Monday, 30 August 2010

St Kilda: Life on the edge

Through a smirr of icy rain, there could be no sight more poignant than this abandoned village. A bumpy track rises parallel to the shore, and on one side, a row of cottages looks out to sea. A handful have been restored, but most have been left to the elements, and have been torn apart by the almost ceaseless gales. Humanity though is still defiant and inside each ruin, a stone slate, positioned in the fireplace, tells its story.

At No 8, the stone reads: “1930 Empty. Formerly Callum MacDonald ‘Old Blind Callum’.” A little beyond, inside the ruins of No 15, is the home once shared by John Gillies Jr and Annie Gillies, known, apparently, as the “Queen of St Kilda”. A third house has a simple round pebble inscribed: “Flora Gillies”.

This is Main Street, St Kilda, 80 years to the day that the island’s resident population was evacuated on HMS Harebell, and removed from its punishing life on the most exposed outcrop of the British Isles. For at least 4,000 years, people had eked out their lives here, dining on the oats they grew, and the seabirds they plucked from the cliffs, until their unique brand of “sustainable” living finally became unsustainable and they were forced to quit.

Then, as now, that event inspired a media circus. In 1930, the under secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, was moved to issue an instruction preventing press from remaining on the island on the day of the exodus, “to avoid the miseries of the poor people being turned into a show”.

Three generations later, the island’s owners the National Trust for Scotland, strike rather a different pose. St Kilda is one of around 20 places on Earth to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site both for cultural and for natural reasons. Its importance can hardly be understated, says Dick Balharry, the naturalist who chairs the Trust, but the cost of maintaining the site is high, and every last ounce of publicity helps.

To that end, a German TV crew has this morning anchored its yacht in Village Bay, joining the BBC team that arrived last night. The islanders latest residents, contractors who man St Kilda’s weapons testing station, and keep its 1950s army barracks running, look on at the launching of a replica of the island’s mail boat, pleased to share the island’s story with their visitors.

In truth, St Kilda’s history speaks for itself if you make the steep ascent to the Gap, the little dip on the ridge between Oiseval and Conachair, at 430m St Kilda’s highest point. The village – whose population never passed 180 - is wrapped beneath this vast amphitheatre, and its is easy to pick out the semi circle of verdant green where the community grew barley, oats and potatoes, and husbanded their cattle. The descendents of the islanders’ sheep are scattered out over mountainside, running wild.

Above the Gap, is Conachair itself. At the summit, the fiercest winds reach 170 knots – or 200mph. Beneath, sheer rock tumbles into the sea, the highest cliffs in Britain. It is scarcely credible, but here, every summer, St Kildan men, roped together, and carrying long sticks with nooses attached, defied death (though not always) to snare thousands of fulmars; or took their boats over the treacherous sea to Boreray island and trapped gugas – young gannets – for the pot.

The carcasses of these birds were stripped of their feathers, the birds split down their backs, and the meat either eaten straight away, or, in most cases, salted and stored away in the hundreds of stone cleiten – sheds of stone and turf, that are still scattered all over the island, even on steepest hillsides.

In the end, modernity crushed the St Kildans. When the first tourist steamer arrived in 1838, the islanders, alarmed by the smoke rising from the funnel, went running to the manse to tell the church minister that a ship was on fire.

They soon grew accustomed to the summer trade. Tourism brought money, and an acquaintance with non-perishable foods, medicines and fuel, consumable that became almost essential, as grinding poverty slowly cleared the island of its youngest and fittest inhabitants. The Royal Navy set up a post during the First World War, and the clearance accelerated; when the forces left after the war, a quarter of the remaining St Kildan population followed them off the island.

By 1928, only 37 survived, too few able-bodied enough to farm the land, and pluck sufficient seabirds from the cliffs. The death of Mary Gillies, pregnant but unable to reach a mainland hospital when appendicitis set in, was the last straw. In May the evacuation was ordered; by the evening of 30 August, all that remained of the St Kildans was their houses, and smoke of their last fires rising from the chimneys.

Unlike the former inhabitants, today’s residents have mastered the art of modern living. In 1957, when the trust bought the island, it allowed the Ministry of Defence to take up residency. Though the army and navy quit in 1998, their ugly barracks block is occupied by the26 contractors who man the weapons station, and keep the electricity working.

Now, their lives too may change. Their biggest customer is the British government. The Strategic Defence Review will inevitably cut forces spending, and could quite conceivably put paid to this latest community. What then for St Kilda? Would the barracks block be ripped up, and St Kilda returned to nature?

Not necessarily, says Mr Balharry. St Kilda is a world resource. The mysteries of its Neolithic and Viking past remain uncovered; so does its marine environment and its the dynamics of its unique bird life. Even its sheep are the subject of detailed scientific study. In Mr Balharry’s mind’s eye he sees an international research station here, funded by agencies from all around the world.

But as he descends from the Gap, that notion remains a distant dream. Beneath the vastness of the mountain, he demands: “How have you enjoyed your first morning on St Kilda? Once seen never forgotten. It is magnificent, isn’t it?” And it is.

Photographs by James Glossop.

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