Saturday, January 31, 2009

Life and Death on St Kilda

From the Gap below Oiseval on the NE coast of Hirta I turned my back to the sea and the wheeling fulmars. I made my way back down to the village.

From above I could see that what I had thought was a vegetable enclosure behind the village, is actually the burial ground.

It is the site of the ancient Christ chapel though no trace of it remains.
Photo JLW

Most of the grave stones are rough hewn with no inscription.
Photo JLW

Others are more elaborate and carved from imported stone, a sign that the Victorian St Kildans' contact with tourists had given them access to money.
Photo JLW

Although this was the remotest inhabited part of the British Isles, its very remoteness attracted wealthy Victorian tourists. They have left a photographic record of the islanders from about 1860. This is Rachel Gillies, whose grave stone is in the photo above. This photo is in the island museum.

Some of the gravestones are quite recent. Malcolm MacDonald left the island in 1924 and spent most of his life in London. He always missed the island home of his youth. He visited St Kilda again in 1967 and found it very hard to leave for a second time and return to London.
Photo JLW

His name, and that of his father, is still just legible on the faded pupil roll in the school house.

Malcolm did make one final trip to St Kilda. His ashes were buried next to the remains of his ancestors. It is likely to be one of the last internments on this island, at the edge of the world, which was inhabited for thousands of years but now stands silent, as a museum to the past.

For a moment, as the wind blew round the walls of the burial ground, I thought I could hear distant voices. But it was only the cries of the sea birds and I turned back to the village street.

03/06/2008 am

Friday, January 30, 2009

130 fulmars per year.

The cliff ledges of Hirta are home to thousands of pairs of fulmars. At one time fulmars were confined to the St Kilda archipelago but since the end of the 19th century they have spread to Scotland and the rest of the British Isles.

This pair are nesting on a bed of sea pink and sea campion but fulmars do not construct a nest for their single egg. They do not begin breeding until they are 8 to 10 years old and can live to over 50.

Superficially fulmars look like gulls but are actually petrels, related to shearwaters and albatrosses. They have a graceful stiff winged flight and glide for long distances skimming the waves with their wingtips. They protect their nests by projectile vomiting a nasty oil.

Fulmars formed a staple of the St Kildans' diet. Each person would eat about 130 fulmars per year. The men scrambled over the crags catching the birds and collecting their eggs. If you follow this link to the Scottish Screen Archive you can see a dizzying clip, shot in 1923, of St Kildans going over the cliffs in search of fulmars at this very spot.

03/06/2008 am

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Between a pox and a hard place on Stac Lee.

From the cliffs on the NE coast of Hirta it is less than 7km across the Atlantic to Boreray and its two satellite stacs. They are Stac Lee and Stac an Armin (in the shade behind). They are the highest stacks in the British Isles. The islanders kept sheep on Boreray and also visited these islands for the sea bird harvest in August. Amazingly there are also about 50 cleitean on Boreray and about 80 on Stac an Armin!

There were also bothies on all three. The one on Stac Lee can still be found. It is just below the dark "V" under the left of the white stained summit cap of the island. The island and stacs are too exposed to leave a boat, so work parties were dropped off by a boat from Hirta, which would return when a signal indicated the work was done.

In 1729 a smallpox epidemic was started after a St Kildan had died on Harris from smallpox the previous year. As his clothes were still good, they were brought back to St Kilda and the smallpox gripped the population. At the time, three adults and eight boys were marooned on Stac Lee because there were no surviving adults, strong enough to man the boat from Hirta, to rescue them. They remained on this windswept rock for 9 months, through the winter and into the next summer, until the factor's boat from Harris relieved them. When they returned to Hirta, they found only one adult and 18 children had survived the epidemic from the population of nearly 200.

Remarkably St Kilda was repopulated in the 1730's from Harris, Uist and Skye. Life may have been tough on St Kilda but it was even worse for many on these other islands. The incomers were taught how to climb the cliffs and harvest birds by the few survivors. By 1758 the population had risen to 88 but it would never again reach 200. The decline had started.

03/06/2008 am

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Rock at the Edge of the World: St Kilda

The slope up to the Gap ended abruptly. At my feet the ground fell away into vertiginous nothingness. The cliffs on the north coast of Hirta are the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles. This truly was the edge of the St Kildan's little World but it was upon the cliffs that their survival depended. They harvested eggs and birds, especially young gannets, fulmars and puffins from the huge breeding colonies on the cliffs.

03/06/2008 am

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The mysterious enclosures of An Lag, St Kilda.

As I entered the hidden hollow high above the village, the slope levelled off and I was drawn towards some large, stone walled enclosures.

From up here, there was no sign of the village or the bay far below. Only the distant Atlantic could be seen through gaps in the rocky ramparts of distant Dun.

After the enclosures the slope steepened towards the Gap between Oisebhal (293m) to the SE and Connachair (776m) to the NW. Lines of cleitean marched boldly up the slope and I was soon perspiring in the hot June sun as I rested by each.

Nearing the top, I turned to catch my breath. Then I saw for the first time, the true complexity and apparent randomness of the enclosures. At first, I thought they were sheep fanks (stone pens) but they looked like they were designed to keep animals out rather than in. The exterior of the walls is vertical but the interior is sloped. It is thought they were built relatively late in St Kilda's history, probably about 1830. No one really knows their purpose or why they were built in such a way but one theory is that they were to shelter growing vegetables and crops.

03/06/2008 am

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cleitean on the climb to An Lag, St Kilda.

Leaving the village street on St Kilda, I proceeded up the hill towards the head wall. On the way I passed more cleitean.

Some of them appeared to grow out of the slope of the steep ground.

Some had two roofs of slabs forming a handy storage space well above the ground and out of reach of animals.

Inside they were remarkably dry. There is evidence that the survival of Soay sheep is enhanced by their use of cleitean in winter

Once through the head wall of the village the ground steepened. Looking back, the view included the spread of Village Bay, with Dun behind, and the houses nestling round the crescent of its shore. MV Cuma remained at anchor but all the other tour boats had left in the face of the increasing southerly wind.

The steep ground gave way to an area of flatter ground which was not visible from below. It is called An Lag Bho 'n Tuath.

03/06/2008 am

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The village street, St Kilda.

Leaving the Factor's house we approached the village proper and arrived at No 1 St Kilda. The first 6 houses of the type built in the early 1860's have been restored by National Trust for Scotland work parties.

The 1860s houses were built after a hurricane in October 1860 stripped the roofs off of most of the blackhouses which were built in the 1830's which were built using the gift from Sir Thomas Acland. In this view looking back down the street you can see the older blackhouses between the more modern gabled houses.

In the fireplaces of many of the houses, a simple stone commemorates the last residents.

This is No 16, the last of the 1860's houses.

Beyond it you can see blackhouse "V". It has thick walls with rounded corners not to catch the wind. It is built end on to the sea and the low door which served for both animals and people is on the side. In winter the beasts stayed in the downhill part of the house. The dung stayed there (until spring) but their heat rose. There are no windows. After the new houses were built most of the blackhouses were used as byres but some of the old folk returned to them as they were warmer and quieter than the modern houses with their galvanized iron roofs.

Looking back down the street towards No 1. Three figures high in the gap on the horizon give scale.

The relationship between the houses, the blackhouses and the cleitean can be seen in this telephoto view from outside No 12.

03/06/2008 am

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Oiling the wheels of commerce on St Kilda.

Leaving the church and the school, we made our way back up the hill to the street which connects the village with the store. Before we arrived at the cottages, we came across the factor's house. This was built in the 1860's and was the residence of the factor from the MacLeod estate on Skye. He visited the island about three times during the summer months. His job was to take payment in kind for the crofters' rent. For many years bird oil was the islander's most valuable export and the islanders had no problems paying their rent. The islanders would also barter tweed, dried fish, mutton and feathers in exchange for essentials such as meal.

In the late 19th century the discovery of paraffin on the mainland had rendered the oil extracted from birds near worthless and by 1930 the islanders had built up rent arrears of over 500 pounds. MacLeod tolerated this and evicted no one. His last factor was John Mackenzie. He was a popular figure on St Kilda as he brought stores including paraffin to the island for which no charge was made. After what was sometimes a token gathering of goods in exchange for rent he would distribute sweets and engage in long conversations with the villagers.

03/06/2008 am

Friday, January 23, 2009

St Kilda school days.

Leaving the St Kilda church by a side door, we entered the school room which was completed in 1900. The long silent room was brightly lit with windows front and back. The children's desk had a neat row of slates (very similar to those I used on starting school in the Highlands in the late 1950's). The teacher's desk overlooked that of the pupils. On the wall hung maps of Canada, the World and South Africa.

Although a school had been established on St Kilda in 1709 it was not until 1809 that a teacher was appointed by the Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools. He remained on the island until a resident minister was appointed in 1829. Education was then the responsibility of successive ministers until 1884 when the Ladies Committee of the Highland Society started to send missionary teachers out to the island.

On the teacher's desk a ledger lay open at the school roll. There were names of 50 children who had entered the school from 1892 until the late 1920's. The pages have been damaged by 116 years of dampness but some lines of copperplate writing in India ink are still legible. The final column lists "reason for leaving".

Drowned : This was the sad death on 2nd October 1906 of Norman Gillies.
Left the island
Went to Glasgow
Left the island
Left the island
Over 14
To help parents with home industries
Over 14
Over school age
Sick in hospital, Glasgow

The children had names like Niel (sic) Gillies, Margaret MacQueen, Rachel MacDonald, John Ferguson, Catherine Gillies, Rachel Gillies and Flora Gillies. This photo (from a display in the schoolroom) was taken in 1927. The man was a missionary teacher sent from the mainland.

Although the children learned about far away places such as Australia (and many left the island to go there) they received little instruction on sustenance farming which was vital to their survival. In many ways the charity of the educators failed the islanders. It did nothing to make their lives easier but it opened their eyes to opportunity elsewhere.

03/06/2008 am

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No saints on St Kilda!

The door of the church on Hirta on St Kilda is on the end away from the sea and the prevailing wind. It is a plain building, with little ornamentation. This is not only because of the relative poverty of materials on St Kilda but because of the zealous form of Protestant Christianity which was practiced here in the 19th century. There are of course no figures of Jesus on the cross, or of Mary or the Saints....

.... talking of which, even the name St Kilda is a misnomer. There was no St Kilda. It was a later corruption of the name "Skildar", which appeared on the Nicolay Rutter (chart) published in 1583. One theory is that Skildar is from the old Norse word for shield. From a distance, the cliffs of the St Kilda archipelago look like shields rising from the sea.

The earliest written reference to the islands was to "Hirta" in 1549. Sir Donald Monro, High Dean of the Isles, wrote a manuscript: "A description of the Western Isles of Scotland called Hybrides" following a tour made in 1549. Here is a quotation from his description: "The inhabitants thereof ar simple poor people, scarce learnit in aney religion, but M’Cloyd of Herray, his stewart, or he quhom he deputs in sic offfice, sailes anes in the zear ther at midsummer, with some chaplaine to baptize bairnes ther, and if they want a chaplaine, they baptize ther bairns themselfes."

This is the view from the pulpit, which is reputed to be the biggest in all of the Western Isles. From it, the minister would preach long, long sermons. He also had a remarkably clear view of the door, so there was no escape!

03/06/2008 am

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A St Kilda tale of a bell and a spirit of generosity.

This brass bell hangs on a wooden frame by the church door. Although it is dated 1861 it is actually a replica of the original bell which was used to call the St Kildans to worship. This new bell was cast in Greenock for the rededication of the church which took place in 1980.

This photo, which is part of a display in the schoolroom, dates from post 1900. The bell hung outside the church from 1864 until 1930, when the island was evacuated. The original disappeared some time after this. It had been the ship's bell of the SS Janet Cowan, which had been built in Quebec in 1861. She was wrecked in Village Bay on 7th April 1864. She had been en route from Calcutta with a cargo for the jute mills of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland.

The St Kildan's were at the end of their winter and would have had little food to spare. Despite this, they fed and sheltered Captain MacKirdy and his crew for a week. When the weather improved the wrecked sailors then borrowed a boat from the villagers and set sail for Harris, where they left it in West Loch Tarbert. Eventually they made their way back to their home port of Greenock. The grateful captain and crew collected nine pounds which they sent to the selfless villagers. The ship's owners paid for the village boat to be returned to St Kilda, together with a cargo of flour and grain.

One of the St Kildan ministers lasted less than a year (Lachlan MacLean, 1903). I wonder if it was this gentleman? He doesn't really seem to have captured the enthusiasm of the St Kildans!

03/06/2008 am

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The church and evolution on St Kilda.

The manse was the residence of the visiting minister. It lies remote from the village and some way off the street which connects it to the store by the sea. The islanders' Soay sheep were moved to the island following evacuation and have been left to their own devices since.

They breed and die with no animal husbandry or veterinary intervention. Their corpses lie where they fall. Countless generations of selective breeding by the St Kildans stopped in 1930 and since then the population has been subjected to the forces of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Interestingly the proportion of lighter coloured but smaller sheep has steadily increased in the population. A long term study by the University of Sheffield has demonstrated that this is due to changing frequency of a group of genetic variants that decrease size and lighten coat colour but increase reproductive fitness. This study provides molecular evidence for evolution in action and supports Darwin's theory.

Both the manse and the church, which lies immediately behind it, were built from 1826 to 1829 to plans by Robert Stevenson (of lighthouse fame). The first minister to live in the manse was the Rev Neil MacKenzie. A schoolroom was added to the side of the church in 1900. After the evacuation of the islands in 1930, the buildings fell into disrepair. The manse was restored in the 1950's for use as the sergeants' mess in the military radar base. The church and schoolhouse were restored in 1980.

This photograph is part of a display in the schoolroom. It shows the islanders leaving the church after a service on the Sabbath. By the 1880's the islanders had become gripped by an extreme form of Presbyterianism and religious observance. Their previous joy in music and dance had died out and preparations for the Sabbath interfered with the very work which was essential to their survival. By the beginning of the 20th century the grip of religion had slackened slightly but by then it was too late and the islanders would not be self sufficient again as their population numbers went into terminal decline.

I wonder what the ministers' thoughts on evolution and genetics might have been?

03/06/2008 am

Monday, January 19, 2009

The village head dyke of St Kilda and its Australian connection.

A very characteristic feature of the Village on St Kilda is the head dyke which contours above the current crescent of the village street. It is built right through older structures such as this cleit and it incorporates some very large slabs of rock. It encloses the village houses and cultivated plots from the open grazing land on the hills above.

The mediaeval village was higher up than the current village and was a cluster of simple houses. The current layout of the village was planned by the Rev Neil Mackenzie who was minister to St Kilda from 1829 to 1843. A Devon man, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, made several visits to St Kilda and in 1834 he left £20 with the minister in order to encourage the people to build better houses. The St Kildans constructed black houses along the crescent of the current street and built the head wall in the years following 1834. Mackenzie had to lead just about every aspect of this work, by direct physical involvement.

Acland's business interests included a schooner, the Lady of St Kilda. This traded with Melbourne in Australia and in 1842 the suburb of St Kilda was established, with an Acland Street. In 1856, 36 St Kildans emigrated to Australia but half of them died en route. Perhaps they had heard of the prospects for a better life there from the well intentioned Acland. The plots of cultivated land within the dyke that had been allocated to these emigrants was thereafter known as common ground.

03/06/2008 am

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The cleitean of St. Kilda.

A grassy "street" leads from the store up to the houses that form the village on Hirta. It passes by the first of many cleitean (cleits) that you will discover on an exploration of the village. Indeed they are one of the most characteristic features of the topography of Hirta as you enter Village Bay by boat. These simple store structures are unique to St Kilda.

This is cleit number 1 on the map included with the really excellent booklet Buildings of St Kilda produced in 1988 by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. On the side away from the sea and the prevailing SW wind, there is a low doorway. The roof is of turf over stone slabs and the walls are of loose drystone construction which lets the wind blow through for ventilation and drying. Some cleitean near the village had wooden doors to exclude animals while other had simple stone slabs . Most were built on a slope so that the floor would drain downhill.

They were used to store dried birds and fish, preserved eggs, barley, potatoes, cut peats and turfs and ropes. There are some 1,260 cleitean on Hirta and over 170 on the other islands and Stacs in St Kilda. Martin Martin mentioned them in the first written account of St Kilda in 1697. On the side away from the prevailing winds this cleit had a wonderful cap of thrift (or sea pink) flowers.

Many cleitean are of great antiquity but interestingly we know that this one was built relatively late in St Kilda's populated history. It was not yet built in a photograph taken in 1886.

03/06/2008 am