Eighteen months is a very long time to be reading a book but I had started Kindling The Life and Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel before our first trip to Orkney in 2012. The old Kindle and I never really bonded, for some reason there seemed to be a yawning chasm between the words on the screen and my powers of concentration, plus I went to a literary day where a Well-Known-Writer likened the early Kindles to Fisher Price toys...and...well it never felt quite right after that.
Even quite recently I think I expressed concerns about how much of a Kindle read actually sunk in...maybe there's a knack and with practice I have discovered it... maybe the Paperwhite and the gorgeous leather cover have upped the game, but anyway I am now as of one with the thing and busily mopping up some old half-reads before embarking on some new.
My interest in St Kilda and this book also piqued again when Jude in Australia (thank you! ) sent me a copy of a booklet entitled From Hirta to Port Phillip - The story of the ill-fated emigration from St Kilda to Australia in 1852 by Eric Richards, a Professor of History at Flinders University and an expert on the Highland Clearances and emigration.
For those who don't know of it...
St Kilda (Scottish Gaelic: Hiort) is an isolated archipelago 64 kilometres (40 mi) west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The largest island is Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom, and three other islands (Dùn, Soay and Boreray) were also used for grazing and seabird hunting.
Thirty-six people, one third of the population of St Kilda set sail for Melbourne aboard the sailing ship Priscilla in 1852. For most of them even travelling to the nearby island of Harris and thence to Skye would have been the first time they had left their windswept island homes. Who knows what they would have made of Glasgow and then Liverpool where they finally boarded their ship for the ninety-eight day voyage to Australia... the phrase 'sailing into the unknown' can never have held more truth.
The tragedy would have run its course by the time the Priscilla arrived in Port Phillip...
With little resistance to infection, due to lack of exposure to common diseases such as measles, over half the St Kilda emigrants died during the voyage or soon after arrival whilst in quarantine. Many were parents leaving small children to fend for themselves on disembarkation. Meanwhile back on St Kilda those left behind, desperate for word of friends and family had to wait almost a year for the terrible news to reach them.
Reading The Life and Death of St Kilda alongside Eric Richards' account has been fascinating. It's hard not to assume that this decimation of the already diminishing island population was one of the early nails in the coffin of their existence on St Kilda, but surely the other was the phenomenally high rate of infant mortality. On average more than 70% of babies died of neonatal tetanus by the age of ten days; in one twelve year period 65 babies out of 68 births had died. Yet it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the secrecy of the islander's midwifery practices were finally discovered...the application of a mixture of infected fulmer oil and dung to the newborn's umbilical cord.
I'm trying to imagine the women, and how they must have felt through pregnancy with that certainty of loss hanging over them, and the level of grief experienced when the death of the baby was the norm. But imagine too, had those babies lived might the finely-balanced self-sufficiency of the island have collapsed sooner with so many extra mouths to feed...lots to think about with a book like this.
If a finger of blame is to be pointed for the islanders' demise it could also wave in several other directions...
Outside interference, both religious and monetary, in a community that had for centuries developed its own self-supporting, caring and sharing society, may have introduced a finely tuned and seemingly well-balanced people to new ways of thinking and living that it was unable to sustain. Greed can be a tricky customer. Primitive though the St Kildans' way of life must have seemed, it worked.
And maybe a diet of gannet, fulmer and puffin does pall after a while. Increasing ill-health was becoming a problem, and I have been trying decide how the people consumed anything like a balanced diet with so little variety available to them.
Accounts of the final departure from the island on August 29th1930 make for poignant reading. Eventually, for reasons various, the remaining thirty-six residents had been persuaded to leave.
Bibles were left open on tables with a pile of oats nearby, fires were built up and left burning. When those fires finally died it would be for the first time in a thousand years, but worse was to come, for many the promised good life never materialised. Housed in scattered, remote and often dilapidated forestry cottages across Scotland, the community became separated, isolated and above all lonely. The ongoing lack of resistance to disease meant that many succumbed to tuberculosis, whilst others struggled to support themselves after a lifetime of shared work and an equal distribution of resources. I might be simplifying the whole but their previous lives seem to have been lived according to good and fundamental Biblical principles...
Acts 4:32-35: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common....Neither was there any among them that lacked... distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
It was a rude and terrible awakening to land in the midst of the harsh financial realities of 1930's Scotland.
An interesting little local connection emerged with the origins of St Kilda, the Melbourne suburb, named some eleven years before the islanders emigrated, and after the schooner The Lady of St Kilda which had been built for the Acland family of Killerton House, where we stumbled on that lovely carol singing at Christmas.
The archipelago of St Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status for both natural and cultural qualities which seems to place the island on a par with the Taj Mahal. Of course now I am mad keen to set foot at Village Bay with my walking boots on and have a wander, who knows, maybe one day...
But in the meantime we have been enjoying this 1928 film footage (the spelling mistake not mine.) Imagine the excitement of an approaching boat...maybe the first in nine months, and don't miss the handfuls of knitted socks and gloves at about 11.29.