Wednesday, April 21, 2010

St Kilda, artist in residence.

The population of the Village, St Kilda has increased by one tonight. St Kilda lies 40 miles out into the Atlantic, beyond the Outer Hebrides. Before their evacuation in the 1930's the St Kildans were the most remote community in the British Isles.

My daughter Jennifer, who is a final year photography student at Glasgow School of Art, is staying on the island for the next week to complete a photographic assignment for her final degree show. She was dropped off by Kilda Cruises's high speed boat from Leverburgh on Harris this morning and hopes to be picked up again next week.

In the course of her research she came across a number of letters written by St Kildans to John MacKenzie, the factor of the MacLeod Estate on Skye. MacLeod was the St Kildans' landlord. These letters were part of a collection held by the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow but were "undiscovered" in that neither the National Trust for Scotland, which holds most of the St Kildan archive, or any of the very many authors who have previously written about St Kilda knew of or had access to these letters. Jennifer based her dissertation on the letters and now on her second visit to St Kilda, hopes to create a photographic interpretation of the island and relics of the St Kildans' existance there to accompany her dissertation at her degree show.

This letter was sent by Donald Ferguson, the factor's groundsman on St Kilda in 1897. In her dissertation, Jennifer presents evidence that the letter was hand written by Donald's son Neil Ferguson. In 1896 two brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton visited St Kilda and their written and photographic record of the island, the islanders and their life; A camera on St Kilda was published in 1897. In it, there is a photograph of a letter from Neil Ferguson sent in a St Kilda mail boat to the mainland. The hand writing appears to be identical to the handwriting in this and other letters from Donald Ferguson.

This is a transcript of Donald's letter:

St Kilda 15th July 1897

Dear Sir

Please send us a hogshead of coal tar, we only got two barrels and 4 pounds 2 inch nails. You must also send 28 slaps for the house and 7yds of felt its empty on both sides of the chimneys. The bull is of no use. We are sending it back by the Dunara. Please send for my mother 20 deals of grooved wood to cover the walls inside 21 feet long ½ inch thick
I hope that you got everything sent you by the Dunara quit safe, I have their casks of oil ready. Our weather is fine and warm, I’ll have fish to send by the Dunara.
I received your letter at present and got the book all right. Norman Gillies cow had her first calve last may

Yours faithfully
Donald Ferguson

I am not quite sure why they thought the bull was no use, maybe something else sired Norman's cow's calf!

Jennifer is in for a very rare experience. However, there are gale force winds expected in St Kilda over the next few days so I hope her tent survives. There are very few people on St Kilda at the moment as the NTS work parties have not yet arrived. Jennifer will experience a little of what the St Kildans lived through; extreme weather and isolation.


  1. What an amazing experience for her. St Kilda is a fantastic place - having visited once, I'd love to go back. I hope the weather is kind to Jennifer - our weather has been better than forecast for the past few days in Orkney, so hopefully she will experience the same.

  2. It is so pleasing to me to see our children are getting out into the world and exploring it. It took me far too long to get on with it. I wish I'd explored more, sooner. So good for your daughter! What she learns about life today will serve her well!

  3. What a fantastic opportunity! I'm sure she'll have the background, skills and mindset to really enjoy the experience.

    The weather doesn't look as if it'll be excessive, so that'll help.

    Look forward to seeing some of her photos!


  4. Thank you Fiona, Michael and Ian, she is incredibly lucky, whatever the weather, I am very jealous!


  5. haha, extreme weather, yes. my tent blew away. the NTS warden & archeologist took pity though (thank you Ian's!) & shared their red wine as we listened to Martyn Bennetts 'Move'.. perfectly apt.

    an amazing 9 day experience (was stormbound). many thanks to Angus for the journey there & back & fishing experience & nts for allowing me to camp. the work will be open to the public at the Glasgow School of Art after 11th June - Visual Communication department.

  6. I travelled with Angus Campbell at Kilda cruises, leaving from Leverburgh, Harris