Morvern Lines – 17.9.20

Village Bay St Kilda. 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.

‘IT MUST NOT BE ‘SOIRIDH HIRTA!’

How I regard the Government’s attempt to break up my home – What its passing would mean. Article by Mrs Christina M MacQueen

‘From the lone sheiling on the misty island,

Mountains divide us, and a waste of sea;

Yet still our hearts are true, our hearts are Highland.

And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

‘On the twenty-eighth of this month Her Majesty’s Labour Government has decided to stage the last act in the drama of Hirta. On that date, with the aid of a naval sloop and fishery cruiser, it will destroy the last exclusive outpost of the Gaelic tongue and carry into exile the 36 survivors of years of government neglect. The minimum of publicity will be given the tragic event, so that only those in authority will witness the grief of my people, and that the last act will not be (according to the reported statement of the Under Secretary for Scotland) ‘in the nature of a circus’. People don’t go readily to a circus, to witness a tragedy; they go to see the clown, to laugh and to forget. But, ‘tha diofar eader ciall is cuthach’, (there is a difference between sense and madness!).

Gathering fulmars on the cliffs of St Kilda, 1885. Photograph: George Washington Wilson.

‘As a native of Hirta , a woman, a mother with 25 year’s experience of mainland life, I have a knowledge of the needs and aspirations of my people. They are bringing the young folks of home to introduce them to the grave uncertainties of a worker’s life on the promise of a guaranteed 150 day’s work per annum (three days per week) and while they do so other young natives of Hirta, amongst whom is my brother, are trying to exist on the 17 shillings a week – the politicians price to save them tackling seriously the land and other problems that confront them.  Another young native who discovered it was uneconomically impossible to pay his landlady 25 shillings a week from 17, went home on the tenth ultimo in the company of my husband to his mother, leaving behind him the 17 shillings as a Hirteach’s contribution to the fund for the sustenance of our two million unemployed. Och mo chreach! mo chreach! it is sad am I, to think that never again he’ll have the comfort of his mother in the cottage under Connachair.

‘The press must stay back. It must be kept dark and secret – this final breaking off of my people from centuries old associations, from the birth place of their sires, from the cemetery of their hopes. Only the spirits that Connachair has, through the centuries gathered to its bosom, will be allowed to gaze on the procession of broken men and women – the old folk who have no desire to leave, but who are being taken to exile, and a worse form of isolation than ever they experienced in Hirta, because of the failure of politicians to sense the needs of the developing Highlands and Islands, not as mere places, but as places fitted to nourish and sustain a happy and contended peasantry.

‘I will be told that my young brothers signified their willingness to leave, appealed to the Secretary of State to be taken off the island. But they did so under pressure – the pressure of those promises, I’m afraid, will turn out as shallow as their knowledge of Highland needs. These young men, largely nurtured and developed in the war period, were swept into the same quagmire of economic falsity as the whole world is presently floundering in. It was easy then for governments to send vessels to the island, to keep in touch with their subjects, to give them a mail almost every other week. Apparently it was a difficult matter to do so when a thousand vessels were withdrawn from service and about to be scrapped!

‘I will be told, too, that it takes money to send a vessel to Hirta; but I will answer that it takes money to end the ‘Hesperus’ round the lighthouses. But they will add, ‘the lighthouses perform a service to the sailors of the world’! And I will tell them “So has Hirta”! Many a vessel have we guided to the sure haven of our bay. Many a time in the dark nights of winter, when the wind whipped the waves to madness, and the north and west side of the island was a thick curtain of salt spume, have we fought for the lives of despairing mariners. Sometimes we have won, sometimes we have lost.

‘The last trawler skipper to take me and my children to fair Eilean mo Ghridh went down with his vessel in the vicinity of the Sound of Soay on the north-east side of the island three winters ago, after a memorable struggle by the natives to effect his rescue. And for all this – what? “A home for the old folk that can never be better than a prison”. Ach, ach, mo thruaigh! mo thruaigh! But I refuse to believe that Hirta is doomed. The last Hirtach has not been laid in the corner under the hill. The Gaels from far and near will muster their strength to defeat the ends of those who have Hirta mapped for other things. I refuse to bring my wheel. It is left with my heart in the 10th little cottage of that straggling line to wait the day when the gloaming comes. Then there will gather round me the spirits of those who just lie sleeping, and whose voices still come to me in the night time when sleep has carried me home to fair Eilean mo ghraidh.

August 30th 1930: ‘The Hebrides which earlier had put into Oban for a few hours, arrived at St Kilda on Saturday last at 11.45am. The passage was fairly calm with a slight swell from the West-South-West. On sighting the steamer, the St Kildans went out as usual with their boats to convey the passengers, who were landed with little difficulty.  Each went on his own quest, the journalist to interview the natives, the curious to view the mode of living of a people so isolated, the curio-hunter to obtain a souvenir of the adventurous visit. Some spinning-wheels, which will exchange their past of toil for a life of ease in some mainland drawing room, were obtained.

‘The wind when WSW blows right into Parson’s Bay, where the ‘Hebrides’ was anchored, it began to freshen and Capt John MacKinnon, with his experience of St Kilda storms and his natural prudence, at once blew the steamer’s whistle for the return of those who had landed. The natives then set about to take the passengers back to the steamer, but the waves were rising. Parson’s Bay is not a match for the whole force of the mighty Atlantic, and the St Kildan’s boat was dashed against the little pier, holed and sank. The situation became tense. The natives naturally would not risk their other boat. The visitors were faced with an unprepared stay on the island.’

To be continued.