Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Life and death in St Kilda

We left the Kirk and schoolhouse and wandered over to the most iconic view of the Village, simply known as The Street.

Again, it will be well worth reading this post on Douglas' blog along with the one here.

The view along the Street is instantly recognisable as the same view portrayed in old photographs, particularly those forming part of the George Washington Wilson collection held by Aberdeen University.
What is particularly noticeable is the alternating styles of house along the Street.  the older style "Blackhouses" are interspersed with newer cottages.

The Blackhouses had actually been rebuilt on their present site by the St Kildans in about 1834-1836, having originally been sited higher up.  Like most blackhouse designs they had a rounded appearance like an upturned boat, tiny doors and if they had windows at all they were heavily recessed.  The roofs were of turf and thatch held down with stones suspended on ropes of twisted heather or straw.  The smoke from the constantly burning peat fires exited through the thatch.  Simple and primitive they may have appeared, but they were well adapted to the environment.

In 1860 the Landlord, Sir John MacPherson Macleod of Dunvegan, had 18 new houses built at his own expense.  Historically, landowners have had a justifiably bad reputation throughout much of Scotland, but the MacLeods deserve much credit for their treatment of and support to the community on Hirta.  The St Kildans paid rent in kind in Fulmar oil, Gannets, Puffins, feathers, wool  and the like but the MacLeods put back far more than they ever received.  The MacLeods and their factors, in particular John MacKenzie, seem to have been good men.  As the community declined, rents were adjusted downwards and necessary supplies sent in addition.

The new houses were among the most advanced in the Hebrides.  They had two or three rooms, windows each side of the door and chimneyed fireplaces. They also had zinc roofs, which unfortunately carried away in a storm.  These were replaced, but were found to be unsuitable as they let in rain and acted as condensors, leaving the interior of the houses damp. The roofs were replaced with felt and tar which cured the damp, but the houses remained noisy, their hard edges resisting the wind and in gales the smoke couldn't rise from the chimneys.  The old blackhouses were retained as byres or stores, and some St Kildans moved back into these during the winter.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of the houses is that they were built by MacLeod's masons and used mortar, which meant that they had to be maintained using materials from outside; another blow to the St Kildan's independent way of life.

This baulk of timber was set into the drystone wall facing the houses on the street.  It is an old piece, polished from being sat upon and there seems every possibility that it is the same timber shown in Washington Wilson's glass plates.

The National Trust for Scotland has seasonal work parties on Hirta who are restoring some of the cottages and field drains.  A check curtain at the window was a homely touch amongst the stone landscape.

We moved to the end of the Street and beyond to the burial ground.  One of our team, Donald Thomson, led the first successful unsupported return voyage in sea kayaks to St Kilda and has since studied the islands.  He has a passion for and a deep knowledge of the history of  the islands and was an excellent guide. He pointed out that the level of the ground inside the burial enclosure is much higher than outside.  The ground was so thin and stony that earth and seaweed had to be piled up inside to permit sufficient depth for burials.

Bones often had to be moved aside to permit fresh burials in the confined area.  Most graves are marked with a simple stone bearing no inscription.  Later burials have more formal stones, and represent those who left the island but whose remains were brought back to be interred here. 

Yellow Flag Iris were in flower amongst the gravestones.

Disease played a part in depopulating St Kilda, the smallpox epidemic which left a party stranded on Stac an Armin for nine months because there were not enough people to man a boat to recover them is the best known example. Contact wwith Victorian tourists and do-gooders was probably a more potent factor. The Victorians seem to have treated the island as a zoo and its people as quaint exhibits. There are records of tourists throwing sweets at the St Kildans and entering their houses to gawp. Contact with the outside world also introduced the concept of a cash economy, and showed opportunity outside the harsh confines of the islands.

Between 1866 and 1928 the population halved from 77 to 37. Without enough manpower to catch birds, carry peats increasing distances and man boats the community was doomed.  Increasing dependence upon charity seemed the only future if they were to remain on Hirta. In 1930 and after after long discussions, the islanders petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland to be evacuated.  The catalyst seems to have been the death of Mary Gillies from appendicitis, she could not be moved to the mainland in time to save her life.

In April 1930 the islanders case was pressed by the MP for the Western Isles, T.B. Ramsay.  It was a painful affair. The press went overboard on the human drama, the Admiralty fretted about adverse publicity and a place had to be found for the community to resettle. Finally, all was arranged. On 28th August 1930 the people carried their possessions to the pier to await the arrival of the SS Dunara Castle and HMS Harebell the following day. The dogs were drowned, the sheep were transported to the mainland and the cats left to fend for themselves.

At 7am on 29th August 1930, each St Kildan family left an open bible and a small pile of oats in their houses, according to tradition.  They then walked down to meet the ships.  By 9am, HMS Harebell had weighed anchor and thousands of years of permanent habitation in St Kilda came to an end.  It was reported that the people bore their evacuation with dignity.

A well-meaning Argyllshire county Council settled the folk in Ardtornish, where they were given employment in forestry. None of the evacuated islanders had ever set eyes upon a tree.

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