26 June 2015

Hirta

Some forty five miles west of The Isle of Lewis, exposed to the worst and the best  that The Atlantic Ocean can deliver. lies the rocky archipelago of St Kilda. The main island is called Hirta and once it was populated by genuine St Kildans. Nowadays, the only people who stay there are bird watchers, National Trust workers, occasional trawlermen, scientists and military personnel. I have blogged about St Kilda before. It's the kind of place that fires one's emotions and one's imaginings.

While on holiday in Crete I read an excellent book about Hirta called "The Life and Death of St Kilda" by Tom Steel. It was written with passionate interest, after painstaking research and though it was a very different and more demanding book than "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" I ate up every word.

Long before Christian religion appeared on Hirta, before formal education, before paternalistic lairds from the Hebridean islands, before Spanish trawlermen or the Ministry of Defence, long before that the people of St Kilda were self-sufficient and had very little contact with the outer world. The population was never large - two hundred at most but usually more like one hundred to one hundred and fifty. Even today nobody knows how people first arrived at this lonely place, where they came from and why.

They had songs, they danced and they shared stories but that was a couple of centuries before the sorrowful evacuation that happened in August 1930 - taking the remaining thirty six St Kildans to new lives in Scotland. Even by then the old songs were forgotten, hidden by the passage of time and puritan religion that interfered with their everyday quest for survival.

Stuck out in the Atlantic, the islands were so attractive to seabirds that they came in their millions - gannets, puffins, guillemots, terns and the fulmar petrel which was greatly prized by St Kildans throughout their long occupation. Though treeless Hirta and its sister islets have plentiful fish supplies, the islanders mainly survived on seabirds. They ate their eggs and plucked their feathers. Each summer they preserved thousands of them ready for the harsh winter that was bound to follow.

The oil from the fulmar petrel's belly had many uses - including lighting the islanders' humble "black houses" that had thick stone walls and turf roofs - strong enough to endure Atlantic gales that frequently blew at over 100 mph for days on end. They also had oats, seaweed and primitive Soay sheep. It must have been some time in the eighteenth century that potatoes were first introduced but they never grew well on Hirta.

This blogpost is threatening to grow as long as a length of Hirta tweed. So much of what Tom Steel wrote is still in my head and under my skin. I am reminded of other islands and fatal impacts - including Australia, Mauritius, Tristan da Cunha and of course Rapa Nui (Easter Island). So  many precious things are lost when the first contact is made and then there is no going back.

The end of the St Kildan civilisation was sadly inevitable. Those resourceful people could never have lived in a bubble, removed from the voracious modern world. Though they are gone, tantalising evidence of their long existence in the archipelago remains. New things are discovered every year and more things will  be discovered in the future but as at Easter Island, some secrets will remain hidden forever.

Is it so wrong of me to want to go there? Perhaps one day I shall, if the sea is calm enough to disembark in Village Bay where the main street of Victorian cottages has been largely restored by The National Trust. Much of the original village of black houses was bulldozed away by the army in the 1950's when they built a missile tracking station there. Imagine that - tracking missiles where once young men tied themselves to rocks and descended perpendicular cliffs to retrieve young fulmars every springtime.  The contrast is so vivid it is almost unspeakable.

27 comments:

  1. I think I would really like to read that book YP. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

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    1. Good. I am pleased this post has stirred your interest Carol.

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  2. Sounds good and it is available from Kindle at a reasonable price.

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    1. You will probably only like it if you find the very idea of St Kilda captivating.

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    2. I could probably enjoy living there.

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  3. How very interesting, Mr. Pudding. I surely will read it. My library system does not have it so off to Amazon I go.

    I find it so odd that these people did not eat the fish in the sea. Neither did the Maori of New Zealand, I was told. Don't know if that is true or not. I just find that so odd.

    Sad to say but the tribe of people would have died out anyway because of the lack of genetic diversity or exogamy.

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    1. Steel covers the question of inbreeding in his book. A society can survive genetic disaster if it is about 100 in number. Any less than that and the trouble will start. There were occasional influxes of new blood from passing sailors and later visits to The Hebrides.

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    2. See? I should have read the book before opening my big anthropological mouth!

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  4. Sounds like a very interesting book.

    Peace Thyme's remark about the lack of exogamy reminds me that in the state of Tennessee I understand that relatives can get married as long as they are more distant than first cousins.

    I learned recently -- you may have known all the while -- that some of the great heads on Rapa Nui also have great bodies in the ground beneath them. I would love to hear your comments on this.

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    1. At the quarry where all the moai were made, I saw one very large statue and it did indeed have a body that would have been mostly buried if the statue had ever been finished but it was as if the sculptors just downed their tools one day long ago - well before European contact. Some of the moai have bodies and some have partial bodies. Many were balance on platforms and therefore what you saw was what you got - nothing hidden.

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  5. Off to look fir it on amazon cheers

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    1. Well, if you get it I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

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  6. I will look for this book. It is similar to the things here on the aboriginal people.

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    1. Yes. I guess the St Kildans were undermined by contact just like native Americans.

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  7. I was so sure I left a comment here yesterday, but apparently it never came through.
    Anyway.
    This sounds fascinating and exactly like the kind of book I'd enjoy.

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    1. Sorry to learn that your memory is playing tricks on you Miss Arian. I hope that this does not signal the decline of your mental faculties.

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  8. Being primarily visual, I have inspected the photo. Astonishing similarity in attire and face. Whiskers and headgear sounds very sensible in the cold, but I noticed a good proportion wore no shoes. Sound like an intriguing story.

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    1. Sometimes in the olden days they made winter shoes from the carcasses of seabirds. They didn't last too long. In summertime nearly everybody went barefoot.

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  9. Ps I am having a huge amount of blog spam recently. Are you getting any? How do you deal since you seem to have no word verification etc?

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    1. I have never had a lot of spam Kate. The spammers read my posts and it sends them to sleep!

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  10. St Kilda is an amazing place and I challenge any person to visit it and not be affected by it. I have visited it (in the course of my job actually) and read a lot bout it over the years. Living there for even a few weeks would, for me, be quite an emotional (rather than a physical) challenge but, given the opportunity, some years ago I might have been tempted. Now? I'm not so sure.

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    1. I wonder why you are "not so sure" now Graham. Is it the remoteness? You are the only person I "know" who has ever been to St Kilda. Two of our neighbours have attempted to visit it twice but each time they were thwarted by heavy seas.

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    2. Neil I can cope with and enjoy remoteness and I know that if I were given the opportunity any doubts would be overruled by my desire to stay there but I was affected so much emotionally the first time that I'd be a bit concerned as to whether a second visit and a stay would ruin the emotional experience or, perhaps, affect me even more.

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  11. Australia is not lost! And you can find St. Kilda in Melbourne!

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    1. Yes Lee. The book refers to the St Kildans who left their island for Australia and began that Melbourne community.

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  12. That is a fascinating part of history and quite a tale of the islanders on their remote home and then being removed to the mainland.

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    1. Yes Terra. It certainly is quite a story.

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