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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Dark past haunts remote islands
Teārlach Quinnell
BBC Gaelic New Service

St Kilda exerts a pull on people all over the world.

Some think of it as a kind of remote paradise, with a population that acted as one, that was democratic, and had an ancient lineage in the island.

There are others who look on it as a beautiful, peaceful place, saved for us from history.

St Kilda. Picture of St Kilda - A European Opera
Low cloud cloaks a stac and cliffs on St Kilda. The islands' history is peppered with stories of hard times, disease and death

The history of St Kilda shows that it was like many small, once-inhabited Hebridean islands, with its share of troubles and of joy.

Perhaps the best example of how vulnerable the population was, comes in the form of a story that few know, and that dates back to 1726.

When Martin Martin, from Skye, visited St Kilda in 1697, he published what he saw in the book A Late Voyage to St Kilda.

One of the things he noted was that the men had no beard growth until they had reached 30 years of age and that even then they were rather thin.

Anyone who has seen photographs of the Hiortaich - St Kildans - will have noticed how substantial were the men's beards in the 19th Century. How did that change come about then?

In 1726 a man from St Kilda went to visit Harris where he contracted smallpox and died.

After his death, his clothes were sent back to St Kilda, as they were still in good condition.
Residents of St Kilda. Picture courtesy of National Trust for Scotland
The world never heard what the Hiortaich themselves thought of the tourists
The next time the factor visited the islands to collect the rent, his vessel sailed past Stac Lė, near to Boreray, about four miles (6km) to the north of Hiort itself.

There it collected three men and eight boys who had gone to the stac to hunt birds. That had been nine months before, and the boat from Hiort had still not come to pick them up.

Having spent such a long time on a steep rock in the ocean, they returned to their homes, where they found one adult and 18 children alive.

Almost 200 of the native population had died of smallpox.

St Kilda's rent was valuable to the landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan, who received Ģ85 Scots (Ģ7 Sterling) yearly from the steward, who would collect that in feathers, meat, seabirds and what dairy produce the islanders could spare.

MacLeod wasn't willing to let that rent stop so he sent families, mainly from Skye but some from Harris as well, to live on St Kilda.

Thus came the names that are forever associated with the island: MacDonald, Fergusson, MacCrimon, MacKinnon, MacLeod, MacQueen, Gillies and Morrison.

The new families learnt the skills of cliff-fowling - climbing the cliffs to gather birds and eggs - from the remnant of the native population and their bearded descendants were photographed in the19th and early 20th centuries.

They experienced much. In 1746, 20 years after the Hiortach had visited Harris, three Royal Navy vessels arrived in St Kilda, having heard that Prince Charles Edward Stuart was in the islands, while he was hidden somewhere on the west coast after his defeat at Culloden.

When the soldiers found the islanders hiding in the rocks above the village, they claimed to be totally ignorant of the rebellion.

They asked however, if it was true that King George had had an almighty row with the Empress of Russia.

Islanders. Picture courtesy of National Trust for Scotland
Islanders gather outside St Kilda's post office

In the 19th Century, a series of tourists began to visit St Kilda, bringing with them ideas to improve the place and the Hiortaich became more dependent on the outside world.

In the 1850s, 42 of the islanders emigrated to Australia, half of them dying on the way.

Until that decade ended, the houses had been built from materials that were easily available on Hiort. Stone walls, and roofs of thatch or turf.

One of the so-called improvements that came from the outside world was 16 new houses that were built in the village in 1860.

These new houses were cold and it was necessary to import coal from the mainland, the supplies of peat not being enough to heat them.

Neither could they be repaired with local materials, which meant that the Hiortaich were for the first time ever looking out from the island for the essentials of life.

Because of the tourists, the world heard of the 'St Kilda Parliament,' in which the men met each morning to discuss the day's tasks.

They also heard about the islanders' ankles, which were unusually thick and strong, due to their climbing of the cliffs hunting seabirds, which was the basis of their economy.

The world never heard what the Hiortaich themselves thought of the tourists.

New lives

The winter of 1929 was particularly hard in the island and some of the remaining inhabitants died, many having already left the island to answer the new call of the cities, and the new world.

They never believed before that St Kilda was remote. It was the centre of their world, until the world came to look at them.

The remaining 36 islanders wrote to the government asking to be taken off and for new lives on the mainland. The island was abandoned the following year.

Today, the island is owned by The National Trust for Scotland, and is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, protected internationally.

St Kilda - a European Opera - will be transmitted live online on BBC Alba between 2020 and 2145 BST on Friday, 21 June.


SEE ALSO
In pictures: St Kilda
02 Mar 07 |  In Pictures
Seabirds dilemma for scientists
14 Aug 06 |  Highlands and Islands
St Kilda rubbish sold on internet
26 Jun 06 |  Highlands and Islands

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