St Kilda, 90 years since evacuation

A version of this article appears in the latest edition of The Scots Magazine. Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.

When Alice MacLachlan arrived on St Kilda in 1906 with her husband, Peter, the newly appointed minister, she was nervous, fearing a life of hardship on the archipelago 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, surrounded by the stormy seas of the Atlantic.

What she discovered, however, was a well ordered community who lived relatively well, despite the elements. Her recollections, recorded in documents cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, now form a fascinating insight into what life was like on the “islands at the edge of the world” – where seabirds were a key source of food, plucked from cliffs, along with their eggs.

When she left in 1909, she said she had “a very warm place in my heart for the St. Kildans and for the island”.

But this year (2020) marks the 90th anniversary of the very last residents leaving St Kilda, victims of a changing world which had brought disease and taken young men and women away from the remote spot.

In 1930 the islanders asked to be evacuated because their way of life had become unsustainable. The last 36 left on 29 August of that year and now the National Trust for Scotland looks after it as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site – for both its heritage and habitat, which includes its own wren and a sub-species of mouse which is twice the size of a British fieldmouse.

Susan Bain, the National Trust for Scotland’s Manager for St Kilda and the Western Isles says: “St Kilda has attained an almost legendary reputation – a symbol of a lost world of existence on the edge and a lifestyle that few now will ever experience.

“It was the evacuation in 1930 that gave rise to this elegiac status. Yet the reality was somewhat different and much closer to what happened less dramatically in many of Scotland’s island communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hard economics is what led to depopulation before the evacuation, with islanders discovering through marine and war service that a better living was to be had elsewhere.

“But St Kilda was and is more than that – it’s the sum total of millennia of an intertwined human and natural heritage.”

The islands had been inhabited for 4,000 years but by the beginning of the 20th century conditions were becoming harsh. Not only were young men and women leaving for better lives on the mainland but disease was being introduced because of more boats arriving and in 1913 there was an outbreak of influenza. Even ailments such as the common cold were tough for St Kildans as they had never, or rarely, been exposed to them before.

Alice gave birth to her daughter Susan in 1909 and left the island with her husband soon after. In a talk to the YWCA on her return from St Kilda in 1909, she gave a foretaste of what was to come: “One of the most peculiar things about the St. Kildans is that they nearly always catch cold when strangers visit the island. It is a kind of Influenza and they always seem to have it after the visit of a steamer or yacht.  It does not only attack one or two but goes from end to end of the village. Mr. McLachlan, strange to say, never took it, while the girl in the kitchen would at once take it. We never could account for this sickness.  We have been told there is another solitary island in the South Atlantic Ocean, called Tristan-da-Cunha, where the same thing happens.”

In her diary, Alice MacLachlan wrote of how the islanders had given them a warm greeting when they arrived aboard the SS Hebrides in August 1906. She wrote: “The men & quite a lot of the girls were on the Pier and all escorted us up to the gate of the Manse where Kate [the Manse servant] was waiting.”

Later, in her recollections to the YWCA, Alice said the couple “were far from being lonely”. The fondness with which she speaks is possibly because the Kirk was such a focal point of island life. She said: “Every one on the island attends – men, women, and children, babies in arms, and if any one absents himself he is called on by the majority of the congregation on the way home from service to know why.”

Healthcare also formed a big part of her life: “There was a great deal of bandaging to be done. The men got terribly cut limbs on the steep rocky hillsides while chasing down the sheep, a system of catching the sheep which is very bad both for man and sheep. The poor people did not understand the need for keeping wounds clean.”

Although there were about 22 acres of land for growing crops and many villages kept chickens, as well as sheep – which were “plucked” rather than sheared – much of the work to produce food was catching seabirds: “…the principal occupation of the men is catching the sea birds, for the sake of the feathers and oil, these being bartered with the factor for the proprietor of the island, McLeod of McLeod, in payment of their rent.”

Alice died aged 48 at Acharacle on Ardnamurchan in 1920 and her daughter, who had moved to Africa as a nurse, passed on her notes and diaries to the National Trust for Scotland in 2000, when she herself passed away.

Susan Bain, of the National Trust for Scotland, says human activity, such as that described by Alice has left “an indelible mark on the landscape and our collective imaginations” But she adds that “nature continues to shape the archipelago’s form and the lives of unique land, avian and marine species. The National Trust for Scotland’s late Chairman, Dick Balharry said that he saw St Kilda as a bellwether for a changing climate, and what we see there every day bears that out.

“St Kilda is a unique treasure and its World Heritage Status is richly deserved – it is an honour for our charity to care for it.”

ALICE’S RECOLLECTIONS

From a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda

“They are very industrious, at least the women are, the men I always thought might have done more work, altho’ when once properly started they worked well. I used to find fault with them for allowing the women to do work they themselves ought to have done.  It was no uncommon thing to see the young man helping to rope the bags of meal & flour which had come by steamer on to the women’s backs. Sheep, coal or any burden were carried from the pier by the women as a rule – very occasionally the men.”

Also from a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda

“The different birds you see there are solan geese, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shearwaters, etc. Of course the people eat the flesh of all these birds … I may tell you we sampled all the sea birds to be able to say we had tried them.  The fulmars were not at all nice, oily & sickening; the solan goose tasted coarse & fishy; but the puffins & guillemots we could just manage, but we much preferred on the days that we were dependant on the birds, to take one of our own domestic fowls.”

Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.

Goat gardening

This appeared in the national papers earlier in lockdown. Pic courtesy of Ed Daynes.

By Nick Drainey

One of the most famous pubs in the Highlands is having the lawn in its beer garden cut by a herd of feral goats during the coronavirus lockdown.

The horned animals are taking advantage of the lack of people during the restrictions and coming down off the mountains to explore the luscious grass and plants around Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn.

Ed Daynes, the pub’s co-owner, said the goats are doing him a favour as he tries to keep the business ticking over while the hostelry is shut during the lockdown.

He said: “There are a bunch of feral goats that live between us and Glencoe village on the hillsides at about two or three thousand feet.

“There is no one here at the moment so they are now merrily munching the grass and plants in the garden. They are doing us a favour because there is no one to mow the grass and they seem to be keeping the new growth of the shrub plants at bay. I think they have eaten the daffodils though, they seem to have gone.”

The pub has had to furlough 34 staff while the coronavirus lockdown is in place but are hoping to open at some time in the summer. “We are an old, well-established business and reasonably resilient but it is all a question of timescale and we don’t know what that is.

“We are being realistic and saying July at the earliest to re-open … we need a bit of summer to turn us around but if we go into autumn we might not be able to sustain the level of staff.”

In order to help, he is urging the public to stay away from the Highlands while the restrictions are in place, no matter how tempting it maybe as the warmer weather arrives.

“No-one should be travelling or thinking about travelling at all at the moment, For the most part I think that is happening – I am riding my bike up and down the glen, it is so quiet. There are one or two travelling but it only one or two and there is quite a high police presence as well.”

Herds of feral goats are found across the Highlands and islands but usually keep well away from humans. They were introduced by Neolithic farmers and kept in fairly large numbers. In the 17th and 18th centuries the demand for their hair for making wigs dropped off and many of the animals were turned onto the hills to survive on their own in the wild.

Many local communities hold them in affection and estimates suggest there are between three and four thousand across Scotland. However, they are classed as a non-native species and are sometimes culled when individual herds become large.

ENDS

Advantages of Lockdown #5

Exercise is good for you, we all know that. But before lockdown many of us didn’t do enough. I might go on big walks every week but in between them I can be as guilty as anyone at avoiding anything too strenuous – my only exercise sometimes being to walk to my office at the bottom of the garden (and our back garden is not as big as Monty Don’s).

Then came the lockdown restrictions and a feeling that we were trapped in our homes – only allowed to get out once a day for a walk or cycle, or jog. As a result we grabbed that chance and religiously started going out, planning our route to maximise whatever form of greenery / nature we could – all we needed was two feet.

That is a wonderful thing and with any luck some will continue to stride out near where they live. People have used the word leveller incorrectly during the pandemic but a local walk is for everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t need any fancy “kit” that hillwalkers can obsess about (me included) – waterproof, breathable or, stretchy clothes are not necessary, you can just wear whatever you like, although it is best to change out of your pyjamas and slippers.

And, there is no competitive side to it – people compare walks they have enjoyed, rather than talk about how fast they did it, how many miles they went or how tough they had to be to get through it.

As a family, we have discovered new places nearby, observed nature and enjoyed the feeling of being in the fresh air. My daughter knows the difference between a health walk and a stroll – when she has the idea of doing the former, it can leave me trailing behind but that is not a bad thing. The health side is a real plus to a local walk – you don’t need a fancy gym membership with cardiovascular optimisation apparatus or a supply of isotonic drinks, just go out of the front door and start walking. Remember, all you need is two feet.

Advantages of Lockdown #4

One thing about lockdown, not only here but across the world, has been the effect it has had of lowering pollution levels. For me that is a great thing, and hopefully something that can be built on after it is over.

Even now, with the restrictions lifted slightly and people seemingly able to increase their driving, the background hum of traffic near our home in Linlithgow is lower than it would normally be. This means less nitrogen oxides and particulate matter going into the air and then our lungs – brilliant! It also means you can hear more without the background noise of engines.

For me, and lots of people I have spoken to, it is birds who have provided the soundtrack to lockdown. Highlights have been a cacophony of noise from starlings zooming about all over the place with sparrows dodging around below them and then blue tits squeezing in to feed their young in our garden birdbox (they’ve still not fledged – see Advantages of Lockdown #1). Then, in the evening, a crow seems to clear off any pigeons or gulls and stands guard over the garden – actually think it is waiting for some of the hedgehog food we put down around then. Finally, a blackbird produces its wonderfully varied songs, flitting from treetop to treetop as if to say “I’m about to go to bed and if I wake up and find anyone in my territory, there’ll be trouble!”

It would be great to think this can continue after lockdown. It will need councils and the Scottish Government to act – traffic calming measures would help although previously they have been rejected near our house (for a number of bureaucratic reasons). It is also incumbent on us all to stop using our cars as much – the “big shop” has made a return and is one way to reduce multiple journeys to one place, or we could try to walk and cycle more whenever possible (for example, school runs are fine in bad weather or when the pavements are left icy while the roads are gritted but on a hot day in June a walk home is a great thing to do if possible.)

In the meantime, I’m off to see if the blue tits have fledged while there is less noise and air pollution.

(Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay.)

Advantages of Lockdown #3

The daily walk has become something of a ritual for many who would normally only walk from their car to the shop, restaurant or sports ground. This is great, as an outdoors journalist it is one of my aims in life to get people out and about, enjoying nature, fresh air and a feeling of being “away from it all”.

The restrictions are easing but with a five mile limit on travelling the daily ramble should still be local. (For those that think it ok to travel miles and miles and sit on crowded beaches or lochsides – please stop being selfish and stupid.)

In the future we will be able to travel further and return to favourite glens, coastlines and mountains – it is a time to look forward to, that is for sure. But we should not stop the daily walk near where we live. I think it has brought a sense of freedom to us – not only escaping lockdown but any sort of restrictions that can constrict us.

This can mean not thinking you have to have loads of fancy gear to go on a walk. I am the first to get giddy at the thought of new boots, walking trousers, even base layers, but the local walk has reminded us that you just need some fairly good footwear, hopefully a sun hat, if not a waterproof, and the ability to avoid getting lost.

The idea of having a challenge on a walk is a good thing but sometimes that can go too far. Walking further than usual, up a Munro or two or on a long distance path are good aims but they should not be the ultimate goal. For me the purpose of walk is not to conquer nature but to immerse yourself in the environment as much as possible, soothing the senses while getting a bit of exercise.

So, whatever happens in the coming months, keep the local walks going.

Advantages of Lockdown #2

Hidden gems, secret paths, lost valleys … we’ve all heard of them and some of them even have signposts. In lockdown many of us have discovered new places of beauty, tranquillity or surprise as we have strived to get on a walk while staying safe and local.

We live in Linlithgow so the loch, River Avon and the town’s hill, Cockleroy, are well known spots to get outdoors but even after more than 20 years being here it is great to discover new places.

One favourite was a little path up near the golf course – obviously everyone I told about it said, “Yeh, it’s good but I’ve known about it for years.” For my nine-year-old, who had decided to dress up as an Amazonian it was a good place to explore, and try to hunt for fish in a bubbling burn. No fish were caught but it is all in the trying.

The golf course itself was good for a ramble until they re-opened – a treat normally hidden from us non-players and who knew there was a huge abandoned quarry in the middle of it? Well, quite a few folk actually, but by no means everyone.

Another joy has been watching the seasons change and a walk in the same woods has revealed an evolving carpet of flowers beginning with snowdrops, through to wood anemones, ramsons and bluebells, Now, the blooms are fading as a light green canopy fills the trees with an enchanted air. Normally, I would have been mountain walking up and around the Highlands and maybe only seen the woods every few weeks. The more regular visits have made them more attractive than ever. As lockdown continues in whatever form there will still be the chance to explore, wherever you are. So, if you are considering driving more than five miles, don’t. Enjoy what is on your doorstep for now.

Advantages of Lockdown #1

Lockdown has left many frustrated at not being able to get out and about – for me it is the mountains and glens I miss most, as well as the coast, and lochs, and Caledonian forest, and, well, you get the point.

However, spending most of my time in he back garden, thanks to the glorious weather, has meant the chance to watch and hear the development of a family of blue tits in a bird box.

The parents were a bit timid a few weeks ago, waiting ages before deciding it was safe to fly into the box. Now, however, with a host of chicks tweeting like crazy inside they are dashing to and fro with food faster than Usain Bolt, or Alan Wells at least.

With all this activity, the day of fledging cannot be far away but the activity of magpies has left me neurotic; they seem to be on the prowl (if birds can prowl), waiting for the little birds to appear. I’m not sure if they will gobble them up but to make sure they don’t get the chance I have been shooing them off.

Sitting out with camera in hand has meant work has been neglected on some days but the pleasure is worth it, especially when a tiny head peeks out. We made the bird box with the children at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Jupiter Urban Wildlife Centre in Grangemouth a few years ago – it has been a good success each spring since and it’s worth trying to make your own, try the RSPB’s guide

One thing from experience, you do genuinely get a sad feeling after the chicks fledge and the sound of frantic cheeping has gone, at least for another year.

Coronavirus

PLEASE NOTE THAT CORONAVIRUS MEANS WALKING IS EXTREMELY RESTRICTED TO SHORT WALKS LOCAL TO WHERE YOU LIVE – PLEASE KEEP TO THESE RESTRICTIONS, THEY ARE DESIGNED TO SAVE LIVES. IN THE MEANTIME PLEASE LOOK THROUGH THE SITE FOR IDEAS FOR WALKS WHEN ALL THIS IS OVER, ARTICLES I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT RURAL SCOTLAND AND SOME LOVELY PICTURES OF WHAT IS WAITING FOR US ALL WHEN IT IS SAFE TO WANDER AS FAR AS WE DESIRE. STAY SAFE.

Tapping into birch

By Nick Drainey

The health giving properties of the sap from birch trees were recognised in Caithness 5,000 years ago, being drunk by humans and even cattle as the long, cold months of winter came to an end.

Now, in the forests of Perthshire, the practice of taking the clear liquid is being rediscovered and, for the first time in the UK, a commercial operation has begun to take and bottle the “birch water”.

Gabrielle and Rob Clamp use maple syrup kits bought from Canada to syphon off the natural tonic which is reputed to cleanse kidneys and liver, ease arthritis and rheumatism, and help strengthen teeth.

The process is popular in Finland and the Baltic countries and the water is drunk by celebrities including Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. But it has never been seen here on a large scale.

The history of birch water in Scotland goes back millennia. Rob, whose company Birken Tree collects around 5,000 litres of sap each year, says: “We trace it back at least 5,000 years. There was a Neolithic lady whose body was dug up in Caithness where I am from and there was evidence of some food and some of that was birch sap. In the Highlands there are records of people using it as a tonic after a long winter; giving it to babies, themselves and even cattle. It makes sense because it is so full of minerals and vitamins and it is a lean period (in nature).”

Although still known about in other countries Rob says there could be a simple reason its use died out here. “They have a very different history to us in Scotland. People were cleared away to the New World and that connection to the land was severed.”

Sat amid the birch trees of Grandtully Forest in Perthshire, Rob explains the unique taste: “I like the silkiness of it, almost creamy. There is a very slight sweetness, depending on the tree or the season. Some people compare it to melons or cucumber, it is very subtle.”

When they first tapped the sap Gabrielle said she was “excited”: “We realised the taste of fresh sap was different from the bottle we had before – we really loved it. That is why we use glass bottles to keep the taste right. And, if you warm it up slightly the flavours are more intense.”

There is usually only a three week window to gather the sap in early spring, usually March, because as the warmer months arrive it develops a bitter taste.

They collect about 5,000 litres a year but estimate that each tree only loses a tiny amount of its sap. Rob says: “We take about one per cent. We know they take up 100s of litres a day and we take about five.”

Gabrielle gave up a job as a chiropractor to concentrate on the business. And while Rob still works as a forester he aims to concentrate on their start up business full-time.

Internationally, the market is worth millions of dollars and Gabrielle and Rob were introduced to it when a friend gave them a bottle marked “Made in Finland”.

Gabrielle says: “We thought someone must make it in Scotland but no.” As a result, they became the only Scottish producers on a  commercial level, selling to local delicatessens and through a wholefood distributor.

Gabrielle adds: “There are lots of vitamins and minerals, enzymes and amino acids. There is xylitol as well which is good for the teeth.

“A lot of people ask if it is (normal) water because it is called birch water but no, it is pure sap.”

The sap ferments in three days so they freeze it and then pasteurise it a little to give it a longer shelf life.

Rob says: “At some point it would be nice to focus on it full time and we have launched a crowdfunding campaign.” Growing the business will mean adding flavours such as cranberry, bilberry and meadowsweet and also creating sparkling birch water which has been asked for by high end hotels and restaurants.

“We are so proud that we have been able to revive this ancestral Scottish tradition and unlock the huge potential that these native Birch trees can offer. We have injected so much energy, enthusiasm and money into our business – but now we need help to take it further.

“We’ve been so grateful for all the support we’ve received so far and hope that this campaign will encourage more people to get behind us and play an active part in the use and conservation of our native Birch woodlands.”.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, 31, has written about birch water on her Facebook page saying the “nutrient-dense liquid” is a “hero ingredient”.

Despite the trendy, modern feel to the product Rob insists its 5,000 year history means what they are doing is “nothing new”. He adds: “What we are saying is ‘hello, you should be drinking this stuff’.”

Hayley Bruce, Commercial Marketing Intelligence Manager at Scotland Food & Drink, said: “Scotland has a rich heritage when it comes to food and drink production and it is great to see traditional techniques being adopted in the modern world. Searching through the past for inspiration, whether looking for ancient wisdoms, indigenous ingredients or heritage produce, can open up some fantastic new opportunities for the Scottish food and drink sector.”

Gullane Bay walk

Gullane Bay from the Gullane Bents car park

A version of this appeared in Scotland on Sunday on January 12, 2020.

The seaside at this time of year can be a wild place, and that is what makes it special. This has to be one my favourite family walks when the days are short but want a bracing walk with plenty occupy everyone.

A good expanse of sandy beach gives way to low rocks and a small headland before pinewoods begin the return. Throw in a bit of history and a crisp, cold winter’s day and you have a good outing.

I took the family here just before Christmas, and then returned at the start of the year – despite the cold, a bit of rock pooling meant the demands for a quick return had to be heeded!

You can extend the walk by continuing along the coast, passing sandy bays and more rocky outcrops before eventually reaching Yellowcraig, with the island of Fidra just offshore. This may prove too much for some, in which case a linger on the coast can be just as exhilarating if not as tiring on the legs.

DISTANCE: 3½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 130ft.

TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 66.

PARK: Follow a brown sign for Gullane Bents from the west end of the town’s main street. At the end of Sandy Loan go left to reach a car park above the coast. £2 parking charge.

IN SUMMARY: From the shore side of the car park drop down a path which starts between a pay and display machine and some information boards. This leads to the long beach of Gullane Bay, where you go right to follow it to its end. A path then runs just above the shore and past some low dunes. Keep close to the high tide line before reaching some low ruins – this was St Patrick’s chapel and was in use until the early 16th century.

Leave the shore at this point and go around to the right in front of the ruins, then right again at a junction to walk along the edge of a dense pine wood. The path is then more of a track as it enters the trees. Just before the end of the wood go left at a fork to follow a path over open ground. This bears right and climbs a bank to reach a slightly more defined path. Go left then, shortly afterwards, turn right in front of a fence. On the other side of this are the hallowed links of Muirfield golf course – one of the most famous in the world.

At a junction of paths go left then keep on the main path, which heads further inland. The path becomes surfaced before turning right and reaching a very large grassy area. As the path (now a track) bends left you can see the car park. Leave the track on the right at this point and follow a grass path to the beginning of the walk.