85th Anniversary of St Kilda being evacuated
August 29th is the 85th anniversary of the last people leaving St Kilda. For most people, St Kilda is remote and mysterious, a windswept outcrop in the North Atlantic which against all odds supported human habitation for more than 2,000 years (some say this is more like 4,000 years). This lonely island sits in the outermost reach of the Outer Hebrides, 110 miles off the west coast of Scotland. Cut-off by stormy seas for up to nine months of the year.
The St Kildans had clung to their basic existence in almost unimaginable conditions in this remote part of the British Isles. Isolated and battered by a hostile climate, they survived largely by scaling sheer cliff faces to catch the plentiful gannets, fulmars and puffins, and farmed meagre crops.
The population decline began in 1852, when 36 people emigrated to Australia, many of them dying on the way. This is coincidental exactly the same number who were on this final boat departing St Kilda.
In 1912 there were acute food shortages and in 1913 an outbreak of influenza.
During the First World War a naval detachment arrived on St Kilda, resulting in regular deliveries of mail and food. But when these services were withdrawn at the end of the war feelings of isolation increased, leading to more emigration and a breakdown of the island economy.
But finally it was the death of one woman and child which was to prove the catalyst for the final 36 people on the island to leave, petitioning the government to come and remove them. This woman was Mary Gillies mother of Norman John who was one of two last surviving people who were born on the island, sadly he died 2 years ago. Norman leaves us with his memories from that time and his family stories which give us a unique insight into this final evacuation. Norman who was only 5 was on this final boat last 36 people evacuated from the island, bringing 2,000 years of habitation to an end.
Memories of leaving by Norman John (Tormod Ian in Gaelic)
Norman John (Tormod Ian in Gaelic) Gillies was born on May 22 1925 in House No 15 to John and Mary Gillies.
Mary Gillies, was pregnant with Norman’s sister when she became gravely ill with appendicitis. Medical care was not available on the island so she was taken in rough seas by ship to hospital in Glasgow after a previous attempt to get her off St Kilda two weeks earlier had failed owing to bad weather.
“I recall her being taken off in a rowing boat with a shawl around her head”, says Mr Gillies. “I remember her waving to me as I stood near the pier and I was waving back. That was the last time I saw her.”
Mary Gillies died on 26 May 1930. The girl she had given birth to died the same day, just 13 days old.
For many years it was assumed that she had died of appendicitis, but her son Norman John Gillies discovered in 1991 that she had in fact died of pneumonia, having given birth to a daughter who also died.
It was to be 60 years later, when an uncle died in 1990, and her birth certificate was found among other papers, that Mr Gillies realised he had had a little sister.
“It was just something the family didn’t talk about”, he says.
He adds: “My mother’s death showed the St Kildans the hopelessness of being on the island if someone took really ill.”
This was the final straw for the inhabitants of St Kilda.
His mother’s death had far-reaching consequences for the islanders. “They realised that they were in a hopeless position if anybody took really ill. That was one of the things. All households had to sign that they would leave St Kilda. That happened on 29 August, 1930,” said Mr Gillies.
“For the younger people it was an opportunity to do things which would help their entire lives. To the older inhabitants it was almost as if they had cut off their right hands, to have left their island home.”
On 29 August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were removed to Morvern on the Scottish mainland at their own request.
In all, 36 men, women and children made the 12-hour crossing from Village Bay, with 28 coming ashore at Lochaline, in the Morvern peninsula, while others headed for Oban and on to Inverness, Portree, Fife or Stromeferry.
The morning of the evacuation promised a perfect day. The sun rose out of a calm and sparkling sea and warmed the impassive cliffs of Oiseval. The sky was hopelessly blue and the sight of Hirta, green and pleasant as the island of so many careless dreams, made parting all the more difficult. Observing tradition the islanders left an open Bible and a small pile of oats in each house, locked all the doors and at 7 am boarded the Harebell. Although exhausted by the strain and hard work of the last few days, they were reported to have stayed cheerful throughout the operation. But as the long antler of Dun fell back onto the horizon and the familiar outline of the island grew faint, the severing of an ancient tie became a reality and the St Kildans gave way to tears.
At the age of five, the full significance of his first boat trip would not have been obvious to Norman John Gillies.
As he played hide-and-seek with other children on the deck of HMS Harebell, his family and neighbours sat waving goodbye to an island disappearing into the horizon, and to their very way of life.
At the time one resident described looking back from the ship and seeing their abandoned home resemble “an open grave”.
Two days before, the Dunara Castle tourist boat had taken off the sheep and cattle, which were sold. But working dogs were drowned in the bay, as they could not be taken on board.
Awaiting them on the mainland was a new start after the trauma of leaving behind the ultimately impossible existence on St Kilda.
Norman’s cousin, Rachel Johnson, who is in a nursing home in Glasgow (I am not sure if she is still alive) – clearly recalls seeing the crowd of 200-300 gathered at the shore to see them arrive, as well as her first sighting of a car.
For Norman and his family, as well as other St Kildans, it was also the first time he had seen a tree as, ironically, as they had come to live and work on the Forestry Commission’s 7,000-acre Fiunary Forest. He says: “Looking back, the evacuation was a blessing in disguise. It gave the younger ones greater opportunities to do something with their lives that would not have been possible on St Kilda”.
The newly evacuated St Kildans joined a community of about 500 in Morvern, swapping their two-room cottages for slated, two-storey houses and running water. Although they were more scattered than they wanted, they were still largely together.
Norman, his father and grandmother all at first lived in a small, isolated cottage at Ardness overlooking the Sound of Mull. The cottage got flooded several times and, after complaining to the Scottish Secretary they finally were moved to Larachbeg, where there were other exiled St Kildans.
Morvern resident and historian Iain Thornber says the alien environment, while still remote, had considerably more amenities than St Kilda.
“In those days there were three post offices, providing six daily mail deliveries and collections a week, a doctor, district nurse, two shops, six schools and a public telephone system as well as a direct daily steamer link with Oban.
“Moreover, eight of the men were offered steady employment in the forest at a wage of 38 shillings (just under £2) per 45-hour week, in place of an annual income of around £30 in a good year on St Kilda.”
Mr Thornber saiys the St Kildan men were strong, hard-working people with a keen sense of direction and an in-built ability to predict the weather. They used semaphore, a technique they picked up from the sailors, to communicate with each other when in different work parties several miles apart.
They also showed their climbing skills, acquired from gathering seabirds, in one of their first tasks in planting trees on Aoinneadh Mor, a basalt ridge rising sharply to 1,500ft.
“None of the local forestry workers cared to go anywhere near the place saying it was too dangerous”, says Mr Thornber. “But the islanders, renowned for their cragmanship on some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, just laughed and said the Aoinneadh Mor rocks were only ‘little hills’ by comparison, and got on with the work.”
He adds: “Although they came as strangers all these years ago, the St Kildans are remembered not so much for the forest they left behind, which still dominates the Morvern landscape, but for their friendliness, hospitality and remarkable way in which they adjusted to life in an unfamiliar land.”
The landowner Sir Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod (27th chief of the Scottish clan Clan MacLeod) received requests from other people to live there, but he declined.
He said at the time: “I’m sorry to lose a population that has down its generations been tenants of my family for 1,000 years. But they themselves have a right to go and I cannot blame them.
“I’m strongly opposed to the idea of resettlers. The present population signed a petition for removal which at great trouble and expense has now been carried out. In these circumstances it would be a folly to remove one lot of people who know the island and replace them with a group of strangers.” MacLeod of MacLeod sold the islands in 1931 to the Marquis of Bute, a keen ornithologist. He bequeathed them to The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1957.
Norman returned to his homeland, St Kilda 75 years after its evacuation. He went with his family who were seeing St Kilda for the first time.
In his family home, he was able to trace out the walls of the bedrooms and point to the kitchen where his mother had cooked oatcakes, scones and puffins.
“It’s nice to come home to my little homeland,” he said.