Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Last glimpse of a St Kildan's way of life

The Times, January 15, 2008

For most people, St Kilda is remote and mysterious, a windswept outcrop in the North Atlantic which against all odds supported human habitation for more than 4,000 years. But for Norman John Gillies, the last survivor of its tiny population, a new edition of a black-and-white film offers a glimpse of a lost way of life that was once familiar to him.

Britain’s Loneliest Isle was shot in summer, 1928, two years before St Kilda island was evacuated. This unique 16-minute documentary has been incorporated in The Island Tapes, a DVD which mixes archive footage with music in an evocation of Hebridean life.

When the original film was made, the islanders still clung to the hope that St Kilda – cut off from the Scottish mainland for nine months a year - had a viable future, eked from their few cattle, and the woollen goods the islanders made. Most movingly, for Mr Gillies, 82, it includes footage of his own mother at a spinning wheel, her shawl wrapped around her head against the fierce wind.

Mary Gillies’s death, in February 1930, would be the catalyst for the departure of the last 36 inhabitants. She fell ill while she was pregnant but storms prevented her leaving for a few days, and by the time she was finally taken from St Kilda her fate was sealed. She and her baby daughter died at Glasgow’s Stobhill hospital.

“I remember that well, as if it happened yesterday. Me standing down at the seashore and waving to her as she was rowed out in a boat with her shawl on and her waving back,” said Mr Gillies, who has lived with his wife in a village near Ipswich for the last 60 years.

His mother’s death had far-reaching consequences for the islanders. “They realised that they were in a hopeless position if anybody took really ill. That was one of the things. All households had to sign that they would leave St Kilda. That happened on 29 August, 1930,” said Mr Gillies.

“For the younger people it was an opportunity to do things which would help their entire lives. To the older inhabitants it was almost as if they had cut off their right hands, to have left their island home. I remember being on the boat and recall some of the older ones at the rear of HMS Hairbell, which took us of. Them waving to the island, until is was out of sight.”

Though only five when the island was evacuated, the last St Kildan still has evocative memories. “I can remember when I used to go into the church with my parents and how I used to be carried by my grandmother on her back when she went milking in the glen. One of my most treasured memories is of my mother calling me home to dinner, when I was playing at one end of the island or the other,” he said.

Mr Gillies left Morvern to join the Royal Navy in 1943, serving on torpedo boats which were based at Felixstowe. One Sunday, he accepted the invitation of a Free Church minister to attend a service in a nearby village. It was there he met his wife, Ivy: "That’s how I came to settle here, a St Kildan in Suffolk."

In the film a series of images show women with weather-beaten faces staring into the camera, children hiding behind a rowing boat and men plucking sea birds from the cliffs to eat.

The original silent movie is scripted through a series of cards which adopt an ever more patronising tone as the Glaswegian filmmakers take in the realities of St Kildan life. In one sequence after a make shift picture house is installed in one of the cottages the film describes the villager’s reactions. “We showed the St Kildans their first moving pictures”, “The show was free, but the girls were shy”, “The machine puzzled them”.

After they left, many of the islanders settled near Lochaline, Morvern. “It was very hard and difficult for the older people. St Kilda had been their way of life. They’d found it hard – but everyone had to knuckle down and get on with it,” said Mr Gillies.

* The Island Tapes is launched on January 21, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

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