Last summer, I posted a blog about a book I’d been reading (“Sea Room” by Adam Nicholson) while on holiday at Drimnin, Scotland. There had been a number of slightly spooky connections/coincidences, including the fact that its author, Adam Nicholson, is married to Sarah Raven (gardener, writer, television presenter). Her brother Andrew Raven had studied with my architectural partner Matthew and later became “factor” of the Ardtornish Estate, Lochaline – just down the road from Drimnin and where (ie. Garden Flat at Ardtornish House) Moira+I plus daughters Ruth, Hannah+Alice had stayed back in the Easter of 1990(!).What, you might well ask, has all this got to do with St Kilda?
Well, I’ve just read “The Life and Death of St Kilda” by Tom Steel. St Kilda is the remotest of Britain’s offshore islands – lying some 40 miles or so west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in the North Atlantic Ocean. People have lived there for over 2,000 years (but the population has never exceeded 200), cut off from the rest of the world. The book tells the moving story of the last St Kildans. In August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were finally persuaded to evacuate the island by the British Government – a decision the community reluctantly accepted due to sickness and the lack of enough able-bodied men to continue working on the land.
When these last islanders, and their few belongings, were transported to the mainland, twenty-seven of them disembarked at Lochaline – having accepted offers of employment on the estate at Ardtornish, Argyll.
Photo: typical men’s morning business “meeting”, St Kilda, 1886.
PS: Up until the mid-1800s, St Kilda’s inhabitants couldn’t read or write; they spoke only Gaelic; they had no knowledge of what was happening beyond their tiny islands; they didn’t know what a tree was (the islands were essentially a small group of towering rocks); the weather was unforgiving; communication with the outside world was virtually non-existent; they had some sheep, dogs and a few cows; although they were surrounded by the ocean, their main staple food is not fish (the waters are often too violent for fishing when they only had fairly primitive boats); they relied on the thriving birdlife for the bulk of their food… they were perhaps the only bird-eating community the world has ever had.
PPS: The irony is that the island’s lack of sustainability only came about after sporadic communications with the mainland had been established in the late nineteenth century/early years of the twentieth century… with occasional visits from tourists and the tentative beginnings of the postal service opened some people’s eyes to what they saw as “opportunities” to leave. Soon, it seemed they had only two choices: leave and survive or remain and perish from hunger, sickness and for lack of enough able-bodied men to continue working on the land, harvest the birds, mend the boats and do other chores “only men can do”. Many of them left willingly, some wanted to remain…