Morvern Lines – 10.9.20

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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.

August 1930: The first stage of the evacuation of St Kilda was undertaken last week. Six hundred and sixty-six sheep were taken from the island and brought by the SS Dunara Castle to Oban where they will be shortly sold. The public interest in the St Kildans is great. When it was known that the Dunara Castle was bringing sheep – only sheep – from the island, hundreds of Oban people and visitors crowded on the Railway Pier on Wednesday night for the arrival of the strangers. It was pathetic to see the poor creatures hustled off the steamer and passed at once among the strange objects of a railway quay. But the disembarkation was dexterously accomplished, and the sheep were taken to parks outside Oban, where they got the feeding which they required after their voyage, particularly those which had been penned in the field in front of the manse before the steamer arrived.

SS Dunara Castle, which transported the St Kilda sheep and cattle to Oban. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.

‘The Dunara Castle made a record trip in time. She left St Kilda at 7.15 in the morning and reached Oban at 10.10 pm. It is seldom that Oban and St Kilda have been both seen in the daylight of one day. But the fact that it can be done should be stated, in view of the somewhat hazy knowledge which exists regarding the so-called isolation of the Island.

‘The flocks which have been first transported were comparatively easy to gather. They were those found about the village and the sides of Connachair and Oiseval. But all the same, the two experienced shepherds, D Clark and A MacLaren, from Messrs Corson, Oban, had to receive assistance from the natives. It has to be borne in mind in regard to manpower that there are very few young and active men left on the island. The St Kilda sheep have ways of their own and did not take kindly to the attention of the collies from the mainland. The sheep could not understand why they should leave the island, and a good deal of force had to be used to get them down the slips and into the boats, thence into the Dunara Castle. The work was done in the dark, which did not make it easier for shepherd or sheep. The Department of Agriculture, which was represented by Mr Stewart, sent a motor launch with the Dunara Castle which greatly assisted the embarkation. The launch is to remain until the complete clearance is affected.

‘There still remains some hundreds of sheep on the more inaccessible parts of the little groups of islands which are known to us under the one name, St Kilda. In Boreray it is not a case of rounding up the flock as is done elsewhere. Each sheep is caught separately. The sheep wanted is pointed out to the dog, who runs to it, seizes it by the throat and turns it on its back, where it lies held and inactive until the shepherd arrives. The method may appear cruel, but the teeth of the St Kilda sheep dogs are filed down, so that there is no wounding, and the dog by training performs the operation speedily. The removal of a sheep from the rocks and precipices is a perilous task, but the danger is as little to the St Kildan.

‘It is certain that all sheep will not be captured. A number will be left either to revert to a savage state or starve. The Reverend Kenneth Macaulay, who visited the island about the middle of the 18th century, wrote of the difficulty of capturing the sheep then on that isle:- The ragged face of Boreray makes it very difficult to catch the sheep, either to shear or bring them to Hirta. To pursue each wild creatures through declivities terminated by the deep or into the shelves of vast rocks, is undoubtedly an adventure, no less perilous than bold. The St Kildans are perhaps the only men in the universe equal to it, and should any one fancy that their amazing intrepidity on such occasions must be resolved into necessity, the rage of hunger or the dread of absolute power, he must permit me to think and affirm, that the love of glory is in many cases the great and only spring of these desperate enterprises. In St Kilda, feats of this kind are deemed heroic actions, and no less so, that to mount a breach, or march up to the mouth of a cannon elsewhere.

‘I am persuaded there are thousands who would sooner encounter an armed enemy, and face all the dangers and horrors of war, than attack the very sheep of Hirta, in these hideous fastnesses into which they very often make their retreat. The old rams, if chased into dangerous positions and heated into a passion, turn sometimes desperately fierce: reduced to the necessity of yielding or tumbling over a precipice into the sea, they face about and attack the pursuers.

‘The Fishery Cruiser, Harebell, which has been commissioned to remove the first contingent of the natives of St Kilda, left Aberdeen on Tuesday to proceed to the island.  It is said that 15 men, 15 women, and a number of children will be taken by the vessel and landed at Oban.

‘It appears now, to be definitely arranged, that the St Kildans are to be settled in Morvern, on the mainland of Argyll. Five families are due to arrive there at the end of August. In the first instance they will be accommodated in five of the empty houses recently purchased by the Forestry Board with the Fiunary (sic) Estate. They will in consequence live at a considerable distance from one another, as the houses mentioned are far apart, viz., Savary, Achnaha, Ardness, Larachbeg and the village of Lochaline. It is believed that this is only a temporary arrangement and that the whole colony will be transferred to Larachbeg at the Martinmas Term, where they will form one community as before. Readers of Kidnapped will remember that Alan Breck passed a somewhat troubled night in the Change House at Larachbeg [actually Kinlochaline] in the course of his wanderings.  The houses destined for the islanders are in one large block of building and are well equipped with modern conveniences – hot and cold water, cooking ranges, etc., There are flower gardens in front and vegetable gardens behind the block, which is flanked by plantations of fir and spruce, and looks down on the valley of the Aline with its green crops and ripening corn. Doubtless the migrants will find everything very bewildering at first, and it is feared that they will not easily adapt themselves to their new and strange surroundings – three miles from the sea.

‘There is one more opportunity to see St Kilda before the historic de-peopling. Messrs MacCallum Orme & Co are sending the Hebrides on a final cruise, leaving Glasgow on the 28th of this month. The round fare is £10, and application should be made early to the Oban agent, Captain Duncan MacDougall, Albany Street, or to the Offices of the Company, 45 Union Street, Glasgow.’

Iain Thornber

Images and captions

1. SS Dunara Castle, which transported the St Kilda sheep and cattle to Oban. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.

2. The Soay sheep on St Kilda are believed to be the direct descendants of the first sheep brought to St Kilda, possibly by Neolithic farmers over 1,000 years ago and are probably the most studied and researched animals in Europe. The yellow tags, which are put on at birth, allows scientists to follow each animal throughout its life.  Photograph by William Cameron.