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 (previously) volcanic islands to the far Northwest of Scotland. 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 which only a few were able bodied enough to provide).

The islands’ remoteness and difficulty of access meant that for almost all of recorded history, the Gaelic speaking inhabitants were isolated from the rest of the world. Yet throughout their long and isolated tenure, the St. Kildans 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 many 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.

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.

They had existed for centuries without money, bartering and sharing everything that was needed to live. Also uniquely, the St. Kildans 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 they were unable to look after themselves. 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 and particularly towards the end, the goodwill of passing ships and the general public.

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