2021-10-11 16:31:33 Agony and Ecstasy on the Scottish Archipelago of St. Kilda

Agony and Ecstasy on the Scottish Archipelago of St. Kilda

The water was relatively calm for the first hour or so. We sped through the Little Minch strait from the small fishing village of Stein on the Isle of Skye to the main band of the Outer Hebrides, the thick curl of rocky skerries that hovers like an apostrophe over the northwestern coast of mainland Scotland.

But as we continued west, beyond the islands of North Uist, Lewis, and Harris, the water became rougher. We had no protection from the swells here, fully exposed in the North Atlantic Ocean: every few seconds, for more than two hours, the hull of our tour boat slammed against the oncoming waves with enough force to rattle my teeth.

I looked to my right, across the narrow aisle of the boat, and saw my brother and sister huddled uncomfortably in their seats. None of our fellow passengers — there were about 12 of us in total, crammed into a surprisingly small boat — appeared to be content. My siblings, on the other hand, appeared ill, clutching their disposable vomit bags.

(“Ill is an understatement,” my sister, Emelia, remarked with a laugh. “I’d say we were doomed.”

For centuries, the St. Kilda archipelago, one of the most remote areas of the British Isles, has captivated the imaginations of writers, historians, artists, scientists, and adventurers.

St. Kilda, located 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides’ main islands, has a fascinating history, complete with a rich cultural heritage, fiercely independent people, distinctive architecture, and haunting isolation — as well as disease, famine, and exile.

Recent archaeological research indicates that the main island, Hirta, which is approximately 2.5 square miles in size, was inhabited as long as 2,000 years ago. On August 29, 1930, its last full-time residents, 36 in total, were evacuated to the mainland, their community and way of life having become unsustainable.

St. Kilda is now owned, managed, and protected by the National Trust for Scotland, whose staff – occasionally joined by other volunteers and researchers – occupy Hirta for several months of the year. Contractors for the British Ministry of Defense also spend time on the island, where a radar station is operated.

St. Kilda was a several-day journey across the open ocean from its nearest neighboring settlements for the majority of its inhabited history. The threat of violent storms, which are especially common between September and March, made the journey daunting at best and unthinkable at worst.

Even today, boat schedules are subject to the whims of the weather, and tour company cancellations are not uncommon. When my siblings and I visited in late August 2018, we had to move our trip up by a day to avoid a spell of ominous weather that was expected later that week.

The natural features of St. Kilda are almost comical in their magnificence. Jagged sea stacks rise like bundled knives from the murky water; clamoring seabirds float casually above sheer cliffs; and swooping fields blanket an otherworldly landscape devoid of trees.

However, it was St. Kilda’s architectural relics that quietly hinted at the most dramatic aspects of its history.

St. Kilda has never been a convenient place to live, with a population that peaked at around 180 in the late 17th century. Its inhabitants raised sheep and a few cattle and were frequently able to grow simple crops such as barley and potatoes. The mainstay of their diet, however, was seafowl: the birds’ eggs, as well as the birds themselves, which were eaten both fresh and cured. (Because of the treacherous nature of the surrounding waters, fishing was often impractical; islanders also expressed a distinct preference for gannet, fulmar, and puffin over fish.)

Villagers caught the birds and collected their eggs by lowering themselves on ropes from atop the islands’ cliffs or climbing up the rock faces from the water below, using long poles and their bare hands.

I tried to imagine the circumstances under which such extremes would be necessary simply to enjoy a monotonous meal as I gazed up at the archipelago’s sea stacks from a boat lurching in the frigid ocean. It put my imagination to the test.

Life on St. Kilda was an excruciatingly painful experiment in precarity. Stormy weather ruined crops, jeopardized food supplies, halted fowling, and put off necessary work. Even in perfect weather, landing a boat at Hirta’s Village Bay, the archipelago’s long-standing settlement, could be difficult. Diseases such as smallpox, cholera, leprosy, and influenza spread quickly and have devastating consequences. For decades, St. Kildans blindly launched their mail into the sea in small waterproof containers, hoping that their “mailboats,” as they were known, would reach a populated area or be picked up and sent along by a passing ship.

The islanders’ extreme isolation bred a specific type of cultural disconnect. Tom Steel describes a scene in his 1965 book “The Life and Death of St. Kilda” in which a St. Kildan washed ashore on the nearby Flannan Isles:

He entered what he thought was a house and began to climb the stairs — stone objects he had never seen before but mistook for Jacob’s ladder. He got to the top and walked into the brightly lit room. “Are you the Almighty God?” he inquired of the lighthouse keeper. “Yes,” the stern response came, “and who the Devil are you?”

Despite this, St. Kildans was frequently described in contemporary accounts as being unusually cheerful. There was almost no crime. Supplies and donations brought in from the outside world, as well as much of the food collected on the islands, were distributed equitably among the islanders. Boats and ropes, on which the settlement’s survival depended, were communally owned and maintained.

When the Scottish writer Martin Martin visited the archipelago in 1697, he was struck by the people’s joie de vivre. “The people of St. Kilda are much happier than the rest of mankind,” he wrote, “as they are almost the only people in the world who know the sweetness of true liberty.”

But, in the end, life on St. Kilda proved unsustainable. The market for the islanders’ exports — feathers, tweed, sheep, and seabird oil — dwindled gradually. The infant mortality rate was shockingly high. The islands became increasingly anachronistic, and the people became increasingly isolated, as they failed to keep up with the comforts and technologies of the mainland.

The St. Kildans’ fate was sealed by a particularly harsh winter in 1929 and 1930. They petitioned the government to be evacuated because they were afraid of starvation.

Even so, it wasn’t enough to break the spell for Alexander Ferguson, one of the evacuees who wrote in a letter years later about St. Kilda, “there is no paradise on earth like it.”

“It was peace for me living in St. Kilda,” another long-term resident, Malcolm Macdonald, once said. “And it was happiness, dear happiness, to me.”

We lined up along the island’s jetty and boarded a dinghy to return to our boat four hours after arriving, having wandered over Hirta’s rolling terrain and strolled quietly along its hollow shell of a village. Our return trip to Skye was smoother, quieter, and calmer to the east. A pod of dolphins swam alongside us for a long time, as if escorting us back through the water.

When we finally arrived at Stein, I felt a twinge of sadness. Only then did I realize what compelled several of the 36 islanders who had left in 1930 to return to and temporarily live on Hirta in the summer of 1931: a growing certainty that the pleasure of wandering free among the islands, surrounded by the boundless sea, was worth the trouble of getting — and being — there.

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Agony and Ecstasy on the Scottish Archipelago of St. Kilda