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.”
Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.