Morvern Lines – 20.8.20

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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.

Letter to the Editor July 1930: St Kilda Tales of Hirta – True or False: ‘Sir – As the Oban Times is read the world over by Gaels, I’m in hopes that you will give me – a St Kildan, and a woman – an opportunity of telling Highland folk the truth about ‘Eilean mo graidh’ – Hirta.

‘For the last year or two ‘ink-coolies’ have been lying – lying about my little island home and its small remnant of simple, voiceless folk. Occasionally an odd honest stranger has tried to dam or divert the black, poisonous stream, but, ach, mo chreacdh, in vain. I lately tried myself in a Scottish newspaper, to tell Lowlanders how we in Hirta live; how few and simple are our pleasures; how intense and lasting our griefs, how pure, hardy, healthy and peaceful our way of life in the remote little isle of the sea. But the kindest of Lowlanders do not understand the Gael, and the ‘ink-coolies’ have poisoned the wells; and the Socialist Government will deport my kinsfolk, and Hirta will become truly ‘the isle of the dead’ – mo thruaighe! Maybe it will be a safer place for landing aeroplanes then? Maybe?

‘They say in the papers than my kinsfolk are now starving and terribly lonely, and longing and praying to the Socialist Government to be deported – to some Lowland paradise, I suppose? Nonsense! Food is as plentiful now as ever it was, and the people to feed, less. The birds of the rocks and the sheep of the hills are as numerous as ever. Only the fish have deserted them, driven by Sassenach trawler men to other and still remote spawning beds, where, sooner or later, the cruel steel net will find them out, only to destroy them as it has a once flourishing industry. But there is  still plenty of food.

St Kilda’s line of houses in front of the circular burial ground above Village Bay. Photograph
William Cameron.

‘Hirta today is not more remote and lonely than it was ages ago. Today the ends of the Earth meet. Miles are now but inches, and the best that science can make of us is paupers!  This Lowland paradise for thousands of Gaels is the ‘Parish’ and the ‘Bureau’. My people don’t understand. I have never heard them express a wish to be deported. I do believe, however, that such a wish as been ‘put in their mouths’, and that they have fallen for this ‘Paradise dope’ like a few millions more a little over a year ago.

‘When I read that Mr Tom Johnston, Under Secretary for State, is seriously concerned about the cost of the evacuation of, in all, about 34 humans beings from Hirta, I feel that the Socialist Under Secretary is but making a mock of the island’s day of sorrow, and is no longer Caraid nan Gaidheal, or of the oppressed. Mo chreach! mo chreach!

‘Alas the depopulation of the Highlands goes on, and the advocates of it will continue to find or invent false, if plausible, reasons for deporting the old race that once peopled Tir nan Beann. To make it easier, one such advocate in the person of the Socialist Under Secretary  has suggested that, after all, we Hirtaichs are but the descendents of a race of criminals, the island having been at one time (according to Mr Johnston) been used by the hereditary Chiefs of Dunvegan as a ‘penal colony for misdemeanants’. If he doesn’t know the history of Hirta, I do. God be merciful to us from the pens of those who would make history from the thin voice of tradition – a voice they don’t understand, a speech they cannot comprehend!

‘I read the other day that Mr Adamson suggested that the nurse in Hirta should be honoured by the King for her inestimable service to the islesfolk. Her service was her duty, her duties her service. The real Caraidh na Hirtaich has been, and is, Mr Ferguson the Glasgow tweed merchant, a Hirtach himself. His father was bailiff of the island, as his brother is today. No one has ever approached Mr Ferguson in his devotion to the interests and welfare of the isle folk of Hirta, and all the decorations that monarchs may bestow on others will never displace Mr Ferguson in the hearts’ core of na Hirtaich.  Looking back across the years I see, too, another in the person of our old dominie-divine, the Rev Angus Fiddes, who, when he could not get a nurse to stay, proceeded to the mainland – to the same city as, in later years, lured me – and there took a course of maternity training, returning to his threefold task of minister, schoolmaster and nurse. He sleeps forgotten in a little churchyard of Easter Ross – Portmahomack. But happily he lives in the memory of those who, like myself, knew him as all three, and more.

‘I am happy to note that such able men as Compton MacKenzie, Mr Ramsay, MP and Mr Matheson, the noted Scottish geographer, give no credence to the tale that the last remnants of my race will be healthier, happier, or purer in the slums of the mainland, unemployed or casually working, that they are at the moment on ‘an t-eilean a chuan’ – Hirta. And thousands of Gaels will join them, and me, in condemning this or any other Government who will make Hirta an  ‘Isle of the Dead’ and condemn it to the same fate as innumerable crofter villages now lost amongst the almost countless acres of the sportsman’s paradise. Tomorrow it is in danger of becoming but an island of dreams to the exiles, a memory of joys that are past, sweet yet mournful to the soul; and all this because Governments have for the last 40 years been unheeding to our plea of better facilities during the winter – facilities that are not only the need of Hirta but of all the Hebrides, Soiridh, Hirta! – Mrs Christina MacDonald MacQueen, Stonehouse, Lanarkshire’

Letter to the Editor July: ‘Sir. May I express my thanks to the letter you printed of Mrs Christina MacDonald MacQueen about St Kilda. Mr Tom Johnston landed on the island with a  mind obscured by sea-sickness, and he was in no condition to appreciate the real state of affairs. A more pusillanimous admission by the member of any Government that his party was incompetent to deal with the problems of modern Scotland that Mr Johnston’s statement in the House of Commons on the subject of St Kilda I never read.

‘Mrs MacQueen rightly says that Nurse Barclay did no more than her duty, and I would add the same of the missionary, Mr Munro. Sentimental eloquence over nurses cannot disguise the feeble handling of the St Kilda business, which is a clear sign that the town-obsessed Labour Party intends to shirk all land problems. However, my criticism of it is not inspired by the least respect for or belief in either of its two rivals. – I am etc., Compton Mackenzie’

Iain Thornber

Images and captions

St Kilda’s line of houses in front of the circular burial ground above Village Bay  (Photograph William Cameron)
George Herbert Strutt (in white panama hat) buying tweed on St Kilda 1908 for his Kingairloch Estate (Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber)