Morvern Lines – 6.8.20

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In this new series, Iain Thornber delves into The Oban Times’ archives from 1930 and throws new light on St Kilda before and after it was abandoned. This extract is taken from a forthcoming book on the subject.

St Kilda is the most well known island in the Western Hemisphere.

When all its inhabitants were cleared 90 years ago this month it was probably the first time in many thousands of years the island had been left completely without people.

Thirty-six men, women and children sailed out of Village Bay aboard the Fishery Cruiser HMS Harebell on August 29, 1930, bound for the mainland. Twenty-eight were put ashore at Lochaline, leaving the remainder to be deposited on the Railway Pier in Oban. This was national news and a huge number of reporters and photographers from across the UK were in both places to greet them. The Oban Times, Scotland’s premier West Highland newspaper, was well represented.

An early view of the main St Kilda settlement above Village Bay. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.

This was not the first time the Oban Times had encountered the St Kildans and they it.  The Oban Times was founded in 1861 and from very early on had taken a close interest in their welfare and the hard life they endured living is such isolation – especially during the winter. When the government was slow to come to their support in times of famine and illness, the pro-crofter, Gaelic, shinty and piping Cameron owners, began a concentrated campaign to come to their rescue by demanding an improvement in the shipping services to the Outer Isles. The Oban Times was the Thunderer of the West and, being such an influential and respected publication in the corridors of power, politicians of all parties sat up and listened. Whereas the majority of reporters at Oban and Lochaline in 1930 were simply looking for a one day sensation, the Oban Times staff were different and really cared for the long-term future of the islanders.

Was clearing the island at one fell swoop totally necessary?  I believe not. That it happened was due to a number of factors; an indifferent and distant government behaving as though they were dealing with a small group of ethnic and illiterate natives ekeing out a living in abject poverty;  a disinterested Secretary and Under Secretary of State for Scotland bent on political point-scoring; an overzealous nurse and, most importantly and worse, an uncaring absentee landowner who should have done his duty by the very people he, as a Highland chief, purported to care for, but largely washed his hands of when they needed him most.

Flora Macaulay (nee Cameron), the long-time editor of the Oban Times, dutifully carried the government’s self-laudatory press releases but made up for it by encouraging and giving her correspondents, who held a different view, full rein. The Oban Times could never have halted the clearance but without a doubt it led to improving the lot of the St Kildans once they arrived on the mainland. Written in beautiful English,  the Oban Times’ reports and letters have lain largely unread from the time they were published until this anniversary year. Thanks to the owners and the present editor, I have been given full access to them. What follows are short selections from a forthcoming book.

8 January 1930: The Hesperus yet to make a second attempt to reach St Kilda due to poor weather.

22 February 1930: Fishery Cruiser Norna Reaches St Kilda, sick woman removed to Glasgow. The second attempt by Dr Shearer, of the Department of Health for Scotland, to reach St Kilda proved successful last weekend. The Fishery Cruiser Norna, which was commissioned for the voyage on this occasion, left Leith for the West Coast via the Pentland Firth. Dr Shearer joined the cruiser at East Loch Tarbert, Harris, Dr Shearer accompanied by Dr MacLean, a local practitioner, went on board the Norna which left Lochmaddy at six o’clock on Sunday afternoon.

Stormy weather was encountered in the voyage to St Kilda, but it fortunately improved when the cruiser had reached the east side of the island. The sea was somewhat choppy, and as it was low tide a landing could not be made at the pier. A rowing boat left the island and conveyed the two doctors ashore from the Norna. They took with them 23 bags of mails that had been for some months overdue, and their arrival with these was received with jubilation on the part of the islanders. A Gaelic service was in progress at the time, but on the sounding of the Norna’s siren it was brought to a close. Dr Shearer, who is well known among the islanders, having made several visits to St Kilda, was warmly received. He made a tour of inspection, remaining four hours on the island. There had been some doubt on the approach as to whether a landing could be effected.  Had there been more wind at the time, it might have been very difficult, or perhaps impossible.

21 June, 1930: Letter entitled: Evacuation of St Kilda:

Sir,  As it has been decided to remove the inhabitants from St Kilda before the end of this summer, and no place is mentioned for their migration, I would suggest the island of Rona in the Inner Hebrides would form an ideal settlement. This island, which is half a mile to the north of the Island of Raasay, had a population of 176 in 1882, while today there are only two families and the Lighthouse attendants, the crofters having removed a few years ago to the south end of Raasay, where the Board of Agriculture found small holdings for them.

Rona Island, notwithstanding its uninviting appearance, is quite fertile, with many oases and good pastures for sheep and cattle rearing. It has a modern school and dwelling house attached, together with a small church and missionary house, and I believe some of the evacuated houses which were of modern construction are in good state of preservation, all now likely to go to ruins.

The island is one of the best harbours in the Western Isles and is situated in fine fishing grounds. Lobsters are plentiful and would be a profitable source of income to the settlers. Although the island is almost tenantless, save for the Lighthouse attendants, it has a mail delivery from Raasay three times a week, while a cargo boat calls fortnightly, or whenever required. Rona, I am convinced, would strongly appeal to the St Kildans as it has much of the natural features of their own beloved St Kilda, and as it is the property of the Board of Agriculture, containing a school and church, etc., the transplantation of the St Kildans could be carried out with very little expense. I am etc, Jno Nicolson.

21 June, 1930: Report: St Kilda – A Hurried Decision to Evacuate

It seems ordained that the island is to be evacuated and the population transferred to other parts. We would have thought that some sort of legislative  procedure would have been necessary for such a wholesale removal, but our masters have great powers in these times. Where the islanders would like to go, and how they will be received by the people with whom they will be merged, are questions which will come up again.

To be continued.