salt and seed.
3 The paternal society
Feudal society existed in Scotland centuries after it had disappeared elsewhere in Britain. The Celtic people who inhabited the most northerly remote parts of the British Isles were thought to be of little consequence by the Anglo-Saxons who dominated British society. The Celts were therefore allowed to carry on living the way they had always done. In most of northern Scotland the social system was ruthlessly destroyed after the 1745 Jacobite Rising, but in the more remote parts of the Highlands and in the Western Isles the old order lived on.
Enlightened paternalism was the basis of the society of the Gael. The Chief who owned the land also ruled over the people who lived upon it. As long as the Chief acted as a good and wise father and the crofters settled on his estate were respectful children, feudalism proved itself to be a successful as well as convenient way of managing society. If the critics of the more ‘civilized’ South thought the feudal system of the Celt was primitive, it could at least be seen to be a social organization that worked and worked well for hundreds of years. In the words of Dr Fraser Darling in West Highland Survey, Gaeldom is ‘an example of a culture finely adjusted to an environment which placed severe limitations on human existence’.
The people on the lone isle of Hirta were throughout their history part of the old order. Until the evacuation in 1930, the proprietor of the island group, MacLeod of MacLeod, not only owned St Kilda but held sway over its inhabitants. He was father as well as landlord, and as such received for himself and his house the greatest of respect and affection. ‘Their Chief is their God, their everything especially when a man of address and resolution,’ wrote Lord Murray of Broughton in a report on the Highlands he drew up in 1746 for the London government. The duty of the Chief was to protect his clan, administer good and impartial justice when settling disputes that might arise among his people, and above all hold his land so that his people might live and prosper upon it. In return the crofters would offer their services to fight for any cause deemed just by the Chief, and give him absolute claim over any produce deriving from the croft.
Although the Gaelic word clann means ‘children’, the system did not depend upon the people working the land being of the same family or even the same name as the owner. On St Kilda no inhabitant was related to MacLeod of MacLeod by ties of blood near or remote. The few families whose surname was MacLeod were like all the other families – they were descendants of the poor from other parts of the Chief’s estates who were encouraged to take up crofts on St Kilda. The concept of kinship played little or no part in the clan in the wider sense. What bound the people together was a shared feeling of loyalty to the Chief whose land they held, and mutual understanding between him and his people.
MacLeod of MacLeod, Chief of Clan MacLeod, owned St Kilda throughout most of its inhabited history. When and how the family gained possession are questions the answers to which are lost in time. Legend has it that at one time both Harris and Uist disputed ownership of St Kilda. Even in ancient times the island group was regarded as a jewel in the Atlantic that any laird would be proud to own.
A race was planned to settle the question of ownership. Two boats representing the contending interests were rowed out to the island by crews of equal size. It was agreed before the start that the first crew to lay a hand on Hirta would claim it for his Chief. The race was extremely close, and as the two boats neared the island the stout men of Uist were ahead. Colla MacLeod, head man of the Harris boat, cut off his left hand and threw it ashore in a last desperate attempt to win the island for his master. The loss of a hand was not in vain, and St Kilda was won for MacLeod of MacLeod. This noble deed, some would have it, is recorded for posterity by the red hand on the clan coat of arms.
The MacLeod of MacLeod was an island Chief with an island empire. As such he tended to be too remote to become involved with the politics of the mainland to the same extent as the Campbells or MacDonalds did. Although many MacLeods, for instance, fought at the battle of Culloden, they did so against the wishes of their Chief who had little heart for the Jacobite cause.
After Culloden, the policy adopted by the Hanoverians was aimed at obliterating the Celtic way of life. ‘In Scotland more than elsewhere,’ wrote Grant, ‘into the purely feudal relationship had crept something of the greater warmth and fervour of the ancient bond of union of the clan (or family)’, and the government was determined to put an end to such dangerous feudalism. The Disarming Act was revived and important additions made to it. The wearing of Highland dress and the use of tartan were prohibited, and the playing and even carrying of bagpipes was forbidden. The bans were to last thirty-six years and dealt a damaging blow to a people’s culture. In 1747, Parliament passed an Act for the Abolition of Heritable Jurisdictions which took away from the Chiefs their legal powers. After Culloden many Highland estates were forfeited.
The victors, however, did not take vengeance upon the laird of Dunvegan. He had played a passive part in the rebellion and, besides, his estate was remote and fragmented. MacLeod of MacLeod held on to his lands and the patriarchal rule of Dunvegan was allowed to continue well into the nineteenth century.
The economic buttress of the Chief’s hold over his people was the system of trading by barter. Every year a representative of the Chief would visit St Kilda to claim the rents in kind. Often the ‘tacksman’, as he was called, was related if only distantly to the Chief. He leased the island from the proprietor for a sum of money or was given the revenue of the island as a reward for performing some special service.
When Martin Martin visited St Kilda in 1697, he did so in the company of MacLeod of MacLeod’s representative. While on the island the steward and his retinue, which often numbered forty or fifty people, were housed and fed at the expense of the islanders. He would go once a year to the island in the summer and stay for anything up to two or three weeks. The ancient Gaelic due of free hospitality to the Chief or any of his household was known as cuddiche and was exacted in St Kilda when it had long disappeared elsewhere. Cuddiche was similar to the right to hospitality demanded by medieval and Tudor monarchs in England when they made their royal progresses.
At the end of his stay on St Kilda, the steward or ‘tacksman’ would take back to Skye the oils and feathers of the sea birds and the surplus produce of the islanders’ scant crofts. The goods would either be sold to tenants who lived on other parts of the Chief’s estates or else sent south to the commercial markets. Part of the proceeds of their sale would go towards the St Kildans’ rent, and part would be retained by the tacksman as profit. But he had to fulfil his obligation to the islanders. A good part of the money obtained by the sale of the island produce was used to purchase commodities such as salt and seed corn which the St Kildans had need of. Supplies of essentials that the island could not provide were normally transported to St Kilda the following summer, or else delivered later the same year should the people be in dire need of them.
For centuries the system worked admirably. Hirta’s exports were in much demand on the mainland, and the island was a source of profit for the tacksman and proprietor alike. According to Lord Brougham in 1799, the tacksman paid £20 a year to MacLeod of MacLeod and reckoned to make twice as much himself. The barter system, however, benefited the people of Hirta. No one would have claimed that the islanders received a true market price for their goods, but on the other hand they did not need to bother themselves with finding outlets. In bad years they never went without essential supplies. It was in no one’s interest that the St Kildans starve. A loss to the tacksman one year would no doubt be turned into profit the next.
An islander, called the ground officer, was appointed by the Chief to speak for the community should differences of opinion arise with the steward. If the difference was serious, it was the ground officer’s duty to make a personal appearance before MacLeod of MacLeod himself to air the complaint. ‘He makes his entry very submissively,’ wrote Martin Martin, ‘taking off his bonnet at a great distance when he appears in MacLeod’s presence, bowing his head and hand low near the ground, his retinue (usually the crew that had rowed him over from St Kilda) doing the like behind him.’ MacLeod of MacLeod would then listen solemnly to the evidence and pass judgement. Few disputes, however, came about regarding the management of St Kilda. The tacksmen for the most part were ‘Gentlemen of benevolent dispositions, of liberal education and much observation’ (John Knox).
The Chief rarely failed to exercise what was seen as a moral responsibility towards his people. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, MacLeod of MacLeod ceased to receive any money from his estates for a while. ‘This estate’, wrote Knox in his Tour Through the Highlands of Scotland and the Hebride Isles, which was published in 1787, ‘has been greatly diminished of late years on account of debts, and much remains to be discharged. Notwithstanding this circumstance, the proprietor raised no rents, turned out no tenants, used no man with severity, and in all respects maintained the character of a liberal and humane friend of mankind.’ In 1780 the proprietor supplied the St Kildans with a new boat, and although salt was heavily taxed at that time and was virtually unobtainable in many districts of the Highlands, the people of St Kilda still received their more than adequate supplies.
Life on the mainland, however, was changing, and MacLeod of MacLeod suffered drastically from the changes, being forced to sell much of his estate. Tacksmen became people of the past, and what remained of the estate of the Chief of Clan MacLeod was henceforth managed by his factor at Dunvegan. St Kilda forever held an affectionate place in the history of the MacLeod family and was not sold.
The last factor was John Mackenzie of Dunvegan, an amiable man fond of St Kilda and its people. Once a year it was Mackenzie’s duty to go to Hirta and collect the Chief’s rents. Dressed in a long tweed trenchcoat and rarely seen without a gamekeeper’s deer-stalker hat, Mackenzie was much liked by the islanders. He would spend most of his time on St Kilda having long conversations with them, listening to their problems and attempting to solve them while on the island. If that was not possible, he would see what could be done after he had returned to Dunvegan. To the St Kildans, the factor was the go-between. He was their real link with the outside world.
One of the major tasks of his visit would be the landing of the stores he brought with him on board the Robert Hadden. Such work was normally done by the women, supervised by the men of the island. One of the most important things he took with him was a cask of paraffin, which was invariably given to the islanders as a gift.
The ceremony attached to the annual payment of rent always remained the same. The St Kildans would gather outside the old storehouse down by the shore, and once their produce had been inspected by the factor the bartering would begin. As fair a price as possible would be bargained by both sides – in later years it proved less and less favourable to the islanders. During the twentieth century the payment of rent was less a reality and more a symbolic act. During the thirteen years prior to the evacuation, the islanders failed to raise enough produce to pay rent due on their crofts. In John Mackenzie’s day, the only produce of any real value was tweed, a few stones of dried ling, and perhaps a sheep or two. The end of the annual rent ceremony was marked by the factor presenting sweets to the St Kildans, instead of the traditional presentation of Highland whisky with the receipts. The St Kildans never kept account of what they handed over to the factor: there was trust on both sides.
The introduction of money, however, did more than all the vengeance exacted after Culloden to destroy traditional Gaelic society. Crofting, the most prominent feature of the Highlanders’ way of life, was proving to be extremely uneconomic. The coming of the Industrial Revolution and the payment of money in exchange for labour was drawing people away from the country. It was no longer possible to think in terms of payment in kind. The barter system was no longer relevant or tenable. Money was required for the purchase of foodstuffs and materials essential to the maintenance of life upon the island and the cost involved in the transportation of those goods; both factors conspired to render a fatal blow to the old social order. The St Kildans, like other Celts, were forced to accept modern society and its values or else be condemned to oblivion.
From time immemorial the men and women of Hirta governed their lives as best suited their lonely predicament. ‘Their government is strictly a republic,’ wrote George Atkinson in 1831, ‘for though subject to Great Britain, they have no official person among them; and as they are only visited twice a year for a few days by the Tacksman, who is referred to as a sort of umpire or settler of disputes, their knowledge of our laws must be very trifling and of little use or importance in their system of economy.’
The community as a whole shared the responsibility for the two major tasks: to ensure that every islander was fed, clothed, and housed as was thought proper, and to provide sufficient wares to pay the proprietor his rent. All possessions, such as boats and ropes, upon which the safety and prosperity of the community depended, were therefore held in common. Authority over the actions of every islander was vested in what tourists were later to call ‘Parliament’.
Every morning after prayers and breakfast all the adult men on the island met in the open air to discuss what work was to be done. In latter years, the men met outside the post office, every day except the Sabbath. In so small a community, where the normal pursuits of its members were so fraught with danger, it was important that all knew what was planned, and a meeting was a sensible way of letting everyone know where members of the community could be found during the rest of the day. ‘It wouldn’t do to go away on your own,’ recalls Lachlan Macdonald, ‘and the other fellows didn’t know where you were going. So they always decided where they were going and what they were going to do that day.’
It was a simple way in which a people who thought and acted in terms of each other could communicate as a group. The St Kildan Parliament, however, came in for criticism from outsiders. ‘The daily morning meeting’, wrote John Ross, the schoolmaster, ‘very much resembles our Honourable British Parliament in being able to waste any amount of precious time over a very small matter while on the other hand they can pass a Bill before it is well introduced.’ But the islanders themselves would have been the last to think of their assembly as capable of great, philosophical thought. As far as they were concerned, the morning meeting was the only way, in a land that lacked telephones and newspapers, of letting others know what was planned, what was believed, and what was to be done.
If it was a ‘Parliament’, it was one that perhaps met the needs of those it served better than any other. There were no ‘headmen’ in parliament. Every islander had an equal right to speak, and to cast an equal vote. It was an assembly that had no government. There was always a total lack of distinction upon St Kilda. No islander held sway over his fellow islanders. Equally, no rules governed the conduct of the morning meeting. The men arrived in their own time, and at the meeting, according to observers, everyone appeared to talk at once.
If the proceedings of the day were important, the morning meeting would waste little time. If a visit to one of the neighbouring islands or stacs to tend the sheep or kill the sea birds was in order, the men would be quick to get to the work at hand. If, however, there was little of urgency that required to be done, the meeting could and would often sit all day in discussion. A break for lunch would be taken as and when the proceedings allowed, but otherwise talk would be the work of the day. ‘Upon the whole,’ wrote John Ross, ‘the St Kildans are just as much engaged as their crofter neighbours in the Outer Hebrides and although they do at times spend much more time than is necessary over “parliamentary” affairs, they often derive benefit from it inasmuch as any stray piece of useful information picked up by a single individual is imparted to the whole.’ The adventures of those who had had the opportunity to visit the mainland were related in great detail to the assembled throng. Information such as the cost of buckets and spades in the great metropolis of Glasgow and what wonderful shops were to be found there were not the only subjects of great interest. The most important function of the morning meeting was the exchange of views and the sharing of experiences.
The St Kildans never regarded themselves as individuals. Each and every one was a component of a community. The daily meeting was that which held them together, even though ‘Parliament’ was often the market place of gossip. ‘Very often,’ said Ross, ‘“my neighbour” and anything he has done out of the way, whether it is right or wrong’, were matters to be examined by the assembled islanders. Discussion frequently spread discord, but never in recorded history were feuds so bitter as to bring about any permanent division within the community. Perhaps the fact that criticism was aired so readily ensured that gossip was never allowed to get out of hand.
The laws that governed the island were equally of the people’s own making. Although formally subject to the law of the rest of Scotland, there was never an instance when those laws were either enforced or needed to be. ‘Murder, of course, from the impossibility of escape and the absence of the usual causes of incitement is unknown in their traditions,’ wrote George Atkinson, ‘and dishonesty from similar causes very nearly so; a case of adultery has never been known among them, and as no fermented or spirituous liquor is made on the island, and they only receive a trifling half-yearly supply from the Tacksman, they are of necessity sober.’
The St Kildans looked to the Bible for their laws. In most respects they abided by the laws laid down by Moses in the Old Testament. How such a corpus of law became embodied in the community is unknown, but Macaulay in 1758 probably correctly believed that missionaries must, at an early date, have converted the St Kildans to accept such a code of behaviour.
Only the elders of the Church had authority over the rest of the community. They were responsible for sharing out the produce of the islanders’ labours equally. Should there be any difficulty, the distribution would be settled by lot. The division of native labour was always carried out to the satisfaction of all concerned. After the harvesting of the sea birds, the catch of each day was placed in one great heap, usually on the foreshore, and was then divided out according to the number of households on the island. ‘At the end of the day’s fowling,’ wrote Christina MacQueen at the time of the evacuation, ‘the sharing began. Grouped around the large heap of slain fulmars stood the representatives of every family. In the rear the women and juveniles waited; waited to carry their portion to the cottage, where the plucking would immediately begin. The larger the family, the bigger the share. There was no such thing as payment by results. Such a practice is only necessary where the thing, miscalled “civilization” has blunted the natures of men, and made them selfish and callous, and brutal to their fellows.’
The sick, the young and those who were old and lived alone were always cared for. ‘The St Kilda community’, remarked Wilson in 1841, ‘may in many respects be regarded as a small republic in which the individual members share most of their worldly goods in common, and with the exception of the minister, no one seems to differ from his neighbour in rank, fortune, or condition.’ The St Kildans throughout their history never included either ministers, missionaries, nurses, or schoolmasters in the sharing out of their food, be it the carcass of fulmar, gannet, or sheep. They were always regarded as outside the community. All received a part of the community’s produce as a gift; none of them ever received a share as a right.
Like every system of sharing, there were exceptions to the general rule. Any St Kildan, for instance, who killed a young fulmar or gannet ‘out of its nest’ was allowed to keep the bird for himself. The justification for such an exception was that if he had not taken the bird, it would either have died a natural death or have been swallowed up by a raven or a crow. By 1880, the fulmar and the puffin were the only birds subject to equal division. By that time, apart from homespun tweed, their feathers and oil were the only staples used to pay the rent, a concern always regarded as the responsibility of the community as a whole.
All the grazing for the sheep that each St Kildan kept was held in common. The island of Dun was the only grazing that was subject to conditions. The lush clover grass that covered the island was strictly reserved for wintering the young lambs, and because of the island’s size, only a certain number of sheep could be accommodated. An islander was able to keep as many sheep and cattle as he was able to pay rent for, and the number of lambs that could be transferred from Hirta to Dun every year was decided equitably by the morning meeting.
A mutual insurance scheme operated in St Kilda. Any islander who had the misfortune to lose sheep during the winter or during the time when they were rounded up for shearing was reimbursed by his fellow St Kildans in proportion to the number of sheep the latter possessed.
The island’s boats were throughout history owned and maintained by the community at large. Boats were essential to the island’s way of life: it was only right, therefore, that everyone be concerned with their condition. Each islander was made responsible for the upkeep of a section of the boat, and its use was determined by the morning meeting. No islander or group of islanders was able to make use of the craft unless everyone had given his permission. Should foolhardiness mean the community lost its boat, then life would be impossible. It was only right, therefore, that its employment be decided by consensus.
The St Kildans carried equality into every aspect of their lives. When the Highland and Agricultural Society sent out meal and flour to the people every year, the distribution of the supplies was always strictly regulated. Each male and female over eleven years of age on the island was entitled to a full share; islanders between the ages of nine years and eleven were entitled to three parts of a share, and from cradle age to under nine every St Kildan was entitled to a half share.
A man’s share equalled one boll, which was the equivalent of 140 pounds of flour or oatmeal. After the supplies were distributed, anything left was given out to each household in shares applicable to smaller quantities.
The supplies of tea and other commodities brought to the island by the factor were distributed in a similar way. Potatoes, for instance, were shared on the same basis as meal and flour. Only sugar was an exception. An equal share was given to both young and old, and if preference was ever exercised it was in favour of the younger members of the community.
In later years, the division was calculated more simply. One share was allotted to each adult islander and a half share was given to children of sixteen years and under.
The islanders were equally equitable when it came to sharing gifts donated by tourists and well-wishers. All that arrived on the island was divided, just as every St Kildan was prepared to distribute domestic wealth. If the St Kildan sought anything in life, he sought to be fair.
‘The mental constitution or social polity of the St Kildans’, wrote Wilson, ‘consists in their tenacious adherence to uniformity – no man being allowed, or at least encouraged, to outstrip his neighbours in any thing leading rather to his own advantage than the public weal.’ In some respects, the communal system stifled initiative. ‘I myself’, wrote John Ross the schoolmaster in 1889, ‘heard one man expressing a desire to have one end of his house floored with wood so as to make it more comfortable, but he had to give up the idea, some of the others coming down on him with most peculiar arguments leading him to understand the folly of his plan.’ The wife of the last missionary sent to St Kilda recalls: ‘When the St Kildans started doing something, they all did it on the same day. If they killed a sheep, it wasn’t enough for them to kill one sheep for maybe the whole community. No, every house had to kill a sheep. So there was a piece of mutton landed from each house at the manse. You had mutton till you were fed up with the sight of it.’
The socialist system, whatever its faults, was the direct result of the condition in which the St Kildans found themselves. Common survival was the prime concern and although many from the mainland saw fit to criticize the islanders in latter years because, they claimed, the St Kildans lacked initiative, such a human quality was alien to a people who always thought in terms of the whole rather than the part. It was not that the people of Hirta were ignorant, it was simply that the concept of individualism was not applicable, as far as they were concerned, to the set of circumstances they faced.
In the careful ownership of the MacLeods the social and economic structure changed little for over six centuries. But people may have lived on Hirta for possibly two thousand years. The beehive-shaped stone and turf structures in Glean Mor suggest that in prehistoric times a pastoral people may have lived there. Possibly as a result of changes in climate and the lie and content of the soil, they found it necessary to abandon the settlement. Perhaps those early St Kildans were wiped out by disease or forced off the island by those who at the same time or at a later date chose to live in Village Bay. Whatever happened in those early times is unknown, and it is unlikely that the thin, stony soil has many secrets to give up when archaeologists ultimately dig.
In the eighth century the Norsemen invaded Scotland. For four centuries they ruled the islands of Scotland, and lone St Kilda may well have been part of their empire. In 1886, Richard Kearton and his brother Cherry found earthenware pots similar to those used for cooking purposes in Viking times. Many St Kildan place-names, moreover, have their origins in Norse. Oiseval is derived from the Norse austr fell, meaning ‘east hill’; Soay gets its name from Saud-ey, Norse for ‘sheep isle’. In practically all cases, however, the Viking names apply only to landmarks that can be clearly seen from the sea.
The names of those places the discovery of which requires a landing on Hirta are mostly Gaelic in origin. The names of streams and wells, for instance, derive from the ancient language of the Celts. It could therefore be argued that although the island group was known to the Norsemen, they did not permanently settle on St Kilda. It seems likely that the islands were known to them as a place of shelter in a storm and as a source of supplies of fresh water.
The rule regarding place-names, however, is not a hard and fast one. Many names, such as Mullach Bi and Dun, both easily visible from the sea, are Gaelic; one of Hirta’s fresh water wells, Tobar Childa, gets its name in part from Norse. All that can be deduced with certainty is that St Kilda was known to the Norsemen.
Whatever the origins of the early peoples of Hirta, by the middle ages feathers and the oils extracted from sea birds were valuable commodities. To the owner of St Kilda, therefore, the repopulation, or perhaps population of the island, was the result of economic considerations.
The inhabitants of documented times were descended from those who had been born on the adjacent isles of Lewis, Harris, Skye, and North and South Uist. They were, without doubt, Celtic in origin. Although it seems unlikely that the St Kildans were the descendants of ‘pyrates, exiles or malefactors who fled from justice’, as was thought by the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay in 1758, it is probable that MacLeod of MacLeod occasionally sent the discontented to the most remote part of his territory.
The community must have had several injections of new blood during its long history. Some were necessary, others were totally unexpected. Disease practically wiped out the population twice in the history known to us, and the proprietor, anxious to have such a profitable outpost of his estate inhabited, must have encouraged or cajoled crofters from less remote parts of his empire to populate the archipelago. Many ships were wrecked around St Kilda, more visited the islands whilst fishing the rich waters that surround the group and sailors must have taken a fancy to local girls, jumped ship and settled upon the island.
Many writers tried hard to discover physical peculiarities that would illustrate the difference between the St Kildan and the generality of mankind. ‘As a race’, wrote the Reverend Neil Mackenzie in the nineteenth century, ‘the natives now are under-sized and far from being robust or healthy. They are generally of slender form, with fair hair and a florid complexion.’ There is little real evidence, however, that the islanders differed from their neighbours on the Long Island, or that they were less strong. If the St Kildans exhibited any characteristic worthy of note it was that, from an early age, their faces were quick to show the harshness of life on the island. Towards the end of the community’s history, the people seem to have become more susceptible to cuts and grazes, colds and headaches, but their physical prowess did not appreciably decline and any physical deterioration must be attributed to the general decline of the St Kildan way of life.
The personal qualities of the people of Hirta attracted even more attention than their appearance. Apart from their ignorance, which bemused many a visitor, the St Kildans were thought by many observers to be stubborn, superstitious, lazy and greedy. ‘A total want of curiosity, a stupid gaze of wonder, an excessive eagerness for spirits and tobacco, a laziness only to be conquered by the hope of the above mentioned cordials, and a beastly degree of filth, the natural consequence of this renders the St Kildan character truly savage,’ was Lord Brougham’s conclusive description of the average islander in 1799.
The people of St Kilda, however, like those of many primitive communities, possessed remarkable qualities. They were strong of character, and the unique way of living that evolved reflected to a great extent their almost inexhaustible fund of common sense. ‘They are at heart a kindly disposed people’, wrote Nicol, ‘who mean well, and while you are with them you are one of them. They are extremely solicitous for your welfare; indeed those who have lived for some time in their midst say that it is almost embarrassing when they call each morning to ask if you are well, if you have had a good night’s sleep, and if they can do anything for you.’
Like many Celts, however, they were dreamers rather than men of action. They much preferred to talk and could, to the observer at least, always give better reasons for not doing something than they could acquiesce. Many writers took their lethargy to be laziness. ‘I fear’, wrote John MacDonald in 1822, ‘they cannot be exempted from the charge of almost habitual indolence. They are seldom wholly idle; but when they are at any work, one would think that they are more anxious to fill up than to occupy time.’ To the St Kildans, however, the pace of work was dictated by their needs. Time to them was an immaterial dimension divided more into seasons than into months and days. The men in particular saved their energies for the capture of sea birds and did little to help around the croft.
‘The men I always thought might have done more work,’ wrote the missionary’s wife in 1909, ‘although once properly started they worked well. I used to find fault with them for allowing the women to do all the work they themselves ought to have done. It was no uncommon thing to see the young men helping to rope the bags on to the women’s backs. Sheep, coal, or any burden was carried from the pier by the women as a rule – very occasionally the men. I thought it very funny on one of my visits to the village to see the wife digging the ground, preparatory to planting the potatoes, but the good man of the house was seated at the door sewing a Sunday gown for his wife.’ Life on Hirta was such that women were never allowed much leisure. Apart from the routine household chores, the women were responsible for bringing water, fuel, and provisions into the house. Every summer, knitting as they went, the women used to walk over two miles twice a day to milk the cows and ewes in Glean Mor. Whilst boys were soon taught the art of talking much and doing little, the girls were accustomed to carrying heavy weights on their backs from a very early age.
The morals of the St Kildan and his spouse, however, could not be faulted. Crime was virtually unknown on the island. In a society in which each and every member had to get along with his neighbour in order to survive, crime could not be tolerated. Moreover, there was a distinct lack of motive – each islander was the same in terms of both wealth and status as his fellow St Kildan. ‘I held, along with Mr McLellan and the Gaelic teacher,’ wrote John MacDonald in 1822, ‘a meeting, something like what might pass in St Kilda for a justice of peace court, in order to settle little differences that might exist among the people; and was pleased to find, much to their credit, none of any consequence, except one relating to a marriage.’ St Kilda was totally free from the ‘bend sinister’, the morality of the men being even more unimpeachable than that of the women. There was little drunkenness. When a St Kildan had whisky to drink, it was reserved for medicinal purposes, or put away in a cupboard to celebrate a marriage. ‘Their morals’, concluded the Reverend Macaulay in 1758, ‘are and must be purer than those of great and opulent societies, however much civilised.’
The islanders were intensively religious. Their fervour was in part induced by their physical situation. A sea-girt isle, rising almost perpendicularly from the sea, with nothing save the often fierce Atlantic in sight, St Kilda presented man with almost insurmountable odds. Under such conditions of geography and climate, Man became even more infinitesimal before the Infinite. The people took for their own a harsh, puritanical religion, which gave them a peace of mind and offered them, if not a future on this earth, at least a pattern which they could follow and a promise of a more certain life in the next world.
As contact with the mainland increased during the nineteenth century, the St Kildan character developed in some respects detrimental to the reputation of the people. ‘A St Kildan woman’, wrote Kearton in 1886, ‘always regards everybody with suspicion, and does not hurry over a purchase, thinking that she is being cheated.’ The islanders were a simple, honest people: the tourists were more sophisticated and from a society in which it was the common thing to seek to take advantage. The St Kildans were incapable of adapting to a more complex set of rules of behaviour and became introverted. Nor did they distinguish between tourists and those who came to their island to do genuine good. Doctors found themselves faced with resolution and stubbornness. ‘There is no need’, wrote Norman Heathcote in 1900 of the St Kildans, ‘for them to go through the form of saying that they are conscientious objectors. They simply refuse to allow their children to be operated on, and there is no more to be said.’
To the end, the St Kildans possessed a simplicity that was at once attractive, if infuriating. When Emily MacLeod, the sister of the then proprietor, told the St Kildans in 1877 that she like Queen Victoria was a plain old woman, she was sternly rebuked by the islanders, who informed her that she must not refer to Her Majesty in such a way, as the Bible said that subjects must honour their monarch. When a supply of cement was sent to St Kilda so that a proper aisle could be laid in the Church, the ‘bags of dust’ as the islanders called them were stacked outside the Church to await a time when the men could see their way to doing the job. The following summer a friend of the proprietor arrived to ask how the work had gone. The ‘bags of dust’, said the men, had by a miracle all turned into lumps of rock before they had got round to using them.
Whatever their faults, the St Kildans led an unenviable way of life. The provision of food was their major concern year in and year out. They were forced to make good use of everything that their poor island could offer them in the struggle for survival. Moreover, they lived in the knowledge that any part of the provisioning process could be disrupted at any time by weather and illness. Isolated from the rest of humanity, only the laird of Dunvegan was there to protect them from starvation.
4 Bird people
Boys on St Kilda were taught to climb cliffs as soon as they were able. ‘The first thing to attract our notice’, wrote John Ross the schoolmaster of an August day he spent in a boat at the foot of the cliffs of Conachair, ‘was one of the men and his little boy on a rugged but fairly level piece of ground rather down near the sea. One end of the rope was tied round the father’s waist while the other was tied round the boy’s waist. Most probably, lest he being young, rash and inexperienced, might slip into the sea. There they were all alone then, killing away at a terrible rate, for the boy was collecting while the father kept shaking and twisting.
‘The man removing himself from the rope shouldered a burden of dead fulmars and made for a cutting in the rock, too narrow one would think for a dog, and too slippery for a goat. Along this he crawled on hands and knees. A single slip in the middle would have hurled him at least eighty feet sheer down into the sea. But he landed his burden safely and returned for the boy. The rope was tied as before, but only about a yard was left between them this time and that brave little fellow of only ten summers fearlessly followed his father and reached safety without a hitch. This is how the St Kildans train their young to the rocks and what a dangerous life it is.’
The St Kildans learnt how to climb from childhood. Most of them remember playing on the cliffs of Conachair when they were young and thinking nothing of it. They grew up to be short, stocky, agile men, natural climbers. The bone structure of their ankles differed from that of people born elsewhere. The ankle of a St Kildan male was practically half as thick again as that of a mainland person, and the toes were set further apart and almost prehensile.
The slaughter of sea fowl for food was essential to life on St Kilda. What the reindeer is to the Laplander, so the gannets, fulmars and puffins that each year made their nests on the cliffs of the rocky archipelago were to the St Kildans. Due to the poverty of the soil, other forms of subsistence were incapable, on their own, of maintaining human life on Hirta. The islanders had their sheep, a few cattle, and a meagre crop of potatoes, barley and corn, but without the flesh of the sea birds they could never have survived. Totally cut off from the rest of society, they were only able to live on their island by denying themselves the way of life common to crofters in other parts of Scotland and becoming, as Julian Huxley remarked, ‘bird people’.
‘The air is full of feathered animals,’ wrote John MacCulloch when he visited St Kilda in 1819. ‘The sea is covered with them,’ he continued, ‘the houses are ornamented by them, the ground is speckled with them like a flowery meadow in May. The town is paved with feathers…The inhabitants look as if they had all been tarred and feathered, for their hair is full of feathers and their clothes are covered with feathers…Everything smells of feathers.’
The sea birds and their eggs were jealously guarded by the St Kildans. In 1695, a boatload of strangers attempted to steal some eggs from the cliffs. The St Kildans fought off the intruders and put the precious eggs back in their nests. For good measure the islanders confiscated the pirates’ trousers before sending them on their way. During the nesting season, the single egg laid by the fulmar was not allowed to be removed for eating. Steps were taken to prevent the sheep and dogs from worrying the birds. Every June, the St Kildans fenced off the cliff tops with ropes made from hay with feathers stuck into them, so vital was it to the community that the eggs be allowed to hatch. When Parliament at Westminster passed an Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds in 1869, acknowledgement was made of the islanders’ dependence upon their feathered itinerants. A clause was inserted excluding St Kilda from the provisions of the Act because of ‘the necessities of the inhabitants’.
For nearly nine months of the year, the St Kildans were preoccupied with the killing of sea birds. ‘From their dependency on the capture of sea fowl for their support,’ wrote George Atkinson, ‘all their energies of body and mind are centred in that subject and scarcely any of their regulations extend to anything else; from the period of the arrival of the fowl in the month of March, till their departure in November, it is one continued scene of activity and destruction.’
Puffins in their hundreds of thousands were the first birds to return in March after a winter at sea. Most of them made for the island of Dun, and the St Kildans lost little time in seeking out the first fresh meat they had had the opportunity to taste for nearly four months. The adult gannets would begin to come back at the end of January, but it was not until April that the islanders would launch the boats to go to Stac Lee and Stac an Armin to kill the birds. During the month that followed, gannets and puffins continued to provide the people with food, and the fulmars nesting on the ledges of the cliffs of Conachair offered a welcome change of diet. Although the fulmar eggs were never taken from the nest because the female laid only one, those of the gannet and the guillemot were taken in their thousands. The St Kildans ate them fresh, or preserved for consumption at some later date, in the knowledge that the female of those species would replace the stolen egg.
June and July were lean months as far as sea birds were concerned. The puffin was the only bird available for eating while the young gannets and fulmars hatched and grew. The harvesting of fulmars took place in August when the young birds would be killed in their thousands before they could leave the nest. The young brown-feathered gannets, or gugas as they were called, matured more slowly, and it would be a month later before the men would take to the boats and rob the stacs of the birds.
When Martin Martin visited St Kilda in 1697, he estimated that 180 islanders consumed 16,000 eggs every week and ate 22,600 sea birds. From Stac Lee alone, he reckoned, the St Kildans took between five and seven thousand gannets annually. A century later an observer calculated that nearly 20,000 gannets were harvested each year on Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. In 1786, over 1,200 gugas were taken from their nests in a single expedition.
In the nineteenth century, however, the number of gannets killed declined. No more than 5,000 birds were taken each year in the first half of the century. By 1841, the catch had dropped to an average of 1,400 a year, and after the turn of the century only about 300 young gannets were killed and preserved for winter eating by the St Kildans.
As early as 1758, the islanders claimed that the fulmar had begun to replace the gannet as the staple of their diet. The reasons for the change were probably many. There was a sharp increase at that time in the number of fulmars breeding upon St Kilda, and the feathers and oils of the bird were of great value to the proprietor. Until 1878, St Kilda was the only breeding colony of the fulmar petrel in Great Britain, and the MacLeods may well have wished their tenants to exploit the situation. Centuries of decimation, moreover, may well have laid the great stacs almost bare of gannets. Robbed of its eggs as well as its young, the colony of solan geese had probably decreased.
The ratio of fulmars killed per inhabitant remained fairly steady throughout the island’s history. During the years 1829 to 1843 when the population of St Kilda stood at about 100, an average of 12,000 fulmars was slaughtered every year, which divided out meant 118 birds for every inhabitant. In 1901, by which time the population had fallen to 74, the harvest numbered some 9,000 birds, which meant that each islander was consuming some 130 fulmars annually. Even in 1929, the year before the evacuation, the last harvest comprised some 4,000 carcasses, an average of 125 per inhabitant.
The diet of the St Kildans was based on the flesh of these sea birds. Breakfast normally consisted of porridge and milk, with a puffin boiled in with the oats to give flavour. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the people disliked wheaten food and fish, and ate mutton or beef only as a last resort. The main meal of the day, taken at about lunchtime, comprised potatoes and the flesh of fulmars.
Nearly all food on Hirta had to be boiled or stewed. There were no ovens on the island, save the range that was the proud possession of the minister in the manse. To the outsider, food tasted rather bland, and a lack of proper fuel meant that it was usually under-cooked and never served very hot. ‘When boiling the fulmar,’ wrote John Ross, ‘they sometimes pour some oatmeal over the juice and take that as porridge, which they consider very good and wholesome food which I have no doubt it is to a stomach that can manage to digest it.’
The flesh of the fulmar is white. In the older birds, it is a mixture of fat and meat, while the young birds are nearly all fat. When cooked, the fulmar tasted somewhat like beef, and Heathcote, having eaten a meal with the St Kildans, remarked, ‘I must say that we were agreeably surprised. We had expected something nasty, but it was not nasty. It was oleaginous, but distinctly tasty.’
If the fulmar was tasty, it was also tough – good for the St Kildans’ teeth and gums. Ross noted that at the time of the fulmar season, the whiteness and strength of the inhabitants’ teeth improved. Dental care was never to be a problem worthy of note on Hirta, in spite of the fact that toothbrushes were non-existent. Eating the flesh of fulmars, puffins, and gannets seems to have preserved the islanders’ teeth.
In the summer months, the puffins were the main source of food. Mrs Munro, the wife of the last missionary, remembers how they tasted when she tried to cook them. ‘The first lot of puffins (of the season) were brought by the postmaster. They were all dressed, ready for cooking. I asked Nurse Barclay how to cook them and she said put them in the oven and roast them. My husband was in school and came home to dinner and he said, “Try them”. I said, “No thanks, I’ve had enough – I’ve roasted them.” I went to empty the tin and each time I emptied it nothing but oil would come out till you got fed up with seeing it.’
‘The gannets we ate’, recalls Neil Ferguson, ‘tasted fishy and salty.’ Like the fulmar, the gannet was normally salted down for eating in winter. Ferguson recalls: ‘You had to steep them in water for twenty-four hours to take the salt out of them, and then boil them with tatties for your dinner.’ The guga, in fact, was not a food peculiar to St Kilda: the birds were regarded by some on the mainland as delicacies and were regularly served by ships’ cooks on the steamers that plied the Western Isles.
The islanders also ate large quantities of eggs, which, one visitor remarked, ‘they just eat as the peasantry eat potatoes’. Gathered in the spring months, the eggs were boiled and eaten immediately, or else preserved in barrels. The St Kildans were never too fussy about the freshness of the eggs, often keeping them for six to eight weeks before eating them because, they said, time added to their flavour.
The most important possessions on Hirta, used and maintained by the community as a whole, were the boats. Without them, the St Kildans could hardly have existed. They depended upon being able to make the frequently hazardous journey to Boreray and the great stacs to trap the thousands of sea birds that were their livelihood.
At the end of the seventeenth century, the community owned one boat only, sixteen cubits long. It was divided into sections, proportional to the number of families on the island at the time, and every householder was responsible for providing a piece of turf large enough to cover his section of the boat in summer to prevent the hot sun from warping and rotting the precious wooden shell. In winter, the boat was dragged up high above the water line and filled with rocks so that it would not be swept away in a storm or dashed against the rocks.
By 1831, the St Kildans were having to make do with an awkward ship’s boat, weighing almost three tons. Although the boat had three oars either side, the St Kildans made a square mainsail out of their own cloth. Because each family had been responsible for making its share of the sail, the final product was made up of twenty-one patches of various sizes and shades, ‘like what you would have fancied Joseph’s coat to have been’, wrote George Atkinson. The islanders had given their boat a nickname – Lair-Dhonn (Brown Mare).
Ten years later, there was still one boat on Hirta, although the advantages to the community of possessing a second were being talked about by philanthropists on the mainland. In 1861, at a cost of £60, the St Kildans were presented with a fine, new, fully equipped boat. The Dargavel, as she was called, was tragically lost at sea with all hands two years later.
By May 1877 there were four boats on Hirta. Two were given to the people by a wealthy visitor and the others, although almost new, were not thought by the St Kildans to be strong enough to withstand rough usage.
Never in their history did the St Kildans build a boat of their own. Although each household possessed a hammer, and one islander, it is said, had a complete set of carpenter’s tools, there was no indigenous supply of wood on Hirta. It was just as easy therefore to transport a finished boat from the mainland as it was to bring over the materials from which one could be built. The men did their best to repair the boats they had, although many from the mainland thought they did so in a less than enthusiastic way.
Like their cousins in the Hebrides, the St Kildans regarded the sea as a spirit to be wooed rather than a challenge. Although not thought to be particularly good sailors, they did at least respect the Atlantic Ocean surrounding them. ‘The St Kildans’, commented Wigglesworth in 1902, ‘are as expert in the art of managing their boats as they are in climbing the cliffs. I do not mean to say that they are specially expert sailors, but the skilful manner in which they bring their boats up to the rocks and land and re-embark in the face of a heavy swell, where few sailors would even care to risk their boats, is remarkable.’
Every year, the men of Hirta would make the dangerous trip to Stac Lee. It was agreed by the morning meeting that time and tide were right to risk a boat on the four-mile crossing. While the little rowing boat rose and fell with the swell of the ocean, the man in the bows would throw a rope towards the giant stac. ‘In the olden days,’ remembers Lachlan Macdonald, ‘there was a bolt put into the rock there. You’d be lucky sometimes when you were in the boat if you would see it.’ Once the rope was secured on the steel bolt, those who were to land scrambled from the boat onto the rock. ‘Everyone’, says Lachlan, ‘had to take an empty box. You’d carry it up to the top of Stac Lee and when you reached the top you would fill it up with gannets’ eggs.’ Several men would have to stay in the boat. There was no safe mooring by the rock, so they would try to seek as sheltered water as there was available and wait.
When all the St Kildans had filled their boxes, the most dangerous part of the exercise began. Carrying the boxes of eggs on their backs they would make the treacherous descent, ‘which was a worse job than going up’, recalls Lachlan. ‘There would be anything in the box from half a hundredweight to a hundredweight. And you hadn’t got to break them; you had to take them down whole. Maybe sometimes there would be an odd one broken, but there weren’t many.’ The boat, laden down with men and eggs, then returned to the safety of Village Bay. The women, by tradition, were always waiting at the landing-place to greet their exhausted men.
In the early days, eggs were rarely taken from Stac Lee. Most were removed from the nests of Boreray and Stac an Armin. The St Kildans reasoned that by leaving the eggs on Stac Lee, by autumn the young gannets would be more advanced there. A double crop of sea birds was thus assured. Should bad weather, moreover, prevent a crossing to Stac Lee at the appropriate time of year, there were always the birds on Boreray. At the time of the evacuation, Stac Lee was climbed for eggs and nothing else. By then it was too dangerous, given the number of men available, to risk a crossing.
The St Kildans took the eggs of some fourteen species of birds that bred on their archipelago. Some, like those of the gannet and the guillemot, were for eating, others were blown and sold to tourists in the summer months or sent to egg collectors on the mainland. The eggs of the starling, oyster catcher, tree sparrow, fork-tailed petrel, grey crow, raven, and eider duck were frequently asked for, but the greatest prize was the egg of the St Kilda wren – a species of wren slightly larger than the mainland varieties, that was found only on Hirta. After all the eggs were harvested, they were laid out in boxes on the grass and divided out among the islanders. Most homes owned a glass blowpipe brought over from Scotland which was used to remove the contents of the eggs.
Puffins, the major source of fresh food throughout the summer months, arrived in March and remained on Soay and Dun until the end of August. The birds made their nests in the turf. The female laid her single egg at the end of a burrow, usually three or four feet long, dug by both birds. Until recently, it was estimated that the puffin population of St Kilda was over a million; but in the past two years the number has more than halved, and there is some mystery as to what has happened to the birds that never returned. It is thought that oil pollution out at sea has claimed them.
The islanders trained their dogs to drive the birds from their burrows. Once they were forced into the open, the puffins were trapped by an ingenious method. The St Kildans laid a length of rope to which were attached anything up to forty little nooses made of horsehair upon a rock or patch of turf that the puffins frequented. The bird would catch its ungainly legs in the noose. The capture of a few would attract the inquisitive attention of others who, by investigating, got caught themselves. It was estimated that using a puffin gin (as it was called) on the slopes and rocks of Dun, an islander could kill fifty puffins a day.
The puffins were plucked and their carcasses split down the middle. They were hung up on strings outside the house to dry and were then ready for the cooking pot. Apart from eating the flesh themselves, the islanders gave it to their dogs and cattle. In the first half of the nineteenth century, between 20,000 and 25,000 puffins were killed every year. By 1876, more puffins were taken in the summer months than all the other birds put together – upwards of 89,000 birds were slaughtered. In later years when the population was smaller, the St Kildans were still catching 10,000 annually.
There was a time when the women and young girls went to Boreray to catch puffins, while the men saw to the sheep on the island. Before the snaring began, a curious rite was performed. A puffin was caught and plucked of all its feathers, save those on its wings and tail. It was then set free and, according to the St Kildans, immediately attracted other puffins around it. Mass slaughter would then begin.
On occasions, the frightened birds were dragged from their burrows by the dogs. ‘While the sagacious animals pawed at one hole,’ wrote Sands who witnessed the harvest in 1877, ‘they (the women) kept a watchful eye on the burrows adjacent as if they expected the puffins to issue from them. Some of the girls at the same time were plunging their hands deep into the holes and dragging out the birds, and twisting their necks with a dexterity which only long practice could give.’
Guillemots were also killed in the spring and summer months. Their flesh was eaten by the islanders and their feathers kept to be exported later in the year. Stac Biorach was their main breeding ground. The stac was nicknamed the ‘Thumb Stac’ because on the needle of rock the only firm hold available was of the size of a thumb.
Apart from the brief three months September to November, the fulmar petrel could be found on Hirta all the year round. The St Kildans ate some adult birds in the early part of the year, but their main concern was to harvest the thousands of young fulmars in mid-August.
Similar in size to the common gull, the female fulmar lays a single white egg towards the end of May. Both parents take it in turn to incubate the egg. After some forty to fifty days the young bird is hatched, and after seven weeks or so is big enough and strong enough to leave the nest. The St Kildans surveyed the cliffs daily from the beginning of August to be sure that they would commence their slaughter before the birds had flown.
The fulmar harvest was the busiest, most exciting and most important incident in the St Kildan year. ‘They catch the birds for the sake of their meat, oil and feathers,’ wrote Norman Heathcote in 1900, ‘and the act of catching them is their only sport. It is this that makes them love their island home. If it were not that they can rival one another on the rocks, they would be less unwilling to seek adventures in the outer world.’
In the weeks prior to the harvest, many preparations had to be made. The women brought the cattle back to Village Bay from their summer grazing in Glean Mor and made sure that they had ground enough corn to feed the family during the harvest period. The men meanwhile got out the old barrels that would be used to store the prepared birds for winter. The salt, used to preserve the birds and normally delivered to the island by the factor in June, was fetched from the storehouse and distributed to each householder. The stomachs of adult gannets caught earlier in the year would be inflated and dried out. They would be used during the slaughter to contain the precious amber oil of the petrels.
The talk at the daily meeting would be of fulmars. The men would discuss and decide what parts of the cliffs should be cleared first. Normally the harvest began where it was agreed the young fulmars were most advanced, for fear that the islanders might lose them forever. The weather was also an important consideration. Some areas of the cliff were notoriously more dangerous in damp or wet conditions than others.
The most important task was to test the ropes. A length of rope taken from the loft of each home was tested by the men in full view of the rest of the community lest it had rotted during the months of storage. The rope was agreed to be safe if it could stand the strain of being pulled by four men against the weight of a large boulder.
On 12 August the harvest began. Everyone on the island took to the cliff tops. The men had ropes slung across their chests and the women carried the empty stomachs of the solan geese. The children accompanied their parents to watch and learn and help the women carry the day’s catch back to the village. Many women were capable of carrying as much as two hundred pounds of dead birds on their shoulders at a time.
In the early days, particularly when St Kildans went off singly to kill birds, an iron stake was hammered into the cliff top to secure one end of the rope while the fowler descended the face. By the nineteenth century such a practice had been done away with. Instead, an islander would fasten the rope round his chest, low enough to allow the maximum freedom of movement. His colleague would hold on to the other end of the rope while a descent was made. The men worked in their bare feet to ensure a firmer grip on the grassy cliffs that plunged a thousand feet into the sea. When the fowler had gained support for his feet, he would shout up to his friend, ‘Leigas!’ (‘Let go!’), at which command the man at the top would slacken the rope. Below, the slaughter could then begin.
On the cliffs of Conachair the fulmars were normally so dense that the fowler had to kill them in order to clear a way for himself along the ledge. Each young fulmar could weigh up to two or three pounds. The man who did the killing wore a belt, and as the birds were strangled, he slipped the head through the gap between the belt and his body. When he had killed twenty or so birds, or had cleared a particular part of the cliff and wished to move on, the bundle of birds was tied to the end of a second rope and pulled up by one of his companions at the top. ‘And then maybe you go to another place’, recalls Lachlan Macdonald, ‘and do the same and then you maybe take thirty or forty of them on your back home. It’s pretty heavy sometimes. Hard work in a way.’ As little time as possible was spent in the actual killing of birds, and with the call of ‘Tarning nard’ (‘Pull up’), the fowler would be pulled up to the top of the cliff and safety.
Occasionally the thirty-fathom ropes that the St Kildans used would not be long enough to reach the lower parts of the cliffs. In such instances, three men would work together. The first would stay at the top, as before, and the other two would be lowered down one at a time. The second man, having found a secure platform, would then lower the third down to a position from which he could continue the slaughter.
The St Kildans always adopted the easiest method of killing the birds. In many parts of the cliffs, ropes were not needed at all as the nests were readily accessible. In other parts, rather than haul the birds up to the cliff top, the islanders tossed them into the sea, where a waiting boat would pick them up.
The most dangerous operation of all, however, was the ascent of the cliffs from the sea. An island boat would be taken round to the foot of Conachair and two cragsmen would climb by turns in true alpine fashion. In such cases an end of the rope was attached to both fowlers so that in the event of the foremost losing his footing, his companion would be able to break his fall.
The fulmar is capable of spitting the vile-smelling oil contained in its stomach some two or three feet. To the St Kildans, the oil was valuable. ‘As you were going down the rock on the rope,’ remembers Lachlan Macdonald, ‘you try and hide yourself as much as you can. The young fulmars were just about the stage to fly, right enough, but if you don’t get them quickly they’ll make an awful mess of you. They’d spew that oil out on you.’ The fowlers had also to be wary of being startled by such an action lest they be thrown off balance and fall off the face of the cliff. In order to retain the oil in the bird’s stomach, the St Kildans gave the neck a twist.
Sometimes the fulmars nested in places out of reach of a fowler on the end of a rope. To capture them, the St Kildans used a fowling rod, which they made themselves. This was a bamboo pole about fifteen feet long, to one end of which was attached a thin strip of cane. A running noose, made of plaited horsehair or wire and stiffened with a gannet’s quill to maintain a bow, was attached to the cane. With a fowling rod the St Kildans could easily lasso the unsuspecting, inaccessible bird.
The killing lasted a fortnight. Every evening the fulmars were laid in a heap by the shore in front of the village and divided out carefully and equally amongst the islanders. Although the cliffs themselves were divided out before the harvest began, the St Kildans also shared the final catch. ‘You see, supposing you had a share in the cliffs,’ says Lachlan Macdonald, ‘you might have a lot more than the other fellow, so it was fairer to share them all when they came home so that there wouldn’t be any difference.’
‘They all put them in one place,’ recalls Neil Ferguson, ‘and they shared them out – so much for each house – and when they took them home they started plucking them and cleaning them. The old men salted them and the young boys cut their feet and head off and the women took the guts out, and that was the way of it. Next morning you went for another load. That went on until you had two big barrels of fulmars salted. They didn’t get much sleep at all. They would be working till maybe two or three in the morning and away again at eight o’clock for some more.’ Every islander was given an equal share of the harvest, whether or not he or she had taken part in the work. The only exceptions to the rule of absolute equality were those fulmars killed while out of the nest, which the fowler was allowed to keep for himself. The reason why was explained to John Ross by an islander. ‘Should they be left out there all night,’ he said, ‘the ravens, hawks or crows would have eaten them up and they would do good to no one.’
The St Kildans had a use for every part of the fulmar. The feathers, a valuable source of income, were graded according to colour and put into sacks. The fulmar oil, of which every bird normally yielded anything up to half a pint, was poured out of the gannet stomachs into canisters to be bartered when the factor came. Those birds that were to be preserved for eating in winter were split lengthways down the back and filled with salt. They were then packed like herring in barrels. The entrails of the birds were often used as fishing bait, while the bones were condemned to the midden at the back of the house to become a good, rich fertilizer by the following spring. A large number of birds, of course, would be eaten fresh. The carcasses were boiled and the fat that came out of them, once cooled, could be skimmed off and used in the islanders’ lamps. ‘All this time there is nothing but birds, fat and feathers everywhere,’ remarked the Reverend Neil Mackenzie of the village at the time of the harvest. ‘Their clothes are literally soaked in oil, and everywhere inside and outside their houses, nothing but feathers; often it looks as if it were snowing.’
Traditionally, the St Kildans did not use salt to preserve the flesh of the sea birds. Salt was frequently scarce and to a poor people often expensive. The strong winds that are rarely absent from Hirta were used instead to stop the carcasses from going bad during the winter months. To be preserved by the wind, however, the birds had to be kept dry and the islanders built hundreds of little stone storehouses called cleits that allowed the wind to pass over the food, but not take with it any moisture.
Cleits are unique to St Kilda. Without them life would not have been possible on such a damp and wet island. They were constructed entirely out of stone and turf. The granophyre slabs that litter the eastern part of the island were admirably suited to the building of corbelled, dry-stone walls. Large, flat slabs covered with turf provided the structure with a roof. For strength as well as dryness, the little doorway was normally set in the end of the cleit facing the hillside. The cleits were usually about eight to twelve feet in diameter and four or five feet high. Those built by the St Kildans inside the wall surrounding the village were used mainly to store the carcasses of sea birds and were round in shape.
The greatest concentration of cleits lies in the Village Bay area, but the islanders built hundreds more on Hirta, some on the slopes of Conachair, others on Oiseval. Beyond the wall, cleits were used to store practically everything that had to be kept dry, like ropes, feathers and even clothing. High on the hill-slopes they were used almost exclusively to dry and store the lumps of turf for the fires of Village Bay.
At the end of the fulmar harvest, the St Kildans would take two or three days’ rest. Exhausted by their labours, they could relax for a while in the knowledge that safely stored away were some of the food supplies that would keep them alive in winter. But another harvest still remained to be reaped, that of the young gannet, or guga.
St Kilda, then as now, could claim to be the largest gannetry in the world. A count of the colony taken in 1960 revealed that some 40,000 pairs breed on Boreray, Stac Lee, and Stac an Armin. Until the nineteenth century the gannet was the buttress of the community’s economy: the oils and feathers of the bird helped pay the rent and provide the people with essential supplies from the mainland.
The gannet builds its nest on ledges of rock. The female lays one egg which is incubated by both sexes for anything up to forty-five days. When the chick hatches it is black and naked but soon develops a white down. By September, the down is replaced by brown feathers. It was then that the St Kildans would prepare for the most spectacular and dangerous task of their year, the hunting of the gannet.
The gugas had to be killed at night, when the birds would be on their nests. Usually a dozen men were involved in the trip – seven would land on Boreray and the other five would stay in the boat and row and drift round the island all night. ‘This island’, wrote George Atkinson, ‘is more universally precipitous than St Kilda, and to a timid or awkward person would be really difficult to land on.’ Before a landing was attempted each man would remove his boots and don a pair of heavy woollen socks.
‘The St Kildans’, continued Atkinson, who went with a party of islanders to Boreray in the summer of 1831, ‘are very dexterous in landing or embarking on, or from, a rocky shore, where the long, heavy swell of the Atlantic keeps the boat rising and falling by the side of the cliff, a height of fourteen or fifteen feet, even when the sea appears quite calm. The boat is placed with her broadside to the rock and kept from striking by a man in the head and stern, each with a long pole for the purpose. One of their barefooted climbers stands ready in the middle with a coil of rope on his arms, and seizing an opportunity springs on the rock and establishes himself firmly on some rough projection. He then hauls on the rope, the other end of which, I should have observed, is held by some in the boat, or attached to it, and giving way when the boat falls, tightens the rope at its rising. Another companion joins him and standing three or four feet from him employs another rope in a similar manner, so that together they form a firm and safe gangway or railing, for an inexpert person to spring to land by.
‘When this is attained, however, a most arduous ascent of the precipice is to be accomplished, which is here of the height of six hundred or seven hundred feet, and quite difficult enough for the most indifferent climbers, though unembarrassed by any load, and we were told the women often ascend and descend this with a sheep or a couple of lambs in their arms.’
The colony of gannets on Boreray would be asleep on their nests, but one bird would remain awake and would give the alarm as soon as his suspicions were aroused. The ‘sentry’ bird always had to be killed first, then the fowlers could slaughter the unsuspecting birds at will with the aid of a small club. ‘After working for an hour or two,’ wrote George Murray in 1886, ‘we rested and three of us sat down on the bare rocks with the ropes about our middles, the cloudless sky our canopy, the moon our lamp, and had family worship. The scene to me was very impressive. The the ocean still and quiet far below, and offered praise and prayer to Him who was able to preserve us in such dangerous work.’ Before catching a few hours’ rest, some of the night’s catch would be gutted and stored in the cleits built on Boreray, to be eaten on further expeditions to the island. At daybreak, hundreds of gannets would be loaded into the boat and the crew would return to Hirta. At the landing-place the women, relieved at the sight of their returning men, would carry the catch after it had been divided out to their cottages.
A large bird with a five-foot wingspan, the gannet could be ferocious when disturbed on its nest. Although the birds would not intentionally attack the fowlers, they could and did hit them a hard blow with their powerful wings and sharp beaks as they attempted to flee. On the great stacs, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, there was always the danger, in the dark particularly, of losing footing and falling off. ‘They used to go at night time’, recalls Neil Ferguson, ‘and climb the rock [Stac Lee] at night when the gannets were roosting. But there was always one on watch and that’s the one they made for first in the dark and broke its neck. They then killed all the rest one after the other and left them lying there till daybreak and then threw them out to the sea for the boat to pick up.’ On Stac Lee, the St Kildans stood on a promontory, called the Casting Point, to throw the gannets to the men in the boat below. The point overhangs the base of the rock, so there was little danger of the night’s kill being blown and crushed against the rocks.
A landing on Stac Lee was always dangerous. ‘As we approached the stacs,’ wrote Lady Mackenzie in 1853, ‘the gannets came to meet us in their thousands, and one could hardly see the sky through them. There is no possible landing place on the stacs where a boat can be drawn up, as they rise sheer out of the ocean. At one place for which we steered, there had been an iron pin three feet long let into the rock perhaps ten feet above high-water mark, and from the boat a rope with a loop at the end of it was thrown over this pin and the boat drawn in near enough for some of the best of the St Kildan climbers to spring on to a small ledge. Then they ascended very carefully and very slowly with their rods, with the nooses at the end, and soon they had caught and killed a large number of the solans.’ As with the fulmar, the St Kildans would use fowling rods to trap the less accessible gannets.
When the gannets had been killed, the ropes and rods could be put away for another year. The St Kildans could face another winter confidently. Supplies of food were assured and the feathers and oils extracted from the fulmar and gannet would pay the rent.
The feathers of both birds fetched a fair price on the mainland. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the factor sold most of the fulmar feathers to the British government. Once fumigated, they were impervious to lice and bed-bugs, and as such were much favoured by the army. The amber oil of the fulmar was said to have many of the properties of cod liver oil. Rich in vitamins A and D it was sold on the mainland as a medicine. The St Kildans claimed it helped soothe rheumatic pains and in London and Edinburgh it was sold in bottles to the public as the perfect remedy for tooth-ache. ‘Can the world exhibit a more valuable commodity?’ remarked a St Kildan in the eighteenth century. ‘The fulmar furnishes oil for the lamp, down for the bed, the most salubrious food, the most efficacious ointments for healing wounds, besides a thousand other virtues of which he is possessed, which I have no time to enumerate. But to say all, in one word, deprive us of the fulmar and St Kilda is no more.’
From time immemorial people could only live on Hirta at the expense of the fulmar and the gannet. Year after year the sea birds managed to survive the massive onslaught made by the St Kildans upon their number. Despite the decimation, the colonies were never to desert the stacs and cliffs of the archipelago. St Kilda was first to be deprived of men.
5 Life on the croft
To all outward appearances, life on Hirta changed little over the years. ‘If other countries are furnished with a variety of luxuries,’ concluded the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay in 1756, ‘St Kilda possesses in a remarkable degree the necessaries of life.’ Sixty years later, MacCulloch wrote in a similar vein: ‘The men are well-looking and better dressed than many of their neighbours of the Long Island; bearing indeed the obvious marks of ease of circumstance both in apparel and diet.’ Even by the end of the nineteenth century, when times became harder for the St Kildans, John Ross wrote, ‘On the whole the people live well, all that is wanted is a greater variety and more vegetable food. A Skyeman who had been often on the island for various lengths of time gave me his opinion in these terms. “They are the best fed people in Creation. I speak the truth, master”.’
The St Kildans were cragsmen first, crofters second. The remarkably high standard of living they enjoyed was based primarily upon the sea birds which provided so many of the islanders’ wants and supplied the proprietor with a profit that enabled him to be generous to his remote tenants. The scant land available to them on Hirta was never a source of wealth. The St Kildans worked hard to grow essential crops and probably put more hours into their crofts than they spent fowling, but the yield was slight.
Despite native prosperity the village on Hirta in the seventeenth century must have appeared very mean and small to the outsider. One hundred and eighty islanders, according to Martin Martin, lived in twenty-five black houses. The homes were of dry-stone construction, roofed with turf and hay and lay above the line of the later nineteenth-century village, to the west of Village Bay. The chief attraction of the site was that the homes received the most hours of sunlight and that the land was relatively dry and well drained. It was the most sheltered area available: the hills that surrounded the scattered houses broke the main force of northerly and westerly gales, and the southern shoulder of Oiseval deflected winds from the east.
Inside the houses, all was black with soot and the air hung heavy with the perfume of rough peat. There were no windows and no chimney: the fire smouldered in the middle of the floor and the smoke escaped by way of the door. The furniture of every home was sparse – the islanders lived most of their lives eating and sleeping on the floor. Each family owned a set of quernstones to grind meal, a hollow stone called a clach shoule which acted as a lamp, and a cragan which was a vessel of rudely baked clay that served as a cooking pot. The only form of lighting available was the clach shoule; the hollow in the stone was filled with fulmar oil and a cinder of peat acted as a wick. Each house also had a pitcher for water that was readily available from the numerous wells on Hirta, and a dish or two to drink from.
Life in the black house, however, had much to commend it. The sound of the ever-present wind on Hirta was greatly reduced by the thickness of the walls. The structure was warm and draught-proof and there was little chance of condensation forming. The black house, in fact, was a healthy home for people who were primarily outdoor folk.
In winter, living conditions were apparently less beneficial. The St Kildans, like their neighbours on the Hebrides, shared their humble dwellings with their cattle, so that the beasts would not perish from cold. Although unhygienic, the custom had its advantages. The presence of the cattle added warmth and the dung that was allowed to amass and dry on the floor was of inestimable value.
The Reverend Neil Mackenzie, who went to St Kilda in 1829, was distressed by the unhygienic conditions. He was influenced by the trend elsewhere in the Highlands and islands to improve the conditions in which people were living in the name of sanitation. A new village was planned. With financial incentive provided by a philanthropic Englishman, Sir Thomas Acland, who paid a short visit to the island, the St Kildans began to construct their new homes. Wood and glass – two alien materials – were incorporated in their design and were duly supplied by the proprietor. Between the years 1836 and 1838, twenty-five houses, barns, and outbuildings were constructed in a crescent one hundred yards above the shore at the head of Village Bay.
The new black houses, a great improvement upon those they replaced, were described in 1853 by Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch when, together with her young son Osgood, she paid a visit to Hirta. She was ‘surprised at the cleanly appearance of the walls and roofs of the houses, and the nice dry walk which went all along the sides of the houses. The walls of the houses are built just as they are in Harris – that is double, being very thick and the middle filled with earth. The roof extends only to the inner wall, and you can walk round the top of the wall quite easily. The form of the roof is oval, like a big bee-hive. They are made of wood covered with turf and then thatched with straw above, and on the outside are straw ropes like a network put across to keep the wind from blowing away the thatch. The houses have generally a sort of window with a tiny bit of glass, and they have a plan of their own for locking their doors with a wooden key made by themselves. It appears to keep matters quite secure. Osgood observed that the beaks of the solan geese were used as pegs to keep down the straw on the buildings.’
The cattle, however, still occupied one end of the house. ‘The byre is on the left hand side as you enter,’ wrote Lady Mackenzie, ‘and above it is the only aperture for letting out smoke, which in fact they wish to keep in as much as possible for the sake of the soot, which they use to enrich the land for barley and the potatoes in the spring. I was told that they never clean out their byres at all till they take away the manure in April, and previous to that time it is almost impossible to get in and out of the door.’ The fireplace still remained in the middle of the room and once a year the interior floor was dug up and the roof was stripped and the straw, impregnated with soot, spread on the ground. Every October, in preparation for winter, fresh thatch was laid on the roof.
In the 1850s, the Reverend Dr MacLachlan decided the time had come to present the St Kildans with a quantity of crockery. He was particularly concerned with the lack of sanitation on the island. There were no lavatories at all on Hirta and human functions were performed upon the ground. The kindly reverend saw fit to donate a chamber pot to each household. The islanders, however, had no idea what they were for and used them to eat porridge.
In each house was a box bed, a standard feature of rural life in Scotland and, like so many things, the product of common sense. In Hirta it was called a crub. A boot-shaped sleeping cell, the crub was sensible in a place where wood was scarce, as the alcove could be built into the house when originally constructed.
In the early 1860s, new cottages were constructed by the then proprietor, John Macpherson MacLeod. A row of sixteen modern cottages, measuring thirty-three feet by fifteen feet, was built under the supervision of John Ross, master mason of the MacLeod estate. ‘The walls’, wrote McDiarmid, ‘are well built, with hewn stones in the corners and about seven or eight feet high.’ There were chimneys built into each gable and every home could boast two hearths. Every house had two windows, one for each room, facing out into the bay. Each window was fitted with nine panes of glass and the door, fitted with good latches, was placed between the windows. The stone and mortar cottages were built fifteen to twenty yards apart, gable end to gable end, and formed a long street.
The street was the only one to be found in the Western Isles. It was even given a name, ‘Main Street, St Kilda’, and each house was given a number, no 1 being the dwelling nearest to the manse. A stone-slab causeway was laid along the entire length of the street so that when it rained there was no risk of mud being carried inside the house.
The interior of each home was divided into two or three rooms by wooden partitions. Two rooms were fair-sized and the third consisted of a closet opposite the front door in which were built wooden box beds. When first built, all the houses had mud floors: it was not until the end of the century that cement was laid in each living room and a wooden floor put in the main bedroom. The walls were lined with matchboarding to serve as protection against damp, and the roofs were made of zinc sheeting. Heavy gales, however, soon swept the zinc away and the proprietor had to reroof the houses with felt, securely fastened to the masonry with wires and iron staples and then painted with pitch.
The home of each family was the same inside as outside, and furniture was functional if scant. Although there were places cut in the walls for fireplaces, no home had a grate. Each house had a large, rough wooden bed, a few boxes in which to keep valuables, and a barrel or two for sea birds. Each family owned a couple of small chairs which were sent from Edinburgh, and a dresser containing a few bits of crockery. The only article of native manufacture was the occasional chair made from straw. A table of sorts could be found in every home, although in most cases, as the schoolmaster wrote in 1890, ‘painted with mother earth’.
The hours spent sleeping in a St Kildan house were not the most comfortable. Strangely enough in a land of feathers, mattresses were stuffed with straw, and the St Kildans used the few articles of clothing that they discarded at bedtime as a pillow. ‘They lie down year after year’, wrote Ross, ‘on a hard bed of straw, placing part of their clothing under their heads for pillows. The other part they keep on, having for most part nothing between them and the straw and their only covering being a rough blanket. In this they appear to be quite comfortable notwithstanding that in many instances a number of all ages and sexes are huddled together in one place.’ In a community in which families frequently numbered eight persons or more, the two-roomed cottage provided little space. During the winter months, particularly, when the family was confined to indoors for much of the day, the St Kildans must have become adept at cramped living.
The old homes of the St Kildans were not demolished. Instead they became byres and storehouses. In the Gaelic spoken on Hirta, in fact, no word existed for ‘byre’, which was always referred to as ‘the outside house’.
From the middle of the nineteenth century, therefore, the St Kildans were housed in the most advanced dwellings to be found anywhere in the Hebrides. The generosity of the proprietor in building them was surely an example of the economic value he placed upon the most remote part of his estate.
But the new homes had their disadvantages. There was, of course, no lavatory or running water installed, and the relative thinness of the walls made for a constant high-pitched whine whenever the wind blew. The situation of the homes, with the hills behind, meant that frequently the smoke did not manage to escape from the chimneys. By 1875, John Sands remarked that the interior of the houses was blackened with peat smoke. The walls, he claimed, had never been whitewashed since the houses were built. A few islanders rejected their new homes. Rachel McCrimmon, for instance, preferred to spend the rest of her days in her old black house. Few of the St Kildans changed their accustomed way of living when they moved into their new houses.
The standard of hygiene improved little. Even as late as 1875, the minister was the only person on the island who used a fork for eating. The ash and refuse heaps were kept almost at the front door. ‘It would not take long’, wrote Ross, ‘to scrub up everything they possess, but they never think of such a thing.’ Plates, if used at all at meal times, were cleaned by the women wiping them over with a corner of their blue skirts. Knives and forks when used were cleaned by putting them in the mouth. Most visitors during the nineteenth century remarked upon the dirty appearance both of the St Kildans and their homes.
Emily MacLeod, a sister of the proprietor, did much at the turn of the century to improve the standards of cleanliness. The attempts to stamp out disease also did much to instil into the women the need to keep a tidier home. The last nurse to serve on St Kilda, Nurse Barclay, recalls that their homes were spotless, and that the people washed themselves and their clothes regularly once a week. ‘The floors of their houses were well scrubbed,’ she says. ‘You could go in and sit on their chairs, in some of the houses on the mainland I couldn’t. I had to put my Glasgow Herald down first. I always carried a Herald in the front of my bag when I was on the mainland and I had to put it down on the chair before I could sit on it.’
Clothing on Hirta was warm and practical. The St Kildans by design as much as by tradition never wore kilts. Instead they preferred to follow the example of fisherfolk on the west coast of Scotland. The trousers, shirts and woollen garments were worn loose to enable greater freedom of action and were hard-wearing. ‘It is remarkable’, wrote Sands, ‘that in all their work there is no attempt at ornament in which they differ strikingly from the Highlander, who when he was at liberty to please his own fancy, decorated his person from top to toe and who…abhors everything that is plain and unadorned.’
The St Kildans made most of the clothes they needed. The men not only made their own trousers and shirts, but tailored the dresses of their wives and daughters. Accessories, such as bonnets, caps, scarves, and cravats, were imported from the mainland. There is a story told that on one occasion a certain type of shoelace found its way to the lonely isle of St Kilda barely a year after it had made its first appearance in London.
The men all wore homespun woollen shirts, sewn together with worsted yarn, and blue tartan checked trousers which were dyed with imported indigo. In winter, they were muffled to the ears with big coarse cravats, twisted round their necks roll upon roll.
The women made a much more picturesque group. They wore short petticoats and long dresses, which they hitched up to knee level when work had to be done. For head-dresses they were fond of bright, turkey-red napkins. The wives kept their gowns together with two strings around their bodies, one under the arms and the other nine inches below. Every woman owned a plaid shawl, which was fastened with a brooch or a pin of native manufacture. The brooch was beaten out of an old copper coin and the pin was made from copper nails taken from wrecks that chanced to come ashore. ‘The women’, wrote Macaulay in 1756, ‘are most handsome; their complexions fresh and lively as their features are regular and fine. Some of them, if properly dressed and genteely educated, would be reckoned extraordinary beauties in the gay world.’ The strain of hard work, however, was soon etched in their faces.
Wedding rings were never worn on Hirta. Married women, therefore, distinguished themselves from unmarried ones by a white frill which was worn in front of the headshawl or kerchief.
During most of the year, the islanders wore neither stockings nor shoes. When Martin Martin visited St Kilda in 1697, the ‘turned shoe’ was still being worn, made out of the neck of a gannet and employing the natural bend in the neck for the heel. Such footwear had to be kept in water when not worn, and even then lasted only a few days. By the nineteenth century, however, every woman had a pair of brogues, rudely fashioned from raw sheepskin thongs by the men.
During the summer men, women, and children worked in the minimum of clothing. The weather could become unbearably warm and the island offered little shelter from the sun. ‘The women are often to be seen’, wrote Sands, ‘on the cliffs and in the glen without any clothing but a woollen shirt, whilst the men also strip to their underclothing when engaged on the cliffs.’
In later years, the standard of dress on the island improved immensely. ‘When I first went out in 1903,’ wrote Thomas Nicol, ‘the men were dressed on weekdays in rough homespun trousers, very baggy and just a shade neater than those adopted by a famous English University, a sleeved waistcoat, and a thick red muffler twisted as a rule twice round the throat.’ In a little less than twenty years, with the help of a mail order catalogue, the St Kildans looked little different from the people who came to visit them. ‘In many respects the people have become wonderfully modern,’ continued Nicol, ‘and this is particularly noticeable in their Sunday dress. The young men now appear in well-cut dark tweed suits with collar and tie. Some of the women even wear hats.’ But the St Kildans were never to concern themselves overmuch with appearances, and little distinction as to dress existed on the island.
Heating and lighting were obvious necessities of life. In the old black houses, lighting was traditionally supplied by a cruse, an oil-bearing container, first made of stone and later of metal, in which a wick floated. A turf impaled on a stick was used as a torch by the islanders when they were outside at night. The St Kildans used paraffin, in later years, given to them by the factor in exchange for tweed and feathers, or else charitably donated by passing trawlermen. Hurricane lamps were regularly in use by the twentieth century both inside and outside the home.
The St Kildans burnt turf to heat their homes and cook their food. The fuel was generally cut from Mullach Mor to Mullach Sgar and from the slopes of Conachair and Oiseval. The turf was stripped often wastefully from good pasture land and occasionally good arable land, but the islanders had little choice in the matter. There was peat available on the island and many visitors argued that it should be cut instead. ‘It is not good moss and would never make fire’, was the islanders’ usual answer when questioned. Besides, it was more difficult to dig, harder to dry out than turf, and above all heavier to carry. The deposits were primarily confined to the top of hills, over three-quarters of a mile from the village.
As with the storing of sea birds, so with the turf: the cleits were of inestimable importance to the St Kildans. Those built beyond the village wall were used to dry and store turf. Normally they were constructed as near to the cutting grounds as possible; hence over the centuries hundreds of cleits appeared on the slopes. Although the men would help, the cutting and fetching of turf was a task for the women.
Hirta could boast a society that from time immemorial treated women as equal, certainly in terms of the work that had to be done. The peats were carried by the women and children on their backs in old plaids or pieces of canvas. ‘It is astonishing’, wrote Ross, ‘to see the burden even the children from six to nine years of age can take.’ There was little room in the house to store the dry peat, so trips to the hills had to be made regularly. ‘We helped too, young as we were,’ remembers Flora Gillies, only ten years old at the time of the evacuation. ‘I always carried for my grandfather. I don’t know why, but I always seemed to carry it. My Aunt Mary, it was nothing for her to carry a bag on her back. She was very strong.’
The women also looked after the cattle, and cut all the grass required for their feeding during the winter months. Twice a day in the summer months they would make the long walk over to Glean Mor to milk the cows and ewes. The first visit was made at daybreak and they would return to the Glean again at five o’clock in the evening. If necessary they would take a bundle of grass with them on their backs to keep the beasts happy while they were being milked.
All the fetching and carrying on the island was delegated by the men to the women. ‘Goods from Glasgow’, wrote Ross, ‘are carried by the women from the shore to their houses and woe be unto them unless they are ready waiting when the men get the cargo to the shore.’ In the landing of stores, the men were responsible for manning the island boats out to the ship and the transferring of goods from the factor’s smack or the steamer to the rowing boat. On reaching shore, the men would tumble the supplies out of the boat. ‘There being but little room,’ wrote Ross, ‘everything must be removed quickly or the place is blocked up. Such a block happened that day bringing forth a hurricane of yelling from the men but no assistance with it. This is always the case when a thing comes too hard on the men, they poke their hands down to the elbows in their trousers pockets and yell away whereas the poor women almost worry their lives out to avoid this. That day I noticed some of them literally groan under their loads without being offered the slightest sympathy or assistance.’
Occasionally the women had some time to devote to knitting. ‘The stocking’, wrote the schoolmaster Ross, ‘is always carried about her person, ready to be taken whatever situation if she is idle.’ Except for the winter months, however, the women found little time to knit. They were far more busy than the men, for there were always things to be done about the house, and in the summer months they had their part to play in the harvesting of birds. The only work specifically reserved for the men was the grand, heroic task of manning the boats and climbing the cliffs in search of birds.
By the nineteenth century, the St Kildans had little faith in the value of their crofts. From a barrel of potatoes, weighing about two hundredweight, McDiarmid reckoned in 1877 that the islanders would scarcely lift three barrels. Owing to a constant subjection to seaspray, the potatoes that were salvaged were soft and tasted more like yams. Although barley and oats were equally prominent features of the St Kildan diet, the yield was likewise small. Oats were generally sown very thickly, from ten to twelve bushels to every acre of ground, and the return was rarely above three times the quantity sown. The islanders attempted to grow a few cabbages and a few turnips, but on Hirta weeds grew more easily than crops. In season, the whole of the arable land looked more like a bed of marigolds than a provider of grain and vegetables.
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