Morvern Lines – The Oban Times and St Kilda clearance – 08.10.20

Savaray, over looking the Sound of Mull.

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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.

December 1930: St Kildans’ rights withheld. Macleod of Macleod criticizes Government’s action.

‘That the St Kildans have not yet been paid the money realised from the sale of their sheep after the evacuation, was revealed by Sir Reginald Macleod of Macleod, speaking at the annual dinner of the Edinburgh Inverness-shire Association in the Royal Hotel, Edinburgh, last Saturday.

‘In referring to St Kilda, which belongs to him, Sir Reginald remarked that the island was said to be a sort of prison to which the Lords of Macleod sent their less agreeable retainers. He did not know if that was true.  As far as he knew, however, the late inhabitants were a most agreeable people, as far from being criminal as anyone in that room.  Many people had been good enough to suggest how St Kilda should be utilised. The only practical suggestion was that it should be used as  sort of prison for silver foxes. Silver foxes would be very welcome if anyone liked to try the experiment (Laughter). Turning seriously to the question, he thought anyone who loved the island and its people must feel a sadness that it was again bare of inhabitants. There was nothing there but thirteen little houses with nobody occupying them. One very earnestly wished that the inhabitants might prosper in their new surroundings’.

‘He thought the Government had incurred a very great responsibility in that matter. It was not enough simply to take the people from the homes of their ancestors and leave them to find their own way. They were entire strangers to modern life. They required care, and he demanded that the Government should continue to take care of them and see that they were not lost in crowds of strange faces, and that they really had sympathy shown to them. He wanted particularly to emphasise this-  that the people moved from the island, and everything they had in the world was taken from them. Hitherto it has not been done. To this moment nothing has been returned to them. They have not received a penny, I intend to leave the Government no peace until the people are properly treated, both in the way of care and restoration of all their property.’

‘The attention of Mr Tom Johnston, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, was drawn to the speech by MacLeod of MacLeod. In reply he stated that the reason that the money received from the sale of the St Kildans’ sheep and not yet been handed over to the Islanders was that the Government had been endeavouring, with some success, to induce the shipping company to reduce their transport charges. It was obviously in the interests of the St Kildans that the expenses of transport and sale of the sheep should be kept as low as possible. He had heard no complaint regarding the money, which would be paid to the islanders as soon as the accounts were settled’.

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In concluding this series on the clearance of the island of St Kilda based on reports in the Oban Times which has been the West Highland’s premier newspaper since 1861, it is apparent that there was far more to the removal of the islanders than is generally accepted. Truly history is written by the victor who, in this case was a distant Westminster Labour Government, and not the unfortunate evacuees. Had there been a volcanic eruption, as was the case on Tristan da Cunha in 1961 necessitating an emergency evacuation, it would have been different. But it wasn’t. The UK Government had ample time to plan an orderly withdrawal and to ensure the transition was done sympathetically.  Basically St Kilda, and indeed a number of other islands off the West Coast,  were an inconvenience to local and national governments providing opposition parties with the opportunity to berate each other.

Few in public life cared about a small, non-manufacturing community on the edge other than the Cameron family of the Oban Times whose owner and editor, Flora Macaulay, kept the government on its toes.  The landowner could and should have done but didn’t.  Sir Reginald Macleod of Macleod (1847-1935) KCB of Dunvegan Castle, 27th clan chief, was educated at Harrow and Cambridge. This kilted anglophile, Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, Register General and Permanent Under Secretary for Scotland in HM’s Civil Service, was a person holding high office to whom the St Kildans were paying rent they could ill afford. He could so easily have helped well before 1930 and by at least underwriting the cost of the evacuation afterwards. He didn’t and abandoned them when they needed him most leaving it until well after the Harebell had sailed out of Village Bay before making a few half-hearted public squeaks to salve his conscience by which time it was much too late.

There are many questions which future writers of St Kilda must ask before trotting out the usual stories of a starving and ageing population cut off from the outside world begging to be removed. Questions about the petition signed by Islanders asking to be evacuated which was clearly orchestrated by Nurse Barclay.  Had she been placed there by the Labour Government to sow the seeds in return for the medal she later received when she succeeded?

Questions too must be asked about the shambles which occurred once the Islanders were tipped ashore at Lochaline. Before they left St Kilda they had been promised they would be housed in the same place. They were to be given crofts to enable them to go on living and working together which was so important to them, but it was not to be.  ‘Get them on the boat and out of here’, seemed to have been the attitude of the officials, ‘we won’t be bringing them back’ and set about un-roofing buildings and failing to maintain others.   Questions also about what actually went on between the Chief Housing Inspector of the Department of Health for Scotland, the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission in London and Edinburgh, Macandrew, Wright & Murray, Writers to the Signet and legal advisors to Mrs Owen Hugh Smith, the owner of Ardtornish Estate, who was quoted at a meeting between the Forestry Commission and the Department of Health on 3 November, 1930, as saying that she was unwilling to accept any ex-St Kildan as a tenant.

I am not a fan of retrospective public apologies by politicians and government ministers but something is definitely due to the St Kildans for the shallow way in which they were treated and used as political pawns. As no costly plaque can atone for the neglect to the living and not one original St Kildan is alive today,  perhaps the Scottish Government should consider awarding a tax free pension to the families of the second generation? Arthur Balfour,  the UK’s prime minister from 1902 to 1905 wrote, ‘Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all’. It would be simple to apply this to abandoned islands but given St Kilda’s now near mythical status we cannot.

From the book,  ‘The St Kilda Clearance’ by Iain Thornber, forthcoming

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com

Images and captions

1. Mrs Rachel MacDonald, oldest resident; Ewen Gillies and Finlay Gillies, ‘the King of St Kilda’, Puzzled, tired but still stoical and dignified, they stand near Lochaline pier waiting patiently for a car to take them to their new homes.

2. Savary, overlooking the Sound of Mull, home to the Gillies family for many years.