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Agony and Ecstasy on the Scottish Archipelago of St. Kilda

todayOctober 11, 2021 2

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For the first hour or so, the water was relatively calm. After departing from the small fishing village of Stein on the Isle of Skye, we sped through a strait known as the Little Minch toward the main band of the Outer Hebrides, the thick curl of rocky skerries that hovers like an apostrophe over the northwestern coast of mainland Scotland.

But as we pressed onward, traveling west beyond the islands of North Uist and Lewis and Harris, the water suddenly grew rougher. Here, fully exposed in the North Atlantic Ocean, we had no refuge from the swells: Every few seconds, for more than two hours, the hull of our tour boat slammed against the oncoming waves with enough force to rattle my teeth.

I looked to my right, across the boat’s narrow aisle, and saw my brother and sister huddled uncomfortably in their seats. None of our fellow passengers — there were around 12 of us, all told, crammed into a surprisingly small boat — looked happy. But my siblings, clutching their disposable vomit bags, looked ill.

(“Ill is an understatement,” recounted my sister, Emelia, with a laugh. “I’d say we looked doomed.”)

For centuries, the archipelago of St. Kilda, one of the most remote areas of the British Isles, has electrified the imaginations of writers, historians, artists, scientists and adventurers.

Some 40 miles west of the chief islands of the Outer Hebrides, St. Kilda has a tantalizing history, replete with a rich cultural heritage, fiercely independent people, distinctive architecture and haunting isolation — as well as disease, famine and exile.

Recent archaeological research suggests that the main island, Hirta, which is around 2.5 square miles, was inhabited as far back as 2,000 years ago. Its last full-time residents, 36 in total, were evacuated to the mainland on Aug. 29, 1930, their community and their way of life having become unsustainable.

Designated as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural and cultural significance, St. Kilda is now owned, managed and protected by the National Trust for Scotland, whose staff — occasionally alongside other volunteers and researchers — occupies Hirta for several months of the year. Contractors for the British Ministry of Defense also spend time on the island, where they operate a radar station.

For most of its inhabited history, reaching St. Kilda required a voyage of several days across the open ocean. The threat of violent storms — especially common between the months of September and March — made the journey daunting at the best of times and unthinkable at the worst.

Even today, boat schedules are subject to the whims of the forecast, and cancellations by tour companies aren’t unusual. When my siblings and I visited in late August 2018, we had to preemptively shift our trip up by a day to avoid an impending spell of ominous weather arriving later that week.

St. Kilda’s natural features are almost comical in their splendor. Jagged sea stacks rise like bundled knives from the opaque water; clamoring seabirds float nonchalantly above precipitous cliffs; swooping fields blanket an otherworldly landscape utterly devoid of trees.

And yet it was St. Kilda’s architectural remnants that quietly hinted at the most dramatic elements of its history.

With a population that peaked at around 180 in the late 17th century, St. Kilda has never made for a convenient home. Its inhabitants raised sheep and a few cattle and were often able to grow simple crops like barley and potatoes. But the mainstay of their diet came from seafowl: the birds’ eggs, along with the birds themselves, which were consumed both fresh and cured. (Fishing was often impractical because of the treachery of the surrounding waters; islanders also expressed a distinct preference for gannet, fulmar and puffin over fish.)

Villagers caught the birds and collected their eggs — using long poles and their bare hands — by lowering themselves on ropes from atop the islands’ cliffs, or by climbing up the rock faces from the water below.

Gazing up at the archipelago’s sea stacks from a boat lurching in the frigid ocean, I tried to envision the circumstances under which such extremes would be necessary simply to enjoy a monotonous meal. It tested the limits of my imagination.

Life on St. Kilda was an agonizing experiment in precarity. Stormy weather spoiled crops, threatened food stores, prevented fowling and delayed necessary work. Landing a boat at Hirta’s Village Bay, the site of the archipelago’s longstanding settlement, could be difficult even in ideal weather. Diseases, including smallpox, cholera, leprosy and influenza, spread quickly and with devastating effect. For decades, St. Kildans sometimes launched their mail blindly into the sea in small waterproof containers; the hope was that their “mailboats,” as they were called, might by chance reach a populated place or be picked up and sent along by a passing ship.

The islanders’ extreme isolation also bred a particular kind of cultural disconnection. In his 1965 book “The Life and Death of St. Kilda,” the author Tom Steel describes a scene in which a St. Kildan washed ashore on the nearby Flannan Isles:

He entered what he thought was a house and began to climb the stairs — stone objects which he had never before seen in his life, but which he took to be Jacob’s ladder. He reached the top and entered the brightly lit room. “Are you God Almighty?” he asked the lighthouse keeper. “Yes,” came the stern reply, “and who the Devil are you?”

And yet St. Kildans were often described in contemporary accounts as uniquely cheerful. Crime was virtually nonexistent. Supplies and donations brought in from the outside world — along with much of the food gathered on the islands — were divided equitably among the islanders. Items such as boats and ropes, which the islanders depended on, were owned and maintained communally.

When the Scottish writer Martin Martin visited the archipelago in 1697, he noted the people’s joyous character. “The inhabitants of St. Kilda are much happier than the generality of mankind,” he wrote, “as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty.”

In the end, though, life on St. Kilda proved untenable. The market for the islanders’ exports — feathers, tweed, sheep, seabird oil — gradually waned. Infant mortality rates were astonishingly high. Failing to keep pace with the comforts and technologies of the mainland, the islands became increasingly anachronistic, and the people increasingly isolated.

A particularly harsh winter in 1929 and 1930 sealed the St. Kildans’ fate. Fearing starvation, they petitioned the government to be evacuated.

Even that, however, wasn’t enough to break the spell for Alexander Ferguson, one of the evacuees, who, years later, describing St. Kilda in a letter, wrote that “there is no paradise on earth like it.”

“To me it was peace living in St. Kilda,” Malcolm Macdonald, another longtime resident, once said. “And to me it was happiness, dear happiness.”

Four hours after arriving, having wandered over Hirta’s rolling terrain and strolled quietly along its hollow shell of a village, we lined up along the island’s jetty and boarded a dinghy to return to our boat. Our eastward trip, returning to Skye, was smoother, quieter, calmer. For a long stretch, a pod of dolphins swam alongside us, as if escorting us back through the water.

When we finally reached Stein, I felt a tinge of loss. I’d taken my first step, as I’ve come to see it, toward a partial understanding of what compelled several of the 36 islanders, who left in 1930, to return to and temporarily live on Hirta in the summer of 1931: a mounting certainty that the pleasure of wandering free among the islands, surrounded by the boundless ocean, was worth the trouble of getting — and being — there.

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todayOctober 11, 2021