The Life and Death of St. Kilda by Tom Steel

This is a fascinating book about the forgotten history of St. Kilda, a tiny group of volcanic islands to the far Northwest of Scotland. Few people have even heard of this most distant part of the British Isles, let alone know much about it. Like a great many far off and inaccessible locations, the place becomes a repository for the imagination;  positioned in the collective consciousness somewhere between fact and fiction. This book however offers the reader just a glimpse into something like the ‘real’ St. Kilda.

The archipelago consists of four islands; Hirta, Dùn, Soay and Boreray; of which only Hirta was inhabited. Although people had lived on the islands for over two thousand years, they were evacuated in 1930 at the islanders request, because the population had experienced a series of setbacks and been reduced to under 40 individuals (of whom only a few were able bodied enough to provide).

The islands’ remoteness and difficulty of access meant that for almost all recorded history, it’s Gaelic speaking inhabitants were isolated from the rest of the world. Yet throughout their long and lonely tenure, the St. Kildans had lived a precarious but unique existence based upon the local wildlife; resulting in a hardy, strong and devout small community, who made do without almost any of the twentieth century’s conveniences (or the nineteenth’s come to that). The islands had been the farthest possessions of the Macleod Clan since the fifteenth century and although life was hard, they proved to be fairly benevolent Lairds. However by the early 20th century, things had become harder still.

This book looks at the written accounts of those few individuals who managed to visit St. Kilda. People like Martin Martin, who in his ‘Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’ wrote of a thriving community on the edge of civilisation and detailed the St. Kildan’s way of life at the turn of the Eighteenth Century. Also the many characters who shaped St. Kildan history and the eventual fate of its tiny community. The few remaining inhabitants who were eventually resettled and dispersed; resulting in the collapse of their close-knit, interdependent way of life and causing hardships of a different kind, as each one was forced to adapt to the modern world and find a new place within it.

Unlike many of the far flung surrounding island communities, the St. Kildans didn’t often catch the plentiful fish in nearby waters. Rather they existed on a mixture of gathering the abundant young and eggs of Fulmar, Gannet, Guillemot and Puffin; together with a variant on crofting. One perticularly memorable account tells us of the St. Kildan way of making porridge. The added ingredient being a baby bird.

The St. Kildans existed for centuries without money, bartering and sharing everything that was needed to live. The islands provided just enough meagre produce to survive, even in difficult times. In later years however, especially towards the end, the goodwill of passing ships and the general public was important in maintaining life on the islands. Also uniquely, the St. Kildans had evolved a non hierarchical society that however religious and gender bound it might appear to our modern sensibilities (it could be argued the austerity of their faith and strict gender divisions stifled initiative), saw them support everyone, equally, even if ultimately they were in decline as a society. With the arrival of small numbers of tourists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cottage industries like the manufacture of Tweeds and other handicrafts became another way to raise funds for imported goods.

Steel’s book is very successful in telling the stories of those last St. Kildans and since it was written, all of them have passed on. It is a testimony to determination and self reliance; vividly capturing for posterity the St. Kildan’s way of life and how they coped after the evacuation, when resettled on the mainland. The decades that followed are also examined in the latter part of the book. Showing how the islands became significant again in military terms.

All in all, an evocative account that makes these islands ever more enticing.  St. Kilda itself may no longer be cut off from the rest of the world, yet this tiny archipelago continues to play on our imaginations. Long after you finish the book, you will be thinking about it.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017

Here’s an interesting accompanying film showing the last St. Kildans…