St Kilda is a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. It was evacuated at the request of its inhabitants just over 75 years ago, bringing to an end thousands of years of occupation. Less than a handful of those evacuated are still alive. One of them is Norman John Gillies. Now he lives far from Scotland, in a riverside village in the Suffolk countryside. I’ve only met him once or twice, but his story has always fired our imagination. His daughter, Shirley, and her husband were members of a Christian fellowship group that met in my house for several years, and they were some of the first people to meet my husband in the three brief weeks of our courtship before our engagement. Later Shirley looked after Lola B and picked Elder Daughter up from school, when I became a student again at University. Their daughters have all been babysitters for our daughters. One daughter still cuts my daughter’s hair. Shirley’s husband does the lighting for pop concerts (how cool is that), and gave us the confidence to make our country garden into an occasional magical mystery with his huge blue and green lights. My God-daughter’s mother, Anna, made all the food for their elder daughter’s wedding to a fellow actuary and Greek Cypriot. The dreadlocked tree surgeon who cut down our trees last week turned out to be Shirley’s nephew. And when my husband turned on Radio 4 this Sunday morning, Norman John Gillies was speaking.
St Kilda is a tiny group of islands perched out in the Atlantic, the furthest outpost of the British Isles and part of the Outer Hebrides. The three islands – Soay, Dun, and the mother island Hirta – have been occupied for at least 5000 years, though the occupation has probably not been continuous for the landscape is hardly hospitable. Hirta rises in sheer cliffs from the sea and is often covered in mist. There was little to eat, and little land to cultivate. Islanders lived off fulmars – seabirds caught on the cliffs by intrepid cragsmen and kept pickled in brine through the winter – and sheep. The sheep were taken to the outlying smaller islands in summer to graze on vegetation enriched by puffin droppings and brought back in the winter. Winter seemed endless and food ran short. Stores of oats, potatoes, cabbages and turnips ran out and by springtime the population was emaciated. Dry stone “cleitean” dotted the island and were used to store peat and more dried fulmars, and larger cleitean sheltered the sheep from the winter winds.
Women worked and worked, dressed in earthy shades, with scarves often covering their black hair. They spun the wool of the sheep. The men developed toes that were almost prehensile to enable them to cling on to the rocky cliffs as they were lowered down to where fulmars gathered. There the cragsman would use a long rod with a noose at the end to lassoo a bird, draw it towards him, and break its neck. Fulmar oil and feathers were accepted by island landlords in lieu of rent, but the birds were shared out equally between the inhabitants, regardless of the contribution made to catching them. The young, the old, and the sick all had their share. Eggs from the fulmars were never disturbed, so that next year there would be birds to kill. Eggs from gannets, from guillemot and razorbills were taken and eaten: often the egg shells were blown and decorated for the occasional visitor to take home as a souvenir.
Every morning the men of the island would gather outside a house in the mainstreet for the island’s “Parliament”. The St Kildans could not afford to be other than collaborative, and the Parliament meeting was used to decide what needed to be done that day. There were no set rules and no designated leader: the schoolmaster in 1889 said that the Parliament:
‘very much resembles our Honourable British Parliament in being able to waste any amount of precious time over a very small matter while on the other hand they can pass a Bill before it is well introduced’.
The island was seen as a democratic utopia:
“If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer’s bill threatens on a church door-the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds, and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe – and acknowledging the dominion of M’Leod, cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation – his slumbers are late – his labours are light – his occupation his amusement. Government he has not – law he feels not – physic he wants not – politics he heeds not – money he sees not – of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought ? “
Lachlan Maclean, 1838
The lives of the St Kildans revolved around their Christian faith. Each day began and ended with prayers and each meal began with grace. An elder of the church accompanied the men on longer expeditions, leading the prayers whilst they were away from their home. The religion was harsh, punitive and pervaded everything that was done, particularly during the period 1865 to 1889 when the Free Church of Scotland was represented on the island by the Rev John MacKay. His successor was a kinder man who even took lessons in midwifery and the use of antisceptics on the mainland so that he could help his flock. He defeated the lethal neo-natal tetanus that over a twenty year period in the mid nineteeth century had claimed almost all the infants born on the island. He also introduced book learning, and some children learnt to speak English and even Latin. He retired in 1903.
Summer brought visitors. The novelist Antony Trollope recalled his visit:
“Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale. Some coarse cloth we found also, made on the island from the wool grown there … many of them went on board [the ship’s boat used to land the visitors], not unnaturally desiring to satisfy some little want, and to see the last of their strange visitors.”
Finlay MacQueen was one of the last to leave the island. He married a member of the Gillies family, Mary Jemima Otter Porcupine Gillies. Mary was named after the wife and ship of Captain Henry C Otter, Admirality hydrographic surveyor, commanding the Porcupine in St Kildan waters at the time of her birth. Unaware of the events of the First World War, Finlay rowed out in friendliness to meet a circling submarine, only to find the island bombed by 70 German bombs much to the embarrassment of the Royal Navy who situated a gun on the island after that.
By the late 1920s the population had declined to only 15 males and 22 females. A resident nurse and visiting doctor realised that the population was doomed and in 1930 the question of evacuation was raised by the nurse. Reluctantly the islanders agreed with her conclusion and the following petition was sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland, signed by every adult on the island:
“We the undersigned the Natives of St Kilda hereby respectfully pray and petition Her Majesty’s Government to assist us all to leave the island this year and to find homes and occupations for us on the mainland …
We do not ask to be settled together as a separate community, but in the meantime we would well and truly be grateful of assistance elsewhere where there would be a better opportunity of securing our livelihood …”
On Friday, August 29th, 1930 thirty six men, women and children, including Finlay MacQueen and Norman John Gillies, boarded His Majesty’s sloop, The Harebell. Another boat, the Dunara Castle, took their furniture and belongings. Eight of the ten families disembarked at Lochaline and the men were given jobs on the mainland with the Forestry Commission at its Ardtornish estate. Two other families continued with the Harebell to Oban. For a while a wealthy tweed merchant organised an annual trip back to St Kilda for the islanders. In 1935 they spent nine weeks on the island, rounding up the feral sheep who thought “nothing of leaping high in the air over your head”, and bringing old looms back into service.
The island is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland, and Norman John lives in Suffolk and his flame-haired granddaughter is building a house on another island with her Greek Cypriot husband.
Norman John, on St Kilda, with Shirley (far right)