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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
“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
“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
A version of this article is in the September 2019 edition of The Scots
CALLANDER CRAIG AND BRACKLINN FALLS, TROSSACHS
By Nick Drainey
Length: 6.5km (4 miles)
Height gained: 320m (1,050ft)
Time: 2 to 3 hours
OS Landranger 57
Parking: Arriving in Callander from the direction of Stirling turn left off the
A84 just after a sign for the Roman Camp
country house hotel. Bracklin (CORR) Road then leads
up out of the town, past a car park on the left and up to one for Bracklinn
(CORR) Falls, on the right.
The route: As a teenager I took a friend to the Lake District in
an attempt to convert him to the joys of hillwalking. Striding Edge seemed like
a good place with plenty of wow factor and as we sat on the rocky ridge the
view was astounding.
What sticks in the memory, however, is what happened after I had greeted
some fellow scramblers with a cheery “hello”. When they had made their way to
the summit of Helvellyn my friend asked if I knew everyone on the mountain as I
had said hi to each of them and they had replied equally politely.
Fast forward a decade or two (or maybe three) and my children have asked
the same question, and again been told that is just what you do in the
outdoors, away from the hustle and bustle of streets and pavements.
But what is the etiquette when it comes to talking to other folk walking
by a burn, on a hill, mountain, or even a ridge?
On a walk to Bracklinn Falls the other week a quick hello, or nod of the
head, was all that was needed for a coach party from Germany – if I had tried
to start a conversation I may have been linguistically challenged, as well as
at risk of being thought of as odd.
As I followed the Keltie Burn upstream and stopped to admire more falls
near Scout Pool it seemed I could have started a conversation but the couple
who had reached the little bridge from the other direction decided to head off
with a “lovely day, isn’t it”, I think to leave the viewing spot to me – a very
nice gesture and high on the scale of politeness.
As the steeper slopes of Callander Craig were reached one of the great
etiquette conundrums faced me as I approached a chap descending. Do I gasp out
a breathless “hi” or try to give the impression I was in no way out of breath.
I shamefully went for the latter, even if it was a little strained.
I stopped at the wonderful summit cairn – built in 1897 to mark Queen
Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Cairn and
rebuilt 100 years later. The view from here is excellent, especially the
imposing bulk of Ben Ledi to the west.
As I picked up my rucksack to set off, a middle-aged guy appeared and
despite my best, most jovial “hello” I only received a weak smile and a little
grunt on reply. Worrying I may be in trouble for excessive jollity I scuttled
down the ridge but soon realised the reason for the gentleman’s taciturn nature.
In front of me was a lady, presumably his wife, loudly telling a child to “stop
complaining about everything, daddy has brought us up here so the least you can
do is try to look happy”. I thought better of saying anything and just gave a
consoling sort of smile which probably made me look a little unwell.
Thankfully, for the
rest of the way down I didn’t see a soul – sometimes a walk on your own with no
human distraction can be the best thing.
A version of this appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine
“The sea has inspired people for eons. It has been the
source of myth and legend – sea monsters and kelpies – and has inspired song
and music. Because whales and dolphins are from this seemingly mythical place,
when you do see one it takes your breath away.”
Karl Stevens is trying to explain why whale-watching has
become such a phenomenon in Scotland. Practically unknown 25 years ago, it’s
now estimated to be worth around £7.8 million to the economy of the west of
Scotland, drawing in around 240,000 visitors a year.
Dozens of boats operate around prime spotting sites in
waters which are home to around a quarter of the world’s whale and
dolphin species including bottlenose, Risso’s and common dolphins, harbour
porpoises, minke whales and orca. But this
summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a new trail to give
visitors a different way of looking out for these sea creatures – from the
Standing at Ardnamurchan Point, one of around 25 stopping
places for the new land-based trail on the West Coast, Karl, the Hebridean
Whale Trail manager, explains: “A lot of people think this is something you
can’t do on land, you have to be on a boat. Yes, there are definite merits for
being on a boat but from an accessibility perspective and getting more people
involved, land-based is a lot easier. It also means you get to some spectacular
“With heights you get more distance so if you are on top of
a sea cliff, you are going to get a better view over a longer distance than if
you were on a boat.”
All that makes the trail world class. Karl adds: “In terms
of the combination of wildlife – whales, dolphins but also seals, seabirds,
plants and so on – and then the landscapes and seascapes you could argue it
could be one of the best places in the world.”
One of the key things about the whale trail is that it is as
much about seeing whales and dolphins as the culture that surrounds them, and
the Hebrides is rich with that culture. “Every place you go to there are thousands
of years of stories and tales going back to Celtic and Norse legend.”
Karl also says more modern stories such as those of
fishermen and lighthouse-keepers will be retold on the trail, as well as the
“slightly darker” history of whaling from the 19th and early 20th century when
boats would head as far as South Georgia to harpoon the mighty creatures.
The trail is aimed at “anybody who is in the area” with Karl
pointing to research saying 40% of people come to Scotland for wildlife. A
significant number come for culture and the landscapes, and the whale trail
“ticks all those boxes”. He says: “Anybody who is even remotely interested in
those three things will get something out of the whale trail. We are trying to
add to what is already there and bring the whale and dolphin stories into
Karl describes whales and dolphins, and the watching of them,
as an “unknown attraction” which has really only been done (aboard boats) for
about 25 years. Karl says: “People think of charismatic species in Scotland;
red deer, salmon, seals and so on. Then there are the mythological species –
you have the Loch Ness Monster. People still come knowing that the Loch Ness
Monster is likely to be non-existent and go out in the vain chance that they
might catch a glimpse of the beast.” Whales and dolphins, he points out, are
Visitors can hope to see “a breaching humpback jumping out
of the water” because they have already looked at clips on TV or the internet.
“You may see that and be incredibly lucky. But for the most part it is those
special moments when you are looking out and catch a glimpse of a fin or
something moving in the water. That might hold your attention a little longer
and you realise that fin is attached to a porpoise, or a dolphin, or even a
minke whale. It is to try to get more people to spend more time looking out to
the sea to make the most of what is out there.”
Karl says awareness of the sea and what is in it has been
rising in recent years, particularly after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary
series. As a result, he hopes that a spin-off of the whale trail will be that
people report incidents of pollution, whether that be a patch of oil, something
floating on the surface, or even something entangled in an old net.
“The ethos of the whale trail is to tap into the
connectivity between the sea and the land that has been there for thousands of
years, and because of the Blue Planet effect we are starting to reconnect.
People are more aware of the stuff that is floating and what to do about it and
that is very important.”
The trust, and other organisations, already survey the seas
to try to gauge numbers of whales and dolphins but the picture is currently
unclear, according to Karl. And he hopes with more reports of sightings,
already possible through the trust’s Whale Track app, there can be a greater
understanding of any issues and problems.
He says: “It is a mixed picture, for example last year we
got more common dolphins but other species seem to be doing less well. The past
couple of summers have not been great for basking sharks but we don’t know if
that’s because they are not there or that we have just not seen them.
“That is a key element of the whale trail – if we can get
more people out there we will get a significantly better understanding of what
is out there.”
I am a journalist whose love of the outdoors and all things rural has seen me walking the highest Munros, eating Scottish seafood in Singapore, stalking deer with a camera and just about everything imaginable in between... Find out more...