Morvern Lines – 3.9.20

Gannets were the lifeblood of the St Kildans providing them with food and helping to pay their rents. 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.

Continuation of a report by the Oban Times Special Correspondent on the Island, August 3, 1930: ‘On Monday 21st July at 5am, the ailing daughter of Widow Gillies died. Her passing immediately cast a gloom across the island, making women lay aside their duties and go to the comforting of the widow. A death on St Kilda is associated with many strange yet beautiful customs. In no other part of the British Isles is sympathy given in such a homely and practical manner. While the patient is ailing, the women of the island take turns at sitting by the bedside. When the worst happens, they comfort the mother for awhile, then go home to their dwellings to weep. It is now the time when strength is needed, so the men take up their vigil. In turns they watch beside the bier, while others go to the flock of the deceased and kill a sheep. This is immediately dressed and prepared for the table, where following a centuries-old custom, it is partaken of after a homely service, where the only wine is tears, Mo chridhe! Mo chridhe!

‘They came to me on that doleful morning and asked me if I would make the poor girl’s coffin. Willingly, I followed them to the most ingenious wood store I have ever seen, and there got the necessary supply of wood, which they kept in rough, seven-eighth boards for this purpose and stored in the heart of a double wall, or dyke, the top of which is covered with layers of turf. They watched beside me till the task was finished, handing as I needed the various tools with which to expedite the job. As soon as finished, it was borne in single file to the sorrow-laden dwelling, where amid loud lamentations, it received its load. It was intended to carry out the funeral on Tuesday, but owning to the arrival of the SS Hebrides during the afternoon, the same was delayed till the following day.

‘In connection with this sad case, words fail me to describe the self-sacrifice and devotion to duty of Nurse Barclay, who has, so much, the welfare of the islanders at heart. Night and day she was at the side of the poor girl, herself weak and pale with the ordeal. The natives told me that she had not had four hours sleep during the last week. But they did not need to tell me. The only street in the village passed my window, and through the night I could hear her step, always heralded by the friendly bark of the collie, who knew her. Often twice in the night she passed, bent on an errand of mercy, Ach! tha i cho math ‘s a tha i cho breagha!

‘Exactly eight years ago the father of the deceased girl died in the Island of Boreray, whither he had gone with a party of natives to shear the sheep. I heard an account of that tragic accident as I sat sipping tea beside an island peat fire. Nor would I recount it, but for the extraordinary manner by which the party on Boreray endeavoured to apprise their friends on Hirta that all was not well. Few perhaps are acquainted with the St Kildan’s method of signalling from one island to another, so the following account of the Boreray tragedy of eight years ago ought to be of some interest.

‘On the evening of the party’s landing on Boreray the father of the deceased girl was taken ill. When morning dawned, and the patient was no better, a patch of turf was bared on the green slopes of the five-miles-distant island, as  a signal to the natives on Hirta to send a boat.

St Kilda mailboats were small boat-shaped blocks of wood hollowed out and attached to sheep’s bladders to carry messages of help when the island was cut off especially during the winter months. Launched in westerly winds they were usually washed shore within a few days on the Long Islands but occasionally reached Norway and Denmark. Photograph: William Cameron

‘Unfortunately a storm ensued and a mist came down and hid the island, and Boreray was left to guard its secret till the storm abated and the curtain of salt spume rose. It was then discovered that the signal had been withdrawn for the other and more dreaded signal of death. Hirta’s sons and daughters knew too well that  [a] big black patch in front of the Druid’s abode, ‘Staller House’ on Boreray! So with the knowledge that somewhere out there amongst the ‘Cleits’ (little stone huts for storing skins) one of the shearing party lay dead, the natives made frantic and repeated efforts to get the boat launched. It was only after being bruised and blackened by the buffeting of breakers that the feat was accomplished, and, sobbing and apprehensive, they watched it battle its way to Boreray. I could imagine the scene as I sat by that island peat fire sipping tea, and, grouped around me, the natives who were of that tragic party. There was an air of sadness in that little grey-black cottage. Even the dogs seemed to sense it, for they too, lay still; their noses poked into the ash rim of the peat fire, and their tails curled well under their haunches, scarcely daring to breathe, as if to disturb the narrative.

‘In all, there are three signals on Boreray. The first consists of a patch of turf some ten paces to the left of the ‘Staller House,’ and measuring eight yards square, being bared by the islanders, and means ‘short of provisions, send the boat’! The other, and of a like size, is to the right of the ‘Staller’ House’ and means sickness. But the third – the signal of death – is twice as large as both, and consequently the most conspicuous, and most dreaded. It will thus be seen that the natives of Hirta had their own methods of communication long before wireless had linked up the ends of the Earth.

‘So much has been written about St Kilda’s shallow soil that I was agreeably surprised to find it quite the opposite. Its green hills were a welcome change to the drab, rocky hills of Uist and Harris. I could imagine myself amongst the hills of Selkirkshire, save that the sea was very visible and the air charged with its tang.  I found walking on St Kilda very difficult on account of its extraordinary steep hills. There is no hope of seeing the long fertile stretch of Gleann Mor, or drinking at the Well of Virtue (‘tobar nam buidth), unless by climbing the steep hill track that winds over the shoulder of ‘Mullach Mor,’ and to accomplish which, means tired limbs, and perhaps a fit of palpitation. I had to rest on several occasions. My guide, a native, informed me that the Maidens of Hirta had to climb this winding track twice daily during the summer, owing to the cattle being grazed in Gleann Mor, and in consequence having to go there for the milking. I met a woman coming down with a sack of peats slung on her back as a Newhaven fisher-wife would sling her creel. She apparently thought nothing of it, for her step seemed light, and sure. I envied her.’

Iain Thornber

Images and captions

1. St Kilda Mailboats were small boat-shaped blocks of wood hollowed out and attached to sheeps’ bladders to carry messages of help when the Island was cut off especially during the winter months. Launched in westerly winds they were usually washed shore within a few days on the Long Islands but occasionally reached Norway and Denmark. (Photograph William Cameron)

2. Gannets were the lifeblood of the St Kildans providing them with food and helping to pay their rents. (Photographj William Cameron)