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Leaving St Kilda
March 25, 2012 5:01 AM   Subscribe

The last man to remember St Kilda. Norman John Gillies was five years old when he, and all the other residents, left the remote Scottish island of St Kilda in 1930. Fortunately, we still have photos and films of island life, including 1928's 'St Kilda, Britain's Loneliest Island' (part 1, part 2). (St Kilda on MeFi, previously and previouslier.)
posted by Catseye (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
My favorite detail is that Norman John isn't overly sentimental about the island:

"Does he ever wish he hadn't had to leave St Kilda? He snorts in gentle derision. No rose-tinted nostalgia for him: 'My life has been tremendous. Much better than it could have been on St Kilda.'"

That runs counter to how most of these stories end and it's refreshing to me. It's probably refreshing to anyone who came from an insular little community and feels relieved to have gotten the hell out.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:31 AM on March 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


On the other hand, I bet he's glad they preserved it. Most of us don't get to look back at their unspoilt childhood homes like that. Not "That's where we used to play; I know it's hard to imagine with all this asphalt and concrete here now." but "That's where we used to play. Here's the path we took, the tree we climbed, the beach we swam at. Here are our homes, untouched."
posted by pracowity at 6:52 AM on March 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


his granny, known as "The Uncrowned Queen of St Kilda" for her youthful good looks.

Apparently, obtaining the Mandate of Heaven was easy on St. Kilda. Most places require some sort of bloodline or military conquest to manage crowned or uncrowned holding of such an honor. Lax monarchical structures were probably an impetus for the evacuation, I imagine.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:06 AM on March 25, 2012


Here's what struck me:

No St Kildan could swim.

You're spending your working life going out on the sea and you can't swim? That boggles my mind. At any rate, great story; thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're spending your working life going out on the sea and you can't swim? That boggles my mind.

I'm trying to find a reference, but I don't think it's particularly uncommon for fishermen not to be able to swim. (Oh, here's an article from 1978 suggesting perhaps 1 in 6 can swim. Lack of opportunities to learn to swim, tradition, weight of clothing, and it's bloody cold.*)

*Random anecdote not to do with fishing: I remember being in Whitby once and there were no adults in the water because only children thought it was worth going in water that cold.
posted by hoyland at 7:29 AM on March 25, 2012


There's a great Tannahill Weavers album called Leaving St Kilda that I recommend highly if you're interested in Scottish/Celtic music. Great story, and I'm looking forward to watching the films.
posted by immlass at 7:30 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to find a reference, but I don't think it's particularly uncommon for fishermen not to be able to swim.
Was just looking for a similar reference, as I've heard it said too, and similar tales about that merchant seamen wouldn't learn either. IIRC the folk explanation was that it was better to drown quick if you fell in.

"Everything was shared," says Norman John. "Each day [except Sunday, God's day] all the men met between house No 5 and No 6 for the morning meeting – later known as the St Kilda parliament – to decide what needed doing and who would do it."
Is treasa tuath na tighearna!
posted by Abiezer at 7:35 AM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're spending your working life going out on the sea and you can't swim? That boggles my mind.

Isn't that odd? I once read about a naval battle in which Byzantine sailors swam (with weapons!) to board and retake a ship. So the idea of swimming being a standard ability of seafarers isn't recent. But then 800 or so years after that, there are accounts of British sailors being amazed/creeped out by Native Americans swimming out to their ships. You'd think swimming would have caught on, but the Royal Navy didn't even have a swimming requirement until the 20th century.

Might have something to do with the ocean being oppressively cold-- staying in and concentrating on learning a skill would be pretty tough. And I guess with a remote community like that, you'd need someone to leave, learn to swim, and come back and teach the kids-- if no one could swim, no one was going to learn to swim. Hard to get my head around regardless.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:43 AM on March 25, 2012


If your ship goes down in the middle of the ocean, the good swimmers generally drown with the bad. The people who live are in boats or wearing life jackets.
posted by pracowity at 8:01 AM on March 25, 2012


Thanks for the post. I've just purchased 'The Life and Death of St Kilda,' by Tom Steel, as a result.

Brings to mind life on another island in the Hebrides: 'The Crofter and the Laird' by John McPhee.
posted by ericb at 8:25 AM on March 25, 2012


This reminded me of the lovely John Sayles film, The Secret of Roan Inish, although the former inhabitants of that island were Irish, not Scottish.
posted by marsha56 at 8:39 AM on March 25, 2012


You're spending your working life going out on the sea and you can't swim? That boggles my mind.

Definitely true, lots of fishermen where I grew up and lots of stories of drownings for that reason. The water is COLD and a source of livelihood not recreation. Also, reasons listed above.
posted by bquarters at 8:49 AM on March 25, 2012


Difficult to see this story and watch the clips without thinking of Tristan da Cunha, another remote UK outpost.
posted by aurelian at 9:26 AM on March 25, 2012


"Might have something to do with the ocean being oppressively cold"

That, and the seas being rough enough that there was no boat traffic for nine months of the year. And I'm betting no water on the island big enough to really swim in, as a calmer alternative/training venue.
posted by aurelian at 9:30 AM on March 25, 2012


Who in their right mind found a bunch of islanders barely clinging to existence and thought, "What these folks really need is an oppressive and mandatory religious life" ?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:18 AM on March 25, 2012


I grew up in Hawaii, where you learn to be comfortable in the water pretty much before you can walk. The water is warm; the air is warm. If you are fishing from your canoe just beyond the reef and you fall out, you won't die of hypothermia before you reach the beach.

Then we moved to New England, and I learned that whalers and lobstermen from back in the day often couldn't swim. I tried to swim and the water is fucking cold. The air is cold. If you're wearing lots of clothes to keep you from being cold on the boat and you go over the side, the temperature of the water and the weight of your clothes - and the distance from land - make knowing how to swim irrelevant.

We were on Islay a couple of years ago, and the water is brutally cold. I wouldn't have learned how to swim either if I'd grown up there.
posted by rtha at 10:50 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who in their right mind found a bunch of islanders barely clinging to existence and thought, "What these folks really need is an oppressive and mandatory religious life" ?

Maybe some smart forefather who looked at mandatory observance of the sabbath and thought, "Hmm. This might keep us from working ourselves to death!"
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:20 AM on March 25, 2012


There's also a very nice record by the Scottish group Ossian called "St. Kilda Wedding". As a rule, Ossian's music tends to be kind of acoustic/old fashioned, which seems appropriate here.
posted by sneebler at 1:05 PM on March 25, 2012


Here's the path we took, the tree we climbed, the beach we swam at.

Except that there weren't any trees on the island and nobody knew how to swim. Maybe the path hasn't overgrown.
posted by furtive at 2:20 PM on March 25, 2012


I'm sorry to have nothing to add other than to say, what an awesome post.

No, no, I've just got something in my eye. I'll be fine.
posted by newdaddy at 2:37 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post! Goes really well with this book I just finished, in which the main character is like a fictional, modern Norman John Gillies - "Archie and the North Wind" by Gaelic writer Angus Peter Campbell from Skye.

The protagonist must leave the Western Isles and encounters the modern world, Internet and everything. Brilliant satire ensues, informed by Candide and Gaelic fairytales. All written in magical realism which kicks up a notch every couple pages or so.
posted by yoHighness at 3:39 PM on March 25, 2012


1adam12 writes "Who in their right mind found a bunch of islanders barely clinging to existence and thought, 'What these folks really need is an oppressive and mandatory religious life' ?"

It's probably the other way around. A religious group being persecuted fleeing to a remote outpost.
posted by Mitheral at 3:51 PM on March 25, 2012


The thing that bothers me is that they sheared sheep and wove tweed in order to pay their rent to the Laird. They were struggling to survive, but they had to scrabble a few pennies together to enrich an expatriate landlord with no real connection to the place and to whom their rent was probably trivial.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:59 PM on March 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Joe, there's a really interesting history of land resistance in the Highland, the Land League (the Gaelic saying I quoted above was their slogan) which brought the crofting acts, and later land raids where especially soldiers returning from the Great War to landlessness or poverty decided to hell with it all and began breaking ground and setting up homesteads on the big hunting estates.
posted by Abiezer at 4:19 PM on March 25, 2012


Mayor Curley: "That runs counter to how most of these stories end and it's refreshing to me. It's probably refreshing to anyone who came from an insular little community and feels relieved to have gotten the hell out."

I was expecting you to say you wished we'd been evacuated out of Maine. I would have agreed with you.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:42 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


During the nineteenth century, more than half of the children born on St. Kilda died of tetanus eight days after birth. Trying to sustain a human population on the island must have seemed a weary job.

The cause is not known (PDF). The anointing of the cut umbilical with fulmar oil stored in gannet stomachs (!) has been blamed, but it may simply have been use of an unsterile knife.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:36 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


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