THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

LEAVING ST. KILDA

"St. Kilda had stood still for centuries, a remnant of a feudal society that had long
since died out on the mainland. The people themselves had stood still. They spoke a peculiar
variation of the Gaelic tongue, and no one knew the reason why; they were a people who
scraped a living from the seabirds that soared in the air above them."

From "The Life and Death of St.Kilda" by Tom Steel (1975).

Out in the bleak North Atlantic, more than "forty miles from sweet bugger all" (viz. the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), there rises from the waves a tiny, cliff-ringed island whose dramatic scenery can only be matched by the remarkable and tragic story of its long-isolated people. That island was called Hirta by its residents though it is labelled on the map by the anglicized name, St.Kilda. Only a mile and a half across, this tiny island is nevertheless much larger than the nearby sea-stacks, some of which tower vertically over 1400 feet above the waves. No-one knows how and when the people got to this remote island in the first place though the archeological evidence indicates that they were there before the birth of Christ. The language they spoke right up until the end was a strange, archaic form of Scotch/Irish gaelic. The Vikings visited, of course, and left their mark as well as some DNA and the names of a few natural features. The island does appear on some ancient maps. But nothing was really documented until Donald Monro, the archdeacon of the western islands of Scotland, visited his islands in 1549 and penned a brief description of each, including a paragraph on Hirta. Monro wrote that the inhabitants were "simple creatures" and that their produce was "corn and girsing, namely for scheip". He remarked that "... the seais are stark and verie evill entering in ony of the saids Iles." But the first detailed account of the island and its people was written by a doctor by the name of Martin Martin who visited Hirta in 1695 and penned an extensive report entitled "A description of the western islands of Scotland circa 1695" (currently available in paperback from Birlinn Ltd. of Edinburgh).

Remarkably, the people of Hirta, no more than about 180 in number at any time, found a way to survive on this treeless, storm-swept speck of 1700 acres in the north Atlantic. They lived inside a protected, south-facing bay (location 57deg. 48' 47.83" N, 8deg. 34' 6.65" W) surrounded by mountains whose other sides are huge vertical cliffs dropping straight down to the waves. The bay is part of an ancient volcanic crater. Prior to about 1840, the homes they built consisted of a line of stacked-stone houses with peat/thatch roofs, ranged in a circular arc a short distance above the shoreline of the bay. In 1836-38 a kind benefactor provided the means to construct a row of small but roomier cottages along the same crescent that the islanders knew as Main Street. The empty remains of these cottages (some reconstructed for use by the National Trust) as well as a number of the cruder, earlier homes now line Main Street, a somber reminder of the tenuousness of the human experience. The place has the reverence of a graveyard (there is, in fact, a small burying ground in a stone-walled enclosure behind the row of houses) and one feels the same need to tread quietly out of respect for the community that lived and died here. Because of this the nearby military base seems like a gross and thoughtless intrusion. During its lifetime Main Street was the center of St. Kildan life; each morning the menfolk would gather there to decide on the community work to be done that day (some have described this meeting as the St. Kildan "Parliament"). There the birding expeditions to the cliffs and sea stacks would be planned; and there the final exodus was decided upon.

   
Village Bay on Hirta Main Street

   
Main Street Main Street Parliament
(Photo by G.W.Wilson)
   
Cleit on the way to the Gap Women of Hirta
(Photo by G.W.Wilson)
The St.Kildans were a brave and hardy people with their own culture that included a strong tradition of communal sharing combined with a neccessary spirit of collective but calculated risk. That risk included the danger of living off the produce from the cliffs that surrounded them, cliffs that they learned to negotiate at a very young age. When he reached manhood and had found a prospective partner among the few available, a young St. Kildan man was required to prove his courage and his potential as a provider at the so-called "Mistress Stone". This natural feature on the cliffs of the Ruaival peninsula south and west of the village consisted of a dramatic doorway in the rock at the cliff-top with a vertical 400ft drop to the ocean below. In the words of Martin Martin who was challenged to perform this traditional feat of bravado, "... upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer is by an ancient custom obliged in honour to give a specimen of his affection for the love of his mistress, and it is thus; he is to stand on his left foot, having the one half of his sole over the rock, and then he draws the right foot further out to the left, and in this posture bowing, he puts both his fists further out to the right foot; and then after he has performed this, he has acquired no small reputation, being always after it accounted worthy of the finest mistress in the world ..." No doubt this rite-of-passage steeled the young man for his duties gathering food on the cliffs of Hirta, Stac Lee and Stac-an-Armin.

Mistress Stone
(Photo by Alex Walker)
A young St.Kildan might also be dared to traverse the dramatic sea-tunnel through the headland on the north side of Hirta. To get to this remarkable natural feature he would have to hike over the 700ft saddle above the village in order to drop into Gleann More, the other main valley on the island. Passing the House of the Amazon, he would have veered to the right in order to access the relatively flat top of the Gob na h-Airde peninsula on the north side of Glen Bay. Proceeding to the cliffs at the very end of this headland he would have noticed a steep path down to his left by which to reach a narrow ledge that leads down to the tunnel entrance and to a sloping rock shelf in the tunnel itself. He might even have been challenged to proceed through the tunnel though the raging seas that dominate the far eastern end may have made the exit impossible.

   
Tunnel through Gob na h-Airde on Hirta Western tunnel entrance
(Photos by Bob Jones)
For sustenance the St.Kildans survived by ingenuity and daring. Though they were able with difficulty to grow some potatoes and a few vegetables, to husband a native breed of sheep and to catch a few fish, their primary nutrition came from the huge rookeries of seabirds that populated the island cliffs and nearby seastacks. They not only gathered the eggs of the gannets and fulmars but also caught and ate the birds themselves. To do so they manufactured ropes and rapelled hundreds of feet down the cliffs of Hirta. Even more spectacularly, they made landing upon and climbed the sea stacks. Of their ropes Martin Martin wrote " ... there are only three on the whole island, each 24 fathoms in length (about 144 ft). They are either knit together and lengthen by tying the one to the other, or used separately as occasion requires; the chief thing upon which the strength of these ropes depends, is cow hides salted, and cut out in one long piece, this they twist round the ordinary rope of hemp, which secures it from being cut by the rocks; they join sometimes at the lower end two ropes, one of which they tie about the middle of one climber, and another about the middle of another, that these may assist one another in case of a fall; but the misfortune is, that sometimes the one happens to pull down the other, and so both fall into the sea; but if they escape (as they do commonly of late) they get an incredible number of eggs and fowls." They climbed barefoot and, in doing so since childhood, developed ankles and feet that were adapted for their tasks.

   
Rapelling for birds at the Gap Birding haul
(From film by Paul Robello & Bobbie Mann)
(Photo by G.W.Wilson)
   
Birding expedition on Boreray Birding on Stac an Armin
(Photo by Cherry Kearton)
(Photo by G.W.Wilson)
St. Kildans birding (1908): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SDVV4Vz2kI&feature=player_detailpage
St. Kilda with birding (1928): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-CpkFgxx2I&feature=player_detailpage

The St.Kildans used every part of the birds they caught. The birds to be eaten, whether gannets (solan geese), fulmars, puffins or other seabirds, were stored in the "cleits" that are sprinkled all over the landscape of Hirta. Cleits were small stone-walled sheds with turf roofs used for the storage of all of the St.Kildan's goods. They had a single entrance on the uphill side and were well vented through the gaps in the stone walls to keep the stores as dry and cold as possible. The feathers of the birds were used for many purposes, in later years to pay tithes to the nominal landowners, the MacLeod of MacLeod. The oil from the fulmars was prized for its restorative powers and for lamp oil. Fulmars also formed the favorite diet of the St.Kildans though a puffin was regarded as a tasty snack. Shoes, though not regularly worn by the St.Kildans, were sometimes fabricated from the necks of gannets.

It is an easy hike up the valley northeast of the village to a saddle called "The Gap" where the land drops 535ft precipitously down into the sea. This was the most convenient birding location on Hirta and was therefore the site of the ropework demonstrations featured in some of the early film included among the internet sites listed above. However this birding location was much less productive than the group of sea stacks that are visible across the ocean some four miles northeast of the Gap. It is a truly awesome experience to approach these sea stacks by boat. The largest, Boreray (the "Fortified Isle"), is a giant wedge-shaped projection, vertical on three sides and very steep (but grass covered) on the fourth; almost a mile long and half a mile wide, it rises to a ridgetop that towers 1243ft above the ocean, as high as the top of the mast on the Empire State building. Yet the St. Kildans would row their wooden longboat over from Hirta on birding expeditions and land on Boreray. During their visits to Boreray over the years they built a "bothy" or shelter for overnight stays as well as a number of cleits in which to temporarily store their harvest of birds. Even more dramatic are the several vertical columns of bare rock separated from Boreray by just a few hundred yards of often-raging ocean. Stac Lee (the "Grey Stack") is perhaps the most impressive; with a sea-level footprint of just 200yds by 100yds. It rises some 545ft to an awesome summit plastered white by gannets, their nests, their eggs and their guano. Stac-an-Armin (the "Warrior's Stack") is slightly larger, rising to a height of 627ft. As you ride the waves around these awesome rocks, it is almost impossible to visualize how the St.Kildans managed to land on these cliffs from their frail longboats. Yet they not only landed using their home-made ropes but somehow managed to climb both these spectacular monoliths. And they not only climbed them (both the men and the women), but carried barrels of eggs and birds down from the summit for transport back to Hirta. Stac Lee is the most impressive climb (Stac-an-Armin has a less precipitous side) but if you look very closely you can spot a series of narrow diagonal ledges that zigzag up the southwest face and allow ascent to the sloping roof of the stack. And if you look even more closely, near the top on the left side, you should be able to spot the entrance to the bothy.

   
Passing Boreray on the way to Hirta Stac Lee and Boreray

   
Stac Lee Stac an Armin

The St.Kildans would launch expeditions of several days to Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac-an-Armin. Normally the boat and crew would row back to Hirta and return to pick them up several days later. For such trips, the birders built small shelters called "bothies" on each of the rocks. The one on Stac Lee, a small, inclined crack high on the southwestern cliff-face, would only hold a couple of men. The one on Stac-an-Armin was a larger, free-standing structure that would hold about a dozen people crammed together for warmth. Indeed, one of the most remarkable stories of human survival occurred on Stac-and-Armin in 1727 and 1728. On Aug.15, 1727, three men and eight boys were ferried over to Stac-an-Armin for a multiple-day birding expedition. However, while they were there a smallpox epidemic broke out in the village as a result of contaminated clothing brought back from the mainland after a St.Kildan died of the disease there. The village was so decimated that the islanders were unable to man a boat to bring the birders back to Hirta. Somehow the eleven survived on the rock by drinking water from a spring, eating birds and eggs and huddling together in the bothy. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of the local land steward on the island, they were miraculously rescued on May 13, 1728, after a nine month stay on Stac-an-Armin. It says something about how the islanders were viewed by their landlords, that none of the names of the survivors were recorded.

   
Bothy on Stac Lee Bothy on Stac Lee

Bothy on Stac-an-Armin
(Photo by Philip Storey)
Stac-an-Armin from a boat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=poG89UHkIjU
Climbing Stac Lee: (1) Ascent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Ru0XclkE-vU
Climbing Stac Lee: (2) Descent:      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=wsTOjMmrkSQ

Stac-an-Armin is remembered for one other, less fortunate event. In July of 1840, the last great auk (or "garefowl") in the British Isles was caught on Stac-an-Armin by three birders. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days before beating it to death with a stick, because they believed it to be a witch. A few years years later, in 1852, the last great auk in the world was killed and the bird became extinct.


For years I had thought to visit this extraordinary place. Finally, on Jun.29, 2012, I caught a plane out of Belfast City Airport and flew by way of Glasgow to Stornoway, the principal airport in the Outer Hebrides. There I collected a little car from the Hebrides Car Rental Company, made my way through the town of Stornoway and out onto the narrow road that runs the length of the connected islands of Lewes and Harris. With most of the day to spare, I detoured to visit the Stones at Calanais, a miniture version of Stonehenge constructed over 4500 years ago, and the Dun Carloway Broch, an Iron Age stone castle with double walls and multiple floors. Whoever occupied these ancient structures they seemed utterly beyond the known compared with the very real individuals who lived on Hirta. Continuing on through the stone and heather landscape I crossed from Lewes into Harris, drove over the narrow isthmus at Tarbert into South Harris and along the narrowing single-lane road to the tiny port of Leverburgh. There I spent the night at a lovely little bed and breakfast called Carminish House run by Pete and Val Prince; near the southern tip of Harris this has the advantage of being within easy walking distance of both the Leverburgh Pier and the pleasant retaurant called the Anchorage. Bright and early the next morning I joined the small group of about 10 booked on the day trip to St.Kilda with Sea Harris and captain Seamus Morrison. To get to St.Kilda and back in one day requires a high-speed boat like Sea Harris's MV Enchanted Isle, an Interceptor 42 with a cruising speed of 18 knots and a high speed of 29 knots. A very similar boat operated by a rival company, St.Kilda Cruises, was moored alongside and the two boats travelled together in a sensible and safer cruising arrangement. On that day, June.30, 2012, we were fortunate with the blue-sky weather and lucky with the relatively calm ocean; in these northern latitudes there are many days when the trip cannot be made because of the dangers involved in landing on Hirta.

Thus began a spectacular and beautiful day visit to the storied archipelago of St.Kilda. Five at a time we were ferried from the MV Enchanted Isle to the rough village jetty in an inflated Zodiac and then allowed to wandered through the village and up the slopes of Hirta. I climbed to the Gap to enjoy the fantastic view over to Boreray and the sea stacks while gannets, fulmars and skuas swirled overhead. Too soon it was time to leave. We were transported back to the boat and, as the crew made preparations for the return to the mainland, I could not help but look back at the remains of the village. My thoughts were of sadness for both the village and the individuals who lived there. I tried to envisage how the last 36 island residents must have felt as they were ferried to the ship on that morning of Friday, Aug.29, 1930.

A number of factors contributed to the demise of the St.Kildan community. Increasingly over the last two hundred years, contact with the larger world brought both problems and opportunities. The younger and more adventurous saw greater opportunity elsewhere and chose to leave, to seek their fortune in the world beyond the island. Eventually, there were too few young, strong arms and too little vital energy to sustain the island community. Moreover, changing economic conditions on the mainland created unsupportable financial pressures on the island and led to untenable living conditions for the villagers. Their culture and tradition had been based on a barter system and a tradition of sharing obligations and resources and the increasing intrusion of the cash system used in the world beyond further eroded the island economy. The people of St.Kilda were too old and too few in number to adjust to the modern world. Perhaps these commercial realities were inevitable given the huge gulf between the island culture and that of the mainland. But another externally-generated malaise was not unavoidable. In the decade of the 1820s, religious upheavals and zealotry in Scotland led to a dominant over-bearing church that was very destructive to the island community. Rev. John MacDonald arrived in 1822 to minister to the population and preached 13 lengthy sermons during the first 11 days. All the inhabitants were required to attend. Moreover he returned on a regular basis, subjecting the islanders to more of the same. Some years later his successor, Rev. Neil Mackenzie, who arrived on Jul.3, 1830, continued the zealotry. He, at least, is recognized as improving aspects of the islanders living conditions. But the Rev. John Mackay who arrived in 1865 increased the zealotry and gloom. He initiated church practices that were critically detrimental to the island well-being, three-hour-long Sunday sermons at which attendance was obligatory as well as long services on the other days of the week. These impositions made substantial inroads into the time, energy and spirit that the islanders needed for their farming, birding and fishing. They also eliminated the carefree activities that helped strengthen the spirit of the islanders. In short, organized religious zealotry was a cancer that ate away at the St.Kildan community and, along with the changing financial conditions, led to the island's inevitable demise.

But Hirta was still the only home that most of them knew and the only community in which they would ever feel comfortable. Most of them could see that the community conditions had sunk to the point where some radical change was needed. The government was unwilling to provide adequate help so that, in the end, the islanders were persuaded by the resident nurse, Williamina Barclay, that total evacuation was their only option. Of course, this was a fallacy for the government expense that would have allowed these people to remain in their homeland would have been trivial. So the 36 islanders became victims of man's inhumanity to man, victims of an insensitive government resorting to convenience. Very few survived their relocation to the mainland and all suffered unneccessarily.

As the preparations for our departure continued I could not help but reflect on how these 36 souls must have felt as they boarded the ferry boat, the SS Hebrides, that would take them far away to Oban and Glasgow. In the years ahead a few would be allowed to make brief return visits and several were granted their wish to be buried on Hirta. There are moments of grief in all of our lives and in these moments it is hard to grasp the magnitude and direction of changes that are to come upon us. I doubt that the St.Kildans could foresee the consequences of this upheaval in their lives; I had known such moments and had also been unable envisage the future. I could not help but revisit the feeling that day in Village Bay.

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Last updated 9/20/04.
Christopher E. Brennen