Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Kirk and School, Hirta

Although sheltered from the worst of the weather,Cuma rolled heavily at her anchorage overnight in the swell wrapping around Rubh an Uisge (water point) and there was little sleep to be had. 

The forecast was unpromising, but Murdani has a most wonderful possession, and one that is a rare thing indeed. Deep within Cuma, he has a "Cloud Lever".  It can be used only sparingly, but today he set it to Full Open and the day turned out much, much better than the forecast. A few of the team expressed a desire to put their feet on terra firma, and since the residual wind and swell would have made paddling close to the cliffs tricky, a morning ashore was decided upon.  Gary ferried us to the pier in Cuma's inflatable and we gathered to meet the NTS warden for our introductory briefing.

In order to show as many aspects as possible of the village, it will be well worthwhile reading this post alongside this one on Douglas' blog to get the full "St Kilda Stereovision" (tm) effect!

Village Bay provides the only sheltered anchorage in the whole archipelago, and in easterlies or southeasterlies even this is untenable.  Most of the habitation is clustered around the bay, though as we were to learn, earlier settlers lived right across the islands.

After visiting the Feather Store and the naval gun, we headed across to the largest of the older buildings, the Kirk and Schoolhouse

The interior of the Kirk is plain and simple with a cool, calm ambience.  It has been renovated, having been stripped of timber following the evacuation in 1930 and by all accounts is a much lighter and more pleasant place than for much of its history.  A Gaelic bible lies on the lectern, which totally dominates the kirk.

One of the many influences which eventually led to the decline and evacuation of the St Kildans lies here.  Organised religion arrived on the island in1705 when a Rev Alexander Buchan was sent as a missionary by the Church of Scotland.  He stayed for four years, then there were sporadic incumbents with increasingly puritanical views culminating in the appointment of Rev John Mackay in 1865.  He had been ordained by the Free Kirk (which had by this time split with the Church of Scotland) specifically with St Kilda in mind and he set about establishing a harsh Sabbatarian regime.

The obsevances Mackay introduced seem today to be excessive, but the St Kildans didn't resist.  There were three Sunday services, each lasting 2 to 3 hours, which all must attend. No work of any kind could be undertaken on the Sabbath, not even the drawing of water.  Conversation between the islanders was forbidden from Saturday evening until Monday morning.  Prayer meetings were held on Wednesdays, no work could be undertaken for 12 hours either side of the meeting.  Music was forbbidden, as were children's games.  Children were expected to carry a bible everywhere under their arms.

For a community so intimately bound to fluctuating natural resources and so reliant on constant cooperative labour to remain viable, these restrictions were to prove catastrophic.  Though more enlightened minsters were sent following MacKay's four year reign, it was too late.

The history of St Kilda's people is superbly told in charles MacLean's book "Island At The Edge Of The World" published by Canongate.

The lectern cloth is extremely beautiful.  It seems to reflect the natural surroundings with the blue of the sea and the green of the island slopes.  It's hard to see Mackay entertaining such things during his time though!

Various plaques in the kirk commemorate events on the islands, as here with the origin of the kirk bell.  Other plaques commemorate aircrews lost in plane crashes on the island, and the designation of St Kilda as a dual World Heritage Site.

This collection box is in front of the lectern, lit by morning sunlight streaming through a window..  It's beautifully crafted and has the names of the main islands inscribed on it.  I struggled to get the composition, focus and exposure in balance, the slightly soft effect in this image seems to suit the light and the atmosphere well.

Connected to the Kirk is the school classroom.  Teachers were occasionally sent to "improve" the lot of the St Kildans from 1709 onwards with a more permanent arrangement from the late 1800's.  Most of these teachers were overseen by the incumbent Ministers, but in 1906 a Mr and Mrs MacLachlan arrived and seem to have been a real asset to the islanders.  The children were taught formal lessons from 10am until 4pm in a variety of subjects.

It's unlikely that they had a teacher like Douglas though!

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