4 August 2013

Isolation

Margaret Macdonald who was St Kilda's oldest living  inhabitant in 1928
One place I would love to visit is the archipelago of St Kilda which lies forty one miles due west of Scotland's Outer Hebrides. The main island in the group is Hirta which is approximately 1,700 acres in area. It is an isolated treeless place battered by Atlantic storms though occasionally in the summertime the climate can be very benign.

People lived on Hirta for perhaps five thousand years - some archaeological evidence certainly appears to confirm that. For the majority of those years the inhabitants lived in perfect isolation having very infrequent contact with other Scottish islands. They had to be self-sufficient and one of their main sources of food was seabirds and their eggs. Even today the islands accommodate enormous seabird colonies.

The nineteenth century saw more regular contact with the outer world. Curious Victorian travellers would come ashore - perhaps buying island knitwear or other hand-crafted souvenirs. With this regular contact, St Kildans came to question the way they lived and gradually islanders began to leave. Several ended up in Melbourne, Australia where their immigration is recalled in a suburb which still bears the name - St Kilda.
Seabird hunter on Hirta
In recent centuries, the island's population  never surpassed two hundred but by 1930 only thirty six islanders remained and it was in that year they agreed to an evacuation that severed their ancestral links with St Kilda.

Margaret - a woman who occasionally visits my local pub - went to St Kilda in the mid-nineteen seventies. She's the sort of person who enjoys visiting wild places. The idea of a holiday in Las Vegas or Blackpool would utterly appal her. She remembers St Kilda with much affection - its isolation, its rugged beauty and the echoes of past times. They say that the St Kildans were the very last people in the British Isles to exist principally by hunting. The fortnight Margaret spent there still occupies a special place in her memory bank.
St Kildan children before the evacuation
It makes you wonder - what was life like for those people. How did they rub along together all those years? And why did they go there in the first place? What was it that drew them there? From the sixteenth century, the islanders had annual rents to pay to one of the landowning lords of Skye. Why? How was he able to claim possession of St Kilda? There are lots of questions and it is likely that most of them will never be answered.

I may never reach there. It isn't easy to get to St Kilda and sometimes, when the boats arrive, rough seas make landing impossible. Margaret's husband - Ron - has tried unsuccessfully to land there three times. Shirley is interested in going too. It's nice to dream. We'll see. The National Trust have refurbished half a dozen of the old cottages so there's somewhere dry to sleep. One day perhaps.
A hundred years ago outside St Kilda's post office
There's an excellent National Trust for Scotland website devoted to St Klda. If you'd like to find out more please go here.

10 comments:

  1. Earlier this summer I did consider travelling there. I was on South Harris so a bit closer than you.
    If you get no further than Harris I think you will find it a great place.

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  2. How fascinating! I wonder why the remaining people agreed to evacuate? I am guessing to preserve the bird colonies? Sounds like you would have a better chance of visiting the namesake in AUS than this remote place on Earth ~ but I hope you and Shirley make it, because then we will all get to read about it and see some fabulous photos. Thank you for sharing YP.

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  3. ADRIAN I am afraid that Harris doesn't have the same romantic appeal for me but I agree - we ought to visit the Outer Hebrides. We have only been to Mull and Skye.
    CAROL I agree it would be much easier to get to the Melbourne suburb than to the island itself. And if you did get there you might find yourself in persistently miserable weather.

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  4. Now you really do have to go since you've blogged about it. We want to hear your take on the place. And pictures!

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  5. "It is an isolated treeless place battered by Atlantic storms "

    Not for me, thankyou.

    Now if you are talking about a deserted desert Island, I'm yer man!

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  6. DAVID OLIVER Perhaps next summer. We'll see.
    HIPPO Yet more evidence that you are in fact Mr Softee!

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  7. I am Mr. Softee personified (and not in the way you are probably thinking, you naughty man). If I had lived in America during the great expansion westward, I would not have joined the pioneers on their great trek. I would have stayed in Philadelphia.

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  8. A cruise of a lifetime Mr YP. You wouldn't need your tux for dinner at the captain's table, just Qwells and a bobble hat.

    Go man, admit it, you've got itchy feet. Added to which you wouldn't get the opportunity to waste money buying tourist tat. Think of the material for your blog you'd have; the information hard wired into your brain by life in the raw on St. Kilda.

    LLX

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  9. That is the most wonderful kind of research and history dwelling thinking that this old cultural anthropologist would love to take on and explore. And I just might. Where did the people come from in the beginning (linguistic anthropology), were the original settlers outcasts from somewhere else or servants of one family who owned the island (genetical anthropology), did they finally leave of their own free will or were they forced to by circumstances or by legal forces (historical ethnography) and how did they assimilate once removed from their homes and where did they go? Wow! A lot of work to do. I'd better get started, what?

    You and Shirley better go now so you can help me with my research project!

    The island that I have always wanted to visit and see as a researcher and anthropologist is Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy. For modern history, not ancient. You and Shirley want to go there, by any chance?

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  10. LETTICE LEAF I do want to go and maybe next summertime we will venture there. There are surely few places like it on Earth.
    MOUNTAIN THYME If you send us the money we will visit Guernsey on your behalf. Been to Jersey but never Guernsey. I am delighted that you are also enthralled by the very idea of St Kilda.

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