Morvern Lines – 13.8.20

Boreray, Stac an Armainn and Stac Li viewed from Hirta, the main island in the St Kilda group. Photograph: William Cameron.

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This week we continue Iain Thornber’s extracts from the Oban Times 1930, throwing new light on St Kilda before and after it was abandoned. This extract is taken from a forthcoming book on the subject.

Editorial 21 June [continued from last week]:  The great lesson of the evacuation of St Kilda, if it be consummated, is that it proves the need for better transport for the Highlands and Islands. If modern methods, for example, fast motor boats which could dash to St Kilda, choosing the best days in winter, in a few hours from Harris or North Uist, were adopted, St Kilda would no longer be known as the ‘bleak, lone isle’. And there are submarines and hydroplanes with their potentialities. Wireless if restablished, would keep the islanders in touch with the mainland. We do not think that the possibilities have been thoroughly investigated. In a few years there will be sweeping changes in methods of transport.

The matter has been too much treated from the mere sentimental point of view, and a hurried decision come to which may yet cause much heart-burning. The Argyll County Council some time ago put before the late Government the method of the Norwegian Government in dealing with their island and seaborne population. A recognition of the same duty of a Government to be in touch with all its subjects wherever situated and the adoption of modern standards would have reconciled the people of St Kilda to remain, and would likewise stem the exodus from the other Islands.

Tom Johnston – 1891-1965 – prominent socialist journalist. Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who lost his seat at the 1931 general election. Key government figure in clearing people off St Kilda in 1930. Photograph: The Oban Times Archives

The decision is contained in the following answer by Mr T Johnston, [Under Secretary of State for Scotland] in the House of Commons on Tuesday. ‘The Secretary of State for Scotland received a petition dated May 10 last from the inhabitants of St Kilda praying that they might be removed from the island before the winter. The petition which is signed by all householders now on the island, is attested by the missionary and the nurse, and reached him in ordinary course of post.

‘I recently visited St Kilda in order to make full enquiries on the spot, and, on my report, my Right Honourable friend has decided to accede to the prayer of the petition. The arrangements for carrying out the evacuation and for placing the inhabitants are now receiving attention. There is not in view any scheme for the resettlement of the island by my Rt Hon friend.

‘Every endeavour will be made to sell the sheep and apply the proceeds to the cost of evacuation and any balance to the future subsistence of the islanders, and every care will be taken to meet the needs of individual families, but it is obviously impossible to make the settlement en masse. There are in all about 64 human beings on the island.’

Evacuation of St Kilda; Letter dated June 28, 1930: Sir – I am much interested to see that the Oban Times is expressing a note of doubt in your issue of this week about the proposed evacuation of the people of St Kilda. This decision may be the right thing in the circumstances, but there are always two sides to a problem. Anyone knowing about West Highlands conditions knows that this problem about St Kilda is no new matter. It seems to me that St Kilda has been ‘discovered’ by the outside public in recent years. St Kilda has become something of a ‘sea serpent’, to be spoken about when there is nothing else specially remarkable in the news.

What is to become of the St Kilda people when they are removed from the island?  There is plenty of unemployment in the mainland already in skilled industries and in ordinary labour, so there is not much chance of occupation being found for the able-bodied men from the island. Are the people being removed to fall upon what I think is now called Public Assistance, viz., Poor Relief, or are they going to be settled as a community in crofting and fishing, with necessary housing etc? I gather that there has been a petition from the St Kilda people asking for their removal, but do these people in that remote island really understand what their removal means, and how and where they are to be settled? They probably imagine they are coming to a sort of paradise on the mainland, where all is ‘milk and honey’.

It is all very well for Mr Johnston, the Under Secretary of State for Scotland, to pay a visit to the island and interview the households individually, and with the best intentions in the world, but what is the use of a flying visit of this kind without previous knowledge of the people and the ‘ins and outs’ of the situation.

I suppose the epidemic of expecting something for nothing, and a wonderful bounty from the air, has spread even to this isolated spot in the Atlantic. The people of St Kilda, I expect, are as well off as ever they were, and you hit the nail on the head when you hold that better transport in the West Highlands and inter-coastal service is the best solution of West Highland conditions. including the problem of St Kilda.

The West Highlands are indebted to Mr Johnston for what he formerly did as a private member of parliament, pressing in the last Parliament the matter of the disgraceful inadequacy of West Highland transport, and ‘more power to his elbow’ in this respect, but this proposed step about evacuating St Kilda is, in my opinion, certainly open to question, although one hopes for the best now that the decision has been come to by the Government. I am etc.,  Hebridean.

Letter same column:

Sir, I have just returned from a visit to the Island of Skye, and found there that the main topic of conversation was the removal of the St Kilda people to one or other of the Hebridean islands. The Skye people are far from being inhospitable, but I heard decided objections to the displaced people of St Kilda being settled on Skye. The remark: ‘What will they get to do?’ The land of Skye is scanty enough for the natives themselves, and the St Kildans can bring no new trade or industry with them to make them self-supporting. It is on behalf of the St Kildans themselves that the objections are made. These people would be sadly disillusioned at the change, which is intended to make their conditions much better than it is. Life in all parts of the Hebrides is strenuous, and it is doubtful if there are not compensations in St Kilda which some of the other Islanders have not. This is the conclusion I gathered from speaking with many of the people. I am etc., Traveller.

To be continued next week.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com

Images and captions

Boreray, Stac an Armainn and Stac Li viewed from Hirta, the main island in the St Kilda group (Photograph William Cameron)

Tom Johnston (1891-1965). Prominent socialist journalist. Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who lost his seat at the 1931 general election. Key government figure in clearing people off St Kilda in 1930. (Photograph the Oban Times Archives)