All things St Kildan have really captured my imagination after my recent reading. Apparently I am not alone, it is the place to cast a spell and I have had to read Kathleen Jamie's series of essays Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda (Sightings) to keep a perspective on it all...
'It was the village itself that troubled me, those cottages we walked past twice a day en route to plot and measure every last jot their people had left behind. They didn't sing of a lost idyll, those cold empty doors. If the cottages spoke at all, it was to say - Look, they made their decision. They quit. Thye moved on.'
Except Tom Steel, writing in The Life and Death of St Kilda, offers a slightly different perspective. For years afterwards many of the villagers would return to the island on a regular basis, some would stay for several months, one or two actually begged to be allowed to rent their cottages back, but to no avail... many of them left their hearts there and never really moved on.
Long stormy days and dark afternoons here and we can light the fire and draw the curtains, but I am trying to imagine what the weather must have been like on the island, and with no electricity either. It's clear the houses took the full blast of the Atlantic gales... and with the doors facing the sea.
Apparently when the houses were rebuilt in the nineteenth century the islanders protested that the doors in the old windowless and thatched blackhouses had always been on the side, and for good reason, but as in so many aspects of their lives they were overruled by those who wanted to 'improve' them. Kathleen Jamie suggests this was the beginning of the end for St Kilda, how do you replace glass in windows... how do you get timber for repairs when there are no trees.. no paint to preserve the wood. It was folly, the houses were damp and unprotected and it would ultimately prove fatal for the well-being of the islanders.
We learned to our cost why there was no west facing door in this house the day we built an extension and decided an exit out of our new sparkly boot room on that side would be very useful. In and out of the garden in wet coats and muddy wellies straight to the coat hooks, no more traipsing through the south-facing front door into the sitting room. Except when a storm headed up the Western Approaches from Cornwall the new door would be saturated within minutes, swell to the point where it wouldn't open, and stay that way for months. Howling gales would blow through every nook and cranny and it has only been yet another new door, and the timely construction of a storm porch by Bookhound last summer, that has saved our bacon this winter.
Silly us, sensible St Kildans.
Bookhound and I had scrolled through some photos of St Kilda and printed a couple off for a bookmark to use whilst I was reading The Life and Death of St Kilda ...those women will do I had said, as we tried to decide between aerial shots of the island and rather scary-looking menfolk.
It was only as I studied the picture more closely, taken in August 1909, that I could see the women were all sitting on the clifftop knitting..
And we have their names too, from left to right... Mrs Donald Gillies, Mrs Macdonald, Mary Macdonald, Mary Macqueen, widow Mackinnon and Mrs Neil Ferguson. It looks none too warm for August either does it.
Knitting.. aha ... sheep... wool .. patterns.
I didn't know I was that interested in sheep until I read of the two native breeds of St Kildan sheep, the Boreray and the Soay which have suffered in numbers since the evacuation of the islands. Whilst some of the Soays were transported with the islanders and subsequently sold on the mainland to raise much-needed starter funds for the families, the Borerays were left behind on a nearby island (Boreray obvs) to fend for themselves, existing as an unmanaged feral flock ever since, and in the process becoming an endangered species. In their day the islanders would travel across to pluck the wool for spinning and to supplement their own flocks, throwing the sheep directly into the sea from the cliffs to be picked up by the boat, there being no safe landing point on the island. That's going to be one heavy sheep..
An internet search (bless it, how on earth would we have known in days gone by) revealed that there is only one place in the world currently spinning the incredibly rare wool from the Boreray sheep, and offering it for sale, and that place happens to be Blackers of Launceston a mere ten miles down the road from us here.
It was meant and I hot-footed over to buy one ball.
The Boreray wool has been blended with some Soay to make a beautifully fine, soft, creamy-coloured wool, and at £16.50 for 50gms (416 yds) of 2ply thankfully one ball goes a long way, enough for a scarf or a neck shawl. Blacker's commissioned Orkney-based lace knitting expert Elizabeth Lovick to design a St Kilda pattern which, for £4, can be downloaded from the website here.
Who can know what patterns the St Kildan women used originally, I haven't found any yet, but this one, with its nod to the wind, the waves and rocky shores of St Kilda, will be an ideal starter on lace-knitting for me, and I have settled on the scarf as the most do-able option. The rows and the counting will all be enough without working from two charts for each side of the shawl.