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St Kilda

On the western edge of the Outer Hebrides lies the remotest of Scottish islands, cradled by the Atlantic Ocean, frequented by gannets, seabirds and puffins. Thousands of years ago settlers came to these islands blessed by weather temperate for such northern climes. Echoes of Norse names travel down the centuries, dancing with the Gaelic of more recent settlers. These islands have a name – St Kilda – a name which may once have belonged to a person, but if so that knowledge has been lost to the seas of time. The islanders call the biggest landmass, on which they live, Hirta – a name that could have origins in the Gaelic words for island and high, or could come from an old Norse word for shepherd.

Gaelic is spoken here, not English; news of changes in the outside world are slow to filter through to islanders who may see visitors only once or twice a year. These islands are too remote to serve their crown in war.

Rent is paid in kind, through feathers and oil and cloth. Money has no currency. Legend has it that long ago two men claimed ownership of these islands, and agreed to decide the issue through a boat race, the man first to touch Hirta winning the islands. Close to land MacLeod of Harris, finding the other boat still ahead, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus securing his claim by laying a hand on the island before his Uist rival.

The concept of the individual is foreign to the men and women who live here. They work as a unit to ensure that all have food, clothing and shelter. The men meet every morning to agree a work schedule, their focus being on collecting food. This may mean scaling cliffs for the seabirds – fulmers – that are so plentiful here; it may mean slaughtering puffins for their meat or climbing rocks in search of eggs. Women do a lot of the other work; girls learn to carry heavy loads young.

This is a deeply Christian community, indicating that intrepid missionaries must have made it to these shores. Honesty is a way of life; there are no locks on doors. Visitors are always provided for, however little the islanders have for themselves, for the tradition of hospitality to any comer lives in this land.

As the island marches forward in time the outer world moves in – barter becomes less easy; outsiders, always with good in their hearts, come to live or stay awhile. Epidemic illness decimates an already small community. By the early twentieth century times are hard has a different meaning; islanders have been exposed to education and book learning, to nurses and doctors, to visitors curious about a lifestyle both simple and ancient.

I was inspired to write this article after reading Tom Steel’s The Life and Death of St Kilda. This is a fascinating book containing some wonderful old photographs, detailing a way of life lost forever following the evacuation of the remaining islanders in 1930.


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