Sunday, 1 November 2009
Cannonball Read 1: The Life & Death of St. Kilda by Tom Steel
"The family prayers were said for the last time and, as was custom among Gaelic people, a bible was left open in each house, along with a small heap of oats. In one house the exposed text was Exodus."
"In each of the eleven inhabited cottages the fire was built up with fresh coal and turf. When they were burnt out some hours later, it was probably the first time there had not been a fire on St. Kilda for a thousand years."
St Kilda is an isolated group of islands located on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The main island, Hirta, was until 1930 inhabited by a small community whose population fluctuated between roughly one hundred and two hundred over the centuries. They had lived on the 6.285 square kilometres of island for perhaps 2000 years. Tom Steel's The Life & Death of St. Kilda provides an exhaustive account of these people.
The St. Kildans existed in an isolated world of incredibly harsh weather. Sudden and vicious storms attacked the inhabitants, often blowing sheep over cliffs and into the sea. It is believed St. Kilda was probably Christian before Scotland, as monks travelling from Ireland to Iceland likely settled briefly to convert the inhabitants. Nonetheless religion was not a focal point of the islanders lives initially, though this would change drastically in years to come. The islanders never saw a pig, a bee, rabbit or rat. Their only animals were sheep, cows, dogs and cats. They had no idea about trees, as there were none on the island. It wasn't until 1875 that any of them saw an apple, when freelance journalist John Sands brought three over from the mainland.
The harsh seasons resulted in the inhabitants putting little reliance on the islands limited crops. Their main source of food were the various sea birds that the men spent the bulk of their time catching. These birds would remain the staple diet of the St. Kildans until the beginning of the 20th century when fish - which they had previously avoided as it was not oleaginous enough for their liking - became a more central part of their diet.
In 1822 a profound cultural change occurred when Reverend John MacDonald lay the foundations for a highly organized, puritan and harsh religion. Upon visiting from the mainland he was shocked and appalled that he couldn't find a "decidedly religious person" on the island. He set about his work. Education arrived around the same time as this new form of religion. Various teachers were sent over from the mainland to St. Kilda, decreasing the islanders isolation. The teaching of the English language proved to be particularly useful in dealing with a growing tourist population. The tourists introduced a new concept into the lives of the islanders: money, a concept they struggled with. Furthermore, they found it impossible to understand the mainlands class distinctions.
A far more damaging import arrived from the tourists and occasional stranded ships, however. Disease came to the island and several outbreaks repeatedly decimated the population, as tetanus robbed the community of generations. In 1928 a flu that killed four members of the community struck a particularly devastating blow to morale on the island. And so in 1930 a Nurse Williamina Barclay, who'd been stationed on the island, helped the 36 remaining inhabitants to petition the government to evacuate.
Tom Steel's book is vivid and engrossing, if a little heavy on detail at times, particularly in his descriptions of the islands variety of sea birds. The book successfully recounts the history of this fascinating community up to, and after, their evacuation. The story of their arrival on the mainland is as frustrating as it is heartbreaking. Today the island is home to no more than military personnel and the occasional travelling geologist. The St. Kildans are no more.