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The Ensō Isle of St Kilda
[6 mins reading time]


[Ensō: People, Spirit, Earth]

The people called it Hirta, from the Gaelic for Earth itself.

The granite isle and two satellite stacks, right there in the centre of the North Atlantic, one hundred leagues from any other land. Right there by the rivers in the ocean, the Gulf Stream that still flows from west to east and warms the higher latitudes of Europe.

It was the greatest sea bird station in all of north-west Europe.

A century ago, a visitor wrote, my view is that the people of St Kilda live a very happy life, better housed and better fed than most others on the mainland.

In 1930, all were forced to leave.

Elsewhere it had been decided: these distant islanders should enter the wage economy. None of them had ever spoken English, and they were not to know. The full costs of evacuation were to come from future wages.

When the last evacuees were gone from Hirta, they were given jobs in the Forestry Commission.

What use was that, later said one island man? I had never seen a tree in my life.

St Kilda was out beyond the sunset isles, out from the Viking ship canal dug from shore to safe inland lake at Rubha an Dùnain, far from the slopes of Skye scattered with sheep and wet crofter ruins, out through the Sound of Harris where currents clash, far beyond the setting sun. Inhabited since the Neolithic, adopting Norse and Gaelic names and terms, evacuated in August 1930, now a World Heritage site.

For half a day the boat slapped down on incoming ocean swell, the grumbles from an air storm gone days before. The white spray thumped high, breached the cloud low and grey. A single gannet followed, a fulmar swept around the bow wave and was gone. There were Risso’s dolphins rising and falling from the clear waters, scarred white by ocean squid battles. There were whales, a minke with her calf, the slow arch and fall again of sleek water beasts.

Beneath the cloud appeared at first a dark blur and already the lee swell was behaving better. The boat motored for northerly Boreray and the stacks, circling back to Village Bay.

The black isles rose sheer from the ocean, far above were grassy slopes and feral sheep staring down. It was a small planet in the middle of space.

Some years, the mainland and outer isles were cut off for half a year or more. One week-long storm left the islanders profoundly deaf, from pounding growl and whine and whistle. Sheep and dogs were blown off cliffs, the waves crashed right over the five-hundred-foot summit of Dùn and directly onto the stone houses of the single settlement.

That day, all was calm.

There were great puffin rafts, damping down the waters, gannets darkening skies. There were northern fulmar and guillemot. Out of no place came skuas, swiftly mobbing a single bird, crushing it down on the rising-falling clear swell. There was call and cry, squabble and high silent circling round the thousand-foot cliffs. Common seals were hauled up on rock ledges inside a seaward-cave. Gannets folded wings and arrowed, one after another, the air vibrating as they sliced the sea.

On these very cliffs and teeth of rock, the cragsmen climbed and abseiled, on thirty fathoms of horsehair rope, their ankles thickened and toes splayed, for thirty fulmar could weigh all of ninety pounds. They called the eggs of St Kilda their sea potatoes.

The way ashore was on a rib, a manifest to keep rats on boats and away from a million eggs and young birds.

Ahead was the ruined city, the curve of Main Street on the contour round the shore, from the manse and church to a thousand stone storage cleits. These huts of St Kilda, built of white stone and turf, huge flat slabs for lintel and ceiling on which sat turf to draw up moisture by translocation. In this drenched landscape, the inside of cleits was always dry as bone.

And ahead too, in the middle of such world heritage, the military base, the new buildings of wood and roofed by turf. In the 1914-18 War, a U-boat drew up and the captain instructed through a megaphone, take cover, and seventy shells destroyed the wireless station, killing a single sheep. A four-inch gun rusts ashore, installed on the very day of Armistice.

And there onshore, flitting to a nest deep in the cleit stones, was the St Kilda wren, heavy with strong bill, a unique subspecies for a cut-off land.

There were burrows of the field mouse who leapt ashore from Viking longships, now twice as large as those on the mainland.

The Soay sheep were moulting wool, yet they too have evolved, shrinking over nine decades, for smaller lamb survival was more likely now they could shelter in the warmth of cleits.

This was also unique: the St Kildans of this isle, this Hirta all alone, had developed their own ensemble way of living. Each morning, they met to decide on tasks and a fair work allocation. All had an equal vote regardless of croft size and status, and this came to be called the St Kildan Parliament. On the other hand, one man wrote, everyone often talked as loud as they could, all at the same time.

Morag MacDonald said in her twenties, when she had to leave the isle, life used to be just lovely. There was community spirit, we all helped each other, there was no squabbling, we all got on so well together.

It had been true, too, that the religious life of St Kilda had been strict, brought from the mainland and isles in the early nineteenth century. The church was austere, no altar, no decoration, no fixed pews. To the right of the room was the door to the schoolroom, also with tall ceiling and windows.

Each day the children climbed the hill to cut and carry peats, the job before the school bell. Fires in the houses burned all year, it had been so for two thousand years.

No one would let the fires go out.

Diarists later wrote, the children clamoured in winter to come to the front of class to read from the Bible, for then they could stand before the fire. Like every small community, you need something to stick everyone together, to give a common sense of purpose in this microcosm of Earth. They attended church daily.

In the oval cemetery, above the black houses on Main Street, each roof tied down by warps, were banks of iris. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s recorded song and poetry, dance and summer games on the beach.

As they drew away that August thirty years into the new century, the men wept for their sheepdogs, for these had been gathered and thrown off the jetty, each with a great stone tied around its neck.

The women wept too, turning to one another, pointing at the cold chimneys. At long last, progress had put out the fires, the very fires around which people sat at night and told stories of their blue-green isle, out there in dark ocean space.

Jules Pretty

[Ensō: People, Spirit, Earth]

[From Sea Sagas of the North (Hawthorn Press, 2022)]

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