Morvern Lines – 27.8.20

Forty years after the St Kildans left their island home food was being dropped in nets by aeroplane for the military personnel. One day a netful of frozen food, on hitting the ground, burst open and a chicken flew out and broke the collar bone of the commanding officer who had come to watch. Photograph The Oban Times

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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.

July 1930 Editorial: It is rumoured that 10,000 acres of the Ardtornish Estate on the western shores of Loch Aline, Morvern, Argyllshire, have been acquired by the Forestry Commission for afforestation purposes. Another rumour is to the effect that it is intended to place the people of St Kilda on part of the land. The Ardtornish Estate was recently purchased by Mr Owen Hugh Smith, London, from the trustees of the late Mr Gerard Craig Sellar.

Letter to the editor, July 1930: from Morvern

Sir, With mingled feelings I have read the correspondence appearing in your paper anent the removal of the people of St Kilda to the mainland. So far as my limited knowledge goes, it appears to me to be a most unnecessary and unfortunate undertaking. The St Kildans are a people apart. To a large extent they are unacquainted with the conventions of modern life, and it is not at all likely that an adult population can possibly adapt itself to the new and strange circumstances in which it may soon find itself. The people are practically foreigners in language, customs and manners. Thrice a year, for a few brief hours, they come in contact with visitors and the open-handed generosity extended to them is calculated to give them an entirely false idea of the reception they are likely to receive on the mainland.

They will naturally conclude, in their childlike simplicity, that the same benevolence awaits them. It is to be hoped that those who have their confidence will warn them against this delusion. There is something ludicrous in the idea of converting cragsmen into foresters – men who have no skill of tools or implements, and perhaps have never seen a horse or a tree. It cannot be expected that such people can earn a living wage or adapt themselves suddenly to regular hours of labour, and the strong probability is that they will in a short time become chargeable to the State.

What is wrong with St Kilda?  St Kilda supported a much larger population in the past. Reading between the lines, I infer that the burden of supporting the whole community has fallen on the shoulders of a few, and that the last straw has been added. It is largely a question of meal and potatoes. If these necessaries were assured to the natives, evacuation is the last thing they would think of. It would not be too much to expect of a Government that send an abundant supplies to the islanders of the South Atlantic that they should be equally solicitous for the welfare of the few inhabitants of St Kilda. To remove them will only be a case of shifting them from the frying pan into the fire; being unfitted to earn a livelihood on the mainland, they will only fall into dire poverty and be haunted by an irretrievable and life-long regret. Apart altogether from the sorrow and suffering that the evacuation of St Kilda must necessarily involve, there remains a loss to the Gaelic language. Possibly it is the only place in existence today where Gaelic is the exclusive language of the people. We are all painfully aware of the countless influences that are at work, rendering the position of Gaelic almost untenable. St Kilda was the last outpost of our tongue. I am etc., Mo Naire.

Provisions landed from the S S Dunara Castle in the 1920s being carried up to the houses in Village Bay, St Kilda. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber

St Kilda on the eve of evacuation: August 1930;  ‘Where Men Wait and Women Weep’, by our special correspondent: When I stepped onboard the SS Dunara Castle at Leverburgh, Harris, on the morning of July fifteenth, for the last fifty-mile lap to St Kilda, the sea was like a mirror, with a slight wind from the north-east. After this splendid crossing, I stepped ashore on the rocks of Parson’s Bay five hours later, to begin a week’s investigation of the conditions obtaining on the island on the eve of evacuation, and also to discover the sentiments of the old people about leaving ‘Eilean mo graidh.’

Without exception the young folk are all anxious to turn their backs on Hirta. The hill track to Gleann Mor where, in summer, the cattle go to graze, and the lassies must go to the milking, has grown too steep and dreary. To the young men the cliffs have lost their charm. The water of ‘Tobar nam buidh’ tastes bitter. For years their comrades have been deserting them, trekking one by one to the mainland in search of that elusive thing called happiness. But we cannot blame the young men and women of Hirta, any more than we can the youth of the mainland whose idea of happiness is largely governed by excitement.

There was considerable excitement amongst the thirty-seven inhabitants when, on the morning following my arrival, it was made known to them by Nurse Barclay, that the Government document, containing the terms for their removal of the sheep, required their signatures. In every case the mark is different and so the shepherds of Hirta know their own flock. The Government’s terms provide for the dispatch of a vessel to the island with two shepherds with dogs and nets – the latter for enclosing the flock for the purpose of identification. All the islemen, save Findlay MacQueen and Findlay Gillies, are to assist the shepherds, for which the fee of one pound (£1) will be paid, provided Nurse Barclay, who is acting on behalf of the Government, approves of their services. The approximate number of sheep to be dealt with are as follows: Hirta, 960; Boreray, 210.

And how are the old people taking it all? It is sad for them; for the old folk Hirta is an island of memories – memories pleasant and sad. Mainlanders can be certain of this, for nights before the deportation vessel bears them off for ever, their pillows will be wet. Hirta is dear home to them – a home more gripping, more endearing, more satisfying, even its solitude and empty dwellings. Old Findlay MacQueen showed me, with tears in his eyes, the large case of partly-stuffed birds – the shearwater, fulmar, guillemot, razorbill, puffin, gannet, great black gull, and all the other varieties that he so intimately knew well-nigh three score years, and which he is bearing off with him to adorn the interior of his new home. Findlay was the island’s greatest cliffman in his day and the friend of many eminent naturalists like Seton Gordon and Cherry Kearton. Findlay is taking it perhaps hardest of all. They cannot remain alone, those old folk who have known no other home and whose philosophy is still the philosophy that bred our simple, God-fearing forefathers.  May God keep them unsullied and unspoiled in their new surroundings!

To be continued.